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A Quiet Fire~Prologue September 7, 2010 Hurrying down 58th street, I catch and ignore strange looks from passers

bythere's only one thing on my mindlate. I'm late. Again I curse my stupidity for not double-checking that the alarm clock was set for a.m., not p.m., the night before. The move had taken it out of me . . . I hadn't slept well, and I'm a bundle of nerves, a reality made worse by the fact that I am LATE for my first graduate class at the University of Chicago. What a way to make a first impression. As I skid to a halt in the front of the Humanities Building, I hope against hope that Professor Riordan will understand. She is the reason I'm here, a specialist at the top of her field and mine, and if I screw this up, I'll have no one to blame but myself. Panting and sweating from the unseasonably warm September heat, I finally locate the classroom where my Early Romantic Poets class is being held, stopping for a minute before making my entrance. Since I'm already late, there's no use sense barging in before composing myself. My breathing calmed to a normal rate, I pat my hands over my hair to tame any flyaways before pushing open the door. About a dozen students are seated around a large round table, and Professor Riordan stands by the dry erase board, marker in hand. She turns when the door opens, her eyes flicking over me to take in my appearance. I'm wearing a long grey skirt that probably makes me look like a country bumpkin, out of place in the city. Professor Riordan seems quite casual and cool in ripped jeans and a tank topa far cry from the professors I'd encountered at Washington State. "You must be Isabella Black," she says, finally smiling as I nod dumbly. "Please take a seat." I hate that I can't find my voice in moments like these. I do as she asks, relieved she doesn't appear angry at my tardiness. I find the closest available seat near the door and slouch into my chair, gathering my skirt to cover any skin that might have become exposed with the movement. My shyness inhibits me from checking out the other students, some of who I can see glancing at me curiously in my peripheral vision.

"To return to the question at hand. Does anyone know why William Blake is considered a Romantic? He is, after all, quite different from those he is now grouped with . . . Wordsworth, Coleridge . . . " Professor Riordan trails off, looking to us for a response. I feel the telltale familiar thumping in my chest, a flutter in my stomachsymptoms of the nervous energy produced whenever I get ready to speak in front of people. I know the answer to this question, and I know it well. William Blake is the reason I'm here. Before I can work up the courage to reply, someone beats me to itit's a blonde girl, breathtakingly gorgeous, seated right across from me. "Ms. Hale?" Professor Riordan responds. The blonde girl clears her throat. "Well, Blake represents a new era of humanistic inquirya break from the obsessive rationality and reason of the 18th Century. He was greatly influenced by the French Revolution, although he was older than many of his Romantic contemporaries." "Excellent, Ms. Hale," the professor commends. "And of course our classifications of literary time periods are relatively arbitrarythere's always cross-pollination between generations of writers." "Precisely." Ms. Hale says, smiling and looking pleased with herself. I'm impressed with the exchange and more than a little annoyed with myself for not speaking sooner. The blonde certainly knows her stuff, but I would have added that Blake is bound to the younger poets by the shared belief in the supremacy of the human imagination, a celebration of the body, too which made him much more like Byron and Shelley than the more conservatively-minded Wordsworth. Of course, all of this sounds so much more articulate in my head. Still, I make a promise to myself that the next time an opportunity like that arises, I won't miss it. Just then, the door opens again. Professor Riordan now looks more than a little miffed as I, along with the rest of the class, turn to inspect the latest arrival. A shock of coppery hair pokes in through the door. It's a guy. I hear one of the girls to the left of me whisper something to her neighbor but I can't make out what she's saying. His face turns to the front of the room and a

deep velvety voice quietly asks permission to enter. The voice stills my heart. No. It can't be. He enters and turns, his gaze sweeping around the room to find a seat. His eyes alight on mine almost instantly and I am frozen, frozen in time . . . The green eyes, those eyes have traveled with me. And the face, so much beloved . . . older now, but unmistakable. A slight dimple in his chin, a jaw stronger and more defined, the stubble a telltale sign of several days without a shave. The fingers on my right hand instantly worry the ring on my left as the face morphs before me into the boy I knew. Ten years disappear and I am lost. "Edward?" The word leaves my lips before I can stop it . . . a ghost . . . a whisper. His face pales as he steps closer, his expression a shock of disbelief. And suddenly we are no longer in a classroom full of strangers. We are in his living room after school and he is teasing me, prodding me. My mom is in the hospital again and I'm staying with the Cullens, but no one's home now except for me and Edward. "Have you ever been kissed, Bella?" I am shaking my head, blushing. He makes me nervous now in a way he never has before. He's only 15soon to be 16but he seems like so much more of a man to me, the two-year age gap between us expansive. I bite my lip and realize I'm still shaking my head. He chuckles. "Would you like to be?" I almost gasp . . . is Edward asking me . . . if he can kiss me? My throat is dry as I nod, the word struggling to make its way from my brain to my mouth. Yes. YES. And when his lips meet mine it's nothing like how I thought it would be. His mouth is soft and gentle; he brings his hand to my face and cups my cheek

softly. It is brief but when he pulls away I am left with a strange sensation, a longing that I've never felt before. Almost without volition, I touch my finger to his lips. Mine tingle. "I wanted to be your first," he says, smiling as he kisses the tip of my finger. "Me too." The words finally come and I know they're true. Now, with his too-pale face only feet from me, it's too much . . . the years of missing him . . . too much. I hear a roaring surge in my ears and then see only blackness. "Words are only painted fire; a look is the fire itself."Mark Twain Chapter 1: October, 1998 "Bella?" I cringe as I hear my mother call to me from her room at the top of the stairs. I had hoped she wouldn't hear me coming home after school before I could slip out again and over to the Cullens.' Alice is expecting me in ten minutesEsme promised to take us down to get ice cream at Bill's and I don't want them to go without me. Then I'm supposed to spend the night over their houseit's become our tradition on Friday nights. Over the past few weeks my mother's voice has been changing It's sounding more and more like that time when she took me away to Canada because she thought they were coming to take me away from her. And that scares me. I don't want to be taken away, but I don't want her to either. That was over year ago, and she's been so good since then . . . but now maybe it's happening again. "Bella?" she calls once more. "Can you help me? I can't get this" Filled with dread, I climb the stairs to the second story. As I do I notice how dusty the stairs are; I'm definitely going to have to clean again soon. Especially if Alice or Edward want to come over. They don't usually, but still, they might want to. And I have to be prepared. The first time I met Alice was when the Cullens moved to our neighborhood three years ago. I was out playing and I saw this little girl with short dark hair wearing a really pretty red dress. Since I'd never seen her before, I stared. She noticed but, instead of making fun of me or running away, she asked me to come and play with her. So I did, and we've been best friends ever since.

It embarrasses me when they come to my house. Theirs is so perfect compared to ours. Even though it's old, our house used to be nice when we first moved to Elgin from Forks Washington when I was five. But then my dad was killed in Chicago while he was on duty and things got worse. Mom says we don't have the money to do upkeep, because dad's pension isn't big. So now our house sticks out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood, that's what I overheard our next-door neighbor Mrs. Crawford say one day to another woman I don't know. Mrs. Crawford didn't think I was listening but I was playing near the fence. When she saw me she shut right up. I love hanging out with Alice and Edward at their house. Everything is so neat. Their walls aren't covered with old peeling wallpaper. They don't have cracks in their windows held together with heavy tape that looks like metal. Their carpets are clean. And their family is so nice. Esme always looks pretty, and she smells good when she hugs you. I love the way she does her hairit's light brown, curly. She always wears dresses. I feel proud when I am out with the Cullens for dinner, so glad to be friends with Alice and Edward. Edward is the nicest boy I know. He plays with Alice and me even though sometimes he gets annoyed with us. When we were young we used to play house and, since I was older, and since Alice said it would be weird for her to be married to Edward 'cause he was her brother, I was always the wife and Alice was the little girl. But now that I am eleven and Edward is a teenager we don't play that game anymore. I still want to, and I think Alice does too, but Edward says it's for babies. Alice gets so mad when he says stuff like that because she knows he is talking about her, since she is only ten. I don't know if he is talking about me, too. Now, Edward wants to play video games on his Nintendo 64. I like it, but Alice doesn't, so when Edward and I play Mario she'll pout and then I'll have to stop and go do something with her instead. She loves to play dress up with Esme's clothes, but I'm beginning to think that game is for babies too. Edward just laughs at us when he sees what we're wearing. He usually agrees to judge our fashion show, but only if the neighborhood boys aren't around. I think they tease him for being so nice to us. Esme's dresses are way too big for us, especially Alice since she's so tiny. One day a few weeks ago Alice chose a nice white dress for me to wear while Edward waited in the living room for us to come down. I took my shirt and pants off, leaving on only my underwear that said Monday when it was really Sunday. They didn't make Sunday.

The dress didn't have a zipper, and Alice lifted it over my head as she giggled. "What's so funny?" I asked her. "Bella . . . I think you're getting boobs!" "What?" I was shocked, looking down at my chest. There were two small lumps thereI hadn't really noticed them before. But they weren't that big. Still, they were bigger than Alice's. She lifted her shirt to show me. We looked at ourselves in the mirror. Yes, there was definitely something there. Alice poked one and I flinched. "See? Boobs! I'm so jealous. I can't wait till I get mine. You're so LUCKY! Now you can wear bras!" I was so embarrassed pulling the dress down over my head. I didn't feel like parading in front of Edward now. Why should I be different than Alice? She was my only friend and now I had boobs and she didn't. The boys at school treated the girls who were getting chests differently, teasing them . . . there was one girl in my class who had such big ones the boys stared at her ALL the time and she even stayed home once because Ryan Kinney teased her so much. She had to wear a bra now. And I didn't have a bra. Suddenly I was filled with fear; I didn't want to have to ask my mom to take me to the store and get one. She always made such a scene in front of the salespeople, and her voice was so loud. My eyes started tearing at the thought of it. Alice was laughing, chattering away about the girls in her class that were starting to develop, and one who even had herperiod. That thought filled me with fear too. Would it happen to me soon? Finally, she noticed that I was quiet. "Bella, what's wrong?" "I don't have a bra," I choked and ran from the room, and down the stairs. I almost made it to the front door before Edward stopped me. "Bella? Where are you going?" He blocked my way, holding the door shut as I tugged uselessly at the handle. Alice appeared at the top of the stairs.

"Alice, what did you do to her?" His green eyes were angry and he shook his head, his hair flopping. It was way too long and Esme always complained he needed a haircut but since he was thirteen now he said she couldn't tell him what to do anymore. But I knew that was a lie and he'd definitely be getting one soon. "I didn't do anything!" Alice whined. "I was just telling her how jealous I was that she's getting boobs and she needs a bra!" I shrank away, hiding my head in mortification. I just wanted to sink into the floor and disappear. Edward was looking at me and still blocking my way. I sighed in frustration. "Can you please let me go?" "Wearing that?" he asked. I looked down. I was wearing Esme's white dress and it hung from my shoulders. I couldn't leave the house with it on. Alice skipped down the stairs, adjusting the straps around my shoulders. "Don't leave; you look so beautiful. I'm sorry if I upset you . . . I don't know what I said. I'm sorry you don't have a bra." "It's nothing, just let it go," I mumbled, still unable to look at Edward. "Don't be embarrassed," he said softly. "But you should listen to Alice. She's right. You do look beautiful." "I don't want to be different." I said in a whisper, crossing my arms selfconsciously over my chest. I looked at Edward and he smiled. "Well, you are." A week later, Esme called me to come upstairs when Alice and I were watching TV. I was nervous because I thought she was mad that I had worn her white dress since it was one of her favorites. But she wasn't, and instead she said she had a present for me. It was a white box that said "Macy's" and when I opened it up I saw it was three white cotton bras. Esme said they were training bras and even though I was shy I let her help me put one on 'cause I had never done it before. She smiled and kissed the top of my head telling me how wonderful it was that I was growing up, and I felt just a little bit proud. Before I left to go downstairs again she told me it would just be our little secret, and she winked.

That was a month ago and since then it seems like something's changed between Edward and me. He looks at me differently, and I'm not sure if I like it or not. ~QF~ At the top of the stairs I see my mother in the hall standing on a chair and reaching for the fire detector. She can't really reach it and is straining on her tippy-toes. She looks at me, blinking several times. But she doesn't look right. She looks like she did beforeall those times before. "Bella," she whispers as she gets down from off the chair. She pulls me to her, whispering in my ear. "I need you to help me . . . help me with . . ." She gestures upwards. "That." "With the fire detector?" I ask, confused. "Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh . . . they'll hear you," her voice is fierce but quiet in my ear, almost a hiss. And my stomach drops. I was right. She's not okay. And I don't know what to do. "Mom, it's just a fire alarm . . . You know? To let us know if there's smoke or something." "Do you see that?" She points. "That red light?" I look at the fire alarm and notice a periodic red flash . . . I know that it's the battery light. We need to change them. "Yes, mom. It's the batteries. They're dead and it needs new ones." She grabs my arm, digging her fingers into my arm tightly. "That's what they want you to think! It's a recorder . . . they're listening to us." I feel sick, an angry knot forming in my throat. I know that there's no one listening to usbut I know there's no way she'll believe it. Her panicked face mirrors mine, but we are scared for very different reasons. "Mom. There's no one there." "Bella . . ." she looks suspicious. "There is. Who have you been talking to? Is it them? The Cullens?" she sneers. "I know they want you . . . want you to

be their daughter. But you're mine. And you always will be." Her voice softens and she strokes my hair. "My beautiful girl. You'll always be mine." I try hard to find my voice. Her eyes are still darting between the detector and me. "Mom?" I begin. She doesn't seem to hear me. "Mom? I told you yesterday. Mom?" I say again, finally getting her attention. "I'm supposed to go to the Cullens' tonight. Alice invited me over. Esme's taking us for ice cream first. You know, like we do every Friday?" She looks at me blankly. "No. I need you here tonight." "But mom" "No. You've spent enough time with the Cullens. Now go to your room." "But..." "Go to your room!" She is suddenly authoritative again and I know there's no use arguing with her, so I stomp to my room and slam the door. Twenty minutes later the phone rings, and rings, and rings, until finally it stops. I cry into my pillow. I must've fallen asleep. When I wake my face is sticky. It's hot in my room and I realize I need to open the window. There's a 'pinging' sound to my left and I started up from my bed, my heart racing. After I recognize my surroundings it slows down. But then there's that sound again: something small hitting the pane of glass. I had only heard that sound once before, but I know what it is. Edward. I push open my window and lean out. Looking down at the street I see him pacing below. When he hears the sound of the window he looks up. "Bella," he whispers. "Edward?" I clamber out onto the roof still dressed in my school clothes.

"Yes," he says softly. "Shhhhhhh." Now he's looking up at me and I can see he's nervous by the way he runs his hands through his hair. Now I'm on the edge of the roof, laying so that my weight is evenly distributed and my head hangs over the edge. He's only one story down but it feels so far away. "Bella." His voice is tense. "Get away from the edge." "I'm fine," I reply, not sure if I actually am. "Are you?" I hesitate. I'm far from fine. I want to be at his house, with Alice and Esme and Carlisle . . . with him. I just nod, tears choking my throat. "I. . . Alice was worried about you. We didn't hear from you." "Yeah," I whisper and my voice sounds strange. "My mom didn't want me to come over." "Oh. That's what I figured." He pauses. "Hey?" It's a question. "Yeah?" "Do you think you can come down?" I think about it. Mom's a heavy sleeper and once she's out, she's out. But she was extra-mad today. I worry that she'll find out I've left. But I want to go down to meet Edward more than anything. I want to be with my friend. Ignoring my doubts, I nod to him. He sees me nod and smiles, and I tell him I'll meet him at the corner of our street in a minute. My heart is pounding loudly in my chest as I open my bedroom door, pausing to make sure my mother hasn't woken up. Satisfied once I hear her steady snore, I creep down the stairs, avoiding all the squeaky spots that could give me away at any moment. Once downstairs, I ease the door open and slip outside, leaving it a little open since I won't be gone long. I think.

The street is bathed in a low yellow light, our suburban neighborhood quiet. I wonder how late it is for a second, but then I see Edward. He's leaning against a lamppost watching me. His hair is wilder than I've ever seen it. I gasp as I approach and see he's smoking. The smoke is curling around him and it makes him look sort of . . . dangerous. "Edward?" I say hesitantly. His eyes land on me, and he seems strange. He takes a quick drag of the cigarette in his hand and stifles a cough as he approaches me. "I wanted to see if you were okay," he says to the ground. I'm still overwhelmed by the fact that he's here and that he's smoking. "You know that stuff isn't good for you." He scoffs. "Who the hell cares? Oh, don't tell me you've bought into the whole D.A.R.E. thing?" I shrug. Actually, I had. My mother smokes and I hate it. I hate the smell of it on her clothes. He dismisses me and pulls out a pack from his pocket, taking another and lighting it. "Where did you get those anyway?" Edward is only thirteen, after all. He ignores my question. "You wanna go for a walk?" he asks. I'm terrified. I've never snuck out before, but I trust Edward. I nod as he takes my hand in his and leads me down the road. "Where are we going?" I whisper, more aware than ever that I'm doing something wrong. If we get caught who knows what my mom will do. "Just down the street." He grips my hand in his and pulls me along. We walk in silence for a few minutes until we come to our park. It's familiarthe one we've played at for as long as the Cullens have lived here. There's the swing set and Edward lets go of my hand. I sit down beside him on the swings, my legs dangling. He chuckles to himself, pulling out the pack and lighting another cigarette, handing it to me.

I take it tentatively, sucking on the caramel-colored filter and coughing violently when the harsh smoke enters my lungs. Edward watches me without talking, dragging deeply on his. "Since when do you smoke?" I sputter, still recovering from my first inhale. "Whenever," he says. I know he's just putting on a tough-guy front. It's clear he hasn't been doing it for that long because he doesn't hold the cigarette like I've seen the older boys do. I glimpse at him from the corner of my eye. The night is cool but he's only wearing his black Ramones t-shirthe wears it so much I know there are little holes in it but I can't see them since it's so dark. "How did you get out of the house?" I ask. He had snuck out to come over once before, but I never asked how he had done it. "Window." "Oh." I consider it. His room is in the basement and there's a small ground level window above his bed. I know because I've been in there a lot, especially since we started playing Nintendo 64 together. I think about this and how it's incredibly brave of him to come over at night because if Carlisle and Esme find out they're gonna be so mad. Carlisle is a doctor, and he's one of the ones who is always warning us about how bad it is to do what Edward's doing now. He even came to the school once and gave a presentation. It was really gross when he showed us pictures of what your lungs look like after you've smoked for a long time. Super gross. We're quiet for a while as he sits and smokes. The cigarette he gave me is still in my hand and I just hold it as it burns down to the filter. I don't want to inhale again but I also don't want to offend Edward. When it finally goes out I throw it to the ground, but he doesn't say anything about it. "Um . . . is everything okay with your mom?" He finally asks the question I've been dreading. In the last three years my mom has been in the hospital twice. Since my dad is dead and there's no one to take care of me I stayed with Edward and his family when she was away. The last time was the worst.

She picked me up from school on the last day of 4th grade and we just started driving. A man came to the house looking for me, she said, and she was crying. She didn't want him to take me away and she was sure he was going to. I got really scared because I thought he might come back and I didn't want anyone to take me away. We drove to Canada and stayed at a hotel for a long time until she thought it might be safe to go back. But by this time I was sure that there hadn't been any man, that my mom was having one of her episodes. When we came back to Chicago it was summer. The police came to our house and took my mom away to the hospital and I went to stay with the Cullens, which made me really happy even though I was scared for my mom. But she got better and they let her go and she was so good for so long! So it made me angry that it was happening again. I knew she had to take pills that stopped her from being sick and when she didn't take the pills, that's when she would get worse. From what had happened tonight I'm sure that she's not taking the pills anymore, but I don't want to tell Edward. I'm so embarrassed. I look away, knowing that if he saw my face he'd know the truth. I should have known that he would know anyway. "I think you should come home with me. We need to tell my parents." "No. She's fine. Really," I lie, my voice cracking. If I tell him what happened today he'll get really angry and, despite the fact that seeing my mom like this scares me, I don't want them to take her away again either, even if it means I get to stay with the Cullens again. I love my mom. But I can't hold back the tears even though I try, and Edward jumps up and puts his arm around me and we just stay there like that with me sitting on the swing and him standing next to me while I cry. "Please don't tell," I beg. "I can take care of her. Please." I'm so full of conflicting emotions it's overwhelming. I want her to be better but I don't want them to take her to the hospital. I want to tell Edward everything but I'm so terribly embarrassed about my mom. "Did she hurt you?" he asks seriously and I lift my head in surprise. His tshirt is all wet where I've been crying into it. "NO!" I almost shout. My mother would never raise a hand to me, even when she was at her absolute worst. I know all of her fears are about keeping me safe. I don't want Edward to think she's a monster.

He sighs in relief and pats my head, pulling it back to his chest. "She would never hit me, Edward." "Okay." "Promise me you won't tell Carlisle and Esme," I plead. "You need to tell me if it gets worse." I nod in agreement even though I know I probably won't. Finally my tears stop falling and my breathing calms. Edward goes back to his swing and lights another cigarette. I can't believe he's smoking so much. "You're gonna get caught, you know," I point out. "You stink." He shrugs and stands, pulling me off the swing and leading me back home. When we get to my house I see the door is still ajar and I breathe in a sigh of relief. Renee hasn't gotten up. Edward and I stand awkwardly. It's so weird because we've always been good friends, but now he knows my secret I feel strangely exposed and nervous standing with him there in the dark. "Goodnight," he says shuffling his feet. He looks nervous too, which is weird because Edward is never EVER nervous, at least as far as I can tell. "Goodnight Edward," I reply, then turn and run back up the porch steps, opening the door quietly and closing it behind me. I lean back, relieved to be home undetected. My heart is pounding and I'm not sure if it's from the running. "Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke." Benjamin Disraeli Chapter 2: February 1999 I'm in sixth grade and it's the absolute worst because Alice is only in fifth grade and she still goes to our old elementary school, so that means I don't have anyone to really hang out with during recess or lunch. The only good thing about being in middle school is that Edward is in 8th grade and he goes to the same school as me. But I hardly ever see him because 8th grade recess is later in the day than our recess and we go to lunch at different times too.

None of the kids in my class want to hang out with me and I know that it has to do with my mom. She comes to school all the time and makes a fuss at the teachers, and even they roll their eyes at her. I tell her to stay away but she never listens, and it makes me feel really bad because even though she's my mother I hate her during those times because I'm so embarrassed. We don't have the money for the right clothes either, so when I beg my mom to buy me a new pair of the overalls everyone is wearing she tells me I can't have them, but that we can go to the Salvation Army to look for a used pair. This is the last thing I want to do because it will be so obvious that they're not the right kind, and then people will make fun of me more. I don't tell my mom how the kids tease me because if she knew she'd go to the school even more often, and that would only make matters worse. So I just hold my tongue and deal with it, even when it gets really bad. There is a clique of popular 6th grade girls who are really mean, and the worst of them all is Jessica Stanley. She's the leader and Lauren Mallory is her sidekick. All of the boys love them with their blonde hair and blue eyes. The other girls in my class aren't as mean to me, but they won't talk to me either because Jessica and Lauren don't like me, so if anyone does, they'll become an outcast too. I usually try to avoid them, but it's hard during free time because they always seem to find me. Most of the time I'll take the book I'm reading and go sit under the bleachers in the back field until the bell rings. I love readingit's my favorite thing to do, and my favorite book is Anne of Green Gables. Esme gave it to me for my 11th birthday in September and since then I've read it three times. I don't have red hair like Anne, but I understand how she feels when she's a lonely orphanthe popular girls don't like her either at first until she meets Diana. They become best friends. I like the way Anne calls Diana her "kindred spirit," it makes me think of the way that Alice and me are. And then of course there's Gilbert Blythe. Anne doesn't like him at first because he teases her, but he does it because he likes her. For some reason when I read the story I imagine Edward as Gilbert. My teachers all praise me for being a good student and I get straight A's in every class except math. While other people dread report card time, I never do because my good grades are one thing I'm very proud of. This is another reason that Jessica and Lauren don't like me. They're not good students, and they tell me that studying too much is for losers. I ignore them, knowing that even though I don't have friends at school I still have Alice.

It's February and five months since I first noticed my mom was getting sick again. Since then I've kept my mouth shut when Edward asks me how she is, but I know he knows that things aren't right. It's so hard to lie to him. We haven't talked as much since the night he came to my house. When I go over to the Cullens' he usually has a friend overhis friend's name is James. I don't like James much because I think he's the reason that Edward started smoking. One day in the fall I was walking home I saw the two of them sneak into the woods in the back of the school and I decided to follow them to see what they were up to. I felt a little bad to be doing it but I was really curious about Edward's new friend. Not wanting them to see me, I crept after them and hid behind a tree. James took out a pack of cigarettes and he gave one to Edward. I was close enough to hear James say that he was going to get Edward another pack from his dad's stash. So that's where Edward got those cigarettes! Now I was stuck behind the tree because if I moved they'd see me, so I had to stay there at least until they left. My feet were getting tired and I slid down the trunk of the tree and nestled in the dried leaves, trying not to make too much noise. James was really loud and I heard him mention a girl named Victoria who he said was his girlfriend. I knew the girl he was talking aboutshe had really curly red hair, and she didn't go to our school anymore because she got in one too many fights, so she had to go to 7th grade at another school for kids with problems. James was laughing and he told Edward that Victoria had let him see and touch her boobs! I couldn't hear what Edward said next, but what James said shocked me. He promised Edward that if he wanted to, he could make Victoria show Edward her boobs too, and maybe he'd let Edward touch them as well. I strained to hear Edward's reply, but he was so much quieter than James I couldn't make out what he said. The thought of Edward doing that to Victoria made me sick, and suddenly I didn't want to be sitting there under the tree anymore. I picked up my bag and ran off, no longer caring if they saw me or not. Obviously they did, because I heard footsteps coming up behind me, but I didn't stop running and I didn't look back. "Bella!" Edward called after me, but I was really fast and already had a head start. Soon I burst out of the woods and onto the sidewalk. I heard James call for Edward but I kept going. After about a mile I felt like my lungs would

burst so I slowed to a walk to catch my breath and finally looked behind me. There was no one there. Since that day I don't know what to say to Edward when I see him. I feel awkward, and I am also upset thinking about whether or not he's done what James had promised with Victoria. I also feel bad for eavesdropping on him in the first place, because then this never would have happened. I miss playing with Edward and talking with him, especially since he's the only one who knows that my mom is sick. Even though I'm embarrassed that he knows and I don't want to talk about it anyway, it's comforting knowing he understands. February is really cold in Elgin and I'm standing during recess bundled in the most ridiculous outfitan old blue coat and a mismatched scarf and gloves. All of the other girls have new coats from expensive stores. The funny thing is I don't actually care a lot about clothesI just don't want to look different from everyone else. Not that I'm a tom-boy or anythingI have long hair that Esme once told me was the color of mahogany, which is this really rare and expensive kind of wood. And even if I didn't really believe him, Edward told me I looked beautiful in Esme's white dress. But I'm pretty sure I don't look beautiful now in the ratty coat I'm wearing. There's snow on the ground so I can't go to my usual place under the bleachers, so I'm wandering around the playground aimlessly trying to blend in. Jessica is wearing a pink jacket with white fur trim around the hood with matching pink gloves that have little fuzzy pom-poms on them. Her blonde head is snugly tucked in a furry pink hat. I don't have a hat on, and my ears are cold. I hope she doesn't notice me but that's exactly what happens. "Hey Bella," she says with a raised voice, her eyes latched onto me. "Where'd you get that coat? It's sooooooo pretty. I wanna get one just like it." Attempting to ignore her, I start walking the other way. But of course she follows me, and I turn and notice that Lauren is with her too. "Yeah, Bella. I really like your scarf too," Lauren chimes in, sniggering. I look down at the red and orange scarf I'm wearingit's all pilly from being washed one too many times. "Goodwill is like my faaaavorite store."

"Maybe next time we can all go shopping together . . . that would be so fun, wouldn't it Bella?" Jessica adds, laughing. "No," I answer softly. Jessica glares at me and takes a step forward. "What'd you say?" "I said 'no," I repeat, a little more forcefully this time. "You better watch what you say to me," Jessica is louder now and in my face. Other kids are noticing and gathering around us. I take a step back from her, but now Lauren is behind me. I feel a sudden jolt as she shoves me forward, just barely hitting Jessica. "Watch where you're going!" Jessica says angrily. I don't tell her that Lauren pushed me because it's just part of the game and she already knows. I try to turn away but Jessica is quicker, pushing me hard so that I fall back into the snow, dropping my book and landing on my behind. I grab for it but Lauren kicks it out of my way. Now they're hovering over me and as I duck, one of them dumps a pile of snow on my head and some of it goes down the back of my jacket. I feel wetness begin to seep through my pants as the snow melts against me. "Get away from her." Suddenly there's an angry voice in front of meone I know well. I look up, brushing the snow off my head. Edward. His face is fierceI've never seen him look so mad before and the girls back away slowly, looking from Edward to me and then back again. In a flash he is next to me pulling me to my feet and stepping between Jessica and Lauren and me. He holds my hand as I stand behind him and I blink back tears; I'm so happy he's here. "If you ever touch her again you'll be sorry." His voice is low; it almost sounds like a growl. The girls move back and away from us and Edward spits on the ground near their feet. I know that he intimidates them because he's in 8th grade and they're in 6th. The students who have gathered around into a semi-circle start to drift away and soon it's only me and Edward standing there. "Are you okay?" he asks. His eyes follow the retreating crowd. "Yeah." I'm brushing myself off and feeling more embarrassed than ever.

"You sure?" He looks at me seriously but I can't look him in the eye. I wonder if he's touched Victoria. "Yeah. Thanks," I say, leaning to pick up my copy of Anne of Green Gables. The pages are wet and have started to curl. Esme gave it to me. It's my present and it's ruined. I feel tears appear even though I've tried to hold them off. Lauren and Jessica were nothing compared to this. The words blend on the page and I feel like I've lost a friend. Edward stands staring at the book in my hands, a weird look on his face. All of a sudden I hear Mr. Benson yelling from the school building. He's yelling at Edward because it's not his lunchtime yet and he's out here. He's going to get in trouble. "I gotta go," he says and seems sorry. "Wait for me after school?" I nod. He turns and jogs back to the open door, and I can see Mr. Benson talking. He looks angry. Edward's never asked for me to wait for him. I'm still mad about Lauren and Jessica but I'm also excited to be walking home with Edward. They try to bug me during the rest of the day but I ignore them. Spanish class is one of my favorite subjects and I love Ms. Martin even though she's losing her hair and all of the other kids make fun of her because she had a bald spot. To me she's funny and I love her accent. She's from El Salvador. When the bell finally rings I grab my bag and my homework from my locker and head down the hall to the front door. The sixth grade lockers are red and the eighth grade lockers are blue and I'm looking for Edward at his number 202. But he's not there and I figure maybe he's outside since he never said where he'd wait for me. As soon as the cold air hits my face I see Edward standing near the front of the school. He's not alone though. He's with James. I walk up to them shyly; since that day at the back of the school I haven't really seen James and I know he knows I was spying on them. No one says anything. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Edward looks tense, like he doesn't want to be here. I shuffle my feet and mumble something about getting home on time. I start to back away. James is looking at me strangely and he whispers something in Edward's ear, something he doesn't want me to hear. He smirks and makes a gesture that I don't understand, but from Edward's reaction I know it's something rude and it's meant for me. Edward shoves his arm and says something back but

I don't hear because by this time I'm already walking away from them. I feel hurt and stupid because I was looking forward to walking with Edward since recess, and now I see that I've been excited for nothing. I try to focus on the crunch of the snow under my feet. The sidewalks around school are pretty well shoveled, but sometimes they still have black ice on them and the last thing I want to do is fall on my butt in front of Edward and James. I hate that Edward is friends with James. I hate that he's smoking and probably doing things with girls and it's all because of James. "Bella, wait." His voice sounds behind me and I scowl, not slowing my pace. I'm not running away from him but he'd made me feel unwanted and I don't want him to walk with me out of pity. Edward is fast though and soon he is right alongside me, grabbing at my arm. "Jeez, will you wait a second?" I huff, turning to face him. "What do you want?" My tone is as cold as the ground we're standing on. "I said I'd walk with you and that's what I'm doing, aren't I?" "Well, if you'd rather walk with James that's fine. I can get home by myself, Edward." "Damn Bella, I know you can. Listen, I'm sorry about James. He's a good guy but he can be a jerk sometimes. He doesn't mean anything by it." "Oh yeah? Great." I attempt to ignore him but he's making it pretty difficult. "I'm sorry Bella. Do you forgive me?" Edward's walking backwards in front of me, and when he gives me a smile that lights up his face I almost give in. But I'm stubborn, and I stop myself from forgiving him so easily. "I don't know. What'll you give me?" "Hot chocolate?" "With marshmallows?" "Hmm . . . that seems like a pretty tall order." "Well then, no deal."

Edward is still walking backwards and grinning at me. His hair is messy and sticking up in all directions and the cold has made his cheeks look pink. I can see the air mist in and out of his mouth as he breathes. But he's not paying attention and when we get to the street corner he misses the curb, tripping and falling backward into the snowdrift on the side of the road. The panicked look on his face just before he falls is funny, his arms flailing at his sides. I've never seen Edward look anything but graceful, and in this moment he looks awkward . . . and embarrassed. He sits sputtering in the snow bank for a second and I can't help but laugh. At first it's just a giggle, but when he gives me an angry glare I get louder. He stands quickly, wiping the snow off his pants and when he turns around I can see that his bum is wet, a dark watermark on his black jeans. This only makes me laugh harder. "Thanks a lot." "I'm sorry . . . I. . . " I try to catch my breath. "I'm just surprised. I've never seen you do anything like that before." "What? Fall on my ass?" "Yeah," I snort. "Well, at least you're smiling again." His grin is back and I suck in the side of my cheeks to try to contain my own. But I can't stay mad at Edward for long. "You still owe me hot chocolate." "Well, can you come over?" he asks hesitantly. My mother's behavior has become really unpredictablesometimes she lets me go over to the Cullen's for my Friday sleepover, but more and more often she's been making me stay at home. I haven't bothered to ask her if I can go over tonight. Alice is at gymnastics until five anyway, and I figured I'd have plenty of time to go home first. But it seems like Edward wants me to come over now. "I don't know. I have to ask my mom." Edward nods seriously and we walk for a minute in silence. It's not long before we're nearing our neighborhood. When we get to the front of my house he waits with his hands in his pockets. Renee works at the Laundromat but recently they cut her hours back. I think they can tell there's something wrong with her and she's not getting called in as much. Her car is parked in the driveway which means she didn't work

today after all, and that means she's probably in a bad mood too. I can never predict how she'll be from day to day. Some days she's not bad at all. "Ummm . . . I guess I'll go ask her. Are you gonna wait out here?" I silently pray that he'll go home and I can meet him there. "I thought I could come in; maybe I could help convince her, if she won't let you." "Edward, I don't think that's a good idea." My heart beats so loudly I can almost hear it; I hate having anyone in my house. Even though Edward's already seen what it looks like, my embarrassment is fresh every time. It's like I can see through his eyes and imagine what he must feel . . . pity, disgust. He shakes his head. "It's a good idea. Come on, let's go." He nudges me forward and I can't help but do as he says. It'll be even worse if I make a scene. I pick up my book bag again. We walk up the worn wooden steps and open the front door. There's a strange smell wafting from the kitchen and I realize that Renee is cooking. She's a terrible cook, and Edward and I wrinkle our noses in unison. It would be funny if it wasn't something else I was embarrassed about. Renee hears the door open and comes to the front door, wiping her hands on an apron I didn't even know she owned. She's all smiles and I'm shockedI certainly wasn't expecting this! "Bella! You're home! I've been cooking, sweetie. And Edward, please, come in. You kids must be freezing!" Her face is plastered into a grin but she's still wiping her hands on her apron, a movement that becomes more insistent and noticeable. "Um. Mom. I came to see if I could go over to the Cullens' for a little while." Her face immediately falls. "But I've been cooking all day, baby. I was expecting you for dinner. Edward can stay, of course. It'll be ready in about an hour." Internally I'm screaming "No!" The last thing I want is for Edward to stay over for dinner at my house with my unpredictable mother. She's acting pretty normally right now, but I can sense that at any moment she might change. She's still wiping her hands, but if Edward notices he doesn't acknowledge it.

"I'd love to Mrs. Swan. Thanks." This is not how I wanted this afternoon to go. I nudge Edward, trying to be discreet, but he just keeps smiling, ignoring me. "Okay then," my mother says brightly. "You two kids go play and I'll call you in a little while." Go play. Sheesh. She thinks I'm still five years old. I sigh and turn towards Edward as she walks away, willing him not to look to closely at his surroundingsthe peeling paint, the cobwebs dancing in between chipped railings on the stairs. I want to insist that he go home right now. "What are you doing, Edward?" I whisper. "You can't stay for dinner." "Why not?" "Because . . . " Because I'm so embarrassed. Because I don't want you to taste what's sure to be a horrible dinner. Because I'm afraid of what my mom might do. Because I don't want you to see how I live. But I don't say any of these things. "Because nothing. I just have to call my mom." I nod, unable to think of a reason that won't give away my true feelings. After he calls Esme, we go upstairs to my room. I try not to look at the dingy carpet on the stairs, the dangerously rusty nails that hold it in place, and I hope, by sheer will, that Edward will ignore it too. When we're in my room I turn on the light. It's only four o'clock but by this time in the year it's already getting dark. Dim light floods my room and I'm suddenly shy. I've never had Edward, or any boy, in my room, and I watch him to try and see what his reaction will be. I'm silently thankful that Alice and I took down all of the little kid posters I'd had up the summer before and replaced them with things that seemed more grown up. I have an optical illusion poster that is really coolif you blur your eyes, almost so you're cross-eyed, you can see shapes and pictures. The one I have shows a lion, but only if you look really hard. The only other furniture I have is a bed and a dresser, and I have a small table for homework. Edward flops down on my bed with a familiarity that thrills and frightens me.

"Ahhh . . . " he exhales, closing his eyes and stretching his arms overhead. He's on my bed with his shoes on and, strangely enough, I don't care. "Man, I'm beat." "Why are you so tired?" I ask, sitting down tentatively on the edge of my bed near Edward's feet. "Oh, you know, haven't been sleeping much." I have a feeling this has something to do with James. "Are you sneaking out a lot?" I ask. "Sometimes." "Did you sneak out last night?" "Yeah." "Where do you go?" "Oh, I don't know, around." He's not telling me on purpose and I find it really annoying. "Why won't you tell me?" "You wouldn't understand, Bella." He's right. I can't understand why someone with such a perfect family would ever want to sneak out and do things that could get him in trouble. "Try me." "Maybe there's no real reason. Maybe I just like the feeling. The excitement." He runs his hands through his hair and shifts on the bed so that he's looking at me. "That seems pretty stupid to me," I say. "Are you sure there's not another reason?" "What's that supposed to mean?" "I don't know. Maybe you're visiting someone." "Who?" He's curious now, teasing me. "I don't know, Edward," I grumble.

"You obviously have some idea, or you wouldn't have said it," he says, challenging me. I'm NOT going to say what's going through my mind. That maybe Edward is visiting Victoria. But I blush thinking about it. I don't know much about what happens with boys and girls, but I'm not completely clueless. I've heard enough around school to know the basicsadults would be shocked if they knew how much we knew. I didn't have any personal experience but I'd heard older girls, girls in Edward's grade, who did. Some of them had even let boys touch them under their clothes. The thought seemed strange to me. But still, I didn't like the idea of Edward doing those kinds of things with anyone. I decided I'd change the subject, but I didn't know what to say. Edward seemed to be in a teasing mode. He suddenly stands up and moves to my bookshelf. I have a lot of books that were past my grade level and I was pretty proud of my collection. He picks one up and holds it in his hands gingerly. It's the Diary of Anne Frank. "We read this in class this year," he tells me. "This is a really depressing book." "Yeah, I know," I reply. He's flipping through the pages. "Can you imagine having to hide like that? I mean . . . with your whole family . . . never knowing if today is the day the Nazi's are gonna find you?" I shudder, thinking how horrible that would be. Suddenly my life doesn't seem so bad after all. "That would be awfulI can't believe it really happened." Edward nods thoughtfully. "You have a lot of books, Bella." "I like reading." "That book that you dropped today, is it ruined?" He goes to my bag and unzips it before I can say anything, searching until he pulls out Anne. It is ruined, the pages now dried and stuck together. The sight of him holding it makes me want to cry for some reason, but I don't. "I guess so."

"My mom gave you this. You really like this book?" He looks at it as if it contains the answer to some secret riddle. I nod. "Do you like reading?" "Yeah. Not these kind of books, but I like reading. I like writing too." "Really?" I'm impressed. I had no idea that Edward was a writer. "What kind of things do you write?" He shrugs and sits back down on the bed. "Stories. Not really anything spectacular. But it's fun." Suddenly I really want to read something that Edward has written. "Will you show me?" "Maybe . . . I don't know. I haven't really shown anyone. They're probably terrible." "I doubt that," I say. "You don't have to, but I'd love to read your stories, if you want." He smiles broadly. "Cool. Well, maybe sometime." It's silent for a minute and I have no idea what Edward's thinking. Finally he turns to me. "Bella, is your mom okay? I mean, how are things going?" This is exactly the conversation I don't want to have right now. I bite my lip and look away, hoping he'll get the message. He's still holding the ruined Anne of Green Gables. "Why do you let those girls pick on you? Why don't you stand up for yourself?" "What's with all the questions?" I'm suddenly annoyed; it's not like I let them do anything. He doesn't understand. I try fighting back, but that only makes it worse. I tell him so. "Those girls are bitches, Bella. They don't mean anything. You're better than them, and they're jealous." I laugh. "What! Jealous? You're crazy. Why would they be jealous of me?"

He's thoughtful for a minute, sitting back on the edge of the bed. As he speaks he looks down at the ground. "Well, you're smart, for one thing. I know you get good grades. Jessica and Lauren are dumb as bricks." "Who cares? It's not cool to be smartif they wanted to be smart so bad, wouldn't it be cool?" "Not if they're not smartthen being smart is uncool, since they're the ones who make the rules." I shrug. Whatever. "You're more than that too, though. You're fun. And nice. And . . ." Edward stops. I want to know what he's going to say, but suddenly I notice he's blushing. It makes me feel strange and I turn away. Just then my mother comes in, and I notice she's not smiling anymore. "Edward needs to go, Bella. Dinner's ruined." She's talking to me even though he's sitting right there. "What happened?" I'm relieved because that means Edward doesn't have to stay for what I'm sure would be a horrible dinner, and I'm alarmed by the unfocused look on her face. Then from the open door I can smell something . . . it smells like burning. "Umm, I don't know." She looks at Edward and then back at me and I just know she's about to say something weird. Edward looks uncomfortable so I stand up quickly, grabbing his hand. Renee moves to the side, giving us room to pass. But he surprises me, stopping in front of her. "Mrs. Swan, can Bella come to my house for dinner? If you're not having it here?" He smiles hugely and his whole face lights up. She seems to respond to that, smiling back. "Would that be all right with your mother?" "Of course, she would love it." He tightens his grip on my hand.

Renee eyes me tentatively. "Okay . . ." Then she pulls me away from him. Giving me a big hug, she whispers in my ear, "Someone burned the dinner, Bella. I'm sorry." Once she's released me I look to Edward, trying to figure out if he heard her or not. He doesn't give anything away. "Come on, Bella," he says. "Let's go." Suddenly everything that seemed bad just a minute ago is right again. Because of Edward. Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry? In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand dare seize the fire? William Blake, "The Tyger" Chapter Three: September 1999 There is a secret place in my mother's rooma chest she keeps in her closet. And in this secret place are secret things, things she doesn't know I know about. Sometimes when I come home from school and she's still at work, I go and look through the chest and it's like discovering a treasure every time. If most people saw the things in there, they wouldn't think much of it . . . but to me, it's everything. Today is my 12th birthday and when I get home from school mom's out. I remember she told me she'd be working late today and probably wouldn't be home 'til around seven or eight. Since it's Monday and a school night, I won't be having a party. I don't want one anyway, because other than Alice and Edward and my new friend Angela, there's no one I'd want to invite. It doesn't matter because on Friday I'm going to spend the whole weekend over at the Cullens' house. Esme promised that me and Alice could stay up late and watch moviesmaybe even a PG-13and that sounds perfect to me.

But that's days from now and since I don't feel like doing my homework, I decide this is the perfect time to go exploring in the treasure chest. After I grab an apple from the kitchen and drop my school bag off in my room, I creep to my mother's door and push it open gently. I'm always a little nervous doing this even when she's not here, since if she found me I'm sure she'd be angry. My mother's bed is rumpledshe never makes itand there are dust bunnies on the wooden floor that drift and roll as the air from the door disturbs them. Her room smells like smoke; there's an ashtray filled with cigarette butts on her nightstand and I grimace, wishing I could throw them away and open a window. But then she'd know I was in here and I'd probably get in trouble, so I just deal with it. At least she doesn't smoke in the rest of the house. I open the closet door and settle down on the floor, taking a bite of my apple, then removing the clothes that my mother has strewn over the chest and lifting the lid. There they are . . . her treasures . . . my treasures. First, I lift out the delicate bone china teapot, admiring its decoration of fine gold filigree and painted birds-swallows, I think. Turning it over carefully, I read the initials: EIR. I have no idea what they stand for or why my mother has this beautiful object in her secret place, but I love it. Almost as much as I love the photographs that I take out next. They're not arranged in a photoalbum or anything, but even so I look at them one at a time, afraid that maybe they're supposed to be in order . . . some method I'm not aware of. The picture at the top of the pile is my favorite. It shows my mom and dad on what I assume is their wedding day. They're so youngmy mother has told me how they got married just after high school. Renee's wearing a simple white dress with her hair pulled back. She looks beautiful and she's got her arms wrapped around my dad Charlie. I stare and stare, trying to remember his face. The man in the photograph is smiling and you can see his perfect white teeth. He's dressed in a brown suit and holding a paper in one hand, his other arm wrapped around my mom. He has a dark moustache and kind eyes . . . they're the same as mine. I stare and try to remember this face . . . his face . . . my eyes. But all I can remember is this picture. The next one is of my mom and me. Her hair is braided to the side and tied with a white ribbon and I'm a tiny baby in her arms with a small scrunched red face. She looks tired but happy. We're in the hospital and I imagine that it was my father who took this photo.

More pictures of my dad. This time with a man in a wheelchair. I know who this is: it's Billy Black, my dad's best friend. Billy's my godfather and he still lives in Forks with his son Jacob. I know because they send us Christmas cards, and sometimes I'll get a small present on my birthday. It's funny, because I remember being at Billy's house when I was little. A memory comesthe smell of a wood fire burning and playing cars with Jacob on the rug. He's smaller than me and cries when I take his red car away and then I have to sit in a corner. That's all I remember. Pop-pop Swan is next. I remember him too, but he died a couple years after my dad was killed. Why can I remember all of these people but not Charlie? Why can't I remember his face? Then there's a picture of my mom and she's all alone, sitting by a lake. There are tall pine trees around her and a mist that makes her appear almost like a ghostshe's so pale and she seems like a lost angel. She's staring out at the water with a faraway look in her eyes, unaware she's being photographed. I kiss the photo and hold it to my chest before looking through the rest. . . . more pictures of my parents, of me, of Billy, other unknown friends, Pop-pop and Gran, who died before I was born. But none of my mother's parents. I know that they didn't like her marrying my dad and I think that's probably why. Near the bottom of the pile is another picture of my dad. This time I'm sitting on his shoulders, gripping his hair in my fists. He's looking up at me and I'm looking down at him, and we're both laughing. I must be about three years old. Suddenly, I hear the front door open and I freezeit's only five and she's already home. My mother's voice sounds through the hall, calling me. Impulsively, I pocket the picture of me and Charlie, hastily stowing the rest of the pictures and the tea pot back into the chest, closing it, re-covering it with the clothes, and racing out of the room as fast as I can without making too much noise. Just as I shut the door I hear her footsteps on the stairs and whip around quickly, guiltily, sure that my indiscretion is written all over my face. "There you are!" she exclaims, her voice excited. I'm flooded with relief since she doesn't seem to notice I've just come out of her room. "Yeah. Just getting ready to do some homework." Trying to look nonchalant, I take another bite of my nearly forgotten apple. "Oh, baby girl, no homework on your birthday! Come on," she says, hugging me and then pulling me along. "I have a surprise for you."

"I thought you were working late," I venture, a little nervous about the surprise. Knowing Renee, it could be anything. "Not on my baby's birthday!" she exclaims. "I fibbed. So you wouldn't know!" She's smiling now and seems completely fine. It's so tempting to trust this, to give in and let her mother me. For the past few days she's been doing well, I wonder if she's begun taking her medicine again. But a part of me knows better than that . . . she'd never start it again on her own. She doesn't believe there's anything wrong with her. And if I mention it, I know she'll get really mad. Renee leads me to the kitchen and I gasp when I see the giant strawberrycovered cake on the table . . . I know it's whipped cream frosting, my favorite, and it's big enough to feed twenty people. Next to the cake is a small wrapped box. I stand, stunned, and a slow smile creeps across my face as she claps her hands together. "Go ahead, sweetheart," she urges. "Taste it." Hesitantly, I sweep my finger across the side of the cake and bring the icing to my lips, darting my tongue out to taste. Delicious rich cream coats my tongue. "I thought we might have some cake tonight instead of dinner. What do you think?" I think it does sound like a good idea, but it sounds like the idea of a child, not a mother. And once again I'm back in her place. But I don't want to ruin this, and so I nod my head. "Perfect! I'll get plates!" We cut large slices of cake and I pour milk into tall glasses and we sit in the dining room at the dusty table. I listen as Renee chats about her day. The photograph is still in my back pocket, and I worry I'm wrinkling itbut there's nothing I can do about it right now. She tells me about annoying customers and doesn't ask me about school, which again, is fine by me. But there's one thing I do need to bring up. I haven't told her that they've invited me to join the new Gifted and Talented program. There's a permission slip that she needs to sign, and if she does, I'll go to South Elgin High once a week for advanced classes. I'm excited for the challenge, and even more so because I'll be at Edward's school. Since he's started ninth

grade I haven't seen him as much, even though South Elgin is right next door to Kenyon Woods. I want to join the program so bad that it scares me. If she says no I'll be devastated. I push my uneaten cake around with my fork and she notices. "What's wrong, baby girl? You don't like the cake?" She looks at it strangely. "Come to think of it," she says, "it does taste a little funny to me." There's a worried frown on her face and now she's not eating anymore either. Sometimes she gets like this. "No, Mom, the cake is really good. I like it. It tastes great," I try to reassure her. "It's just, at school they've asked me to join this special program, this Gifted and Talented program, and I really want to do it." Her face is serious. "What do you mean? What kind of a program is this?" I tell her about it and her face lightens again. She runs her fingers through my hair and smiles, asking for the permission slip. My heart soars as I race to my bedroom, taking one last look at the photograph before hiding it under my mattress and returning with the slip and a pen. She signs and I hug her. "I'm so proud of you, Bella. You're so smart. You'll go far, my baby girl. You'll go far." I sit down to finish my cake but she picks up our plates before I can do it. "I think it's better for us to have something else, okay?" Her smile is strained and I know she has the idea in her head now that the cake is bad. She's rustling in the kitchen and opening cans, and I know whatever she's preparing it won't be as good as the cake. A few minutes later, she comes back in with the present; I'd almost forgotten about it. "For my special girl," she says, handing it to me. I shake the box gently, then quickly unwrap it, gasping when I find a small gold heart pendant dangling on a very fine chain. It's beautiful, but I have no idea where she got the money to buy this . . . we can't afford it. "I saw it in the window and I thought it was perfect." She's smiling again, "Do you like it?"

My eyes tear up . . . the beautiful necklace . . . the way she's looking at me . . . the guilt I feel for accepting it . . . knowing I can't say no, that she wouldn't understand. "I love it, Mom. Thanks." She helps me with the clasp and I thank her again. We sit for a while but Renee's much quieter now. She gets up and goes to the kitchen and comes back with a bowl of canned soup. I'm not really hungry anymore and she's not eating, but I manage to finish about half of it before asking to be excused. She nods absently and I traipse to the kitchen to wash the bowl, and then retreat to my room, feeling slightly uneasy. For the rest of the evening I listen to music and read on my bed. My favorite band right now is the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Edward gave me their new CD over the summer and I listen to it all the time, but that's not the only reason I like it. Some of the songs are really sad and some are louder, more angry. I love the lyrics. To me, it's almost like poetry, even though I'm sure that would sound stupid to most people. At school the girls like the Back Street Boys and Britney Spears, but I can't stand that music. It all sounds the same to me. At around nine Renee checks in and tells me to go to sleepI hear her in her room after that and turn off the music. I know I should go to bed since I have to get up early, but I have a feeling, a hope. I turn the light of and sit in silence, my secret hope growing stronger. But I'm tired, and I find myself dozing slightly until I'm startled by a pinging sound. I open the window as quietly as I can and see the figure below. Edward looks up and waves at me. He doesn't come over too oftenmaybe once every other week or so, but we have a routine. I don't bother shouting down to him; instead, I grab my sneakers and open my door quietly, tip-toeing down the hall and stairs to the front door. But before I go outside, I remember the huge delicious cake and decide to bring him a piece. When I get to the kitchen and look in the fridge, I can't find it. A sinking feeling settles over me, down in my gut, I know where to look. Sure enough, it's in the garbage. It makes me so angry. I'm suddenly furious and I want to rip the gold chain from around my neck. The conflicting emotions are overwhelming, and I don't know whether to cry or scream. I certainly don't Edward to see me like this. But he's waiting for me, so I slip my sneakers on and head out the door. It's after eleven now and our street is quiet except for some dog

barking nearby. Edward is pacing around with his back to me, but turns when he hears me approach. I haven't seen him in over a week and he seems . . . tall. Alice was teasing that he had a growth spurt during the summer and for the first time I realize it's true. He's got to be a good six inches taller than me now, when it used to be only an inch or two. It's kind of chilly out and he's wearing a hat. His hair is sticking out from underneath it and he looks . . . cute. I feel my face redden at the thought and am thankful for the darkness. "Happy birthday," he says, giving me a hug. He smells like cigarettes but he's not smoking, probably cause he knows I don't like it. "Thanks." "You have a good day?" "Uh . . . it was pretty good." I finger the gold necklace, trying to be happy about it and forget those other feelings. He eyes the necklace and then looks back at my face. "That's nice. A present?" "Yeah, from my mom." I release it and Edward reaches out, grasping the necklace for a second before dropping his hand. "It's pretty." "Thanks." Suddenly things are weird, and I notice he has something in his hand. "What's that?" "Oh this . . .I ummm . . ." he pulls the hat off and runs his hand through his hair. "It's for you." I can't believe Edward brought me a present and the thought that he has thrills me. "Well?" I tease, raising my eyebrow. "Here," he mumbles, "it's nothing really, a book we're reading in my English class. I thought you'd like it." "I'm sure I'll love it, Edward," I say, taking the book. It's a thin book and there's an unusual illustration on the cover...it looks like two figures

crouching low hiding from a vibrant banner of fireSongs of Innocence and Experience is the title. I've never heard of it before. "Who's William Blake?" "He's a poet. He wrote in the 19th Century and he illustrated all his poems. See?" Edward takes the book and opens it to a random page. there's another illustration . . . it's a strange kind of drawing of a Tiger. I can't really make out the colors in the dim light of the street, but I instantly like it. There's a poem that accompanies the picture, but it's in an old-fashioned script that's hard to read. "Our teacher says everyone thought William Blake was completely crazy. He printed all of his own books, and he kind of made up his own personal religion or something. But now he's considered a genius." "This is really cool, thanks." I'm flipping through the pages and can already tell I'll love it. I can't wait to get upstairs and look at it in the light, but I don't want to leave Edward either. "I thought it was better than a lot of the crap we've been reading." "You really didn't have to." Now we've started walking and he has his hands in his pockets. The hat is back on his head. "It wasn't anything," he repeats. "So...how do you like your classes?" I ask. It's a little strange now that Edward's at high school, but it's funny, I don't feel like he's that much older than me. Really, I feel older than he is sometimes. But I wonder if he thinks of me as a kid. Probably. I'm only in seventh grade and he's in ninth. He has friends that I don't know aboutI know he still hangs out with James. He might even have a girlfriend. That thought makes me mad, even though I know that I'll never be Edward's girlfriend. I don't really want to be anyone's girlfriend . . . the thought is somewhat frightening to me. What exactly is expected of a girlfriend? Does that mean you have to kiss the other person? How do you know when to do it? Or how to do it? Edward replies, breaking me out of my thoughts. "They're okay, most of them, anyway. I'm taking algebra and it's awful." I nod in understanding. Math is my worst subject too.

"I'm not looking forward to that," I say. "Well, you won't have to worry about it for a couple years, anyway." I haven't told Edward yet about the Gifted and Talented program. I'm pretty sure I'll be doing some more advanced math as well as language and literature. Suddenly I'm embarrassed. I don't want to sound like a know-itall. But still, I want to tell him. "I . . . I'm actually gonna be doing some more advanced classes this year. I'll be coming to the high school on Tuesdays, starting next week." "Really? Wow. That's great, Bella. Good for you." He kicks a stone on the ground. "Thanks. Is it scary to be in such a big school?" "A little at first maybe, but you'll get the hang of it. I'm sure you'll be separated from the high-schoolers anyway." My heart sinks . . . he's probably right. "Yeah. I guess so." "But you'll have to tell me where your classroom is," he says, grinning and pulling my hair. "I'll stop by and harass you." "Oh please," I scoff. "You won't want to be seen with me." "Come on, Bella, you're my friend, of course I will." "Yeah, but you're in high school now. I'm sure you have more interesting friends." "Well, now that you mention it." I know he's teasing me, but suddenly I want to know more. "Why do you like James, anyway?" I ask, barely able to hide the disgust in my voice. "Why don't you like him?" he asks. "'Cause of the smoking?" "Yeah, among other reasons." "What other reasons?"

"Oh, I don't know." I'm still remembering our conversation from months before . . . the one where I accused him of visiting someone out at night . . .that someone of course being Victoria. "I just think he's a bad influence on you." "But you have a reason you won't tell me. You're embarrassed or something? Why?" He's stopped walking and is looking at me. I try and avoid his gaze. "I think I know what the reason is," he says. "Oh really?" I ask, challenging him. "Well if you're so smart why don't you tell me?" "That day, behind Kenyon Woods you heard us talking and you ran away, and ever since then you've been weird about James. I think you heard something you didn't like." He has it right and I'm too flustered to think of a lie. "Whatever," I mutter. "It's true, isn't it?" "Maybe." "Well, just don't believe everything you hear, alright?" Neither of us is comfortable having this conversation, and I have no idea why he brought it up in the first place. We turn back to my house after Edward says he has to get back home, and I don't say anything. When we're a little ways from my house he turns to go. "I didn't mean to upset you, Bella. I was just teasing." "Okay, Edward," I huff, still unconvinced. "You're so sensitive. I forget that sometimes," he says thoughtfully. Suddenly I feel bad about acting so immaturelyhe's trying to be nice. And he's one of my only friends. I've come to depend on him even more than on Alice, and I don't want to leave things like this. "It's okay. I know you didn't mean anything by it."

"Good. Can't have you sad on your birthday." If he only knew. "And you're coming this weekend, right? Alice is all excited." He rolls his eyes. "She's planning makeovers or something, so you better be prepared." "Ugh," I groan. "And maybe if you're nice to me, I'll let you play on my new PlayStation." "Lucky me," I say, grinning. "You're damn right," he replies, not missing a beat. "It's pretty awesome." "Well, I guess we'll see if Alice lets me. Thanks again for the book." "You're welcome." He tugs a strand of my hair again and I wonder if that's a new thing of his. It makes me smile. "Night." "Night." Back up in my room I open up the book and pour over it greedily even though it's already after midnight. I'm going to be tired for school in the morning but I don't care. I read each and every poem, until I'm so drowsy I can't hold my eyes open anymore, and I fall asleep with the book in my hands. ~QF~ The rest of the week drags by, of course, because I'm so excited for the weekend. I avoid mentioning it to my mother in case she changes her mind and decides I can't go, but she's been pretty distant this week, so I'm not too worried. Finally Friday rolls around and I rush home from school to pack. Although we've been walking together since Alice started middle school, Esme picks her up right after school for gymnastics on Friday, so if I hurry, I'll be able to spend some time with Edward and maybe play PlayStation with him before she gets back. Renee's not home yet, but I leave her a note telling her I've gone to the Cullens'. I stuff my backpack with clothes and a few books, including the book of poetry Edward gave me. The day after my birthday I

was shocked to discover he'd written something in the front. It said: "To Bella. Happy Birthday. Always, Edward." It's a short message but I've thought about it all week long. I look at it again and again to make sure it's really there. What does "always" mean? Always what? I know I'll never have the courage to ask him . . . or will I? At the last minute I decide to take the photo of my dad and me. I don't want to leave it behind for some reason, and I think maybe I'll show Alice and Edward. The walk to their house takes about ten minutes and I feel like skipping, even though I'm too old for that. Carlisle's black SUV is in the driveway when I get there, and I'm surprised. He usually works late on Friday night. I ring the doorbell and Carlisle answers, the angry look on his face dissolving when he looks down and sees me. "Oh. Bella!" he exclaims. "Alice isn't home yet." "I know, Mr. Cullen. I came early 'cause I thought Edward might be here; he's supposed to show me his new PlayStation." Carlisle looks over his shoulder, then back at me. "Well," he says, "you're of course welcome to stay and wait for Alice in the TV room, but Edward's being punished." He says the last few words with strong emphasis, and I'm instantly disappointed. But then my selfish desire gives way to sympathy and worry . . . why is he in trouble? Did he finally get caught? "Okay . . ." I reply, and he opens the door. "I'll be in my study if you need anything," he says, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. "Edward is to stay in his room. No visitors. Okay?" His voice is severe and he looks at me with a raised eyebrow, and I know that's his way of asking me to cooperate. I nod and he closes the door, turning and going up the stairs to his study on the second floor. I hesitate for a moment, my bag in my hand. Finally, I take off my shoes, following the Cullen house rule, and pad down the hallway to the TV room. I pass through the kitchen and the door to the basement and Edward's room fighting the desire to go down there. But I don't want to get him in more trouble. Flopping down on the overstuffed sofa, I grab the remote and turn on the TV. It's tuned to HBO and some movie I've never seen, but I'm not really

paying attention. My heart is thudding in my chest as I waver indecisively. Carlisle is upstairs. He'll never know if I go down just for a minute or two, just to see if Edward's okay. And Esme and Alice won't be back for at least another half hour, probably more. But I should stay here . . . Of course I'm fighting a losing battle. I pick up my bag and make my way back to the kitchen. There's music playing downstairs, and if I can hear it up here it must be pretty loud. I recognize it as the Smashing Pumpkins, Edward's favorite band. I steel myself and open the door. At the bottom of the stairs I look around. The lights are dim and I can't see Edward. Then, I notice that he's sitting on his bed with his back against the wall and his knees drawn up into his chest. He doesn't acknowledge my presence as I come closer. The music is deafening. "Edward?" I ask, suddenly very unsure. Maybe I shouldn't have come down. He clearly doesn't want me here. I stand still for a minute, looking away awkwardly, and when I look back I'm shocked because he's crying. "Edward?" I say again, sitting next to him. "What's wrong? What happened? You got in trouble?" "Yeah," he scoffs, wiping his face with the back of his hand and looking away. "I guess you could say that. More like fucked. Royally fucked." Edward swears, but he rarely uses that word, at least around me. It must be pretty bad. "Does my father know you're down here?" he asks. "No. I snuck down. He's upstairs." "Good. Bella, you should go...you don't want to get involved in this." "Would you just tell me what happened?" "I got caught, okay?" "Caught what, sneaking out?" "No, worse." My stomach drops. What could be worse than that?

"Smoking?" He's silent for a minute, and I don't expect him to answer me, so I'm surprised when he starts talking. "I was with James and some seniors at lunch . . . and we were in the back of the school smoking . . . and then one of the guys pulls out a joint and starts passing it around. When it comes to me, and I don't want to do it, but I don't want them to think I'm . . . I don't know . . . scared to do it. So I pretend." "You pretend?" "Yeah, I just kinda fake it, I guess. But just then one of the teachers comes out looking for us and she sees me. A whole bunch of them scatter and it's me holding the joint, you know? And she looks at me with this look. "And before I know it I'm in the principal's office and they're calling my dad. And he comes to school so mad, so fucking mad. And I try telling them that it wasn't mine, that I wasn't doing it, but no one believes me. They search my locker of course and find the cigarettes . . . and my dad's standing right there. "I tried to tell him I wasn't smoking pot, but he just doesn't believe me. He just doesn't believe me. And now I'm fucking suspended. Maybe even expelled. And dad's talking about sending me away to fucking boarding school. And yeah, I'm grounded for life or until I turn 18, whichever happens first. "And just now before you came over he told me what a disappointment I was to him . . . and a whole bunch else that I won't even repeat." He's crying again but he's angry, and he wipes his face, looking away. It makes me so mad that his father doesn't believe him. Sure, the cigarettes must have looked bad, but I know Edward's not lying about the drugs. "That's so unfair," I say. I want to do something with my hands, with my arms, to comfort him, but I'm not sure how or if he'd even want me to. "You believe me?" he asks, wiping his nose on the back of his arm. It's kinda gross, but for some reason it doesn't bother me 'cause it's Edward. "Yeah, I believe you. Why would you lie to me?" "You're unbelievable, you know that?" he says. "No one else will believe me, but you do. Why?" I shrug. I don't know why.

"Alice will believe you. Your mother will." "But not my father," his voice is bitter. "He's just angry, Edward. He'll cool down." "He said he was . . . disgusted . . . by me." My heart lurches and suddenly I hate Carlisle. Even though I know I'm right and he doesn't really mean the things he said, no one should ever say such a thing about their child. It wasn't right. I don't even know how it happens but suddenly my arms are around Edward and now he's crying into my shoulder. I'm happy that I can be here for him, as he's always been there for me. When he pulls away and my shirt is wet but of course I don't care. I think maybe I'll never wash this shirt again. "And you were right, Bella. About James. That bastard just took off and left me there. Didn't even stand up for me . . . he just ran off." This is not the time for I-told-you-so's, so I just nod my head and pat his back. "Sometimes I wish I didn't have a father." His words are spoken without thinking, and I immediately stiffen, pulling my hand away. "Shit. Oh shit, Bella. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it." Edward's eyes are wide as he watches me, his hand darts out to grab my shoulder, and for a minute I think what to do. I could get mad at him and tell him he's an insensitive moron . . . but he's not. He's hurting. Instead, I unzip my bag and pull out my picture. It's a little wrinkled from where I sat on it and from being under my mattress and I try to flatten it out with my palm before passing it over. "I wanted to show you this," I say softly. "It's one of the only pictures I have of my dad, and my mom doesn't even know I took it." He takes the photo carefully, and studies it for a minute without speaking. "This is you." "Yeah." I can't help but smile. He seems awed for some reason. "I'm an asshole," he whispers.

"No," I tell him, "you're not. That's not why I wanted you to see it. I just wanted you to see that once I had a family . . . like yours." "Thank you." He hands the picture back to me. "You're really an amazing person." "Oh please, I'm just being a friend." "You're a great friend," he says softly. We sit for a while until the CD stops. I've forgotten all about time and the fact that if I get caught down here we're both probably going to be in trouble. "I better go upstairs." "Yeah," he jokes, "Or Carlisle will probably think I dragged you down here to my lair." "Well, we can't have that." "No." "It'll be okay," I say. "You'll see." "Okay." He cracks a small smile as I turn to go. But before I do I pause on the stairs, suddenly feeling bold. "Hey, Edward?" "Yeah?" "What does 'always' mean?" I can't see his face in the darkness, but I hear his soft reply. "Forever." ~QF~ Two months later "I hate Tuesdays," Alice complains. She's standing at my locker while I gather my stuff to go to the high school. "You're not at lunch and . . . uhhh . . . it sucks to have to sit with Erick Yorkie and Mike Newton . . . and then we don't even get to walk home together."

I of course don't say what I'm thinking: that I love Tuesdays because that's the day I get to see Edward. Ever since he's been grounded, I only ever see him on the days I go to South Elgin for the G&T program, as I've come to call it. Luckily, Carlisle's threat to send Edward to boarding school was an empty one. "I walk alone on Fridays," I remind her. "Yeah. You're right. But I miss you at recess." I give Alice a small smile as I close the locker, reattaching the lock and picking up my bag. "I think Yorkie likes you," I tease. Alice grimaces. "Gross! Bella. Eeew. Well, I think Mike Newton likes you." Before I can respond the bell rings and Alice has to hurry off to class. And I need to get to the front of Kenyon Woods before the rest of the kids in the program leave without me. At the front of the school, Angela Webber greets me with a smile. She just recently moved to the area, and having her in seventh grade with me has made all the difference. This year is so much better than last year, at least at school. I don't feel like such an outsider anymore; Angela doesn't treat me different from anyone else, and she stands by me when Lauren and Jessica pick on me. Besides Angela and Alice, I'm even hanging out with other kids in my classI'm even thankful for Newton and Yorkie, although they are a little annoying. It's so lucky that Angela was selected for G&T toonow I have someone to talk to and hang out with at lunchtime, which we take in the high school cafeteria. "Hey," she says. "Hey!" "Did you bring your portfolio?" "Yeah." I pat my bag. "Right in here." We've been working on individual projects, and I've decided that I'm writing a paper on the book Edward gave me for my birthday, William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. Mrs. Johnson, the program coordinator, thought it was too advanced an idea, but I really want to do it. It's hard, since I still don't understand a lot of the poems, but I wouldn't let her convince me otherwise.

Angela sighs. "How's your project going, anyway?" "Um. Pretty good, I guess. What about yours?" Angela was into science, so she was working on an experiment on plant biology. "Not great, to be honest. But, we still have time. I won't freak out until it's absolutely necessary." "I'm sure it will be great, Ang. Seriously." "We'll see." By the time we get settled in and down to work, it's past ten. My eyes glance every once in a while towards the small window in the door. At quarter 'til eleven, his face briefly appears, his telltale bronze hair a flash by the window, and I ask to go to the bathroom, trying to control the hammering in my chest. Angela gives me a knowing glance, but Mrs. Johnson hands me the hall pass without a question. I hurry down the hall, past the girl's room and to room one-oh-three. I turn the nob and there's Edward, sitting on the teacher's vacant desk, just like always. His smile is so bright and my stomach feels funny. In the past couple months something has become clear to me. I have a crush, A HUGE crush, on my friend Edward Cullen. "I thought you might not see me," he says, hopping down from the table. "Yeah, well, you're lucky I was looking at the clock." "Class that boring, huh?" "Not too bad. What about you?" He groans. "Ohhhh, it's awful. I really could care less about mitosis or meiosis." "Doesn't sound too interesting." "It's not, believe me." "We're just doing independent work today. So it's pretty okay."

"What are you working on?" "Oh. . ." I reply dismissively, "just a book project." Edward sits back up on the desk and gestures to me. I sit beside him, swinging my legs and trying not to think about the fact that we only have a couple of minutes before we'll both have to get back. "So, I have good news," he reveals. "My parents are lightening up. I can have friends over now. Good behavior and all that." In the months since he was caught "smoking" pot, Edward has stopped hanging around with James and sneaking out at night. I miss our late night visits, but I know it's for the best. And plus, he has some friends now that seem to be nice guys. Emmett McCarty and Jasper Whitlock are both sophomores, but from what Edward says they're not at all like his old friends. Even Carlisle and Esme approve. "That's great! Are they letting you out, too?" "Not yet. I'm working on it." His mouth is set in a hard line. "But if you wanted to come over this weekend, I can finally show you some of my new games." Edward looks over at me hopefully. We're sitting so close, both of us grasping the edge of the desk. Our hands are nearly touching. If I just moved my pinky a little bit, it would graze his. But I don't. Instead, I nod enthusiastically. "Sure. That would be fun." All of a sudden, I'm crazily nervous. It's not like Edward has never asked me to come over before. But this seems different. He smiles at me and tugs my hair, before propelling himself off the desk once again. "Cool. Well. I better be getting back. Saturday?" I think about whether my mom will let me and, since she's been working more often, I feel like it will probably be fine. "Okay," I reply shyly. With one final smile, he turns and leaves and I'm filled with a warm feeling . . . I know I like Edward. Could it be that he likes me too? "Love is friendship set on fire." Jeremy Taylor Chapter 4: May 2001

"I can't wait 'till next year," Angela says, slumping down into her chair next to me in the G&T classroom. "We'll be here every day and we won't have to deal with Jessica or Lauren anymore." I nod, glad that the terrible twosome won't be attending South Elgin and are instead headed off to Trinity Academya private school on the other side of town. "Sounds like heaven to me." It's so hot today and there's apparently something wrong with the air conditioning system, so we're all sweltering in the classroom. I shift in my seat and my legs stick to the chair below me. Though they're still awful to me, I ignore Jessica and Lauren for the most part, but I know that Angela is relieved for another reason altogether. She has a thing for Ben Cheney . . . and so does Lauren. "I'll miss this, though, you know?" She gestures around and I know exactly what she means. For the last two years, this classroom has become a sort of safe haven for us both; even though we'll still be in this building next year, it won't be the same. "Yeah, but at least we'll be together," I say, grinning. "And we'll be out of Kenyon Woods." Angela and I are planning to sign up for the same classes next week when registration begins. Thanks to Edward, I already know which electives to pick, and I've shared my knowledge with Angela and our other friends. Mr. Hanson, for instancethe shop teacher who's missing two fingersis to be avoided at all costs. Of course Alice hates me bringing this up, since she's only in the 8th grade next year, so I try not to talk about high school when we're hanging out. "And you'll be in the same school as your boyfriend," she teases, stressing the last word a little too loudly. Bree Tanner turns around and looks at me and it's obvious she's been eavesdropping. "Oooh! Bella! You have a high school boyfriend? Oh my God! Is it Edward Cullen? It is, isn't it? Oh my God! I knew it!" She's loud and some of the other kids turn around, and I feel the blood rushing to my face. Angela! "I don't know what you're talking about," I mumble. Edward Cullen isn't my boyfriend, but I don't really know what he is to be honest. I'm so confused by the way he acts. Sometimes it really seems like he wants to be more than friends, but then other times he treats me more like a kid, or a sister. And since he started playing baseball last spring, he's hanging out more with Jasper and Emmett and the team. He's the Shortstop for the South Elgin

Ramblers and it's amazing how fast he is. I've been to a lot of his games, almost all of them, and he's so good that he's become one of the most popular boys at South Elgin High, even though he's only a sophomoreand I know he has a lot of female admirers. How can I compete with high school girls? Bree looks disappointed and hesitates a minute before turning away. I'm staring down at my notebook, doodling absentmindedly to distract myself from thoughts Edward and high school girls. "Sorry," Angela whispers. I raise my head; her eyes are full of apology. "I'm sorry Bella," she mouths. "It's okay." I shrug, returning my attention to my aimless drawing as Mrs. Johnson enters and starts talking about our end of the year activities. There's only two more weeks, and then we'll be done. At around ten I begin glancing towards the door. But by eleven, nothing. Edward hasn't passed by. But maybe he did while I was looking away? It was possible. I could've been distracted for a second and missed him. I stand up and ask for the hall pass and Mrs. Johnson hands it to me, raising her eyebrows. By this time I think she knows something's up, since I ask at the same time every week, but she hasn't ever denied me. I take the pass and enter the empty hallway, hurrying down to our room . . . he's not here. My stomach sinks into my feet and I stand with my hand on the doorknob, trying to think of why. In the past two years, the only time he's missed our weekly date is when he's been sick, and I know he's not, since I was just over at the Cullens' on Sunday. He could've gotten sick yesterday. Maybe. Dejection washes over me and I drag my feet back to G&T, feeling awful. But it doesn't stop me from gluing my eyes to the door for the rest of the day, and being disappointed when nothing happens. Back at home that afternoon, I'm relieved that my mom isn't there. I have cramps and I know what's coming. I've been getting my period for about a year now, so it's no longer a surprise. And it's way less traumatic than I thought it would be, especially since Alice just got hers too for the first time.

She came to me for advice and I felt kinda proudlike I could help her with my experience. And it makes me happy that we're the same again. I go to the bathroom and pull down my shorts; sure enough, there's a small spot of blood. Hurrying to my room, I get a pad and change my underwear, then take two ibuprofen for the pain before lying down on my bed. Of course my thoughts immediately drift to Edward . . . I know he's at practice today and now I won't see him until the weekend. He promised I could come along on Saturdayhe's got his driving permit and Carlisle's giving him a lesson. But now I'm not sure if I'm still invited. It's so quiet in my room, there's only the tick of my alarm clock . . . and it's still so hot. For some reason I just feel like crying. But I don't. Instead, I study my ceilingthe cracks and water spotsuntil boredom overcomes sadness and the aching in my abdomen fades. Renee's not home. She's been working a lot lately, and when she's here she's in a terrible mood. Most of the time she stays in her bedroom with the door shut, not bothering even to come out for dinner. Even though Renee's never been much of a chef, now she doesn't cook at all, so I've started learning how. Nothing too complicated, but I'm pretty proud of myself. I even baked a batch of blueberry muffins for the Cullens; of course Edward ate almost all of them. He loves anything with blueberries. Since it's been a while and I decide maybe now is a good time to go and look at my pictures . . . her pictures. It always makes me feel better. Her room is in quite a statedirty clothes everywhere, and the desire to clean up after her is overpowering. But I don't. Once in her closet, I crouch down to unearth the small chest, but right away I see something is wrong. The clothes that usually cover it are gone-the chest is open! And inside . . . broken . . . fragments . . . pictures and porcelain . . . destroyed, all mixed together. Ripped and shattered. I reach my hand into the box and pull out nothing . . . dust . . . torn scraps . . . nothing . . . no more. She's ruined it all. She's ruined it all . . . all the pictures . . . everything . . . her life before me . . . Charlie . . . Pop-pop . . . Billy . . . gone. The beautiful teapot with the unknown initials . . . nothing. I frantically claw, digging through the remnants, looking for anything to save. But nothing has been spared. Sobbing, I stagger out of the closet and back to my room, slamming the door even though no one is home. I want to scream, to shake her, to run

away and never come back to this place. I hate, hate, hate, hate. Sinking to the floor I hug my bare knees to my chest as I cry, and I'm sweaty as I roll onto my side. Time passes and the shadows in the room morph and shift. It's getting later but it's still daylight. There's no breeze coming from my window and I'm not crying anymore because I feel like all my tears have dried up. My chest feels empty as I think about what this means. Renee loved those things; I know she did. That must mean she's really bad. All I want is Edward, but he's not here. Sitting up, I reach under my bed and pull out a shoebox. My own treasures most of them gifts from Edward. The book he gave me, almost two years ago. I touch the cover and open it; tucked just inside is the picture of Charlie and me. Now it's all that's left. I hold the photo gently in between my fingers then replace it safely inside the book. Then, as always, I read Edward's inscription . . . "always." Does he remember writing it? There're also some CDs. A card he gave me one day when I wasn't feeling well. A baseball from his first game. He was joking and signed it, and of course I teased him, not daring to admit how happy I was when he then tossed it to me. Then sillier things. A bottle cap from a soda he once left in room one-oh-three. A note card from a test I helped him study for. If Edward knew I had this stuff he'd probably think I was weird . . . or worse. But I can't help it. The necklace that my mother gave me for my twelfth birthday is still around my neck. I unclasp it and put in into the box before stowing it away again. The heat in my room becomes intolerable and I decide to go downstairs; when I open the door I hear the phone ring. It's Alice. "Hey, what are you doing right now?" she asks. I'm standing in the kitchen twisting the phone cord around my hand. "Not much." "Well, can you come over? Edward, Emmett and Jasper are watching a game and I'm so bored. Maybe we can watch a movie or something up in my room?"

It's a school night but there's no homeworkwe only have two weeks left of classes and the teachers have been pretty lenient. Since Renee's not home to object, I immediately agree. I don't even care if she's mad at me. I need to get out of this house. "Awesome!" she says. "I'll meet you at the oak." There's a tree halfway in-between our houses where we always meet, and Alice is leaning against it when I arrive. Her arms are crossed and she's frowning a little. "What's wrong?" "Ugh! It's just...Edward and his stupid friends have taken over the whole downstairs to watch the Cubs game when they can just go down to Edward's room...and that Jasper Whitlock is so annoying. They just bother me! And Esme's got them all this snack food, and they just eat like pigs. Gross!" Alice is huffing away. Jasper calls her "short stuff," and the name drives her crazy. "You're so lucky you don't have a brother, Bella. And God, Emmett eats like a freaking horse." I shrug, not saying what I'm thinking, that all that doesn't sound too bad to me. In fact, it sounds fun. "Who're they playing?" I ask. "What?" "The Cubs...who're they playing?" Alice looks at me as if I've grown three heads. "I have no idea, Bella. Oh God, you're not gonna go ditch me and hang out with Edward and his band of idiots, are you?" "No," I insist. I'm still sore that Edward missed our chat today without even telling me why. "I'm just curious." When we enter the house, we immediately hear hollers from the TV room. The air conditioning is a relief. I kick off my sandals just as Esme comes to greet us.

"Bella! So good to see you, sweetie. How's you're week going? Getting ready for the summer?" "Definitely." Another roar erupts from the room down the hall. Esme turns her head, shaking it and laughing. "The boys are excited tonight. I guess it's a big game." I nod, trying not to appear too interested. "Yeah, well Bella and I will be upstairs," Alice says, tugging at my arm impatiently. "Are you girls hungry?" Esme asks. "I have some chips and dip, and there's some pizza, Bella, if you want a snack." At the mention of food my stomach gurgles, answering for me. "That sounds good," I reply shyly. "Well, come on in the kitchen and fix yourself a plate then," Esme encourages. I ignore Alice's sigh of exasperation and follow her mother down the hall towards the kitchen and the TV room. There're two large pizzas on the center island . . . mushroom and pepperoni. I take a slice of the mushroom and a handful of potato chips and Alice wrinkles her nose. She's decided she doesn't like cheese, which to me is crazy. Cheese is the best thing in the world. Instead, she grabs a bag of carrot sticks from the fridge along with a bottle of ranch dressing. "Are you sure that's all you want?" Esme smiles and I nod. "Well, okay then. I'll be upstairs." Esme is an interior designer and she works from home. Sometimes Alice and I help her make selections from the large sample books of materials and colors. Well, at least we pretend to help. I'm not sure she actually uses our suggestions, but it's fun to pretend all the same. "Okay." Edward saunters into the kitchen, still dressed in his grass-stained uniform. His hair flops down over his eyes and he rakes his hand through it when he sees me standing there, his mouth dropping open just a little. Suddenly I'm not hungry anymore. "Bella, I didn't know you were coming over . . ."

"Yeah. Well, Alice invited me," I reply, irritated that he seems so startled and embarrassed. Where were you today Edward? "Oh. Cool." "Yeah. We're gonna watch Clueless," Alice confirms, dragging me along. This is news to me. "Well, see ya." I turn to go, but before we can make our escape, Emmett comes barreling into the kitchen. "Holy shit, Edward. Duncan's on fire with the fastballs. You have to get in here, man." Edward nods, still staring at Alice and me. "Little Bee!" Emmett exclaims. "Where are you running off to?" Emmett is maybe the tallest, widest person I've ever seen up close and personal, but he's really sweet. Though he appears built more for football than baseball, he's an amazing hitter. His nickname for me doesn't bother me the way that Jasper's bothers Alice. I kinda like it . . . he's like a big brother. Emmett takes a piece of pepperoni, folding it in half and consuming nearly a third of the slice in a giant bite. "Gross," Alice whispers so that only I can hear. "We're going to watch a movie." "Awww, but it's the Cubs! Come watch with us." My eyes dart between Edward and Emmett and Edward suddenly looks very uncomfortable. I decide I like this and turn to Alice. "Just for a minute, Ali." There's an angry groan from the other room and the sound of something heavy being thrown. "Ugh! That's what you always say!" I take my plate and follow Emmett into the TV room, Alice and Edward close behind. Jasper is lounging on the sofa sipping a Coke, and he nods to us when we come in, his eyes focused on the screen. He's a lot quieter than the rest, but I really like him. "What's the score?" Edward asks.

Jasper sighs. "2-3 Reds." "Damn," says Emmett. "It's only the fifth. We still have time." I take a seat on the floor next to Alice, placing my plate in front of me. My appetite is completely gone now, so I just pick at the mushrooms on my pizza. Everyone is chatting except for me and Edwardwhy is he so quiet? I try to focus on the TV. Even though I don't know a lot about baseball, I enjoy watching. The Cubs are Edward's favorite team, and he's told me they've been on a losing streak, so the atmosphere in the room is tense as the game progresses. But the score settles in their favor during the sixth inning, and things lighten up. During a commercial break Jasper leaves for the bathroom, messing with Alice's hair as he passes by. She squeals angrily and bats his hand away. Emmett takes a huge swig of his soda and belches loudly. "You know, it's a miracle you guys can find anyone to go out with," Alice remarks. "Do you have a date for the prom yet, Emmett?" He grins and takes another bite of pizza. "Sure do, short stuff. The ladies can't get enough of the E-man." The E-man? I stifle a laugh. Alice shakes her head. "Yep, I'm doubling here with my man Edward and his lady." Suddenly my body runs cold and I turn to Edward. His face is red and he's focused on the TV, taking a measured sip of his soda. He won't meet my eyes. "What?" Alice shouts, "This is news to me! What the heck, Edward! You're only a sophomore." The prom was only for juniors and seniors, so that means only one thing . . . an older girl has asked him. And he's said yes. "Who's the girl?" Alice asks excitedly. I want to sink into the ground.

Emmett answers for Edward again. "Tanya Denali . . . and man, is she hot. Your brother is a lucky man," Emmett says, hitting Edward's arm playfully. Edward just sits there, saying nothing. But I know exactly who he's talking about. Tall. Strawberry blonde hair. Tanya's a junior, and she's the subject of a lot of ogling whenever the males in G&T catch a glimpse. I need to go. I feel sick. And I don't care if it's obvious. I need out of that room. Because suddenly I feel completely lost, like there's no place I belong now. I stand up on unsteady legs, leaving my plate behind. "I'm . . . supposed to be home by eight," I stammer. "I gotta get going." "But I thought we were gonna watch the movie! Bella, you promised!" Alice's whines just make me more embarrassed. I shake my head and start heading out the door just as Jasper returns. "Where're you off to, Little Bee?" he asks. "Bella," Edward's voice startles me, but I don't look back. That night, for the first night in a long time, there's a pinging sound at my window. And for the first time ever, I don't answer. ~QF~ The next week passes by in a slow blur. My mother is getting really bad, and I have no one. It's only now I realize how much I've come to depend on Edward. I feel betrayed, like I've lost my best friend. Renee talks to herself in her room at night, and it really scares me. But I don't tell anyone. On Tuesday in G&T I don't bother looking at the door. In fact, I intentionally keep my head down, not even glancing up at the clock. At around 10:30, there's a knock on and Mrs. Johnson answers it. She goes into the hallway and shuts the door, and when she returns she walks to my desk. "Bella, you're wanted in the front office, sweetie. Bring your things."

My stomach drops as I think about what this means . . . Renee. Something's happened to Renee. Angela gives me a worried glance as I gather my belongings and walk to the door. I try to hurry, but I can't. My body feels stiff with dread, my legs are leaden. The door is open to Edward's chemistry class as I pass by, and my head turns against my will. He's bent over his desk and I pause just a beat too long because he lifts his eyes, probably feeling my gaze. I blush since he's caught me staring, looking away quickly and continuing on my way. There's something warm and wet on my face and I wipe it away, surprised that I'm crying. When I get to the front office two women greet me with concerned looks on their faces. "Bella Swan?" One of them asks. I nod. "I'm Mrs. Cope, the guidance counselor here," says the other, a short round woman with cury grey hair. "Would you please come with me?" I follow her down a short hall to what is, presumably, her office, sitting down on a bright green couch across from her desk. "Bella," she says softly. "Your mother has been taken to the Elgin Medical Center. It seems there was an incident today at the grocery store, and they had to alert the police." "Oh." The material is scratchy on my bare legs and my eyes drift around the dull yellow office. 'An incident,' such a vague phrase to describe what probably happened. One of our spelling words last month was "euphemism;" that's what it is. "Your mother has bipolar disorder? Is that correct?" She's looking at a folder on her desk and shuffling papers when she asks the question. I don't answer. She asks me more questions about Renee, my life at home, school, and I give her short answers, sometimes none at all. She murmurs things and writes them down, but all I can think about is when I can get out of here and where I'll go when I do. I keep expecting someone from child services to appear and take me away.

After a while the phone buzzes and Mrs. Cope answers it. She nods and stands to open the door, and as soon as she does Esme appears, looking worried. She hugs me and it feels so nice; I feel safe again, spared from answering any more unwelcome questions. "Bella," she says. "Would you like to come and stay with us for a little while, until your mom is better?" "Yes," I whisper faintly. I'm so relieved no one is coming to take me. Just then I notice that Edward's there too, standing behind Esme. His jaw is clenched and he looks . . . mad . . . sad . . . I can't tell. But his face is intense and I have to look away. "Well, then, let's go, shall we?" Edward comes back with us even though it's only half way through the school day. He sits in the back seat with me and I don't resist when he takes my hand. I don't want to think about Tanya, or the prom, or my mom, or the future. I just want to think about the warmth of his hand holding mine. If Esme notices she doesn't say anything. "I'm so sorry," he says softly. I don't know what he's sorry about, so I don't say anything. I'm still mad at him, but I need him, too. "I know it probably doesn't matter right now, but I still wanted to tell you . . . I'm not going." "What?" My voice sounds funny, hoarse. He's not going to the prom? That's what he means, right? He shakes his head, then pulls me over as far as the seatbelt will allow. I lean against his shoulder. "Why?" "Later," he says, and I know it's because of Esme in the car. A strange mix of feelings overwhelms meit is possible that I could be happy at a time like this? When my mom is in the hospital? We don't talk for the rest of the ride, but he never lets go.

That evening, after I go home and pack my bag, Carlisle asks if I want to call the hospital to talk with Renee. I do, but not tonight. Tonight, I just need to sleep. He nods in understanding and Alice and I go to her room, just like we're having a normal sleepover. We chat for a while and I can tell she's trying to take my mind off of things, and I'm glad. I fall asleep to the sound of her voice. ~QF~ After school the next day Alice has a doctor's appointment, so I find myself home alone when Edward arrives after practice. I'm reading a book when he comes into the living room, sweaty and flushed. "Hi," he says. "Hey." "I'm glad you're here; I'm gonna go take a shower . . . wait for me?" Before I can reply he's out the door again and I'm sitting nervously. And reading the same line over and over again before I shut the book in frustration. Ever since yesterday's car ride, I've wondered about Edward's words. He comes back ten minutes later, freshly showered and wearing jeans and a tee shirt. His chest looks broaderprobably from all the workouts he has to do for baseball. He sits down next to me on the couch. He smells nice. "Are you okay?" I shrug; I might as well be honest. "Not really." "Why didn't you tell me how bad your mom was getting?" "God, Edward. It's embarrassing. I don't know . . ." "You really don't have to be embarrassed. You know you can tell me anything." That's easy for him to say. "It hasn't felt like it." "What?" "Lately, it's like I don't know you anymore. Our lives are just different . . . it's like we're not friends.

He lowers his gaze and I can see how long his eyelashes are because we're sitting so close. There's a funny feeling in my stomach. "I know . . . I'm sorry." "You have the team now, and Emmett and Jasper, and all those other friends. And I . . . I'm just the same." "You're my best friend," he says softly. I can't believe it. "Well, you didn't come last week, to our room," I accuse. "Why?" His knee is bouncing around, shaking the couch. It's a nervous habit he's always had. "Because . . . I felt weird. About the prom. . . that was the day Tanya asked me." "And you said yes." He shakes his head. "Yeah." "Do you like her?" "I thought I did." My breath catches and I move back, away from him. "She asked me in front of everyone, and I just said yes. I didn't even think about it. But then, later, I realized I made a mistake." "When did you realize it?" "I saw the look on your face when Emmett said that stuff." So he felt sorry for me . . . that's what this is about. I really, really don't want Edward's pity . . . not now. "Don't call off your date because you feel bad for me. Really. You should go." "You're not hearing what I'm saying, Bella. I don't want to go. When you left so fast, I just new I'd been an idiot." I blush deeply and turn away, remembering my hasty departure. Talk about being an idiot.

"I'm not going. I told her the next day. I tried to tell you that night I snuck out. I threw enough damn rocks at your window. Didn't you hear me?" "Yeah," I admit. "But you didn't come down. And yesterday when I went by G&T you didn't look up." "I didn't feel like talking." "I figured," he gives a forced laugh, but then he's quiet again. "I hated it." Before I can even stop them the words are out of my mouth. "Me too." I'm still not able to look at him. "Nothing is worse than not talking to you," he says gruffly. He brushes the hair away from my shoulder and lets his hand linger at the back of my neck. Suddenly I'm too warm, very aware of his body next to mine. His next words are near my ear and his breath tickles. "Bella?" "Yeah?" "Do you like me?" "Of course I do, dummy. You're my friend." I'm unwilling to admit it but my heart is hammering. "I know. But do you LIKE me, like me?" I don't answer. "You do, don't you?" He's a little cocky, and I don't say anything. "I like you," he says. "But you don't LIKE me, like me." "I do." "You do?" His hand is running over my back. He nods quickly and his green eyes are so close to mine . . . they're mesmerizing.

"Have you ever been kissed, Bella?" I am shaking my head, blushing. He makes me nervous now in a way he never has before. He's only 15soon to be 16but he seems like so much more of a man to me, the two-year age gap between us expansive. I bite my lip and realize I'm still shaking my head. He chuckles. "Would you like to be?" I almost gasp. Is Edward asking me . . . if he can kiss me? My throat is dry as I nod, the word struggling to make its way from my brain to my mouth. Yes. YES. And when his lips meet mine it's nothing like how I thought it would be. His mouth is soft and gentle; he brings his hand to my face and cups my cheek softly. It is brief but when he pulls away I am left with a strange sensation, a longing that I've never felt before. Almost without volition, I touch my finger to his lips. Mine tingle. "I wanted to be your first," he says, smiling as he kisses the tip of my finger. "Me too." The words finally come and I know they're true. My heart is thudding and I want to lean in and kiss him again, to actually participate this time. Part of me doesn't believe this is happening. "You did?" "Um...yeah." "I've wanted to kiss you for a long time." "Why didn't you?" Edward laughs nervously and runs his hand through his hair, sitting back. "I didn't think it was a good idea." "What's that supposed to mean?" "You're so young, Bella," he says wistfully. "You're not that much older than me," I remind him, a little defensive. "Well, not if we were older. But now. People might think it was weird." I'm instantly hurt and I turn away from him. "Do you think it's weird?"

"No. But other people might." "Like who?" "Well, my parents probably would, and my friends. Definitely Alice." "Ahh." I'm not happy about it, but he's probably right. I imagine Alice's eyes popping right out of her head if she was ever to find out Edward and I kissed. "But you'll be in high school next year and it won't matter anymore," he says emphatically. "Until then, let's just keep it a secret." I don't even know what I'm agreeing to . . . keep what a secret? The fact that he kissed me? That he likes me? "Keep what a secret?" "The fact that you're my girlfriend," he says, grinning widely. My poor heart can't take anymore. It lurches in my chest, but I decide to tease him. "I am, now, am I?" "Well, you said you LIKED me, liked me." "No, I didn't." As right as he was, he'd been the one to say those words. "Well, you said you wanted to kiss me. It's the same thing." "I don't recall anyone asking me to be their girlfriend." "I said I liked you and I wanted to kiss you, and that's the same thing."' "Is it?" Now our faces are close together again and Edward licks his lips. I want to kiss him but I'm not sure how, if I'll do it right. Edward makes the decision for me and tilts his head, pressing his mouth against mine, and that same unfamiliar tingling feeling erupts inside me, but this time I move my lips against his and I wrap my arms around him, almost unconsciously. Our noses miraculously disappear, and I find myself wondering why this feels so natural and just . . . good. Edward kisses me back and his lips are so soft. After a few seconds he gently pushes back on my shoulders. I look up worriedly, fearful I've done something wrong.

"Umm . . . whoa, Bella." His eyes look strange and his face is a little flushed. "I'm sorry," I say, dropping my arms. He's breathing heavily and he shifts around on the couch like he's uncomfortable. "Are you sure you've never kissed anyone before?" "Yeah. I think I'd remember," I say sarcastically. I turn away and hug my knees to my chest. "Don't be like that," he says, hugging me. "That was . . . really nice. But I just think we should . . . take it slow. You know." He's embarrassed and I don't really know why. "Right. Okay." He's right. I have no idea what I'm doing or what these new feelings mean . . . all I know is that it feels good to be near him like this, and it also feels confusing. "But you'll be my girlfriend." That label seems wrong to me. Edward and I have always been friends. But now that there's something more I don't want anything to change between us. I mean, I like kissing him, but I need his friendship. I can't live without it. A lot of girls at school have boyfriends, and they talk about all sorts of silly things. It's all so shallow. It seems like a competition. What I have with Edward is much different than that, so much more. "I'm afraid," I admit. "Of what?" "I don't want to stop being friends." "We'll never not be friends," he says. "What if something bad happens?" "What do you mean?" "I don't know . . . you like someone else or something . . . or we break up . . . and then we're not friends anymore." The thought brings tears to my eyes. I imagine my life without Edward in it . . . how for years he's been my support. He's the only one I can really talk to, the only one I don't feel

judged by, the only one I can trust. If I lost that, I don't know how I'd survive. "Bella," he says, pulling me into a hug. "I'll always be your friend, no matter what happens." "Promise?" "Promise. But you have to promise too." "I promise." We sit there for a while like that and I feel myself drifting off. I haven't had a good night's sleep in a few days. "Bella," Edward says, and I feel him kiss the top of my head. "You don't have to be, if you don't want to. My girlfriend, I mean." He's so cute when he sounds unsure . . . a little sad. I hug him tighter. "I want to." "The rest is silence." William Shakespeare Chapter 5: October, 2001 "Are you sure? You're sure you don't mind me reading this?" We're sitting on Edward's bed after school and he's just handed me a bright blue notebook filled with his latest story. There's a stack of them under his bed, but he's picked this one to share. I wonder what it's about since he won't even give me a hint. He's a little hesitant as he runs his hands through his hair, eyeing the book in my hand. "Um . . . No. I want you to. But I want you to be honest. I mean, if it's really bad, you have to tell me, okay?" Now his knee is bouncing, shaking the bed. I want to reach out to still it but he's too far away. "I'm sure it's not bad." To be honest, I have no idea what Edward's writing will be like; he's never shown me, or anyone else, before. And I know that Alice will be annoyed that he's chosen me to read it if she finds out, so I hastily stow it in my book bag. That way, he can't take it back either. "But if it is . . ."

"If it is, I'll tell you. I'll tell you and make sure you never write again," I tease. "You will, will you?" Now he's smiling. "And how may I ask, will you do that?" "I have my ways." I edge a little closer to him and lean against the wall, sticking my legs out. My black skirt is a little on the short side and it rides up my thighs. Alice was the one who made me wear it; I was a little uncomfortable at first, but seeing Edward's reaction on our walk to school this morning changed my mind. He's been staring all day. "Well, I just might not let you read it then." "You already gave it to me, and it's already in my bag," I say, inching closer still and pretending not to notice he's looking again. "I'll take it back." "You can't. My bag's private property." "You're in my room." "Guess I'll have to go then." "What if I don't want you to go?" Now he's moved closer so we're sitting right next to each other. I turn my head and his eyes are serious. I can't even remember what we were talking about. "Umm . . ." His hand is on my face and I know he's about to kiss me. Even after months and months my heart still goes crazy whenever it happens, which isn't anywhere near enough. Since we've decided to keep our "status" under-wraps, the only one who knows is Alice, and she only found out by accident. The main reason is we don't want our parents to know, but I can't say that it doesn't make me a little uncomfortable at school since Edward's such a hot commodity. But when he looks at me like he's doing right now, I'm not worried about any of that. His lips are soft and delicious and his breath smells like peppermint because of his green tic-tac addiction. I sigh and lean into him and we're like that for a few minutes before he pulls away with a groan, moving back to lay with his head on his pillow. His eyes are dark and his chest rises and falls rapidly. I curl up beside him and put my head on his shoulder and my skirt rides up a little more. Up to this point all we've done is kiss. I wouldn't mind going a

little bit further, but Edward always stops us from going too far. It's nice how safe that makes me feel, even though it's a little frustrating at times. He's always saying there's no rush, that we have plenty of time. And I know he's right. "You really should wear skirts more often," he says quietly. His voice sounds the way dark rich chocolate tastes. "Or on second thought, don't." "Why?" I ask innocently. In the past few months I've learned more about his reaction to our kisses, and I have a feeling it's difficult for him to pull away, but he never says anything about it. "Because it just might kill me," he laughs, nuzzling into my hair. "Well, I need you to live." "Just don't do it everyday then . . . or I won't." I laugh but I know there's a little bit of truth to his words, and I know that I've been trying to goad him. I pull my skirt down just a little. "Better?" I ask. "Not really," he mutters. I love our after-school routine this fall; I come over to the Cullen's most days now to "study," which we do . . . a little. A lot of the time I stay over for dinner before heading home. I like to spend the least amount of time there that I possibly can. Even though Renee's been out of the hospital for almost four months, things are still strained between us. It's like I can no longer separate my feelings from my mother from the feelings I have about her illness and sometimes it scares me. I find myself wondering if I love her anymore, because most of the time, I'm angry with her, especially since she's been back. I'll never forget or forgive her for ripping up those pictures of Charlie. Am I a bad daughter? A bad person? Edward hugs me closer and I kiss him again, and for a minute I forget about the other fears that have been worrying me, but they're not gone for long. For the past few weeks, I've noticed that she's starting to act a little strange again. Nothing major, but just little things. I found a perfectly good carton of milk and a loaf of bread in the trash the other day. And then, the scariest thing: an empty bottle of pills. When I asked her about it she said she'd finished them, but from the label on the bottle she wasn't due a refill for

another two weeks. She hasn't done or said anything too weird yet . . . but there's a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that won't go away. I know Renee hates the pills because they make her a little slow, and they make her gain weight . . . she's said before that she doesn't feel like herself when she's taking the medicine. That's why she stopped before . . . I haven't said anything to Edward and I know he'll probably be mad at me. But I know the next time that Renee is hospitalized child services is going to take me away . . . I just know it. And for once I just want to be a normal girl with a normal mother, happy with my boyfriend. I want it so badly. "What're you thinking about?" Edward asks, tracing his finger over my tense forehead. I try to relax. "Nothing." "Liar." "I'm not lying..." He gives me a look. "Fine. I was thinking about your hair." "What's wrong with it?" I reach out and tousle the soft strands and scratch his head. He closes his eyes contentedly. "Absolutely nothing." Edward kisses me again and this time his mouth opens and so does mine, my hands still in his hair. Sometimes I think about how funny it is for our tongues to be touching each other and I laugh. Once I even laughed while Edward was kissing me, which he didn't think was all that amusing. But it's really not funny . . . it's amazing. I never feel like Edward's biting my head off like they do in some movies I've seen, and it's wet but not too wet. He's a good kisser, and he says I am too. Who knew! "Five second warning!" Alice shouts from the top of the stairs and we instantly separate, flinging ourselves to opposite ends of the bed. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and Edward groans again, muttering something under his breath. A few seconds later Alice appears, her face scrunched up in mock-disgust. This is exactly how she found out about Edward and me over the summer. Still, my actions must give me away.

"God, were you guys making out again? Get a room!" "Ummm . . . have one, and you're in it. Thanks," Edward states the obvious. "What are you doing home anyway? Don't you have practice?" Alice is on the gymnastics team this year and she's busy most days after school, so Edward and I have gotten used to having the place to ourselves. Esme's often out meeting clients and Carlisle usually doesn't get home till at least six. "Coach sent us home early today. Sorry. Am I bothering you?" Alice pouts and falls backwards into Edward's black beanbag chair. "Kinda," Edward replies. I hit him. "No, obviously not Ali. I'm glad you're home early." Since we've started attending different schools again, Alice and I have seen less and less of each other, so I'm not lying. Alice leans her tiny black head against the top of the chair and closes her eyes, sighing loudly. "What's wrong with you?" I ask, clambering off the bed and over to her. She sighs again, dramatically placing the back of her hand on forehead. "I'm fine. Just tired." "Yeah, well maybe you should go take a nap," Edward quips. "Oh shut up, Edward. Bella was my friend first." "Maybe by about five minutes." "Please, there's enough of me to go around," I joke. Edward smirks and raises his eyebrow. "I don't think so." "You guys are too much," Alice complains, leaning back again and yawning. There are circles under her eyes. "We were just about to play Resident Evil when you came down, Alice. Bella's getting pretty awesome at zombie killing." "God, Bella," Alice says, turning to me, "how do you put up with this crap?" The game in question is Edward's latest acquisition and he's pretty much played it nonstop for a week.

"Oh, it's not so bad," I reply, even though it's my least favorite game. I'm actually terrible at it, and to be honest it freaks me out, especially when Edward turns the lights off "for added effect." All those zombies, all that blood . . . it's just a little too gross. Maybe a lot too gross. "Well, my science teacher told us that video games cause seizures, Edward." It's the age-old Alice and Edward argument. Edward laughs at her. "Ali, that's only for the ones that have flashing lights, and anyway, everyone knows Mr. Roberts has no idea what he's talking about. The man's senile." "I hope you're right," she says, frowning. "But don't say I didn't warn you." ~QF~ Esme insists I stay for dinner, which I do gladly. When I head back home later that evening, my stomach drops when I see Renee's car. All of the worries I had earlier, things I'd so easily pushed aside when I was with Edward and the Cullens, come rushing back. What if she's bad again? When I enter the house something immediately feels off. I can't put my finger on it, but it's like I can sense it. "Mom?" I call softly. No answer. "Mom?" I say, a little more loudly. The curtains are all drawn in the living room and all of the lights are off, so it's pitch black. I turn on the hall light. She's not in the kitchen either. It's so quiet, it's scaring me. Suddenly my mind conjures visions of Edward's stupid video game and I imagine zombies lurking in corners. creeping behind me. Even though I know it's stupid, I turn around quickly. Of course there's nothing there. Renee's door is shut and I debate whether or not I should see if she's okay. I don't hear anything coming from her room, and the coward in me decides to let it be. Instead, I go into my room, turning the light on and switching on the radio. The comforting sounds of classic rock fill the air as I unpack my schoolbag. Recently, I've been getting into The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. Edward calls me a hippie and tells me I should have lived 30 years ago, but then I tell him that grunge is dead. He insists Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins are the best bands that have ever walked this earth, with Pearl Jam close behind. I like that music too, but I like teasing him more.

I take out my American History homework and consider the essay topic that's due next Friday. It's about September 11th and what we think it means to America. Some of the parents are upset about it, but the school is standing by Mr. Edison's decision to assign it. It seems like in the last month the whole world is going crazy. People are so afraid. I don't really understand the whole thing, but I know that things will never be the same again. People from the Middle East attacked America because they don't like what we stand for; I can't help but wonder what we've done to them to make them do something so horrible back to us. Coming only two days afterward September eleventh, my fourteenth birthday wasn't exactly a cause for celebration. Only Edward of course made a big deal about it. I made him promise not to buy me anything, and he didn't . . . but he did give me his baseball jersey, washed, unfortunately. That doesn't stop me from wearing it to bed and feeling close to him. "Love, Love me do! You know I love you! I'll always be true!..." Soon the music makes me feel calmer. I lounge on the floor, swinging my foot in the air to the music as I begin my essay. I don't know how to start. Usually writing comes easy to me, but I'm afraid that if I ask the questions I want to ask that I'll get a bad mark. Ninth grade work is not much different from the assignments we had in G&T, but I've been told I'm far too opinionated for my own good. But I can't help it; if I feel strongly about something, I get passionate. Thinking about writing makes me remember Edward's story. I can't believe I forgot it! Casting my essay aside, I grab my bag and pull out the blue notebook. It's well-worn, so I know he worked on it for a long time. Opening the cover, I smile at Edward's crinkly writing . . . why is he so worried about people finding his stories and reading them? If I wasn't so used to his horrible handwriting, I'd never be able to decipher it. There's something so cute about the fact that he writes in notebooks and not on his parent's computer. It's about privacy, but he also says his thoughts come easier when he's writing by hand. We don't even have a computer, so I don't know what the difference is, but I like having the notebook in my hands. When I read the first line, I'm completely surprised. "On the day I died, I left home earlier than usual . . ."

Edward's story is serious and sad . . . it's so well-written. I don't know what I was expecting it to be about, but it's not this. The plot is centers on a doctor who dies in an accident while coming home early from work one day for his daughter's birthday party. His whole life is about helping other people, but he's always working. Finally, he's realized it. He's coming home to surprise her, and there's a collision on the commuter rail. All of it is told from the point of view of the doctor, who is now a ghost. It's not too long, maybe 30 pages, but you can feel what the doctor is feeling...you can see his life flashing before his eyes in that last moment before the crash. It's not overly emotional, but is at the same time so sad that I'm crying by the time I'm finished. I wipe the tears away, not wanting to smudge the ink if they fall on the page. In some ways, I know this story is about Carlisle, but it's so much more. I don't know much about creative writing, but I've read a lot of books. This is definitely remarkable for a sixteen year old. There are some problems; for one, he's writing about an experience he's never had, and so some of the details, like the doctor's work in the ER, seem a little forced, but the talent is there. Reading his story, this thing that's so important to him, that he's trusted me with, I feel so privileged, like I'm seeing a side of Edward no one else has seen. There's so much in my heart for him . . . love. There's this feeling that can't be anything else. It's swelling and making me lightheaded and as I hold the notebook to my chest, it's like I'm hugging Edward. He'll probably want the notebook back, but I decide I'm going to keep it for at least a little while. So I reach under my bed to feel for my box of treasures, surprised when my hand meets empty air. Thinking maybe I pushed it a little too far under the bed, I reach again, further this time, trying to make out the shape of the box in the darkness. My eyes adjust and I realize my reach is futile. Aside from a few rolled up socks and some dust, there's nothing there. Renee. It has to be. My blood runs cold, thinking about what this means. If she's found the box she's also found notes from Edward, my William Blake poems, the picture of Charlie. Slowly, I rise from my crouching position and stand, unsure of what to do. My rational mind tells me to go and confront her, knowing there's nothing wrong with the things in that box, but I'm afraid I'll find out something even worse...that she's destroyed my things the way she destroyed hers.

This thought churns until I'm full of hot anger. Without another thought I march to her room. "Renee," I say at the door. No answer. "Renee?" I knock heavily; it's only past nine, so there's no way she's asleep yet. "Bella?" Her voice filters faintly through the door paneling. I turn the handle. Renee is huddled under blankets with the bedside light on. The room is thick with smoke and I realize she's probably been chain-smoking. It makes me cough. "Bella? I didn't hear you come home." I come closer and she looks so small. She sounds sad and lost, like a little girl. "I came home about an hour ago." She doesn't respond. I realize I'm still holding Edward's notebook. It makes me feel stronger. "Renee. Mom. There was a box under my bed and it's gone now. Did you take it?" Her face is turned to the side, resting on the pillow. She doesn't lift her head when she answers. "Hmmm?" "A box. With things in it. Special things. A book . . . some notes. The necklace you gave me. You didn't take it?" Her head lifts a bit and her eyes latch onto me. "A box?" Now I'm getting angry. "Yeah. A box. I asked you if you took it. It's not there, and it's always there. And I want it back if you did. You have to tell me." "I didn't take anything from your room. I swear it."

"Well who did, then? Who would take something like that? Why?" "Bella . . ." Now she's sitting up, her voice more of a whisper. "I think someone's been coming in the house at night. Or maybe when you're away at school . . ." "Wha-" "Shhhhhhhh!" she hisses, cutting me off. She gestures for me to come over to sit, but I don't. Angry tears fall hotly from my eyes. I'm so mad because I don't want to be crying over this, and anyway my mother doesn't seem to notice. She's paranoid again . . . this is proof. She's not been taking her pills. And I know she has my shoebox, but the sad thing is she probably thinks she's telling the truth. She probably doesn't even remember taking it. It's useless to argue with her, so I'll just have to sneak into her room when she's not home and hope I'm not too late. But I want my things now. The picture of Charlie is the only one that's left. I'll die if I don't find it. "There's no one listening to us, Renee," I say in a shaky voice. She draws the blanket up around her body and her eyes are darting around the room. She looks far gone, worse than I've ever seen her. "Things are missing from my room, too," she says sadly. I don't know what to say to that so I just stay quiet, examining the room to see if I might locate the missing items. There's a lot of stuff everywhere, but none of it is mine. "I think we're going to have to get new locks," she whispers. "Whatever," I reply dismissively, barely containing the rage that's bubbling up. I can't seem to stop it. "Bella, don't talk to me like that. I'm your mother." I can't take this anymore. I can't stop what I say next. "Oh yeah? Well some mother you are! You're sick! You need to take your medicine and you're not doing it!" I'm screaming. It feels good and terrible at the same time. "Do you want to go back to the hospital and have them take me away? Is that what you want!"

I've never yelled at her like this but the words keep coming. She's staring at me in shock, not saying anything, but I just go on, crying and screaming and unable to catch my breath. "I'm so SICK of this. I wish you weren't my mother . . . I wish I was never born. I HATE you. I wish you didn't exist!" I want to run from the room and slam my door shut and never come out again. I'm out of control. "Bella . . ." her face is white as she looks at me, reaching out her arms. "Baby girl, I love you. I just want to protect you." I'm shaking. My legs feel weak. "The only one I need protection from is you." As soon as the words leave my mouth I want to take them back, but I don't. Renee crumples before me and I should go to her, hug her, but I can't. I feel empty and horrible and sick, and I can't be in this room anymore with her like this. I want Edward, so badly. I clutch his story to my chest and run from the room, trying to block out the sound of Renee's voice behind me as she calls me to come back. ~QF~ The next morning I'm up at seven thirty after only an hour or two of sleep; I'm exhausted, and I feel terrible for what happened the night before. Renee can't help herself; it's her illness talking. I'm so confused and conflicted about what to do now. She's not home when I go for my morning shower; her car is gone from the driveway. I peek into her room, wanting to look for my shoebox but realizing if I do it now I'll be late for school. Edward waits for me outside at eight. I'm like a zombie getting ready, and by the time that I am, I'm late. Edward's outside already, and I drag my feet, sure he'll say something about the dark circles under my eyes that I've tried to cover up with concealer. I haven't decided if I should tell him about Renee yet. When I come out he looks up and waves. I half-heartedly wave back, barely able to appreciate how cute he looks wearing my favorite green army jacket and a pair of grey cargo pants. His hair is messy and flops on his forehead as he approaches me, reaching out to take my bag, which I gladly give him. It's heavy and I don't think I'll make it the whole mile and a half to school.

"Hey," he says, giving me a kiss on the cheek, his stubbly chin grazing my jaw. I smile at the feel of his warm lips, and I kiss him back. My heart swells again, and I feel almost normal . . . almost. "Hey. Were you waiting long?" "Nah, just a minute or so. I was running a little late myself." "Good." We start walking and I don't know what to say. I feel heavy both from my tiredness and from the turn my life has taken, again. But then I remember his story. "Edward, I read it." He knows exactly what I'm talking about and he grunts, waiting for me to go on. I'm trying to find the words to say what I'm feeling. When I don't say anything for a while he gets impatient. "That bad, huh?" "Bad?" I stop for a minute, grabbing his hand out from his pocket. "No. I'm sorry, I was just trying to think of how to describe it. It was amazing." His face lights up and he looks beautiful. "Really?" "Really. I love it. You're an awesome writer, honestly. It was so real . . . and it was so sad, but in a good way. Like I felt I really learned something." "You did?" His answers are full of disbelief. "Yes, stupid. I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it." "But you're my girlfriend. You have to say that." "No, I don't. If I didn't like it I'd tell you. Remember? You made me promise." This finally seems to convince him. "You really liked it." "YES!" I say, dropping his hand and hitting him. He grabs his arm in mockhurt. "I'd like to read some more, if you want me to."

"Umm...okay." He's smiling again as we start to walk and suddenly the world feels lighter. The air is clear, the sky is so blue with only a hint of clouds. Then Edward takes my hand. "So," he says, "There's this thing . . ." "A 'thing?" "The harvest dance at the end of the month. I was wondering, well, maybe if you wanted to go?" This catches me off guard. "A dance? But I thought you didn't want anyone to know about us." "Bella, I'm not ashamed of you. I've been thinking about it and I want to go . . . for people to know that you're with me. If you want that. And who knows?" he rambles on nervously, "It might be fun. Jas and Em are going, and I think there's a party afterwards that maybe we could go to . . ." I consider what he's proposing and what it will mean for my life at the high school. It will certainly give the popular girls more reason to hate me, especially the older ones. But it will also keep their claws off of Edward. But then I think of a dress . . . shoes. There's no way we can afford that stuff, and I don't have anything appropriate to wear. And now, with Renee getting bad again, I'm not sure she's even going to be working anymore. All of my earlier anxiety comes flooding back, and I bite my lip so hard it hurts. "What's wrong?" Edward is concerned. We stop on the sidewalk just about a block from school, and he pulls me to the side to allow a jogger to pass, dropping my hand and lifting my face. Visions of Renee, crumpled up in her bed . . . the awful things I said come flooding back. "Hey," he says, giving me a kiss. "We don't have to go if you don't want. Honestly, I don't care." "It's not that. I really want to go," I affirm. "It's just . . ." I don't know if I should tell him, but I want to. "Bella, you're scaring me. What is it?" His eyes are probing my face and they're so intense I can't look away. "It's Renee, isn't it?" He knows me so well it's kind of funny. I nod slightly, dropping my gaze.

"We have to tell someone," he says firmly. "Fuck school. Come on. We're going home to talk to my mom." "NO! No. Edward. Please. Not yet." "This can't go on. We need to do something about it, now." "But they'll take me away, put me in foster care or something. I just know it! Please." "I'd never let that happen," he says, wrapping his arms around me. "You wouldn't have a choice. Please. Let me try to reason with her, and I promise, I promise, I'll tell someone. Just give me a couple of days. Please." I hate the thought of the police coming to take my mother away again; it's so traumatic for her, and for me. He sighs and I can feel his frustration. "A couple of days?" "Just a couple of days. Please." I need to think of what to do. I shouldn't have told him. My worst fear is being put in some horrible foster home far away. I can't let that happen. "My parents will let you live with us," he says, his voice rough with emotion. "You know that." "But she's my mother, Edward. I have to at least try. You should have heard the things I said to her last night. And this morning, she was gone, and I couldn't take them back. I wanted to. I need to make things right. Maybe I can convince her to go voluntarily . . . please." "Fine. I'll give you a couple of days . . . but that's it." He sounds so bossy, but I know he's just worried about me. But I'm worried about my mom. I can't just betray her, not after what I'd said. "Okay. Thank you." I hug him tighter. "You know I can't deny you anything," he says. I kiss him on the lips, well aware that people are probably watching us. I'm sure by lunchtime the gossip that Edward Cullen is dating a freshman girl will be all over the school, but at this moment in time, I don't care at all. He smiles and kisses me so sweetly, touching my face. I open my eyes for just a second and see his long lashes closed on his cheeks. I love seeing his

face like this, so close. I want to tell him right then that I love him, but I don't. I'm afraid of what he'll say. What if he doesn't feel the same way? "We better get to class," he says finally, kissing my hand before taking it again. He groans, shrugging his opposite shoulder. "What do you have in here anyway? Bricks?" "Yep. I love to torture you." "I know you do." And just like that, my mood lifts again. ~QF~ I'm right about the gossip. Apparently, Padma Ray saw Edward and I holding hands, and so by noon it seems like the entire school's talking about it. Angela's good moral support, but I'm definitely receiving my fair share of death looks, especially from the junior and senior girls I pass in the hall. So for lunch I decide to sit outside with her on the picnic tables rather than face a cafeteria full of staring faces. Edward offers to join us, but I tell him to go ahead and eat with Em and Jasper. I'm sure Angela wants to give me an inquisition, anyway. "I can't believe you never told me," Angela complains, taking a bite of her tuna sandwich. "I'm sorry." I feel bad keeping it from her, and I try to explain why it was necessary. She seems pretty satisfied with my explanation, and the rest of our lunch passes quickly as she drills me for details. I'm exhausted by the end of the day. My sleepless night has definitely caught up with me. Edward wants me to come over to his house, but I really want to take a nap, so I promise I'll call him later. I don't tell him the other reason I want to go home is to check Renee's room for my things while she's out. Edward reluctantly agrees and kisses me again in front of my house before he says goodbye. I secretly watch him walk off towards his house before going inside. I love the little bounce in his step that makes me recognize him even from a distance. He must feel me watching because he turns around and waves. I blow him a kiss and he catches it, making me giggle. We're so dumb. Back in my house, it's quiet, and I waste no time running up to Renee's room; there's stuff everywhere, piles of clothes, ripped up papers, cigarette

butts on the floor, and I try desperately to quell the panic rising in my throat. I know my things are here. I know it. I set to work, rummaging through the things on her floor, under her bed, her closet. It's dusty and I sneeze. But I can't find anything . . . nothing. I'm just about to give up when something catches my eye-a little burst of red and orange. It's the William Blake, sticking out under a pair of Renee's old sneakers! I grab it frantically, relieved that it's still intact, but horrified when I open it . . . no picture. She's taken the picture of Charlie. I frantically search through the pile where I found the book...nothing else from my box is there. An hour later, I'm exhausted. I've overturned her entire room, and haven't had any more luck. I'm thankful I at least have Edward's present, trying not to remember the rest of my lost belongings. I wonder if I'll ever get them back. I won't think of the picture. I won't. Back in my room, I take the book of poems and Edward's short story and put them under my pillow. For now on, I'll just have to take them wherever I go. Soon, my exhaustion returns. It's not even five o'clock, but I decide to get comfy and take a nap, changing into my long flannel nightgown. I shut my door and lay down on my bed, my head resting above Edward's books. And when I close my eyes I'm instantly asleep. ~QF~ I'm having the most beautiful dream of Edward. We're standing in a field, a place I've never been. It's a gorgeous summer day and it smells like grass and forest. There's no sound at all except for the humming of bees, the distant sound of water. Edward's wearing his Ramones shirt, holding his hand out to me. I reach out, but suddenly the earth cracks . . . Edward's on the other side of the widening chasm. I reach out . . . our hands just grazing each other before we're ripped apart. I'm struggling so hard to breathe. It burns. The air tastes horrible and makes me choke and sputter.

It's not air anymore. I cough to clear my lungs, inhaling deeply, but the air isn't clean . . . it's a thick, black, living thing. "EDWARD!" I scream. He's gone . . . he's disappeared, swallowed up by the hole and black air. "EDWARD!" I wake up gasping for breath, trying to make sense of my surroundings. I know I'm in my room. I should be . . . but nothing's recognizable in the darkness. My eyes burn and the air smells horrible. It's pulsing around me . . . and it's warm. Too warm. I can't breathe. I feel lightheaded and dizzy-completely disoriented, but there's a primal, instinctive fear that pushes me up out of my bed. Finally I understand what it is. It's dark in my room but the air is heavy and sour . . . it's smoke. The air is filled with smoke. Fire. For a second, I'm pure fear. Pure panic. I don't know what to do. But then I remember what they taught us in school. I know that the air will be cleaner the closer I am to the floor. I crouch down and immediately feel the difference, but my head is pounding. I know I've inhaled too much smoke already. Almost without thinking, I reach under my pillow and take my books in one hand, then I crawl to my bedroom door. Now that my eyes have adjusted to the darkness I can see smoke pouring from the crack under the door. It's there, in the hallway . . . the fire. Just to check, I reach and feel the metal door handle. It's hot, burning hot. I know I'm not supposed to open the door. I back away... Suddenly I have a thought . . .the window . . .the roof! I'm just about to crawl toward it when I hear a scream that shatters my heart. My mother. My mother. My mother. She's screaming my name. "Mom?" I croak. "MOM!" I'm screaming and screaming and my free hand is reaching for the door handle. I hear her again. It's horrible, horrible, the pain in her voice. I could turn away, run to the window and never look back. But this is my mother. "MOMMMMMMM!"

I open the door and it singes my hand. I'm not prepared for what I see. I can't comprehend what I see. My mind blocks it out, refusing to acknowledge the sight in front of me. I can't know this. I can't know this. I take one step outside my door before recoiling. There's no more screaming. Flames are everywhere. It's so hot. It's so hot and I know I . . . Suddenly, something is tickling my leg. I look down and it's my nightgown. The tickling is burning . . . I can't breathe . . . I can't think anymore . . .I try to bat it out . . . I try . . . There is a sound and it's horrifying. The screaming is back . . . it's in my head. Nothing is coming out of my mouth. Somewhere, I register the sound of voices, but the fire is loud. The screams in my head are loud. And then silence. "So, like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us."-Gaston Bachelard Chapter 6: September, 7 2010 It's dark and I'm so heavy. I can't see anything but I can hear noises . . . beeping. I want to cough but I can't . . .it hurts. There's something in my mouth-a tube? Something in my chest. It hurts. I want to swallow but I can't move. My arms are heavy and there's pain, somewhere lower . . . I want to open my eyes but I can't . . . all around me people are talking. I don't recognize the voices. It sounds like a man . . . he's saying words I don't understand . . . medical words. Someone does something to my arm and it stings. Someone touches my head and their hand is cold and clammy. I want to tell them to stop, that I don't like their hands on my head. But I can't . . . I can't do anything. Nothing. There's no voices . . . just the beeping. The sound of something whirring near my head, a whooshing sound. It's too quiet and I wish I could open my eyes but I can't. I don't know how long I've been here. More voices, but I still can't see. I feel my chest rise and fall . . . there's pain down lower. Then something happens and the pain melts away. I'm floating, floating somewhere else near a field and a waterfall. There are flowers and I bend down to pick one. When I pick it I draw it up to my face, the red

blossom is so bright, so beautiful, but then it erupts into flame and I drop it . . . it's too late. The flower scalds my hand and I cry out. The pain is awful. Bella? I turn around and there's Renee. Mom? Mom? She's got her back to me but I know it's her . . . I know that red ribbon in her braided hair. MOM? I cry again and this time she whirls around; she's laughing, wearing a white dress. She looks young, like a girl, and she holds her hands out to me. I run to her and she picks me up like I weigh nothing, and then we are twirling, twirling around and the red ribbon flies wildly around her head. She's beautiful. I love you. I love you. We collapse on the ground, breathless and laughing. She smiles and touches my face. I reach out for the ribbon; it feels smooth in my hand. I pull the end and Renee sits up quickly. She stands and runs away from me but I'm up, after her. Don't come any closer, Bella. Mom? Bella. Run! I don't want to see what I see. I can't see what I see. She's burning. The ribbon in her hair is a flame and she's burning. MOM! I feel utter panic, a hole in my chest that hurts so much. I want to take the pain from her but she's running away. If she would have just given me that ribbon. Mom? I'm screaming now and she's flying towards the waterfall. I know once she jumps I won't see her again. I don't want her to go.

She never looks back. And she jumps into the water. I imagine how cold it must be. I run after her, looking down into the deep pool, the swirling eddies as the falls empty into crystal blue . . . there's no one. She's gone. A red ribbon floating is on the water and I reach down to snatch it up. I'm back in a dark room. A dull thud in my head. My head is pounding and my throat is so raw. I want to move but I can't. More pain. Bella, I'm so sorry. Crying. Someone is touching my hand. I know that touch. I know that voice. I'm so, so sorry, Bella. Wetness on my cheek. Someone is touching me and this time I want it. I know his name. Don't I? I can't remember his name, but I know it. I know the feel of his face against mine. Please . . . please . . . please. I love you. Whispers. More darkness. Pain. Then finally . . . light. A sliver of light. "Her eyelids just moved. I think she's waking up . . ." A woman's voice. Mom? I open my eyes. It's a nurse. She bends over me. Suddenly, I'm all too aware of the thing in my throat. I cough and it's excruciating. I taste something on my tongue. It's metallic and horrible. Blood. The nurse bends over me with a concerned look on her face. I lift my arm to my throat and I feel something in it; it feels weird. I look down. An IV. "Isabella? Isabella? Can you hear me?" The nurse is talking again. Just beyond her, I see a figure. I can't focus but it looks like a boy. I nod but I can't speak. I want this out of my throat. I gesture to my mouth and I try to speak but it comes out more like a grunt. I can't form any words.. And it aches . . . something deep inside me. My eyes tear up.

"Isabella, your lungs were damaged because of smoke inhalation. That's why you feel some discomfort. It will get better, but right now you need to relax. I'm going to remove the tube in your throat. I just need you to blow on the count of three. Can you do that?" I nod, desperate for the tube to be gone. "One. Two . . . Threeee." I exhale and there's a bit of pain, but then relief as the obstruction is removed. I can close my mouth, but the edges feel cracked, dry. My throat burns and I can barely swallow. "You did good, sweetie. All done now. I'm going to get you some water, but just small sips, okay?" I don't care what she's saying. Who is that behind her? Edward? I want Edward. The nurse leaves and a man I think I recognize steps forward, his eyes kind and dark. His hair is long and black, streaked with grey, and when he speaks his voice is low, gravelly, and comforting. "Bella? I'm Billy Black. Do you remember me?" I nod my head, confused. Why is he here? Just then, someone else approaches . . . it's a boy, just around my age. He has short hair and isn't as tall as Billy but he has the same dark eyes, the same deep brown skin. "This here is my son, Jacob. Bella, you probably don't remember, but you kids used to play together when you were little, before your folks moved you all to Chicago." I nod again, still unable to comprehend why they're here. The boy, Jacob, smiles at me but he looks nervous. I wonder what I look like. "I know this is probably pretty confusing for you, but everything's gonna be all right, okay? We're gonna get you back on your feet in no time." I shake my head, not understanding. My mother. I want my mother. I make a sound to tell them but no words come out. My throat is so raw and my lungs hurt with the effort...

"M..m...m...a..." Billy's face falls as he comprehends my meaning. "I'm so sorry, Bella. Your mom didn't make it." ~QF~ "Is she okay?" My mind struggles to catch up. I blink, once, twice. I'm sitting with my head leaning uncomfortably on the back of a chair . . . the room is hot. When my eyes focus I realize with a flood of embarrassment that I'm in class. Professor Riordan is standing next to me, looking concerned. "Are you okay, Ms. Black?" she asks. I'm not. I'm really not. I know that Edward is in this room and I have no idea how or why. I can feel him standing somewhere behind me and all I want to do is run out of here before I have to face him. Students are staring and talking . . . there's the blonde goddess across the table. She meets my eyes and I look away. For the love of God, I fainted when he entered the room. I try and think of what to do. "I think so," I say, struggling upwards in my seat. I try not to look around the room, my reasoning that of a child or scared animal. If I can't see him, he can't see me. "I'm sorry; I don't know what it was . . . the heat, maybe." "It is terribly hot in here. If you'd like, you're more than welcome to leave early." The Professor leans down towards me. Her long dangly earrings pull her earlobes taut and for a split second I fear they'll rip through. I have to get myself together. I sit up straighter and fix my skirt, attempting a smile. "No. I think I'm all right. It's just the heat. I'll be okay." "Well, it was about time we had a break, anyway," Professor Riordan says. "Let's take fifteen, shall we?" The class gives murmurs of approval and slowly begins filtering out into the hall. I'm still staring straight at the table, my heart hammering in my chest. I feel nauseous. "Isabella," comes a voice from beside me. The blonde is standing next to my chair, her haughty demeanor from earlier seemingly gone. "Hi. I'm Rosalie Hale." She extends her hand and I take it; mine is visibly shaking.

"Isabella Black." "It's nice to meet you. Are you sure you're okay?" No. "Yes," I clear my throat, "I'm fine. But is there a ladies' room nearby?" "Sure there is; I'll show you." I stand up on uncertain feet, surprised at Rosalie's heightshe's quite a bit taller than I am, which isn't a feat, since I'm only 5'4. She's wearing a formfitting grey pencil skirt, a blue blouse, and heels. A pretty impressive getup all around. Outside of the classroom, Edward is standing with another boy. I try not to meet his gaze but as soon as I step out the door I know he's watching. And all of the calm I was able to muster before in the classroom vanishes because I have to look at him. It's like I don't even have a choice. My stupid eyes don't listen to me when I tell them to look away. He's much taller than the other boy, who has his back to me. Edward doesn't seem to be paying any attention to him. I can't believe how much he's changed, how much he's still the same. Black pants, a grey tee shirt with some symbol on it, probably the name of a band I don't know. His hair is a little shorter. His eyes . . . even from this distance I can see their brilliant green. The other boy is gesticulating vehemently and talking. I make out a snippet of their conversationsomething about a readingbut I don't understand the context. Edward's face is impassive; he's regarding me carefully. I wonder what he sees. Rosalie's already a few steps ahead of me and I look away, my expression guarded. I can't let him know how affected I am. He already knows, you idiot, you fainted when he walked in the door. The bathroom isn't that far down the hall, which is a relief. Rosalie holds the door open for me and I go immediately to the sink. My face is hot. "Do you want to sit?" she asks. I shake my head. "No. I'm okay. It's the heat. I just need a little water."

Staring in the mirror, I'm alarmed by how pale my face has become. Rosalie stands at measured distance, allowing me to collect myself as I turn on the faucet and wet a fistful of paper towels with cool water, bringing them to my face. My hands are trembling and I still feel a bit lightheaded. "Are you sure you don't want to sit down?" she asks. That actually doesn't sound like a bad idea after all. I nod. There's a random chair near the window and Rosalie gestures towards it. "Why don't you go have a seat. I'll be right back." "Okay." The word catches in my throat and I walk over to the chair woodenly, taking a seat as she exits the bathroom. It's not possible. It's not possible. My mind is running on loop, traitorously replaying the events of the previous twenty minutes. I can't get his face out of my mind. His green eyes . . . I never thought I'd see them again. And if I did, I promised myself not to be affected this way. After all of this time . . . nearly ten years. . . How can he be here? How is it possible? It's not possible. Rosalie's abrupt return distracts me from my thoughts. She twists the cap off of the bottle of orange juice she's holding, passing it to me. Thanking her, I take a large swig. It's cold and should be delicious, but it makes me want to gag. Still, I need to raise my blood sugar and I don't want to be rude, so I try not to grimace as I swallow again. Rosalie is eyeing me carefully. "So," she says, arching her eyebrow slightly, "How do you know Edward Cullen?" It's the question I've been dreading; of course I wouldn't be lucky enough to have the connection go unnoticed. I wrack my brain, trying to figure up something, some lie. I don't want my past exposed here. This is a fresh start. "I don't." The lie rolls off my tongue naturally. "Who's Edward Cullen?" "Umm...okay. I get it. I know you don't know me, and you have no reason to tell me your business. But it seemed pretty obvious." I try to remember what happened before I fainted. I think I remember saying Edward's name, but not loudly . . . just a whisper. There's a chance no one heard.

"Oh, really?" Rosalie is leaning against the stall, arms crossed, one ankle in front of the other. She looks like she means business and I find her hard to read. Why does she care? Is she just nosey, or is there some other reason? "I could have sworn you said his name when he walked in the door, before you passed out. It seemed like maybe he was the reason you fainted." She says the last part softly, but I'm getting a little irritated now. I put the cap back on the juice and prepare to stand up. "Well, you're wrong. It was just heatstroke." "Look," she says, catching my arm as I rise. "I'm not trying to be a pain. I'm sorry; I was just curious." "It's okay." I answer, a little begrudgingly. "I'm not usually a nosey bitch...well, not all the time, anyway." She smirks. "In my down time I'm actually pretty okay." "It's fine," I say, a little concerned about the time. I reach into my bag and take out my cell to check. Flipping it open I see two missed calls from that morning, both Jake. I sigh, re-stowing my phone. He always worries about me and I'm sure he was calling to remind me to go to class. Too bad my ringer was on silent. But I see we only have five minutes before we need to get back . . . before . . . "So, how about I ask you a bunch of less invasive questions?" Rosalie asks. "Anyway, where you from?" "Washington State . . . a little town called Forks. I'm sure you've never heard of it." "Nope. Never been to Washington myself, though I've heard it's nice. I'm from, you'll never believe this, South Dakota." I consider the ultra-fashionable Rosalie before me and conclude that she's right; I can't believe she's come from such a rural place. "So yeah," she continues, "I know all about being from somewhere no one's ever heard of. When did you move?"

"Just a couple days ago. I've been crazy, getting settled. That's why I was late. Luckily I'm not living too far away or I never would have made it." "Grad student housing?" "Yep." "Me too. I wanted to get an apartment in one of the neighborhoods this year, but I hate the long commute, and the "El" is so unreliable in the mornings. So yeah, I'm living in Sylvan Arms." Rosalie makes a face, as if this is a terrible thing. "That great, huh?" "I waited too long to get put on the waiting list and it's awful. But, it's close. What about you?" "I'm at Blackstone," I reply, trying to get into the conversation and forget, just forget, what's about to happen. "Holy crap! That's so close to me-just a couple blocks away. Girl, you lucked out!" "It is pretty nice," I say, feigning enthusiasm. My studio apartment is small, but it's in a beautiful old Hyde Park building. Luckily, it came furnished; I'd packed my old pickup lightly since the drive was so long. "And you're here for Romantic?" "What?" "Poetry . . . Romantic poetry. That's what I study. I was just wondering if that was your specialty. Usually first years won't take Peggy's class unless it is." "Right. Yeah. I'm studying Blake." "Blake," she says, wrinkling her nose, "well, Peggy will love you, then." "You don't like him?" She hesitates, "No, I do. I just prefer the later Romantics. So many of his books are incredibly opaque, you know? To be honest, I don't understand some of his more esoteric works. The Book of Urizen . . ." Rosalie shudders.

I shrug. "But that's what I find so fascinating . . . the mystery . . . trying to understand the worlds he created with his mind . . ." "You sound just like Peggy. Speaking of, we should get back. If you couldn't tell from before, she actually abhors lateness," Rosalie smiles and offers her hand to help me up. Once I do, I feel a little more composed. The orange juice has helped immensely. I drop the empty bottle into the recycling bin outside of the bathroom and follow Rosalie back to the seminar room. "What other classes are you taking, by the way?" she asks as we walk. "Lit theory." "That it?" "Yep." "You TA-ing?" "Not this semester. I got a fellowship, actually, for this year," I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but Rosalie seems pleased for me. She's TA-ing for a large Modern Lit lecture and apparently it's terrible, since she's never read half of the novels they're studying. It's like taking another class on top of her grad work. The door to the room is open and I force myself to maintain my calm. I can do this. I can do this. As long as I don't look at him, I can do this. "Talk later, okay?" Rosalie whispers just before we enter, taking her seat across the table from me. I find my chair and quickly sit down. When I look up I notice Edward is sitting in the seat next to her. He whispers something and she gives him a look, then sweeps her hair over her shoulder and ignores him. Edward smirks and leans back in his chair. Shit. He's caught me looking. I glance back to the head of the table where Professor Riordan is sitting. She smiles warmly at me before calling the class back to order. "Now that we're all here," she says, "maybe this is the best time for introductions. Let's just go around the table and give your name, your year, your focus, and, I don't know . . . a random fact about yourself. "I'll start. I'm Peggy Riordan, and my one true love is William Blake." A couple students titter and Peggy smiles good-naturedly. "Hmm . . . and a

random fact: my favorite band is Depeche Mode. And before you start, yes, I'm a child of the eighties. And please, call me Peggy. 'Professor' makes me feel terribly old." I decide at that moment that I love Peggy Riordan. She's simply wonderful. After Peggy, the student to her left introduces herself . . . Marjorie Elms, second year, focus on the Victorian novel. She can't cook. Then a boy. Riley something or other . . . he's the one Edward was talking to. I'm not really listening because I'm dreading my introduction. I'm trying to think of something to say, but my mind is blank. I need to redeem myself so my professor doesn't think I'm a complete idiot, but I'm paralyzed with fear. Finally, it's my turn. I clear my throat and try to sound confident but, like always, my voice is quiet. "I'm Isabella Black. First year. I came to study William Blake. I love him, too." Peggy smiles at me encouragingly. "And . . . let's see . . . random fact. I apparently faint in the heat. I feel very Scarlet O'Hara today." Some people, including Rosalie, laugh and I smile, blushing despite my intentional joke. I feel a little bit better about earlier. Maybe I can put it behind me. The girl sitting next to me is another first year with a spiky short black haircut named Rue Jones. She studies feminist theory and rides a Vespa. But soon the calm that had washed over me once I'd finished my introduction vanishes as I anticipate Edward's response. I don't allow myself to look at him, but I wonder if my avoidance is obvious. I decide I'll allow myself the occasional glance, just casual, but of course when I look up Edward is staring right at me. His jaw is tense and his eyes . . . he looks . . . angry. His eyes are cold. I don't see anything that reminds me of the boy I knew. When Rosalie introduces herself, her confident, strong voice is loud and I see Edward roll his eyes. This bothers me somehow; despite her somewhat brash exterior, I think I like Rosalie. Edward clearly doesn't. He's next. "I'm Edward Cullen. I'm a second year MFA in fiction. Random fact . . . I only write in notebooks. Oh. And no offense, Professor, but I'm not terribly fond of William Blake." He's looking right at me and his beautiful voice has a hardness I've never heard there before. He sounds cynical. I don't like it.

"Well, Edward, I appreciate your honesty," Peggy says graciously. "Hopefully we'll change your mind by the end of this course." I can't believe he just told a poetry professora well known, published, and above all, very sweet professorhe dislikes her subject of inquiry, and I'm sure my shocked expression is clear on my face. She dealt with it so smoothly. I'm impressed. But all of a sudden it hits me: he meant that comment for me, not her. I feel like I've been punched in the gut. On top of that, I'm completely floored by his revelation. So Edward is a fiction writer, after all . . . he still has his notebooks. Notebooks filled with things I never got to read, will never get to read. My throat feels tight and for some God-awful reason I feel something hot and undeniably wet well in the corners of my eyes. More people introduce themselves but I'm not listening. I'm far away in another world, where I was Bella and this man in front of me was a sweet boy, not the arrogant prick he so clearly is now. Why does he hate me so much? Once introductions are finished, Peggy passes around the syllabus and reviews the course policies. We'll have one seminar paper due at the end of the semester, which I expected, and, along with a partner, we'll also lead one of our class meetings. This requirement alarms me immediately. I'm not even comfortable speaking in front of people for a short time; how will I lead an entire two and a half hour class? Peggy explains that she likes to give all of her students the opportunity of teaching a graduate class, since this looks good to hiring committees once we're on the job market. It makes sense, but still, I'm uneasy about it. Rosalie looks over at me and gestures surreptitiously . . . she wants to work together. That sounds fantastic to me, since with Rosalie, co-teaching won't be that bad. I'm sure I won't even get a word in edgewise. After a little more chatting, Peggy excuses us for the day. Next Tuesday we'll be starting with Byron, since she's arranged the course thematically rather than chronologically. Interesting. Rosalie is already at my side as people begin to file out, and I'm incredibly grateful because this way I won't have to speak with Edward. Not that he wants to talk to me anyway. I hurry to collect my things. "Where you off to now?" Rosalie asks as we file out of the room.

"Home, I guess. I need to go grocery shopping, then probably to the book store." "Well, I'm off home too. I'll walk with you." "Okay, sounds good." I smile. She's forceful and bossy, but yes, I think I do like Rosalie Hale. Once we're a little ways down the hall, she whispers lowly, "Can you believe what an asshole Edward is? I mean, honestly, I can't believe he said that, and on the first day." I shake my head, not wanting to give my feelings away. "Peggy is amazing. He's lucky to be in that class, really." "So why's he taking it?" "The MFA's have course requirements like we do. They have to take poetry, Shakespeare, lit theory. And then their own b.s. writing seminars, of course." "Oh." Oh crap. Does this mean Edward will be in my other class, too? Then I remember he said he was a second year; he's probably already taken it. "Yeah, it's annoying." She sighs in exasperation. "They always feel like they're better than us 'cause they write and we theorize. You know, the whole, "those who can't do, teach," thing. It's utter bullshit, if you ask me. But today, wow, I'm just blown away." "Is he always like that?" I ask hesitantly, not sure I want to know the answer. "Pretty much. I mean, he's usually not that big of a dick, but he's a pretty cocky bastard." "So, you guys aren't friends," I venture. "Yeah, that's an understatement. And hell, I'm probably the one girl in the grad department that hasn't slept with him." "Oh." Why did I even ask? I feel incredibly stupid. "I mean, the guy can write, don't get me wrong. But, aside from that, I don't get what everyone else sees in him."

A throat clears behind us and I freeze, turning round. Edward's not three feet behind us. Of course he is. Of course. "Can we help you?" Rosalie asks archly. Did he hear our conversation? Oh God, I want to sink into the floor and/or die . . . whichever is quickest. Edward ignores her. "Isabella," he stresses my name as if it's a foreign word on his tongue. "I think you left this behind." He's holding my notebook. "Right. Yeah, that's mine," I reply dumbly, extending my left hand. And in that moment I see him . . . just sixteen, carrying my books for me. It's a gesture he's performed so many times. But now he's like a stranger, not my Edward at all. Our eyes meet and then his drift to my hand. He passes it to me quickly, as if the book itself is on fire. "Thanks," I say, but Edward is already walking away, his hands slung in his pockets. I recognize that walk, the little lilt in his step, and for just a second, I can imagine going after him. Just for a second. "What a gentleman," Rosalie remarks sarcastically as I stow my notebook into my bag, trying to control the beating of my heart. After all this time how can he affect me like this? It's maddening. "Do you think he heard us?" I ask once I'm sure he's out of earshot. "Maybe. I wouldn't worry about it, though. He already hates me, and I'm sure his ego will survive. Isabella..." she pauses, "are you sure you don't want to tell me how you know Edward Cullen?" My eyes still follow Edward. He's walking away, just like my last memory of him. The last day of my old life. "I told you. I don't know him. I don't know him at all." I ripped your heart out from your chest Replaced it with a grenade blast Incinerate Incinerate Incinerate Incinerate The firefighters hose me down I don't care, I'll burn out anyhow

It's four-alarm girl, nothing to see Hear the sirens come for me You doused my soul with gasoline You flicked a match into my brain Incinerate Incinerate Incinerate Incinerate Lyrics: Sonic Youth "Incinerate" Chapter 7: September 7-September 14, 2010 Rosalie leaves me at the corner of 56th and Blackstone, but not before we exchange cell numbers and make plans to meet up later during the week. As I watch her walk away, I smile a little to myself. This is the first time I've ever made a friend so fast. Well, maybe not the first . . . It hurts to think of Alice, so I don't. I haven't . . . not in a long time . . . I haven't thought of either of them. But now they're, well, at least HE, is back in my life . . . What is she doing now? Does she live in Chicago, or someplace far away? Will I see her again? These thoughts and questions aren't welcome, and I don't want to think about Edward or what happened today in class. The surreal experience is already fading and soon, hopefully, perhaps, it won't seem real at all. And I can live my life like it never happened, like he never existed . . . But you'll see him next week, fool. And did you ever really stop thinking about Alice? About Edward? The grey sandstone building looms immensely. I fiddle a bit, turning my key in the wrought iron fence that guards the entrance, and when I enter and hear the inevitable clank I feel a certain sense of calm. Nothing can follow me in here. At first, even though Billy was worried about intruders, I'd insisted on a first floor apartment. But then I learned that all first floors in the city have bars on the windows, and I readily agreed to live on the second floor. An added bonus is it's a bit quieter, even though I'm near a common area. In general the graduate students who live here keep to themselves, which is fine by

me. As I make my way up one flight of stairs and then hang a right to my room, I exchange nods and cursory greetings with other residents, but no one really looks at methere's comfort in anonymity. My apartment is warm when I enter, and I kick off my shoes, going right to the window and opening it wide to let air in. It's not enough, so I settle my box fan in the open space, turning it on full blast. It's a little better with the warm breeze, and after grabbing a glass of water from the fridge, I settle down on my futon and consider the mess before me. Boxes, boxes, and more boxes . . . suitcases . . . bags. There's a lot of unpacking to be done and the task is daunting. This doesn't feel like light packing. This feels like baggage. For a split second, I wish I'd left it all behind. Especially one box. A box I never open. But here it is, and something needs to be done with it all. I know I need bookcases, since many of the boxes contain my collection and as of now I have no place to store them. The genius who furnished this room only provided one small bookcase that won't even fit a fourth of the books I've brought, so I make a mental note to pick some up sometime this week. I also have to go grocery shopping, to the campus bookstore. I have my Theory class tomorrow. There's so much to be done, I won't have time to think. This is a good thing. I check my phone again and see two more missed calls from Jake. Sighing, I consider whether or not I should call him now or later. Later. I decide on later. He'll ask me how the first day of class went, and I'll have to lie. There's no way I'm telling him that Edward is here . . . it's just too weird . . . and right now I can't face all the questions. It would just make him unnecessarily jealous. And with a flash my thoughts are transported again, back to class, back to Edward's face as he handed me my notebook . . . the way he said my name. I need to get to work. And so, after I feel a little cooler from the water and the fan, I open box after box, piling and sorting my books into categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, literary theory. I unload kitchen utensils. Put away clothes. Hang pictures. But there is one box I won't unpack; I'll stow it under my bed, as I always do. Funny how even though it's out of sight I know it's there, always there, waiting for the one day I work up the courage to open it. Not often. Maybe only once a year, when I can't resist its lure anymore. The itch will

begin, a slight inclination. But then the thought will catch and grow, and soon, no longer able to fight it, I'll give in, open it, and shatter again. Not yet. I should have left the damn thing at home. The rest of the day passes, and before long I find myself in a relatively decent looking apartment. It still needs a bit of work, but for now, it's satisfying. I perform the rest of my errands perfunctorily, and by the time I've shopped, picked up my books for class, assembled a bookcase, and eaten dinner, it's already after ten. Realizing I can no longer avoid the call, I dial Jake's cell. He answers on the first ring. "Isabella, where've you been? I've been calling all day." He sounds irritated, and I know I've been wrong to delay this. "I know," I say apologetically, "I'm sorry Jake. I had so much stuff to do, I completely lost track of time." It's not a total lie. "Well, I've been worried, Dad too." "I'm really sorry, Jake. I just wanted to wait to call you, till I had some free time, you know?" "Okay," he says softly, a little placated. "But don't make me worry like that again, please." "I won't. I'm sorry." "So, how was the first day of class?" He sighs and my heart thrums nervously, the fingers on my right hand automatically going to the ring on my left, the ring that's marked me as his. There's no way I can tell him, but I don't want to lie. Still, knowing Jacob, he won't want to know details. So I summarize. I tell him about how I was late, Professor Riordan, Rosalie, course assignments. He grunts and murmurs on the end of the line, not really saying much. When I proudly tell him about the bookcase I assembled, quite an accomplishment as far as I'm concerned, he snorts. "This is ridiculous," he says. "You doing all this stuff. I should have come with you on the move. I should be with you right now."

It was of course the source of many arguments between us whether or not he should move with me before the wedding, and eventually we'd decided that it would be best for Jake to stay behind for my first year; he'd just partnered with Sam at his garage in Forks, and the money was good. There was no guarantee he'd find a suitable job in Chicago, and I knew I'd be insanely busy with course work. Not to mention how Billy was uncomfortable with us living together, alone, before the ceremony. But now, as I predicted, he was regretting giving in. "I'm doing fine, Jake, really. And I'll be home for Christmas break. That's only three months from now." "I miss you, Isabella." "I miss you, too." "I can't believe my fianc is a graduate student. Who would've thought? I'm so proud of you." Suddenly, I feel a pang of guilt lying to him about Edward, and for a second I wonder why I'm doing it . . . for me or for him? Later, as I undress for bed, I catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror I bought on impulse at Target. I never look at my body unclothed, but tonight I stand and impassively consider myself. Who is this woman staring back at me? A catalogue of parts. A face some have called pretty . . . even beautiful. Large eyes and pale skin. Long hair. Defined collarbone. Perhaps delicate. Pale skin on the body too...arms, decidedly too skinny. Breasts, a bit on the small side, but passable. Perky. Belly, soft but flat, hips full but not too wide... Legs. They seem to belong to someone else, but it's strange, because in a way they are my essence. They define me more than any other part. The once angry burned skin is now a webbing of pink and red. The right one isn't so bad, but the left . . . especially the calf, the knee. I reach down and touch the raised flesh, the end result of countless surgeries and grafts. It's horrible, but it's better than it once was, so much better. I squint my eyes in the already dim room. From far away, in the right lighting, maybe you wouldn't notice. Maybe.

I stand tall again and look again at the girl in the mirror. I see questions in her eyes, but I don't know how to answer them. ~QF~ "So, how are you liking Chicago? What have you been up to?" Rosalie asks as we make our way to class. I haven't seen her since the first day because we'd both been so busy, but she'd called on Sunday to see if I wanted to walk over together. Of course I'd immediately said yes, grateful for even such a small plan; I'd never thought it could be lonely in such a big city, but it is. There are so many people, but all of them are strangers, living their own lives. And now here I am. "I do like it. I haven't been able to explore much yet, but it's great." I don't tell her that I spent the day before, my 23rd birthday, doing homework, because she'd probably think I was weird. But it's not like 23 is a milestone . . . it's just a random year, a decidedly awkward number. Why draw attention to it? I'd talked to Billy and Jake and treated myself to Chicago-style pizza, my latest addiction. That was good enough for me. "Well, one of these days I'll have to take you exploring. Out of The Loop and out to some of the cuter neighborhoods. Do you drink at all?" "Umm, a little. Why?" Billy is not big on alcohol; in fact, he forbids it in the house, which is why I really haven't drunk that much since I've been out of college. Not that I did much there either. "There's this awesome bar called The End. They have a huge selection of international and specialty beers. It's pretty amazing. Maybe you want to go sometime?" I nod, smiling at her enthusiasm. "That would be fun." Rosalie is a talker, and she keeps me distracted as we make out way down 58th street. Still, I find my eyes automatically sweeping the sidewalk, scanning the faces we pass. The nervous flutter in my stomach increases with each step, until I'm barely aware of the things Rosalie is saying. I try to focus. She's telling me about her family, her older brother, Marcus. He wants to go to medical school but the family can't afford it. I murmur sympathetically. I know exactly what that's like. All too soon we arrive at the Humanities building and I follow Rosalie's finely dressed figure inside. It's a bit cooler today and I'm wearing jeans and a

button down blouse; next to Rosalie's tailored tweed pants and silk top, I feel incredibly dowdy. How does she afford these clothes? My stomach drops as we climb the stairs . . . I can do this. I've faced him once before already. This will be easier. Unfortunately, when we enter the room ten minutes early, Edward is already seated in the otherwise empty classroom. He lifts his head at the sound of Rosalie's voice and I am struck once again by his face-how much older he looks. He's filled out, no longer the lanky teenager I knew. His faded black tee shirt emphasizes his arm muscles and I think I detect a hint of black ink peeking out from under his sleeve. Edward's eyes dart from Rosalie to me, then back to a notebook on the table, which he hastily closes. There's a thick growth of stubble on his jaw, more than a week's worth from the look of it, and his eyes look tired as they meet mine again. For just a second, recognition passes between us. "Writing the great American novel, Edward?" Rosalie asks sarcastically. His lip curls slightly and his eyes are hard againthe stranger is back. "Something like that," he mutters, looking away. "I'm glad to see the weekend hasn't dislodged the stick up your ass, Rosalie." Rosalie ignores his comment, sitting down beside me at the opposite end of the table. A couple more students filter in, saving the three of us from the awkward silence that ensues. I take out my poetry anthology and flip to the section on Byron, paging through the selections we've had to read for today. It's the first time I've read "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" or "Don Juan," and I've made lots of marginal notes to help prepare me for class. I'm determined to speak in class, Edward or no Edward. I pull out my notebook as well, opening up to the first page. And I'm shocked by what I see there, scrawled in crinkly handwriting I know so well . .. Isabella? Don't you know me? My blood runs cold, then hot. I try to reign myself in, thinking back to the previous week's encounter. Edward had written in my notebook before giving it to me. Since I hadn't taken any notes last week, I hadn't bothered opening it.

A glance in his direction tells me he's otherwise occupied; he's got his phone out and his brow is furrowed as he presses the keys. He's texting someone. I look back at the note, considering it. It seems like a rhetorical question. Of course he knows I know who he is, but he wants to know why I'm not acknowledging him. The thought infuriates me. He has no right, not after everything. Isn't it obvious? And why does he care now? Is he just trying to get a rise out of me? I don't understand his motivation, and I don't understand my reaction, how angry and confused I am. A minute or two later, Peggy rushes in, a whirlwind of curly hair and dangly jewelry, uttering curses aimed at Chicago's mass transit system and distracting me from my thoughts. She settles into her chair at the head of the table as the class quiets. "I'd like to start today by just going over some of our initial impressions, especially from those of you who haven't read much Byron before. Obviously, Byron is known as the quintessential Romantic poet. He's been glamorized, even deified, by posterity. His status as a lothario is obviously very much part of that persona, and in his lifetime he was, if you will, hellbent on shocking and undermining what he saw as the hypocrisy and restrictiveness of contemporary morality . . ." She pauses, taking a deep breath. She's so entertaining and dramatic. "But I think that all of this mythology around him really occludes the depth of his art, and really the brilliance of it. But I'm interested to hear from all of you. So I'll just open the floor...anyone want to start? What are some of the things you noticed?" A short freckly second year named Alison speaks up. "It was interesting to read "Childe Harold" in tangent with 'Don Juan;' I really felt there was a deep cynicism in both, but in 'Childe Harold,' I don't know, it was offset with something greater, more profound." "Maybe more honest?" Peggy offers. "That's what I mean, yes." "I agree," Rosalie interjects. "Even though the speakers in both of the poems are jaded, there's a depth to 'Childe Harold' that's missing in the other poem." "It's like you can sense that he's looking for something," Alison says. Not a great answer, but who am I to talk?

"Well, 'Don Juan' is much more comic," Riley suggests. "Maybe that's what you're sensing?" More students offer their opinions and readings, and soon I'm the only one in the seminar who hasn't spoken. The pressure builds, and I know it's now or never. But before I can speak, Peggy addresses me. "Isabella?" she asks, "we haven't heard from you. What do you think? What's your take on Byron's relationship with nature in the poem?" My stomach lurches and I surreptitiously wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans as I consider what to say, all of the thoughts I had just seconds ago vacating my head. Finally, I clear my throat. "Well, I think it's incredibly sad...There's this melancholy spirit that comes from world weariness, disillusionment. You can tell he's searching for something, and he's not finding it in human society. So he turns to nature, but I don't think he finds what he's looking for there, either. If human society is corrupt, nature is volatile in a different way. It might provide some solace, for a while, but in the end, nature is indifferent to our suffering." Peggy smiles and cocks her head, drumming her pen on the pad of paper before her. I try not to look around the room, sure my face is flaming. "An interesting reading, Ms. Black. Many critics have seen Byron's relationship with nature in a much more positive lightthat it is indeed the antidote to corruption in the human world." I consider her point, staring at the page before me, the words clear. "To me, it's as if he's trying to convince himself that nature is the antidote, but there's a persistent dread underlying . . . like he's aware that it's really not the cure-all he'd like it to be. Like towards the end of the poem in stanza 179, when he's speaking about the ocean, he says: 'Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean roll! Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain; Man marks the earth with ruin his control Stops with the shore." I take a breath and look around. Everyone is turned expectantly toward me, including Edward. My nerves are rattled, but I know I have to continue.

"He's praising the ocean for its power. There's this sense that mankind has no control over itit's the one thing we're subject to. The currents, the tides, storms . . . especially in the 19th century, but even today. Any attempt to dominate the ocean is futile, and he takes comfort in the ocean's power. But then there's the line, a little further on, when he mentions the dead sailor: 'He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan, /Without a grave, unknell'd, uncoffin'd, and unknown.' Those last three wordsespecially 'unknown,' there's something disconcerting there . . . to die unknown, without anyone remembering you. The ocean is powerful, it inspires his awe, but it's also unfeeling. So nature can provide escape from politics, society, but it's also dangerous. It can mean oblivion. And that, I think, is a tension that's underlying a lot of his writing about nature." I finish, staring down at the table in front of me. Rosalie murmurs approvingly in my ear, and when I look up Edward is staring at me with the strangest look on his face. Peggy looks like she's about to say something, but before she can, Edward speaks. "That's interesting," he says. "But I have to disagree." For some reason he seems slightly hostile. I brace myself for the coming onslaught. "Sure, Byron's aware of how insignificant man is, how powerful and unyielding the sea is, but he's celebrating that fact, not condemning it. He's all too aware of the humbling power that the ocean has over mankindand he relishes how that reality puts us humans in our place. He even compares the ocean's power to God's. See," Edward says, gesturing to his open book, 'Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty's form/Glasses itself in tempests.' The storms, even the destructive ones, are a reflection of God . . . or the divine, whatever. "The fact is that we can't control everything. And human life is fragile, but it's true . . . none of our lives are remembered, not really, not in the long run. That's just the reality of life. We're all just tiny drops in the ocean . . . so insignificant. An anonymous grave is perhaps the most honest one . . ." I feel my face flame again, but this time it's from anger. In the heat of it I cut him off. "Do you really believe that? That lives aren't worth remembering? Do you think that's what Byron thought?" Edward seems a little taken aback by my outburst. Really, I should be reining myself in, but this topic hits close to home for me . . . too close. The rest of the class is silent, waiting for his response.

"Well, when you think about it, gravestones are really for the living, not the dead-" "But Byron went to fight for Greek Independence, and died a national hero," I interrupt. "And he was a well-known poet. Surely he knew his name would live on even in death." "Maybe, but we're discussing the text of the poem, not real life," Edward fires back. "It's a mistake to assume that anything an author writes is true to his life. And, in any case, I think you're giving it a fundamental misreading." Now I'm livid, but I try to control my tone. "What do you think inspires art? Real life. And it's well-known that Byron himself identified with the speaker in 'Childe Harold." Edward's eyes bore into mine and for a second I forget we're in class. Before he can answer me, Peggy intervenes. "I think we're getting a little off topic, so I want to steer us away from discussing the authorial fallacy. But I think there's truth to what both of you are saying. That's what makes this poem, and all poems about the Kant's sublime, so complex. There's beauty and awe in the power of nature, but there's also the fear and threat of death. It's this combination that inspires the sublime. So really, I think we have to see both of your readings in this poem. Well done." Peggy glances at her watch and suggests a break . . . I'm still keyed up as I stand and walk into the hall, not bothering to wait for Rosalie or anyone else. I can't believe the first conversation that Edward and I have had in almost ten years is about Byron's vision of the sublime. It's incredibly strange, and would be almost humorous if I wasn't so agitated. Rosalie appears beside me as I make my way down to the ladies room, but her phone buzzes and she gives me an apologetic look. "I have to take this," she says. "But I just wanted to tell you, you did great in there. You put Edward in his place." Is that what happened? I'm not so sure. Rosalie wanders down the hall a bit and I enter the first stall of the bathroom, annoyed with myself that my hands are shaking as I fumble with my fly.

Back outside, my only friend is still on the phone and the rest of the class is loitering in the hall. Edward is a few meters away near the door speaking with Riley and Rue, and I quickly turn round, not wanting to face him. Instead, I walk a little ways down a side hall and pretend to look at the course descriptions outside of the English grad office. There's a bulletin board advertising summer internships and teaching opportunities, and it provides a good distraction. I half expect Edward to come look for me, and I'm caught in a panic wondering what I'll say if he does . . . The fact is, we're in the same class. We're stuck with each other for at least the next few months, maybe longer; it's inevitable we'll run into each other. I can't run away from him, it's ridiculous. But he doesn't come and soon the break is over; I've worried for nothing. Rosalie comes to find me, shaking her head knowingly. "You can't hide from him. And seriously, you shouldn't. You dominated that discussion. It was awesome." "Thanks." Even with Rosalie's reassurance, I'm on edge entering the room again. He looks at me with that unreadable expression and this time I don't avert my gaze. I don't want him to see how affected I've been by this whole thing, even though it might be true. We settle in for the last half of the class, this time focusing on 'Don Juan.' Neither Edward or I say anything, and once in a while I catch myself watching him out of the corner of my eye. The cuff of his shirt has ridden up further and, yes, he most certainly has a tattoo. I can't see the whole thing but I notice it's rather large, from what's visible it appears to be a series of interlocking black squares, each corner extending and morphing into the other. What does it mean? The rest of the hour passes uneventfully, but I can't stop thinking of our debate . . . the things he said. My thoughts drift to my mother, but I don't let them linger, not here. Finally, Peggy ends with a reminder that we're going to begin with the student-run classes in three weeks' timeand she's partnered us up based on field and interest. That means that Rosalie and I probably won't be working together, which is incredibly disappointing.

She reads our names off her list and when she gets to mine I'm sure I've heard her wrong. "Isabella Black and Edward Cullen." Edward lifts his head, just as shocked as I am, I'm sure. He looks in my direction, but I keep my eyes on Peggy. If I look at him I'll die. Are you kidding me? Rosalie gives my side a slight poke and I try not to flinch. "You should probably exchange contact information with your partner and discuss what course material you'd like to present, and when," Peggy concludes as we begin to pack our belongings. "Next week, we'll be signing up for dates. Since there're only six pairs, it shouldn't be a problem to present on the day of your choice. Of course, I always welcome volunteers for earlier in the semester." She continues on saying something else, but I'm no longer listening. The reality of the situation has finally hit me. I'll have to work with Edward outside of class unless I ask to switch partners. But then everyone will know, and I'll be seen as an immature fool; people will think it's because of our disagreement. "Isabella," Rosalie nudges me, "I'm sorry. Something's come up and I have to run. Call me later, okay? We'll go out, get a drink?" I nod dumbly at her, my stomach lurching as she turns to go. Now I'm alone. My bag feels incredibly cumbersome as I heave it over my shoulder, and my heart feels even heavier. Edward is talking to Peggy and she's listening intently to him. Is he asking to switch partners? The thought crosses my mind with a fleeting sense of panic-the last thing I want is to make a big deal about this in front of my professor. But then I see him pull out a small stack of white papers and pass her onethe bold lettering indicates it's an advertisement for something. "I'd love to hear you read, Edward," she says, glancing at it. "If I can get away from family duties, I'm there." He smiles and runs his hands through his hair, saying something lowly before stowing the rest of the white sheets into his shoulder bag, and that's when I lose all my nerve and decide to make a quick getaway. I can't face him right now. Out in the hall, I take a sharp left and walk quickly down the stairs and into the noon air of Chicago, inhaling deeply and pausing before I decide what to do. I could go back to my apartment or I could go to a coffee shop. Yes, somewhere with people. Somewhere I won't be able to think.

"Bella?" No one calls me by my nickname anymore, but said in Edward's voice, it's so familiar I stop dead in my tracks. Oh shit. "Running away from me again?" I turn around and face him. He's just about two feet from me, standing with his arms crossed, and I can't believe how tall he is; I'm only eye level with his chest. I cross my arms and take a step backward. I won't let him intimidate me. "I'm not running away." "Oh really?" "I saw you were talking with Peggy, and I had to go. I have somewhere to be," I lie. Edward's eyes dart down to my left hand and this time it occurs to me what he's looking atmy simple gold engagement ring. His jaw clenches. "Well, don't let me keep you from your...obligations," he says, stressing the last word. "But, if we're supposed to work together on this project, we'll have to get in touch somehow. I need to do well in this class." "So do I," I huff. "What are you doing here, anyway?" He looks at me incredulously. "Me? What are you doing here?" "I'm obviously in graduate school, Edward. I came here to work with Peggy, and anyway, it's none of your business." "That much is clear," he mutters, shifting on his feet and looking across the street before turning back to me. "But it's a little weird you end up here, in Chicago, in my class, isn't it?" "What are you saying? That I planned this? Incredible!" I turn on my heel but Edward reaches out and grabs my shoulder. Shrugging him off, I back away again. "Why did you pretend you didn't know me last week?"

His direct question catches me off guard and I'm at a loss for a second. "Because it's easier. And I don't want people to know...okay? I don't want people to know about my past." "But you fainted..." "It was the heat," I snap, trying to ignore the sharp cut of his jaw as he clenches it again. "Are you sure about that?" The corner of his mouth turns up in a little smirk. "Yes, I'm sure." "Okay. Fine." His tone is dismissive and I'm relieved he's not pursuing this line of inquiry anymore. Just then, Edward's eyes focus behind me, and he gives a small wave. I turn my head as a tall, thin, blonde girl approaches. Her hair is closely cropped and she's wearing tight black jeans, converse, and a red Killers t-shirt. "Hey," she says, addressing Edward with a smile. "You ready?" "Yeah," he replies, "is Carmen coming?" "She's meeting us there." "Sounds good." I'm standing there, now the awkward third party, wondering if this is who Edward was texting in class. He obviously has plans with her. "Kate, this is Isabella," he says, using my full name again. She extends her long thin arm to me and I shake her hand. Short nails with black polish. "We're in the poetry class together." "Nice to meet you," she says, her smile faltering just for a second. "You too," I say, as sweetly as possible. I hate the Killers. Really, they're an awful band. "Edward, we have to get going. We'll be late, and you know how Garrett is." She rolls her eyes. Edward gives her a quick nod. "Isabella," he says, turning back to me. "I need your number."

Kate arches her eyebrow but I pretend not to notice, rattling off the digits by route as Edward punches them into his phone. I take out my phone and do the same. "I'll call you," he says, "and we'll set up a time to meet for the project." "Right. Okay. Sounds good." God, I sound like an idiot. Kate's phone rings and she answers it, laughing loudly and walking a few feet away. "Carmen," she mouths to Edward. "Alright. Well, I gotta run." "Seems like it." I can't keep the sarcasm from my voice. "And don't you have somewhere to be?" I remember my earlier fib and nod vigorously. "Have fun with that, then," he says with a clipped tone. "Oh, I will." I pick up my bag and Kate gives a halfhearted wave, which I return equally unenthusiastically. She's still on the phone, but is now looking at Edward with impatience. "See ya," I say, picking up my bag again. "See ya," he replies. "Hey, Bella?" "Yeah?" What does he want now? "I just wanted to tell you, before . . . in class . . . I didn't mean that lives aren't worth remembering. You misunderstood me. I think." "Oh, did I?" I'm not convinced. "Yeah, I think so." His voice is a little softer now, his eyes distant. I don't know what to say to that, so I just nod. And before I can reply, Kate is off the phone and bounding over to us, grabbing Edward's arm. "Late, late, late," she chants, pulling at him. Edward smiles and shakes his headit's the first time I've seen him smile, really smile, since he's come back into my life, and his face is so beautiful.

We say goodbye once more and as I walk away I'm proud of myself. I don't look back. Chapter 8: September 14th, 2010 My coffee shop is crammed full of students when I enter, but I find an empty seat at the large communal table in back and drop my bag in the chair before heading over to order a cappuccino from the barista. Drink in hand, I settle in with the other students, all of them engaged in various combinations of studying, listening to music, and procrastinating on Facebook. I pull out my headphones to block some of the din and turn on my iPOD to some Chopin. It's not my favorite, but it helps me concentrate, and right now, with a hundred pages of Karl Marx to read for my theory class, that's exactly what I need. Marx's prose is pretty clear, but still I find my mind drifting from the pages of Das Kapital after only a few minutes of reading. After all of these years I have his number, just stored there in my phone, like it's no big deal. Like it's the easiest thing in the world. My traitorous mind replays our encounter again, analyzing, dissecting. Visions of the long-limbed and attractive Kate pulling on Edward's arm...his bare arm. Who is this Kate to him, and who are the other people that were mentioned? Garret and Carmen? All of this time, he's existed without me, and it's strange, faced with this reality. People don't just freeze in time when they exit your life, they continue on, they grow and change, they live. With other people. As I've been living without him. Suddenly the milk from the coffee weighs heavy and thick in my stomach, my nerves on edge from the caffeine, and I decide I have to go, nothing's getting accomplished; wondering what Edward is doing right now, and with whom, isn't helping my productivity. And anyway, it's none of my business. Then why do I feel so empty inside? Why do I regret acting so coldly towards him? At the time I felt nothing but annoyance and fear. But now, I don't know what I feel, only that it had been too short. That we'd been interrupted. That maybe he had something more to say . . . maybe I did. But he left you. He said those horrible things in class. He didn't mean them. God, I don't know what to think, I'm so confused by my own behavior; I can't even begin to fathom Edward's.

Packing up my things again, I slide out of the hard wooden chair and stand up gingerly. The muscles in my legs still ache from time to time, so I have to take it a little easy. It's around two o'clock, still plenty of daylight, and I decide to stow my things back at my apartment and take a walk to the Point. Maybe call Jake. Jake. My fianc. My best friend. I head down east on 55th street towards the tunnel under Lake Shore drive, wrapping my sweater more tightly around my body as I arrive near the water. Promontory Point isn't too far from where I live now, and I love walking here. I remember how my mom and I visited once, one of the few times we ever went to downtown Chicago. She didn't like going into the city, and I never understood as a child. But I know now it was because of Charlie. I pull out my phone and hit the speed dial, but Jake doesn't pick up. I realize he's probably working, so I leave a message instead. The breeze over Lake Michigan has picked up and there are seagulls careening overhead. Their cries sound forlorn...I remember running after the seagulls down on the rocks where the Point meets the lake. I must have been six or seven. "Mom, why are they here and not near the ocean?" "Because this lake is so big, it's just like the ocean," she says, smiling. "It's so big that the seagulls got confused, and now they think it's their home." "Do they miss their home?" "Well...I don't know. They've found a new one." A couple women jog by, talking and laughing, and I wonder if I'll ever get to the point where I'll be comfortable wearing shorts like they're wearing. If I'll ever stop noticing if people look at me, or caring if they do. More people are out enjoying the cool September afternoon. There's a group of kayakers embarking off the revetmentgetting closer I see it's a man and woman, and a young girl, maybe eight or nine. Her father helps her into the back of his boat and hands her a paddle; the wind whips her hair around her face as she smiles. There's only another month or so for this, and then it'll be much too cold out here for family outings.

I wonder around near the shore, and then loop around on one of the interior trails. The sun's lower now and glancing at my phone, I see it's nearly four. Perhaps Rosalie is done with whatever it is she had to do. Though I'm not a big drinker, getting a beer doesn't sound like a terrible idea. "Hey, Isabella," Rosalie answers, "I was just about to call you. How did it go with the emo hipster?" Laughing a little at her apt description, I feel a bit lighter. "Um. Fine. We just exchanged numbers and I guess he's gonna call me . . . we still have to pick an author and all that." Rosalie murmurs in sympathy. "Yeah, well, if it makes you feel any better, working with Alison is no picnic. I've been in a couple classes with her and her close reading skills are next-to-nothing. It's a miracle she's survived her first year of grad school. At least Edward is smart." "At least." "Sorry for running off before. I had a meeting with Professor Finley," she explains. "And the other TA was late, very late. So it went a little longer than I thought." "It's fine, really." "Hey, so are you up for a drink tonight? Say at around 8?" "Definitely. Maybe two." "I like the way you think, Isabella. Sounds like a plan." ~QF~ The atmosphere in my apartment is too quiet, the call of the box under the bed too loud, and so when Rosalie buzzes the intercom at just a little after eight, I quickly grab my coat and bag to join her. Rosalie doesn't know that I lived in Elgin as a child, but I'm not too familiar with the city proper, so when she prattles on about neighborhoods like Buckwood and Wicker Park, I listen gladly. We're just a couple blocks away from the blue line, and we don't have to wait long for a train. It's not too crowded, so we take a seat for the ten-minute ride. When we get to the bar, I'm immediately struck by how casual it is; not exactly what I expected from Rosalie, but I'm pleasantly surprised.

"I would have seen you as more of a cocktail or wine kind of person," I say as we enter the warm oak room; it's slightly musty and smells of beer and pub food. There're over one hundred taps on the far wall, and the walls are decorated with old faded maps and other traveling memorabilia. "Oh, I'm not nearly as pretentious as I look," Rosalie answers. Her voice seems wistful, like it holds the edge of a secret. Rosalie seems familiar with the woman behind the bar and orders for us while I stand by, since I know nothing about beer and I trust her judgment. The place is pretty crowded, but it's not too loud; you can still hear the throaty strains of Leonard Cohen in the background. "How did you find this place, anyway?" I ask as we settle in a cozy corner nook with two tall pints of dark beermilk stout, according to Rosalie. "I used to work here." "Really?" "Yeah, my first two years. I needed the money. But I had to quit for this year; it was just taking up too much time and I wasn't getting the work done the way it needed to be. "A lot of graduate students come here, but not many from English. It's actually a great place to meet guys from other departments." "Oh, well . . ." My hands are wrapped around my pint and I sip tentatively, finding the taste of the dark brew surprisingly sweet and pleasant. "I'm guessing from that ring on your finger that's not something that interests you, though. What's your story?" "I'm engaged, just recently, in fact. Jake's still back in Forks, but he's planning on moving out here at the end of the year, once we're married." "That must be hard," Rosalie says, leaning back and taking a long sip of her beer. "Being away from the one you love for so long. How come he didn't move with you?" The way she puts it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I do miss him, it's true. But I've been so busy, I haven't had much time to think about it.

"We agreed it was best for me to get settled, you know, focus on school, and anyway, his dad wasn't pleased about the idea." "Oh really? Why? You don't get along?" "No! Nothing like that. I love Billy to death. He's just a little, old-fashioned about those things. He's pretty religious." I stop myself before explaining further; the last thing I want her to know is that I grew up with Jacob and Billy . . . that would only lead to questions there's no way I'm answering. Even though Jake and I had only become romantically involved a couple of years ago, she might not understand. "Oh, God, what is he, like a born again Christian or something?" "No, he's Catholic. But really conservative," I say, a little embarrassed now. "Jake's pretty religious, but not like his dad." "Shit. I really have foot-in-mouth disease, Isabella. Just smack me when I say shit like that, okay? You're probably religious too and now I've gone and offended you." "I'm not offended, honestly. And no, I'm not religious. I was born Catholic, but I never really went to church as a kid." Renee had certainly never taken me. And as my godfather, Billy felt obligated to lead me in that direction, but I was internally, if not externally, resistant. I'd seen too many things in my life . . . too many things for it all to make sense. To even believe in God. But I respected his views, and Jacob's. "I did. My parents are Baptists," she sighs. "Pretty much every one is where I'm from, but I hated it." I take another sip of my beer, relishing the creamy taste. I've already developed a slight buzz and my head feels a little fuzzy. It's nice. "So, what about you?" I ask, eager to change the subject. "Any guys in your life?" There's a flicker of something in Rosalie's eyes, but it's gone before I can register the meaning. "I'm not seeing anyone at the moment." "No one in the department interests you?"

"Well, the department is so incestuous. Really, I'm envious of you, already being committed. It's hard to meet people outside of English, since those are the people you see every day. And then, if something goes badly, well shit, you have to see the person all the time. No thank you." The dramatic irony of her words is too much, and I slightly inhale the huge mouthful of beer I've just sipped. "Jesus, Bella. You okay?" Rosalie asks concernedly, giving my back a light pat. "Yeah. I'm fine," I manage once I've swallowed and cleared my throat. "Girl, don't be dying here on me." "Sorry. Just went down the wrong pipe." And before I can stop myself, the words are already out of my mouth "So, there's a lot of dating in the department?" "I'll give you the scoop, since you're new," she leans forward conspiratorially. "The MFA's are man-whores . . . and whore-whores. Steer clear." God, why did I ask? What's wrong with me? "Yeah, so you've said." I desperately want to ask about Kate, and the other girl they were going to meet, Carmen, but I hold my tongue. Because I know I probably won't like the answer. And I don't like that I know I won't like the answer. But as if reading my mind, Rosalie continues. "Being in graduate school is like being in suspended adolescence, I swear. And it's not just the MFA's, though they're the worst. There's Kate Edgewood, now she's dating Garrett Stowe. Man. They're your typical writerhipsters, all trendy shirts and indie rock. They're both uber-annoying if you ask me. "They came as a couple last year, but I have a feeling they've both been sleeping around. Kate's always all over Edward. I guarantee it. Anyway, I guess she and Garrett have an open relationship or something. And then there's Carmen Alexandra-she was dating Eleazar Steinhe's in dramaturgy, but they broke up last year. She's actually not that bad. She's got a huge rack. It's kind of distracting. But yeahshe and Riley, you've already met him, well, they've been hooking up on and off. Everyone knows. That's another downfall of sleeping around in the department . . . nothing's secret."

"Right. Good to know." I'm replaying her words in my head. The way Kate looked at me when Edward and I exchanged numbers makes sense now. She has her sights on him, and from the sounds of it, the feeling is probably mutual. I down the rest of my pint in one gulp. "Another?" Rosalie asks. "Please." It's only Tuesday night, and I know I should be home reading, but before I know it, I've consumed two and a half pints and it's after eleven. It's more beer than I'm used to, and I'm feeling the effects. I'm not drunk, but I'm substantially buzzed. The drinks and the conversation have brought me out of my head, which is a good thing. Rosalie's great company, and while she comes off a bit harsh and abrasive, I sense that she's a sweet person underneath and that she too has her secrets. "Oh shit." Rose glances over my head towards the door. "No, don't turn around!" she hisses just as I'm about to. A gust of cool air hits my back and wisps my hair. "What is it?" "Edward and company just came in. Ugh. What the hell are they doing here? This is my bar." Suddenly I feel completely sober. A loud female laugh comes from behind me, followed by a man's. "Who?" I ask. "Kate, Garrett, Riley, and Edward. And from the looks of it, they're all wasted. Oh man, this is killing my buzz." "Tell me about it," I murmur, scanning the back of the bar for a rear entrance. None is readily apparent. My heart is hammering in my chest and I can't concentrate on what Rosalie's saying. I just want to get out of that bar. I don't want to see Edward with his friends. "I can't believe they're here. They must have gotten kicked out of Eclipse." I look at her quizzically and she clarifies. "It's the hipster bar, a few blocks down. They drink PBR and act ironically."

"Oh." "Edward's been kicked out before, then he comes over here and harasses me." "Oh." "Maybe we should get the tab? You don't look so good." "No, I'm fine," I say, not really knowing if it's true. I really, really want to look behind me. "Well, it is getting late. We should probably get going, anyway. Unlike some people," she says pointedly, "we actually have work to do." I nod in agreement, leaving the rest of my beer undrunk on the table and standing up to put on my coat. I turn my head slightly and see Edward standing with a group of people near the far corner of the bar. His back is to me, and a black knit cap covers his hair, but I'd know him anywhere. Kate is standing next to another boy, with a beard and black rimmed glasses, presumably Garrett, but she's smiling at Edward. Rosalie and I approach the bar at the other end and I try to keep my head down and my gaze averted as she asks for the bill. "Oh, Rosie," the short woman behind the bar says, "Please. You know you drink for free here." "No, Shel, come on, it's too much." "Nonsense," she says with a wave of her hand and a smile. "On the house. But you never introduced me to your friend here." "Shel, this is Isabella, Isabella, Shel. She's the owner of this fine establishment." "Pleased to meet you," I say, extending my hand. As we shake I see Edward turn, and it's too late. He's seen me. His green eyes focus on Rosalie and me. Immediately, I glance back at Shel, withdrawing my hand. Now there's no chance of an unobserved escape. We'll have to at least acknowledge them or we'll seem rude. "Well, it's nice to meet you," Shel says. "Come by again."

"Oh, I will," I promise while Rosalie dons her coat and hat. "Quick. Let's make a fast getaway," she whispers in my ear after we've said our goodbyes to her former boss. But now Edward and his friends are stationed at a high top table right next to the exit. "Hey, Rosalie," Kate says as we approach. "Hey Kate. Garrett. Lucky us," Rosalie directs her comments to Edward and Riley, "getting to see you two twice in one day." We make introductions and all the while I'm so conflicted about what to do. We're partners now. But how should I act? I have no idea if our dynamic is shifting, or what our dynamic even was in the first place. I don't know how to respond to him. Edward's weaving a little; it's not very perceptible, but I can see he's not too steady on his feet. Another look at his face tells me with hooded eyes and a slight smirk that he's quite drunk. "Isabella," he says, moving to stand next to me, and I'm stupidly shocked by the sound of his voice and his sudden proximity. Rosalie is talking to Riley, and Kate and Garrett seem to be having a secret conversation, though she glances over the instant that Edward approaches. "Did you take care of your errand?" "I'm sorry, what?" I'm momentarily confused by his question until I recall our earlier conversation. "Oh . . . yeah." "That's good." "You?" "What?" "You make your appointment?" I nod towards Kate and his friends. He nods abruptly, taking a swig of his pint. "That's good."

God, could a conversation be more painful? I'm furious with Rosalie for talking with Riley. They're engaged in some sort of debate over whether publishing or student teaching is more important on a C.V. She's a little drunker than I thought. "We should probably decide on what we want to do for our class," I offer, trying to think of something, anything, to say to end this awkward silence. "Hmmm . . ." Edward replies, and it's like he's not even listening to me. "We're going to have to meet or something. What's you schedule like?" Nothing. "Forget it," I mumble, turning away from him to grab Rosalie. "I was thinking yesterday," Edward says, his words slightly slurred."I was thinking . . . it was your birthday." "You were thinking it was my birthday?" "I thought about you . . . on your birthday." "Oh really?" I ask, that old bitterness creeping back into my voice. It's a shock he remembered at all. "Did you have a good birthday?" Edward asks lowly. There's a flicker in his eyes. I recognize him. It's the old Edward peaking through. The change in his demeanor is disarming. "It was good. I was busy." "Ahh," he says. "Did your . . . husband . . . why isn't he with you?" He spits the last five words and I flinch. "Um, I'm not married yet. I'm engaged." "Engaged?" Edward's confused face is only inches from mine. "But your name?" "I changed it." "What? Why?" He's getting a little louder now and Kate's watching us closely.

"Edward, I don't really feel like discussing this right now." "You changed your name. When?" "When I turned 18." "Why?" he asks again, even though I've already told him no. "Why don't you take an educated guess," I retort. "Seems like you wanted to leave your past behind." "Maybe I did." "That doesn't work." "Really? Are you an expert?" "Something like that. So, when's the big day?" He asks and his voice is different again. I can't keep up with him. He drinks deeply from his glass, emptying it. "We don't have a date yet, but next summer. Probably July." "I see. Congratulations." "Thank you." "Songs of Innocence and Experience,' he says suddenly. "What?" "That's what we should present, don't you think?" He's smiling now, but it doesn't reach his eyes, which are hooded and a little unfocused. "I thought you didn't like Blake. Or at least that's what you said." I cover for my internal cringe at his suggestion. Of course he remembers the book he gave me . . . of course. Sitting down with Edward and reading the poems that remind me of him doesn't sound like a great idea. "I used to. But people change." "Apparently." He acts as if he hasn't heard me.

"I was thinking maybe we'd do someone else, maybe Coleridge," I suggest. "Oh, 'Kubla Khan,' what is there to say about it that hasn't been said?" "We're just leading a class discussion, not writing a doctoral thesis." "But you will be." He's off again on another track. "What? "Writing one. You'll be a doctor..." "If I make it, and anyway, an English professor isn't exactly a doctor." "Hmmm." "And you're a writer." "I'm trying to be." "I always thought . . . you'd be a great writer someday." Why do I offer him this? "Right," he scoffs. "What's that supposed to mean?" For the last couple minutes, I've been engaged in a non-hostile conversation with Edward Cullen and I haven't even realized it. Now the spell is broken. "Nothing. Sorry," he mutters. "Edward...wa.." "Hey, you ready to go?" Rosalie says, reminding me that I've been waiting for her. "Yeah." I wave goodbye to the rest but before I'm out the door, Edward grabs my arm. "You did?" I shake my head and furrow my brow, not understanding his drunken non sequitur.

He releases my arm as Kate sidles up. "Bella, it's so nice to see you again," she says, using my nickname with an irritating familiarity. "Thanks," I reply, just as I turn to go. "But my name is Isabella." ~QF~ I'm quiet for the train ride and, for a change, so is Rosalie. She hugs me at the gate to my building and promises to get in touch during the weekend. "You bet, Rosie," I tease, remembering the term of endearment I'd heard before. "Oh, not you too!" she groans. "Shel's going to Hell for this." I turn to go inside, feeling heavy and sleepy from my waning buzz, and my phone vibrates. Flipping it open, I'm surprised to see a text from Edward. Maybe it's for the bst if we dont talk about the past, when we work togther. That sounds fine with me, I think as I read the message filled with typos, then snap my phone shut. When I'm upstairs turning the key in my door, it vibrates again. Another message from Edward. Goodnight, Isabella. ~QF~ "You're being transferred to a hospital in Seattle tomorrow. There's a skin specialist there, and it's close to Forks. That's where Jacob goes to school, and that's where we're going to be living." Billy's voice is kind but I hate his words. Edward hasn't been to see me. Doctor Cullen was in and said that Edward wasn't feeling well and he thought it best for him to stay away, since I was so liable to infection . . . but it's been four days since I woke up. How sick can he be? They said I was in a coma for three days . . . they weren't sure I'd . . .

Alice came to visit yesterday and stayed for an hour. She brought me a comfy sweatshirt and some candy, and, even though I'm not allowed to eat it yet, I snuck a piece. I couldn't taste it really, and it hurt my throat. She didn't tell me why Edward wasn't with her, but she hugged me and told me she loved me, her face as white as a ghost. When she left she was crying. I must look hideous. "But I want to stay in Elgin," I protest weakly. My voice has improved just a little, but it still hurts to talkI can't manage to make much sound come out, but the doctors say it will get better. "I know. I know. But Isabella, you're going to need surgery before your wounds heal too thoroughly, and the burn care unit at Harborview is the best in the country. Doctor Cullen has arranged for your transfer; he knows one of the doctors there. They're going to take real good care of you." I struggle to wrap my mind around what Billy's saying, but the thought of moving anywhere is awful. I'm in so much pain, the constant morphine drip is the only thing that alleviates it. And the pain of leaving my friends . . . Edward . . . it's even worse. "But Edward . . ." My head is so confused. Why isn't he here again? Billy just shakes his head; I don't know if it's because he doesn't know where Edward is or because he's saying 'no.' All this time I'm aware of another presence: Billy's son, Jacob. The television is on, tuned to some game show. The audience claps and cheers. Jacob doesn't say much, keeping his eyes trained on the TV, but he's there in the room and somehow his presence is comforting. I try and sit up in the bed, but find the movement difficult. Billy sees what I want and uses the remote control switch to help me. "I know this is hard, Isabella," he says, touching my head. "But it's necessary. You want to heal properly, don't you?" "Yes," I reply, the tears welling hotly. Billy sighs and sits down in the chair next to my bed, using his cane to lower him. I've noticed that he has a pronounced limp, but I haven't asked about

it. I remember from my mom's pictures that he was once in a wheelchair. I can't help but wonder what happened to him. Even though there's grey in his hair, Billy's face is young...but he has the voice, and the attitude of someone much older. It's a contradiction I can't quite understand. "Sometimes the ways of God are difficult for us to comprehend," he says, "There have been times in my life where I found myself questioning His will. Once, when I was very young, not much older than you, and then again when I found out your father . . . when I found out what happened to Charlie . . . that he'd died. "But when you were a little girl, just a baby, I agreed to be your guardian if anything should happen to your parents, and I took that vow seriously. So, if the doctors think this is the best thing, then so be it. I'm going to stay true to my word, and do the best thing by you." "What was he like?" I ask hoarsely, "My dad?" Billy smiles and chuckles, "Well, I knew your dad for fifteen years, and in all my life, before or since, I've never met a better man. He saved my life, Isabella. Did you know that?" I shake my head. "You see, when I was sixteen, I was in a wreck-a pretty bad one. Your dad was the first one on the scene . . . pulled me out of the car. And just in time too. . ." Billy's voice trails off. I'm seeing him now in a whole new light. "I couldn't walk. The doctors said I might never. But I prayed, I prayed, and, well, your dad was there during all that time." He stops again, like it's painful to continue. "We had some disagreements over the years, but he was always a loyal friend. A good husband. He was a good father, Isabella. He loved you and your mom, very much." This is the most I've heard of Charlie, and I want more. He was a hero. Renee never really . . . Renee . . . Mom never really . . . "Shhhh," Billy says, and he's wiping my face with a tissue. "All right now, all right now. I know it's going to be hard, adjusting . . . but you'll like Forks, Isabella. And I promise. I'm not trying to take the place of your dad, or your mom. But I hope you'll consider Jacob and me here as family. That's how close me and your folks were back before they moved away." After a second, he adds, "Did you know that you and Jacob used to be the best of friends?"

I shake my head. I don't really remember. But I already have friends. Friends . . . no. I won't leave them. I won't leave Edward. Why isn't he here? Does he know I'm leaving? Does he care? An ache settles deeply in my chest, rooting there, making it even harder to breathe. Alice. Edward. "Isabella?" Billy asks,"are you alright?" No. No. No . . . .I don't want to leave . . . not even to get better, not even if I do somehow trust and like this man and his son . . . no. I look down at my body. Someone else's body. It's wrapped in bandages, gauze. My legs are covered but I remember catching a glimpse when the nurse changed the dressing and vomiting. Vomiting because there's no way this is my body . . . that it looks this way. Those are not my legs, but they are. They are because I can feel them, even unrecognizable under a char of blistering red and black. How could someone ever love this body? It hits me with startling clarity even in the fuzz of my drug-altered mind, and I know with certainty why Edward hasn't come. And I vomit again . . . there's a nurse . . .another injection. Then sleep.

"As soon go kindle fire with snow, as seek to quench the fire of love with words." William Shakespeare Chapter 9: September 21, 2010 A woman stands with her back towards me, her long hair spilling down her shoulders and over her white nightdress. She's so still, but a breeze I cannot feel ruffles her garment. She looks cool, peaceful, but I am suffocating. I can't breathe. Hello? My mouth forms the word, but no sound comes out . . . My hand claws at my throat, willing air in, but nothing. The woman doesn't stir. She cannot hear me.

All around is darkness and there is no sound, except for something low and growling in the distance . . . it's growing. And suddenly I'm petrified of that sound, more than anything else in my life. I take a step towards the woman, but my feet won't move. They're stuck, immobilized in some filthy, vile substance. I try again to lift my leg. Realizing with a panic that I'm slowly sinking into them mire, I scream with force that wells and bubbles, but still no sound. No sound but the growing roar, the dull crackle and pop and hiss... The inky blackness of the sky is interrupted by something falling, curling. I reach my hand out to catch it . . . anything to hold on . . . a red ribbon. Mom? The woman does not turn. MOOOMMMM! Without turning her head, she begins to walk away and I feel my feet lose whatever purchase they have, as inch by inch I'm drawn into the dark depths of sludge. MOOOOOOOMMMM! I awake panting, drenched in a cold sweat, shaking. Sunlight is peeking in through the blackout curtains and I reach over to flip on my bedside light, noting the time on my alarm . . . 9:00. I must've forgotten to set it, and now I've slept way later than I wanted to, since class is in an hour. But the remnants of the dream stay with me like poison as I shower and start my day, and I know there's only one thing that'll shake it. "Hey sweetheart," Billy's gravelly voice is a welcome sound in my ears; it makes me feel at home, and without bidding, tears well in my eyes. "Hey Billy." "It's early; are you okay?" "Yeah," I reply, trying to control the quiver in my voice. I don't want to worry him. "I'm okay, I just wanted to hear your voice." "Well, you know you can call anytime. You know me, I don't sleep."

"I know." Billy's insomnia has plagued him for years, but sometimes I'm jealous. If you don't sleep, you don't dream. "So how are you? Is Jake there?" "You just missed him, unfortunately. He got a call from Sam; someone's stuck out on 41 and needs a tow." "Ahh." "Speaking of tows, how's that old truck of yours holding up?" Since I've moved, I haven't really had to drive much. Old Gertie, as I affectionately call her, sits parked in a monthly lot about a block from my apartment. "She's good. She's settling in." "And how're YOU getting settled in?" "Oh, fine, fine. It's been pretty busy, but I've got my stuff unpacked. My apartment's starting to feel a little lived in." "That's good," he says wistfully. "Sure isn't the same around here without you." "Awww, Billy." "Well, we miss you, kid. Jake misses you." "I miss you too." "He says your classes are going real well." "They are, so far . . ." There's so much I'm omitting, but I try not to think of that as I wander around my apartment, picking up discarded clothes from the night before and placing them in my hamper, getting my books ready for class. It's already the third week of graduate school, and I haven't seen Billy or Jake in almost a month. Now that the stress of the initial move has worn off, that thing is creeping in . . . that thing that comes at night, threatening to take hold of me, pull me under. "Well, that sounds real good. I'm so proud of you, Isabella. Your dad and your mom would be, too." "Thanks." And this time my voice does choke up. Billy always knows the right thing to say.

We talk for another couple of minutes, but then I really have to go, or I'm going to be late again. "I'll tell Jacob you called," Billy says. "You should give him a ring later, during lunch. That boy doesn't know what to do with himself without you around." "Alright. I will. Bye." "Bye darlin.'" It's almost 9:45, and I grab my bag; just as I'm about to slip my phone in it vibrates-probably Rosalie downstairs telling me to hurry the hell up. Hi. Can you meet today after class? It's a text from Edward. My heart pounds in my chest as I consider what to do. Do I reply? Answer him in class? Ever since the night at the bar last week, I've half-expected him to text again, or to call, but he hasn't until now. I wonder if he expected me to. Indecision is only making me later, so I punch out a quick message before I lose my nerve. Yes, I can. We need to get this over and done with, the sooner the better. The problem is we haven't decided on an author or presentation date yet, and today's the day we'll be signing up in class. Jogging down the stairs towards the door, I wonder if he remembers suggesting Songs of Innocence and Experience . . . Can I handle doing it? And if I refuse, how will Edward react? Will he think I'm refusing out of spite, or because I really can't handle it. Why the hell does he want to do it anyway? To torture me? To send some kind of message? These are the same thoughts that've been swirling around in my mind all week; it's becoming a little tiresome, especially because I'm supposed to be concentrating on schoolwork. Rosalie and I make small talk as we hurry on the way to class. She's been in touch with Alison, and they've chosen to present on Christina Rossettishe's on the syllabus for October 5thonly two weeks away, and Rosalie figures no one else will want that date. When she asks what Edward and me are doing and I tell her we haven't chosen yet.

"Well, you better! You have about five minutes. You should talk to him before class." "I know, I know." By the time we arrive, there're only two seats left. Rosalie quickly takes the one next to Alison, and now there's only one next to Edward. I round the table quickly and drop into it, trying to ignore how close we are to each other. The table's not suited for 13 people, so space is limited. Edward turns to face me, dropping his pen and closing the notebook he's writing in. "Hi," he says. "Hi." I'm a little out of breath, my lungs a bit constricted. "So," he murmurs, "you got my message." "Yeah." "I didn't think you'd respond." His voice is terse, and my defenses kick in immediately. "What? Why?" Peggy interrupts his reply, whirling into the room in that way she has, taking out her folder and holding up a copy of the syllabus. "The first thing we're going to do is sign up for presentation dates. I'll ask that you select one of the last eight weeks of class, since we'll need time at the beginning of the semester to get into the swing of things before studentled discussions." I hear Rosalie sigh a little and I know she's upset she won't get to do Rossetti. "I know I told you to pick any week you wanted, and I'm sorry. But I hope you understand. I think it'll be better this way. Everyone will have more time to prepare, yes?" We sign up counter-clockwise, so by the time the list gets to Edward and me, there are only three dates left. Rue and Riley have signed up for Coleridge, and I wonder just for a split second if Edward put him up to it. There's just Blake, Keats and Wordsworth left. As I watch him, Edward holds the sign-up sheet and considers it carefully. He puts his pen to his lip,

casting a side-glance at me before scribbling our names down next to Keats, then sliding it over to me with a raised eyebrow. He's looking for my approval. I nod slightly, and then pass the list over to Peggy on my left. Edward's eyes are still on me when I turn back, a slight smile on his face that fades quickly as he looks away. "Alright," Peggy says, glancing over the list. "Interesting." Her eyes dart to the two of us for a second, and I wonder what she's thinking . . . is she wondering why we're not doing Blake, even though he's my specialty? Does she think I capitulated to Edward? "Everyone happy with their choices?" she asks. The class emits a few murmurs of acquiescence and Edward's eyes meet mine. There's something in the way he looks at me . . . I don't know what it is . . . I nod and Peggy smiles. "Well, then. Isabella and Edward will be the first to go. Looking forward to it." Our class is scheduled for October 19th, just a little over a month away, but suddenly I'm incredibly nervous. I hadn't even considered the fact that we'd be presenting first. Peggy tucks the list away, sealing our fate, and directs us to today's topic. Today, we're continuing our discussion of the sublime; we've read Edmund Burke, along with some poems by one of my favorite Romantics, Percy Bysse Shelley. His poem 'Mont Blanc,' is one I'm thoroughly familiar with, since it featured heavily in my undergraduate thesis. This time, if Edward wants to bring it, I'm ready. We open up our anthologies and Peggy starts asking some leading questions. Riley launches in immediately to some nonsense about how the sublime is dead because we're no longer in awe of nature's power. There's no longer the necessary element of fear required to inspire the emotional outpourings of the Romantics. Riley's a city boy, clearly. He's obviously never been cliff diving or caught in a snowstorm during a mountain hike. Or a fire . . . I want to refute him, but I'm distracted by Edward's bouncing leg. The movement is almost imperceptible, but I can see it sitting this close to him, and the table's vibrating slightly. I have this incredible impulse to reach out and still it, just like I used to do when we were young, and I actually have to grab a hold of my own leg to stop myself. A flood of remembrance

overcomes me . . . sitting in his room after school, listening to music . . . flickers of a conversation from long ago . . . "But if it is..." "If it is, I'll tell you. I'll tell you and make sure you never write again." "You will, will you? And how may I ask, will you do that?" "I have my ways." There's a hot clenching in my chest and I force myself back to the present, trying to wipe the memory from my mind. But it's so tenacious. It won't let go. Edward's nervous habit, at once so endearing and so infuriating. . . is he nervous? I glance at him out of the corner of my eye. His jaw is clenched and smoothly shaven, and his eyes are focused on the text in front of him. He's so close I can feel his warmth and smell his smell. Minty. A little spicy. Very Edward. Does he still eat those green tic-tacs? I used to tease him 'cause he always had a pack in his pocket. He said he liked to keep his breath fresh. For me. Something dead lurches and stutters inside of me. Why does he have to be here? Make me remember these things? "But for Shelley and the rest of the Romantics, Mont Blanc was the ultimate embodiment of Burke's sublime. It's the highest peak in the French Alps; it encompasses all of the aspects that Burke writes about in his treatisethe power, vastness, infinity, and even the obscurity of nature." Rosalie's voice shakes me out of my near stupor. I try to calm my racing heart and focus on her remarks. She's speaking with enthusiasm; they must be in the middle of an argument. I chastise myself for not paying attention. "Obscurity? But it's a mountain. It's so visible," Alison replies. Looking down the table, I can see Rosalie trying to control the rolling of her eyes. "That's not what he means by obscurity. What he means is not being able to comprehend the vastness of something. It's too great for the human mind. It doesn't mean you can't see-it's that conflict between seeing something and not being able to process what you're seeing." "Exactly, Rosalie," Peggy affirms. "That's what Shelley's trying to get across in his poem. But that doesn't mean you have to agree with the poet's vision. And perhaps there is something to be said for Riley's earlier point. Is there a

sense, that with photography, video, all of the technology we possess now, that we're no longer able to see something, a mountain perhaps, as incomprehensible?" Suddenly, I have a thought. And before I can stop myself, the words are out of my mouth. "I think that's almost besides the point." "Really, Isabella? How?" Peggy asks amusedly. Good, she's not offended. "Well, the way I see it, 'Mont Blanc,' isn't really about the mountain at all. It's Shelley trying to come to grips with his own perception of the divine, the incomprehensible, that he sees embodied in it. He's outlining his poetic vision and the mountain itself is only a muse. Even in the first line, he makes it clear he's speaking about 'the everlasting universe of things.' This is what the mountain inspires in himthoughts about what lies beyond human understanding." Peggy murmurs and nods, encouraging me to continue. "And he's staking a claim for his importance as a poet, for the importance of all poetsit's only those who 'deeply feel,' who are able to harness the powers of their imagination to see beyond the visible. Really, nature is just a blank canvass that's filled in by human thoughts...that's what he means by the final lines: "[...] The secret strength of things Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee! And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, If to the human's mind's imaginings Silence and solitude were vacancy?' "If we weren't able to see meaning in 'silence' and 'solitude,' then the mountain would signify absolutely nothing. There's no meaning inherent in anything unless we put it there. It's all subjective. And Shelley sees it as the job of the writer to do just that, to make us feel."

"Someone's been reading their Derrida in the first year Theory seminar," Peggy jokes. "Very perceptive, Isabella." Her eyes drift off to the side. "Edward? Did you have something to add?" I glance at Edward and he's looking down at his anthology, his brow a little tense. "Actually, no," he says, raising his head and leaning back. "I agree with Isabella's reading." I'm shocked, since I'd been certain Edward would find something wrong with my analysis. Peggy seems a little surprised too. "Anyone else?" The rest of the class passes by in a blur as I try to make sense of Edward's ever-changing attitude towards me. He's so confusing . . . I have no idea what to make of him. As we filter out into the hall, Rosalie comes up behind me, poking me in the side. "You, my friend, are one smart cookie." I blush a little bit and shake my head. She laughs. "You also need to learn how to take compliments." "I know, I know. It's never been one of my strong suits." "Well, you're in academia now. You need to develop your sense of selfimportance, or you'll never survive. So, you wanna go grab lunch?" "Actually, I can't. I'm supposed to be meeting with Edward." He's still in the classroom talking to someone. "Ohhhh, I see. Okay. Sounds good. I have a ton of grading to do, anyway. First quizzes. Blech." "Sounds like fun." "It's terrible, believe me. You'd be shocked at how little effort some of these kids put into it. I mean, we're reading Heart of Darkness and they think Africa's a country." She shakes her head.

"Kids these days," I play along. "You said it, sister." Edward's finally making his way to the door, and my stomach clenches again . . . damn it. "Pretty quiet in class today, Edward," Rosalie says as he approaches. "I figured you were doing enough talking for us all," he remarks, not missing a beat. Rosalie rolls her eyes dramatically and sighs. "Good luck with this one, Isabella. He's a real charmer. Call me later, okay?" "Okay." After Rosalie's departure, it's just Edward and me. I feel incredibly awkward, as I usually do in his presence. We start to walk without talking. "So, where should we go?" I ask. "Coffee? Lunch? We could go to the library." "Coffee sounds good." Somehow, I doubt I'll be able to eat with Edward, and the library probably isn't the best idea if we're going to be talking. It's another beautiful day with a clear blue sky . . . a day I'd normally enjoy very much. But the silence between us is deafening and I don't know what to do to bridge the gap, if I even should. How different things are now. Once upon a time our relationship was as easy as breathing, and now I can't think of a thing to say. It's horrible. "So, you're okay with the Keats?" he asks, zipping up his hoodie and glancing over at me. His green eyes, they're so strange, foreign yet familiar. One moment they're a stranger's and the next, they're his. "Yeah, I think that'll be good. Thank you." "It's nothing. I didn't really want to do the Blake either." "Then why did you suggest it?" He shrugs. "I don't know. I was drunk."

"Do you get that way a lot?" "Sometimes. Not a lot." "Hmmm." "Bella, I don't really care what Rosalie says; I know she's been telling you shit about me. She doesn't like me, if you can't tell. Not that you like me either. I know. I know you don't want to do this project with me, okay?" His pace quickens a little, and I find it hard to keep up with his long strides. "It's just weird for me. I don't know what to say to you," I confess. "And you think it's not weird for me?" "I never said that. I . . ." "Look, that's why I sent you that text message the other night. I just..." He pauses on the sidewalk, running his fingers through his hair agitatedly. It's getting longer again, more like I remember it. "I agree with you," I say quickly. "And I know you don't want to work with me, either. We'll just keep it professional. Okay? And then we'll be done with it. You won't have to talk to me anymore." I can't keep the hurt from my voice, even as I attempt to rein it in. "Bella, I don't . . ." "Don't, please? Let's just not do this." I don't want to hear him confirm what I've just said, even though I know it's true. The years have proven that well enough. "Can I just ask you one question?" We're in the middle of the sidewalk outside the coffee shop and people are passing by. Cars are honking, trucks rattling along with their cargo. And Edward is standing so close to me I can see the rise and fall of his broad shoulders as he breathes. "That depends. What's the question?" "Are you . . . alright?" His voice is low and a little shock runs through me when he reaches out and touches my arm. I flinch back instinctively and he removes his hand, a hurt expression marring his features.

"I thought you didn't want to talk about the past," I whisper. "I don't. I'm talking about the present. You don't have to answer me. It's just that I never thought I'd see you again and I . . ." He leaves the rest unsaid, an undeniable sadness in his voice I don't know how to read. And whose fault is that? I want to snap at him, but when the words come out, they're quiet. "I'm fine. Okay? See?" I spread out my arms. Does he want to see scars? Horrible disfigurement? What does he want to see? "Okay, Bella," he says, stepping back. His eyes dart down, and I'm thankful, so thankful, he'll never really see me. "Shall we go in?" I ask, hugging my arms around my body and securing my bag. "Sure." We enter, finding a seat near the door, and Edward asks what I'd like. I insist on giving him cash for my tea, but he waves it off. His absence gives me a minute to reestablish my equilibrium, taking out my course materials and settling down to work. Soon, he returns with our drinks and a muffin on a plate. Blueberry. His favorite. He sits and washes down a bite of cake with a sip of coffee. And all I can think of was how he once downed an entire tray of my blueberry muffins in one sitting. "Do you want some?" he asks, probably noticing the way I'm staring at him. "No. I'm fine. Thanks." "You sure? There's different stuff up there. Scones, croissant?" "I'm fine." "Okay," he says, clearing his throat. "So. Keats." "I'm surprised no one else signed up for him," I comment, tearing my eyes away from his moving mouth. We've tacitly agreed to a truce, and I decide it's better just to go along with it. "Well, it's the first presentation date. No one wants to set the bar."

"Should we set it low, or high?" "What do you think?" "High." He smiles widely. "Definitely." "So, where do we start?" "Well, I guess first we need to decide what we want to talk about. Are we going to lead a roundtable discussion like Peggy, or are we going to use some other format?" "I was thinking we could maybe bring in some other media...like a PowerPoint or something. Something to get people's attention." "That's not a bad idea," he says. "I even have some pictures of Keats's grave in Rome we could use. And the house where he died near the Scalinata della Trinit dei Monti." The words roll of his tongue in a fluent Italian, and my eyes widen. The Edward I knew had no interest in foreign languages, yet here he is speaking like a native. "I spent a summer in Rome," he explains, somewhat sheepishly. "Learned a little Italian." His humility indicates he didn't mean to show off. "Wow. That's great." I'm impressed despite myself. I've never been out of the country, and I've always wanted to go to Europe. "How did you afford that?" "I kinda worked illegally. It was just after college. Stayed in a cheap room in Trastevere. You know, to gain some experience for my writing. I did a little traveling in Spain and Portugal as well." I wonder if he was alone, or if he had friends there. "That's amazing." "It was...unforgettable." The atmosphere seems heavy again. Edward takes another sip of his coffee, but his eyes seem far away. "And did it help...with your writing?"

"Yeah. To some extent. I just figured I needed to get outside of the U.S. It was only three months." "That makes sense. Where did you go to college?" My curiosity is getting the better of me. "The University of Pennsylvania." He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, not elaborating further. "So," I say, bringing the conversation back to the topic at hand. "We'll use some of your pictures to set the scene. Any other interactive media? Wasn't there a movie about Keats that just came out?" For the next hour, Edward and I talk about some of the ideas we'd like to discuss and the format, but we still have to decide on what poems to focus on, and we figure both of us have to do some close readings before we talk again. We decide to meet at the same time next week after class. All in all, the meeting hasn't gone as badly as I expected it to, despite some initial awkwardness, and when we part it's not as tense as it's been. He gives a crooked smile and a little wave before turning round and walking down the block to catch his train. But instead of feeling relief, a clawing melancholy settles over me. Hands in pockets. Long stride. Bronze hair shining. Always, in my memory, walking away. ~QF~ Back at my apartment, I check my messages. Jake's called and his voice does sound sad. I hate that it's my fault. I need to be here. He says he understands but sometimes, it seems like maybe he doesn't. I've always wondered if Jake resented me about the college thing, since he didn't go. The only reason I was able to was because I had grades good enough to give me a scholarship. Charlie's pension had transferred to me when my mom died, and I'd received it until I was 18, saving all of the money to help pay for other college expenses. Billy didn't have the money to send Jake to school, but Jake insisted he didn't want to go anyway. How much of that was the truth, and how much of that was just Jake being Jake, I'd never know.

I call him back and catch him on his lunch break, and we chat for a while about work, the garage, school. He tells me that Billy's back is bothering him again. And that Sam Uley left Leah Clearwater for her cousin Emily. "That's insane! I always thought they were so in love." "Leah's devastated," he says. "I love Sam like a brother, but he just really messed up this time, you know? And with her own cousin." "That must be horrible for her." "Yeah, she's having a rough time. But she'll pull through, though. She's strong." "Give her my love, will you?" "I will. Hey!" he says, changing the topic. "Only 90 more days." "Hmm?" "Ninety days till you're home for Christmas, silly." "Oh right. Sorry. Of course! Don't mind me, I'm just a little out of it." "You sound a little weird. Is everything alright?" "Yeah. It's fine. My mind's just on school. I have so much work." "Okay, well, I'll let you get to it, then. Call me if you need anything, okay?" "Okay. Bye." "Bye babe. I love you." "Jake?" I ask, but he's already hung up. "I love you," I whisper to the air. I make myself a little snack of crackers and cheese and settle down to read, but my talk with Jake hasn't improved my mood. I still feel strange, like there's someone else living in my body. The crackers are fresh but seem stale on my tongue, the cheese cloying. I'm reading Keats and I'm thinking of someone I shouldn't be thinking of. At all. But he keeps waltzing into my thoughts with his strange moods and

enigmatic words. It's so weird, like he's holding a grudge against me for some reason. For the life of me I can't fathom why. He didn't come to see me . . . he never contacted me . . . all those years I cried and waited for him, dying slowly. A piece of me missing. Damn Edward, and damn Keats. The last thing I want to read right now are love poems. Maybe the Blake would've been better. Songs of Innocence and Experience...what an apt title. What I've always loved about it is how Blake manages to blend these two states of being in his poetryso that the poems of the "innocent" suggest experience, and vice versa. Isn't that the truth of human life? There is a box under my bed, and now that's all that's on my mind. I haven't opened it in over a year, though I bring it with me wherever I go. Today, I give in. I open the box and finger the two books inside. My treasure, my burden. Picking up one of them, I sit down on my bed to read. It's a blue notebook, the paper yellowed from time and slightly charred at the edges. The only thing I have left from the fire. Edward's writing.

"Here lies one whose name was writ in water."John Keats Chapter 10: September 28th, 2010 Forks is nothing like Elgin. For one thing, there're a lot more trees. There is some farmland here, but otherwise it's nothing like Illinois. Billy's house is on the Quileute reservation, close to the sea. I've never lived near the ocean, the real ocean. So far I've only seen it once from the backseat of the car on the way home from my latest operation. It looked a lot colder than I imagined it would . . . hazy . . . misty . . . I asked and Billy pulled to the side of the road. I pressed my palm against the cold, cold glass as my breath fogged it, making it even harder to see. I thought there was something white floating above the water in the distance. It looked like a woman's figure, her dress and hair wild in the wind, but I didn't say anything about it. Just the foaming of the waves, a trick of light . . . those would've been the answers I'd have received.

But I believe in ghosts. I'm alone a lot, since Billy works at the pawn shop in Forks and Jake goes to school. He's in the ninth grade, just like me. Only I won't be back at school for a while. Instead, a tutor comes three times a week, and the rest of the time I work on my own. It's not so bad, being home schooled, and the doctors say it's necessary since my legs are liable to infection as they're still healing, Anyway, it hurts to walk even five months afterward. I don't want to fall behind, though, and so I work really hard, even when I don't feel like it. It's nicer here than in Seattle. I'm glad to be out of the hospital, and I don't complain. I write. Not stories, but letters. Letters and letters. I write to Edward and Alice almost every day. I tell them everything; that I love and miss them, what it's like here. About my new friend Jake. I tell Edward that I still have his notebook and that I'll keep it for him in a safe place until I see him again. I tell him that I understand he doesn't want me to be his girlfriend anymore, and why, but that I remember our promise to always be friends. But he doesn't remember it. He never replies, not once. It's like he never even existed at all . . . or that I've stopped existing. The last time I went for a checkup at Port Angeles General, another kind of doctor came in the room to see mea psychologist. She started asking me questions about my mom and the fire, and I just sat quietly, hoping she'd go away. Later, out in the waiting room, I heard her talking to Billy. That's another thing I've started noticing: people talking about me like I'm not even in the room and can't hear them. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, she says. I know that term, but I don't have it. Post means past, and what's happening to me isn't in the past. It's here, every day. I see my mother burning, trying to save me. I try to save her. But I'm too late, far too late . . . I'm tired of people treating me like a child and an invalid, when I don't feel like a child anymore, if I ever did. Today is Friday and Jake has a half-day of school since it's the day before spring vacation. He said he had a surprise for me, and I'm more than a little curious. I'm sitting in the living room with my notebook on my lap, and I'm writing a letter to Alice. Dear Alice,

If you could go back to any day and have a do-over, what day would you choose? There are a lot of days I'd like to change. I miss you guys so much. But I don't understand. Why won't you write me, Alice? I thought we were best friends. Some days I wish I never met you. It's a terrible letter. I can't think of anything to say anymore that doesn't end in bitterness, and I tear the sheet from the notebook, crumpling it in my hands and tossing it on the floor. I start again but that letter meets the same fate, and it's so frustrating I start to cry. I'm tired of crying over people who don't give a damn about me. The sound of the door opening startles me, and I sit up on the sofa, wiping my face with the back of my hand and reaching for my cane. Just like Billy's. "No, no! Don't get up!" Jacob calls from the other room. He must've peaked in. I sit back down, trying to catch my breath from the crying. A minute or so later Jacob appears with a huge grin on face that falls the minute he sees mine. His eyes dart from me to the crumpled sheets on the ground, and before I can stop him, he snatches one up. "Don't!" I protest. But he reads it anyway. "Bella . . ." he says, looking at me sadly. "You can't keep doing this to yourself." "That wasn't yours to read. And anyway, I'm not doing anything." He sits down next to me. "Yes. You are." "I need to do this. I have to write to them." "No, you don't. It hurts for me to say this. But . . . they don't want you anymore." His words are shocking . . .they cut deeply. Mostly because I know they're true. But even in my agony I stick up for my friends. "You don't know that. You don't know anything," I whisper. I'm crying again and I wish he'd go and leave me alone. He doesn't say anything else for a

while, but he reaches out his hand and puts it on my shoulder. I'm mad at him, but I can't bring myself to shrug it off. No one, except the doctors and occasionally Billy, has touched me in so long. "I'm sorry," he says. My tears have slowed a bit and Jacob grabs me a tissue. I blow my nose wetly. "It's okay." It's quiet in the room, and I hear something rustling in the hall. My curiosity is peaked again. "So," he says, smiling a little again, "you want your surprise?" I nod and he gets up and retreats to the hall. A few seconds later he comes back holding a square silver cage. Inside is a tiny brown bird with black eyes and an orange beak. It flutters, clearly startled by the movement, and lets out a small chirp. Jacob places the cage on the side table next to me, and the little bird settles down on its perch. It cocks its head rapidly from side to side. "This is Finch . . . the finch," Jacob tells me. "He used to live in one of the elementary classrooms, but the teacher got sick. She's retiring. So, he was looking for a home. I figured you might like a little company, you know, when Dad and I aren't around." Finch rustles his feathers and chirps again, and I reach my finger out tentatively, sticking it through the narrow bars of the cage. He regards it carefully, but is seemingly unalarmed. I wonder if he knows there's a wider world out there, or if he's happy in his small prison. Jacob is smiling again, that huge grin that shows all of his perfectly straight white teeth. "Do you like him?" "I love him, Jake. Thank you." ~QF~ For the rest of the week after my meeting with Edward I try to buckle down and do my work. There's an assignment due in my Lit theory class, and I'm finding the reading a little more difficult than I expected. I hole myself up in

my apartment to read and write, to concentrate on something other than the awaking of a familiar strangeness inside of me, but reading the poetry for our project isn't helping. Keats' tragic death haunts methe premonitory aspects of his poetry, and his letters, are unsettling. He knew his end was near, that he'd never be able to marry the love of his life, that he'd die before he'd reached his fullest potential. Behind the beautiful words and imagery of "Ode to a Nightingale," I see a man wondering what death must be like. What will be waiting? There was a point in my life when it hurt to breathe, and it wasn't because of smoke inhalation, although that hurt too. It started on the day that I awoke to fire, and intensified that day I left Elgin General in the transfer vehicle. A day in October, like any other . . . a crisp fall day. I was fourteen years old, leaving behind the only life I'd ever known. I looked out the window upon nothing, and the absence reflected in my shallow inhales. And it didn't get better for a long time. When I decided to return to Illinois, in some ways it was like a homecoming. Elgin is just an hour away. I can go at any time to see the neighborhood where I grew up. But I won't. Not only because I'm afraid, though I am, but also because it no longer feels like home. I feel strangely unmoored, and that fierce longing, that hurt, is crowding my chest again. I won't let it this time. I can do this. I can work with Edward, and that's it. I can do this. And so I read, and when Rosalie asks me to study or order Chinese food, I do. And when Jake calls I take comfort in his voice, and Billy's. But all the same, I wonder if he's reading the Keats, as I am, if he ever thinks of me, as I think of him. On Tuesday morning, Rosalie calls and asks if I want to get breakfast before class. It sounds like a good idea since there's no food in my apartment. I haven't felt much like cooking lately. A half an hour later, I meet her outside. There's a beautiful white cashmere scarf wrapped around her pale neck, and I wonder, once again, how she affords such luxuries. She smiles as I approach, but something about it seems sad. "Hey," she says. "Hey yourself."

We have about an hour, so we decide to go to Roberto's for huevos rancheros; it's delicious and just a block away from class. "So, you're meeting with Edward again?" "Yeah. After class." "How's the project coming?" "It's good . . . so far. What about you?" "Not too bad. Alison's a dimwit, but other than that, it's coming." "That's good. As long as you don't have to do most of the work." "Oh, I don't mind. I'd rather get a good grade than leave it up to her." By the time the food arrives I'm starving, and I instantly fork a bite of eggs, beans and tortilla into my mouth. We chat for a bit, but Rosalie's not eating much. And for the first time since I've known her, which admittedly isn't all that long, I'm talking more than her. "Hey. Are you okay?" I finally ask. I'm always wary of asking intrusive questions, but it seems like there's something really bothering her. Her eyes meet mine and I notice, with something of a shock, they're filling with tears. She shakes her head, letting out a trembling sigh. "No. Not really, actually." A tear falls and she hastily wipes it away. "Do you want to talk about it?" "I don't want you to think less of me." "I won't." "I know we haven't known each other that long, but you're a good friend. You seem . . . trustworthy somehow. It's just, I don't have many friends. The girls in the department, well, they don't like me. I guess they think I'm a bitch, or stuck up, or whatever. I suppose I'm not the easiest person to get along with." "Well, they're idiots. I think you're great."

"Thanks." She leans back in her chair, setting down her fork. The look on her face tells me she's deciding whether or not to share whatever is burdening her. "Listen, do you swear you won't say a word . . . to anyone?" "I don't know if you've noticed, but I don't have many friends either. You can tell me anything, honestly. You can trust me." "I thought I was pregnant." This isn't at all what I was expecting, so I'm momentarily speechless. My expression must register my confusion, because she starts to explain. "I'm not. I took a test this morning." "And that's not a good thing?" "No," she sighs, "it is a good thing. I'm relieved, mostly." "Wait. I'm sorry. I didn't even know you were seeing someone," I confess, remembering our conversation at the bar. "No one did. It was just our little secret," she scoffs, emphasizing the last three words. "He's an older manmarried. Has two kids with his wife. And anyway, I don't mean anything to him." All of a sudden, I have a sneaking suspicion I know who it is. I remember secret phone calls, meetings . . . "Professor Finley?" She nods, her eyes searching mine. "How did you know?" "I didn't. Just a hunch. How long has this been going on?" I ask her. "A few months. It started at the end of last year. We were at the year-end grad party, and he was there. I've always had a little crush on him. Have you seen him?" I shake my head no. "Well, he's quite attractive. Anyway, we stayed late, went for a cup of coffee. He started telling me about his marriage. How unhappy he was. Same stupid lines than men have been using for millennia. Before I knew it we were back at my apartment and he was undressing me. God, I was so drunk, and it was so exciting." I nod and murmur encouragingly for her to go on.

"We started seeing each other pretty regularly; then it was as often as twice, three times a week. Since I got assigned a TA-ship for his lecture it's been almost every day." "Oh, Rosalie." "He told me he couldn't get enough of me . . . brought me gifts, clothes, money. I told him I wouldn't accept them, but he wouldn't listen; he'd just leave them anyway. And I needed the money." She's started crying now in earnest and I push my chair back, going to her and wrapping my arms around her slim shoulders. So that explains Rosalie's wardrobe. After a few seconds, I release my hold, sitting back down as she continues. "His wife got suspicious. He came just a couple of days ago to tell me he had to break it off. She'd opened his email account, found some of our correspondence, and some credit card statements. He said he was sorry, but that doesn't make me feel like less of a whore. "It's so ridiculously typical. I've been such a fool, like so many other women. I'm a home-wrecker. And you probably think I'm disgusting, don't you? And a hypocrite. After all the things I said about our slutty department, here I am, the worst one of all." "No, I don't. And you're not." "Yes, I am." "Can I ask you something? Do you love him?" She looks at me seriously for a minute, and then she nods her head. "You're not a whore. I'm sorry this happened to you Rosie." "I am what I am," she sighs. I've never seen Rosalie look so despondent, and it's disconcertingshe's such a vibrant person. "It's funny," she says thoughtfully, "I've always hated that nickname, but I don't mind when you say it . . . it's kind of nice." "You can call me Bella, if you want," I reply impulsively. I haven't asked anyone to use my nickname in years. It's a little strange, but not bad. "Okay, Bella," she smiles. "You know, that name suits you." She pauses for a minute, checking her watch. "Listen, you need to get going to class. I don't think I can bear it today. I'll send Peggy an email."

"No. I should stay with you." "Please, no. You need to go to class. I'll be fine, seriously. I just need a little time." We part ways on the street corner and I walk the rest of the way to class on my own. Edward sits in the same seat as last week, but this time the seats next to him are occupied. For just a second, I'm disappointed. He looks up from his notebook when I enter and gives a small smile, which I return, before looking down again and resuming his writing. As class begins, I push aside thoughts of Rosalie and Edward and try to concentrate. But I feel melancholy. Yes, in many ways, Rosalie's situation seems typical. It was foolish for her to get involved with a married man, and a professor, but she already knows this. I decide that I'll be the best, most supportive friend I can be for her and perhaps, just perhaps, I'll entrust her with some of my secrets as well. The conversation today centers on some lesser known poets that I'm not terribly interested in, but I take thorough notes for Rosalie's sake as well as my own. Once in a while I sneak a quick glimpse at Edward. He's sitting directly in my line of sight so my behavior isn't obvious. I don't think. But one time he catches me looking and holds my gaze. He doesn't smile, but his eyes are thoughtful. During the break, I check my messages. There's one from Rosalie thanking me for listening, and again asking me to keep it between us. I understand her unease, but she has nothing to worry about, at least from me. I also talk with some of the other girls in the class about the course requirements. Everyone is working hard on their teaching presentations. I know that we'll have to do an excellent job to set the standards high and impress Peggy and the rest of the class; still, I have confidence in what we're preparing. I'm eager to get our project more solidified, though, so by the end of class I'm ready to go. Edward waits for me as I pack up my stuff and we walk together to coffee shop. "So," I begin once we've settled at a table with our drinks, "did you have a chance to read the Keats?"

"Yeah. I did. I hadn't read him in a long time," Edward confesses. He's looking a little morose today as he pours a creamer into his coffee. "Me neither. Did any poems stick out to you?" "Yeah. A few. I think we should focus on the Odes, right?" "Wouldn't that be expected, though? Should we do something unusual?" Edward shrugs and starts ferreting through his bag. "I don't know . . . You don't wanna just do something unexpected to do something unexpected. We should talk about the most interesting poems." He pulls out an envelope of pictures and slides them over to me with a small smile. "Here. From Rome." I remember he'd said he'd bring the pictures today to see if any were suitable for our PowerPoint. "I don't know if you wanna use any of these . . ." I open the envelope and begin flipping through the photographs. Most of them highlight landscapes and buildingsbeautiful Rome streetscapes and historical monuments. Ruins overrun with tourists, but still managing to look majestic. Edward is incredibly talented with the camera and I savor them slowly; they're treasured glimpses into his life. "I like this one with the turtles. What is it?" I say, holding up a picture of one a fountain. "That's the Fontana delle Tartarughe in the Jewish Ghetto," Edward explains. "Yeah, it's one of the best of Rome's fountains. I think it's from the 16th century." "Incredible." I'm surprised he's letting me see the pictures that aren't related to Keats. Of course there are some of those as well. I recognize his gravestone in the foreigner's cemetery in Rome, since I've seen pictures of it before. I love the inscription on the otherwise marked tomb: "Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water." It's a simple and beautiful way to remember his transitory life. "We can use this," I say, holding up the picture. "Yeah," Edward replies, "and the next couple are of the house where he died near the Spanish Steps."

"Great. Let's definitely include these." Edward has pictures of the exterior of the house as well as the interior and museum inside. They'll be perfect. There are a few more photographs after those, and I'm surprised to one of the last is of Edward. He's standing at the top of a hill with the city behind him, shimmering and beautiful in the golden light. He looks so much younger, more like I remember, but his face seems distant. His hair is long and he's holding a rucksack on his left arm. I wonder who's taking the picture. I glance up at him expectantly, but he's silent. He's watching me carefully. What is he thinking? I can see he's not going to explain. Without another word, I restore the pictures to the envelope and pass them back. His hand brushes mine and the shock of his warm skin jolts me. Our eyes meet for a second, but I look away quickly. "Those were beautiful. Thank you." "Yeah, well, I'm not a professional. But they'll do for this," he says offhandedly, and I feel the sting of his dismissal. Nothing personal. Right. "Okay. Well, which of the Odes do you want to do?" For the better part of a hour, we're all business, finally deciding on "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode to an Nightingale," and "To Autumn." Neither of us brings up any of the love poetry; it's clearly not a place either of us is willing to go. We'll begin with the PowerPoint presentation and a short introduction to the poetry, and then pose some leading questions to get the discussion going. "It's important we have something to say, though, if conversation lags," I add. "Definitely. I think we should do some pretty thorough close readings of the poetry. Maybe we can do that on our own time and meet back up in another week or so." "Right," I agree, even as my chest constricts. He obviously wants to leave and it hurtsalmost as bad as the revelation that I don't want him to go. I'm surprised when he continues. "I've also done some research about Keats' life," he says, "If you think it'd be relevant. Did you know he had an affair with a woman named Isabella Jones, and that some of his poems were possibly inspired by her?" He leans

back and eyes me, and I'm flustered. I'd know about this, but his comment seems pointed, not least because of the name. I try not to show my unease. 'I've heard that, but I don't know. I prefer to think he always stayed loyal to Fanny Brawne . . ." "He never consummated his relationship with Brawne," Edward points out as my heart beats more rapidly. "You'd be foolish to think Keats died a virgin." We're entering dangerous territory here, and I don't know what he's playing at. For some reason I feel compelled to defend their relationship. "Yeah. Well, we don't know anything for sure. And does it really matter? From his letters you can tell how much he loved her." "Sometimes people say things they don't mean in letters," Edward says coldly. "You can't always believe what you read." "Maybe sometimes. But I like to think most of the time people are honest," I reply defensively. I feel sick . . . Is he insinuating that I didn't mean what I'd written all those years ago? I meant every word. Every damn word. I look across the table at the boy I loved, startled to see green eyes dark with pain staring back at me. Strangely, I want to comfort him, even though he's the one who's hurt me. I miss him. I miss Alice terribly. I don't even know what she's doing, where she is right now. Edward's collecting his things as I stare at my half-drunk cup of tea. "I gotta get going, Bella. I'll see you around." "Yeah. Okay." He stands, slinging his bag over his shoulder. "Hey, Edward?" I call just as he turns to go. "When you see Alice, or talk to her, will you tell her I say 'hi'?" My voice cracks a little. I can't help it. Edward whips around, his face wearing a bitter sneer. He emits a harsh laugh. "Alice is dead, Isabella." Well you can stare all day at the sky But that won't bring her back That won't bring her back You say you're waiting on fate

But I think fate is now I think fate is now Waiting on us... -Tori Amos "Bouncing Off Clouds" Chapter 11: September 28-October 8th, 2010 No. No. No. The word vibrates repetitively in my head. My hands clutch the table before me. I feel its hardness, its stability, but I'm unraveling. Beautiful, sweet Alice. Full of life. She can't be gone. It doesn't make sense. "No," I whisper as the blood drains from my face. "No. It can't be true." Edward stands before me, but I can't look at his face. All I see is Alice. Riding bikes. Teaching me how to wear makeup. Teasing Edward and me when she finds us kissing on his bed. "It's true." His voice calls me back from the past and his familiar eyes hold me, blurry like mine. They're not angry anymore. I want to reach out to him, feel his arms wrap around me. I want to yell, scream, hit him, and tell him he's lying. "No." "Yes, Bella." "Edward . . ." There's a fist closing around my heart, squeezing and tearing. But even in the midst of my pain, I know his is more. He reaches his hand out and I hold fast. There is desperation in his grip and I'll do anything to make it better. "Edward," I say again, my voice catching in my throat. But then, my hand is empty again. "I can't. I'm sorry. I can't . . ." he chants hollowly. Steps back. Turns around. He's out the door and I'm still sitting with questions I don't want answered bubbling on my tongue. A cup of cold tea I want to smash against the wall.

How can she be dead? How did this happen? Why did no one tell me? What the fuck is going on? That persistent, sweet, lying voice keeps telling me that it's not true. But I know. I know. My legs start to move but it's too late. I search for his back, his quick step on the street, but he's already lost in the throng of pedestrians. Gone. I wander futilely in the direction I think he went. For how long? I don't know. But after a while I realize I've left all my belongings at the coffee shop, including my laptop computer. Luckily, the manager knows me. "You looking for this?" she asks, holding up my shoulder bag. Everything's neatly stowed away. "Yes." It's the first word I've spoken in what must be hours, and the vibrating sensation seems strange on my tongue. I reach out for it, not even caring to check if anything's missing. Everything's missing. She says something else but I just nod absently and thank her. She must think I'm insane and maybe I am. Like mother like daughter. Making my way back to my apartment, I fumble for my cell phone. I have his number. But when I call it goes straight to voicemail. His beautiful voice. "This is Edward. Leave a message." Not knowing what to say, I don't. What can I say? There are also missed calls from the usual suspects, but I ignore them. All I want is to be alone. Back in my room, there's a curling inward. A darkening. I lay on my bed feeling the blood pulsing through my limbs and listening to the sounds of traffic outside. I want to blot it out. My mind remains strangely blank except for an image of a girl with short dark hair and a red dress. ~QF~ "Why do you like my brother?" It's a couple of weeks since Alice found out about us. Until now, she hasn't asked me much about it, so her question takes me off-guard. It's impossible to put into words. And anyway, there're too many reasons. "Um . . . because?"

"Because why? Come on, I want details." Alice and I are lounging in her room after school. She's painting her nails on her bed and I'm sitting on the floor, flipping though one of her many fashion magazines. So many boring-looking skinny girls wearing revealing outfits. I cast it aside and sigh. "I don't know. Haven't you ever liked a boy before?" "Well, yeah." "Who?" "No one in particular." "That's a lie. You like Jasper." "I do NOT," she protests, glaring at me. But I can tell by the twinkle in her eye that she's lying. "Yes, you do." "Whatever, Bella. He's a little old for me, don't you think?" "That won't matter so much someday." "Oh yeah? How do you figure?" I shrug. "Edward's older than me." "Not as old as Jasper." She sits up and begins painting her toes. "What's it like kissing?" Alice asks me suddenly, looking up. I blush. "Uh . . ." "Come on! You can tell me! Jeez! Don't be so prude." Finally, the desire to share with my friend overwhelms my resistance. "It's the best thing in the world." "What do you mean? How?" Her eyes are wide and curious.

"Well, it's . . . I don't know. Sorta like being in warm water . . . floating. I can't describe it . . . At first it feels strange, but then it's like the most familiar thing. Your stomach feels jittery. And you don't want to stop." "Hmm." She considers what I've said. "It's kinda creepy you're talking about Edward. But it sounds nice. I'm glad you guys like each other. It's good." "Thanks." "HEY!" Alice's sudden exclamation startles me. I look up expectantly. "You know. if you marry Edward, we'll be sisters!" Now my face is definitely redder than a tomato, I know it. Marry Edward? We've only been dating a few months. And I'm fourteen! "Yeah, well, I doubt it." "I don't." "Oh yeah?" "Sometimes," she leans forward secretively,"I know what's gonna happen before it does." I laugh and chuck a stuffed animal at her. She ducks and squeals. "So what? Are you like a psychic or something?" "I don't know. But the other day, I was thinking of this song, and when I turned the radio on it was playing. Isn't that weird?" "I think it's called coincidence, Ali." "Coincidence, psychic-ness. Whatever. Anyway, I know you guys are gonna get married and have ten bazillion babies. Bel-la and Ed-ward sitting in a tree . . ." I throw another animal. "Shut up." "K-I-S-S-I-N-G! First comes love" Deep, rolling thunder awakens me. For a minute it's peaceful, but then I remember. A glance at the alarm clock tells me it's three in the morning. Flashes of lightening fill the room and rain drives in through the open window.

I move towards it, but instead of closing it, I lean outside, letting the downpour of the early fall storm soak through my shirt and put the fire out. ~QF~ When I wake again it's morning and I am on the floor near the window. My clothes are still damp and I look up at the blue sky. Not a cloud in sight. ~QF~ Another day. I call him again. Straight to voicemail. This time I leave a message. Please call me, Edward. I need to talk to you. Please. There are many missed calls on my phone, but I delete all the messages without listening to them. I don't feel like reporting in. Briefly I recall my theory class is today. I don't feel like going, so I don't. I make a grilled cheese sandwich and burn it. It's the last of my bread and I lick the melted cheese from the inside, pick at the crust. There is no pleasure in food. ~QF~ He doesn't call back. Rosalie does. I answer on the third day, needing the sound of her voice. The silence in my apartment is becoming oppressive. "Bella. Hey. Um. I was worried about you, but I thought that maybe you decided you didn't want to be friends with me after all." A nervous laugh at the end of the line. "Of course not, Rosie. I'm sorry. There's just . . . something happened." "What is it?" I can hear her fear; I know I don't sound very well. "Can you come over?" "I'll be there in ten." She's here in five. I buzz her in and she swoops down upon me, mothering, concerned. I'll take it. Her hug is so comforting that I sob.

"Jesus, what happened?" "My friend, Alice." It's the first time I've really cried, and once they start my tears are unstoppable. "Tell me what happened." "She's dead." Rosalie leans back against the couch, taking me with her. "Holy shit. A friend from home?" I nod speechlessly. "When did this happen?" "I d-d-don't know." "But she died? How did you find out?" "Ed-w-ward told me." Through the haze of my tears I can see her confusion, but I can't go on. Rosalie rocks me and lets me cry. "I don't understand," she says softly, releasing me. "Tell me from the beginning." "I lied to you before about Edward. I did know him. We . . . we grew up together." "I thought as much." Once I start talking I can't stop. It's strange how easy it is even though I've only known Rosalie for a short time. Perhaps that's why it's easy. I don't tell her everything, especially about my mom, but I tell her enough to understand. When I get to the fire there are tears in her eyes. They drift to my legs tucked underneath me, and I know she's wondering what they look like. I can't blame her, not really. People are always curious. And then I tell her about the move and how I never saw either of them again until now. Just speaking it out loud, I feel detached; it sounds like someone else's life. "Jesus. You've been through so much." "Please, don't feel sorry for me." "I don't. I think you're an incredibly strong person," she says softly. We're quiet for a minute as Rosalie absorbs the whole bizarre tale. "God, no wonder you fainted in class that first day." I nod wearily, resting my head

against the back of the couch. I'm exhausted; still, I can see Rosalie has many questions. "So. Edward told you about Alice, but he didn't tell you how or when?" "No. And he won't answer his phone." "Goddammit! I can't believe he just left it like that." I haven't told her about the strange, accusatory nature of his revelationhow he seemed so angry with me. There's a horrible thought in the back of my mind that maybe he blames me for some reason. I don't even want to consider why. But it was almost like he expected I'd know for some reason. How could I? "He was upset." "Well, so were you. Don't make excuses for him, Bella. I know she was his sister, but he can't just drop a bomb like that and then take off without another word. It's not right." Rosalie stands up and collects a blanket from my bed, draping it around my shoulders. I don't realize I'm shivering until I feel its warmth. "I guess. I" "And after not writing to you. I can't believe it. He really is an asshole. You need to talk to him. This is ridiculous." Now she's moving about the apartment, muttering as she puts things in order. I can only watch helplessly. "You guys have seriously not talked about anything? How the hell have you worked together? That must have been awkward. I can't even imagine . . ." "Yeah, well, it's been weird." "Don't you want an explanation for everything, though? I mean, don't you want to know why he hasn't even tried to contact you all these years?" My head throbs and I shrug. Of course I've wondered. I'm just too much of a coward to ask, probably because I already know what the answer will be. "Well, I think you deserve to know." Rosalie goes to the fridge and rummages around. "Bella," she calls, "there's no food in here. When's the last time you've eaten?" "Ummmm . . ."

She returns with her cell in her left hand, her right on her hip. "I'm ordering. What do you want, pizza? Burrito?" "Whatever is fine." "I'm getting pizza. Mushroom?" I nod, sitting silently as she places the order. "It'll be here in thirty." She sits back down on the couch, huffing loudly. "Look, I know it's none of my business, but now that you've told me all this, I can't help but wonder . . . and listen . . . I know you're engaged. But do you still have feelings for Edward?" Her direct question floors me and I gape, open-mouthed, before turning away to collect myself. "I . . ." Stupid tears start again, just when I thought they'd all gone. I wipe them furiously with my sleeve-covered knuckle. "I'm sorry. I'm an ass. Forget I asked." "It's okay. I just . . . I don't know how to answer you." "That's all right. You probably know by now that I ask highly inappropriate and invasive questions and I'm best ignored." She rubs my arm and I smile for the first time in days. "I don't suppose you want me to call Edward and yell at him?" she asks hopefully. "No, I don't think that's a great idea. I'd rather we just keep this between us, okay?" "Yeah. I completely understand. Your secret is safe with me," she says, echoing the words I'd spoken the other day when she'd shared her own. "Thanks. I appreciate it." "That's what friends are for, right?" "Right." Rosalie stays with me for the rest of the day. We watch stupid TV and she forces me to eat and take a shower. I ask her how she's dealing with her breakup, but she waves the question off as if it's unimportant. We don't talk

much more about Edward or Alice, though they're never far from my thoughts. And I know that once she's gone the clouds will descend again. ~QF~ It's Tuesday. I'm strongly tempted to stay home so I don't have to face Edward for the first time in a public setting. Rosalie calls in the morning, as if sensing my reticence. "You can't let this get in the way of your dream, Bella," she tells me. "Remember what you're here for. You're gonna get your PhD and be a fucking awesome professor someday. So come to class. I'll be there for you. Okay?" Not entirely convinced, I agree, gathering my things together sluggishly. I've done most, though not all, of the reading for this week, but I haven't worked any more on our project. I doubt we'll meet after class since I haven't heard from him all week. Yesterday I'd finally gotten the nerve to call Jake and Billy. They'd both been put out that I hadn't called in a few days. I'd justified my lack of communication with busyness, the lies sliding easily off my tongue. I wanted to ask Billy about Alice but I knew that if I did, I'd have to explain how I'd found out, and that meant telling them about Edward. There's no way I was ready for that. Still, it weighed on me. Did he know she'd died? And if so, why had he kept it from me all these years? I refused to believe that Billy would intentionally keep something so important from me. There's no way he could have known. Still, the thought persisted, making conversation with the men who had become my family strained. On our way down 58th street, Rosalie chats animatedly, obviously trying to distract me. It turns out she needn't have bothered. Edward's not in class when we arrive, and by the time Peggy begins, he still hasn't shown. I'm surprisingly not relieved by his absence, though I'd wished for it. Is he sick, avoiding me, or something worse? Remembering the look in his eyes as he'd backed away makes me feel uneasy. During break, I stand talking to Rosalie and a few of our classmates. Apparently, there's a huge welcome party on Friday at someone named Erin's apartment. None of the professors are invited; it's a time to get to know people who are farther along in the program and no longer in coursework. Since I'm not TA-ing like most first year students, I haven't met

any of them outside of the classes I'm taking. The others are pretty excited about it, but I can't work up any enthusiasm. The rest of class passes incredibly slowly. Peggy seems to understand that something isn't quite right with me, so she doesn't pressure me to speak. Next week I'll have to do better; coasting through is not acceptable. "I think we should go to the party," Rosalie declares once we're back at her apartment having lunch. For the past few days she's taken it upon herself to make sure I'm eating properly. "Maybe it'll be good for us, you know? Go and be social?" "Maybe. But I don't think I'm the best company." "Still no word from Edward?" "No." I hesitate as an idea occurs to me. "Hey, you don't think he'll be there, do you?" "I'm not really sure. He didn't go last year, but you never know." She gives me a look. "You wouldn't let that stop you, would you?" "No. I wouldn't . . . I just . . . " "Listen, we'll just go for an hour or so, and if it sucks we'll leave and go get trashed at The End. What d'ya say? Please, Bella? For me?" She's sitting looking at me hopefully, and I realize that this isn't just about me. Rosalie needs this, too. I nod. "Okay. I'll go." ~QF~ I'm staring at my meager wardrobe at seven o'clock on Friday and wondering what the hell I should wear to this party. The beginning of October has been pretty cold, which I'm actually grateful for, since my wardrobe is long-sleeved by default. Finally, I decide on a pair of snug fitting jeans that I've only worn once before and a cream vee-neck sweater. I leave my hair down and put in simple earrings, apply minimal makeup. If Alice were here . . . if she were here . . . Nothing has changed and everything has. Even though I never though I'd see her again, I always knew she was somewhere out there living her life, just like Edward and the rest of the Cullens. Only now it seems that's not

true. When I imagined what she was doing, she was always going to college, getting marriedmaybe to Jasper. I liked to think they finally found each other once she got older. She'd partner with Esme in her interior design firm, have a couple of beautiful babies. All fantasies, sure. But probable. Not anymore. Tears come again and I have to reapply mascara. If Alice were here, she'd want me to go to this party. I know this. So why is it so hard to do? At 8:30, Rosalie and I walk to the "El" together. I'm surprised she's wearing jeans, like me, and a casual coat. She still looks amazing, but it strikes me the last few times I've seen her, she hasn't been wearing her fine clothes. The action speaks volumes, though I'd never ask about it. The house that Erin shares with a few other grad students is across town, so it takes a while to get there. By the time we arrive at the somewhat shabby brownstone, the party is already well underway. A short, pudgy, red-haired girl warmly greets us near the door, and Rosalie introduces her to me as Erin. She shows us a place to stow our coats and ushers us into the living room, passing each of us a glass of red wine. I sip it immediately, grateful to have something to do with my hands. "It's just two-buck Chuck," she informs us. "But there's more in the kitchen. The department totally cheaped out and gave me a hundred bucks. I hope you're hungry . . . there're chips, too." "Oooh. Only the finest for the English department," Rosalie jokes and Erin laughs. I take another large sip. "Well, hey, at least it's free," another girl that I don't recognize says, joining us. "Isabella, this is one of my roommates, Su. She's a medievalist." "Nice to meet you," I say, extending my hand. There are around fifty people in the living room and in the kitchen, and I immediately recognize Rue and Alison from class. Riley's in the far corner speaking to a tall, curly haired boy, and I glance around, suddenly nervous. I don't see Edward anywhere.

After about an hour, I'm relaxed and onto my third glass of wine. For someone who doesn't really socialize within the department much, Rosalie knows everyone and takes it upon herself to introduce me around. We've settled into a corner of the room with a few people who are currently on the job market, listening as they regale us with tales of terror. "Yeah. My field only has twenty openings in the entire fucking country," says Peter, an 18th century specialist. "And there're probably about 200 candidates for each of them. So yeah, I'm pretty screwed." "That's nothing, Peter," Su says, "Medieval History has a grand total of three." She rolls her eyes. "I'm out of funding, so next year it's Burger King for me." "Why are we doing this again?" Peter asks, sighing and sinking back in his chair. "No fucking clue," she agrees. "For the perpetuation of Humanistic inquiry in an increasingly profit-driven and materialistic culture?" Erin offers with a grin. "Right! I forgot!" Peter slaps his hand to his forehead, and everyone bursts out laughing. "Ah, grad student humor," someone says dryly. "You guys are scaring the first years," Rosalie complains. "Bella, don't listen to these jaded fools." More laughter. I smile, accepting another refill of wine as Erin comes around. "Well, I knew it wouldn't be a picnic. I guess I'm hoping in a few years things'll get better?" "Ah, to be young and idealistic." Peter pats my knee and a girl to his right elbows him. "Don't be a jerk," she reprimands. The night wears on and I've lost count of how many glasses of wine I've had. I start mingling with people on my own. Some of the younger students have turned on Hip Hop and started an impromptu dance party in the center of the living room. People are getting loud and drunkthis party is definitely rowdier than I expected it would be.

At around eleven, I'm in the kitchen with Alison when Rue joins us. "Edward's here with a blonde girl," she says. "Ugh. Must be Kate," Alison moans. "Is Garrett here?" "I don't know who that is, but they came alone, and they're wasted. The girl is cute, though." "Sorry, Rue, she's straight." "Yeah, I figured that from the way she was slobbering all over Edward. But still, I can look!" Rue laughs. The two of them continue to talk, completely oblivious to my turmoil. The residual taste of wine is caustic in my mouth. I'm frozen in place. The music is loud but I hear voices in the hall raised in greeting. Over Alison's head, I can just barely make out Edward and the tall girl next to him. I don't want him to think I'm leaving just because he's here, but I'm so hurt and so angry that he could just show up when I've been worried about him all week. He can't answer my phone call but he can come to a party with Kate. My eyes dart again to the hall, but Edward and Kate have gone, probably moved to another room. The two girls I'm with pour themselves more drinks and decide to go dance; I'm left standing in the kitchen alone and indecisive. My nervous stomach rolls, always the first part of my body to feel fear, sadness, or anger. Why did I come to this stupid party? I know I'm going to have to hunt Rosalie down to tell her I'm leaving, and to do that I'll have to go into the living room and probably face Edward and his date. My mouth is set in a hard line. I pour myself a half-cup of the shitty wine, gulping it down with a grimace. I'm not going to let him see how much he's hurt me, even if I need liquid courage. "Bella?" I whip around, startled. Edward stands about two feet away from me, his cursedly handsome face surprised and . . . fearful? Kate's not with him, but he's holding two empty glasses. My friend.

We stand for a second, both at a loss for words. I can tell from the look in his eyes he's been drinking, heavily, but hell, so have I. His confused expression makes me angry. Like he's surprised to see me at a party. As if he's the only one allowed to go to a department function. Suddenly, I feel emboldenedall of the emotions I've been dealing with the past week mix with the alcohol in my system. I react instantly. "You left me. At the coffee shop. How could you do that?" "I . . ." "No. Wait a second . . . I know the answer to that already," I say, glaring at him. "You're an asshole." His green eyes harden. Good. Let him be angry. "I'm an asshole? That's all you have to say to me?" "You told me Alice . . ." Despite my anger, my eyes fill with tears just thinking about her, my beautiful friend. Don't cry. I blink furiously. "How could you just tell me something like that and leave? All week I've been . . . And you didn't even tell me how . . . she . . ." My voice chokes on the last word. I can't get it out. Edward's expression has become unreadable. His hands clench the glasses in his hands. "I don't think we should do this here," he says lowly, glancing behind him. "Oh, really? Why?" I ask, furious again. "Are you afraid your girlfriend wi" "She's not my girlfriend," he cuts me off. "Whatever, it doesn't matter," I seethe. "But I deserve to know what happened. You think you're the only one . . ." "I couldn't. I can't talk about her," he says. "Not to you." "What? How can you say something like that?" Despite my efforts to staunch them, my tears are falling freely. Edward's shifting on his feet uncomfortably, looking like he'd rather be any place else. Someone comes in to get a refill but quickly retreats when she sees our confrontation. "I didn't think you'd care, okay, Bella?"

Not care? That does it. I snap. "I loved Alice! I still love her. You . . . I don't even know who you are. You only care about yourself! You never cared about me!" Edward's eyes are wide in surprise. Meek little Bella, always quiet, unsure. Well, I'm sure of one thing. I'm livid. "Do you know what you've done? You think I could just forget about you? Are you insane? All of those letters!" Before I can stop myself, I push him. Glasses fall, shatter. His hands wrap around my wrists and I'm still yelling, struggling in his grip. "All of those letters!" "Bella!" he shakes me just as Rosalie enters, Kate following on her heels. The blonde waif glares at me and I imagine I could take her. Then I'm free, Rosalie's arm wrapping around me as she leads me from the room. I glare back and see Edward and Kate arguing. Her arms are braced on his shoulders but his head is craning after me. The look in his eyes is frantic and I'm sure he wants to come after me and tell me off. Well, I won't give him the satisfaction. A couple of minutes later, we're out in the cool night air and Rosalie is helping me on with my coat. We walk for a few minutes toward the train stop as I try to make sense out of what just happened. It was so unlike me. Did I really do that? "Well," she says, "You sure know how to make a dramatic exit." I guess I did. Even in my drunken state, I'm immediately filled with embarrassment. Now the entire department thinks I'm a freak. "Yeah . . . God. Was it that bad?" "Bad? Nah! It was awesome! I'm sure a lot of people would like to tell off Edward Cullen, and you've gone and done it. You're like a national hero." "But now everyone will know." "No. I don't think anyone knows what you were talking about." "I just . . . I just couldn't deal with him, you know? He was acting like I didn't deserve to know about Alice, like I didn't care. How could he think that, Rosie?" My Edward would never be so cold and unfeeling. I can't understand this stranger who's re-entered my life.

"I don't know," she murmurs. "I don't know." Once we're back at my apartment, it's after midnight. Rosalie helps me into bed and tucks me in, placing a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin on the bed stand. I'm completely drained. "You'll need this in the morning," she assures me. "Drink a lot of water, okay?" "Okay." "You want me to stay?" "No, I'll be all right." "Well, call me tomorrow and we'll talk." "...M'kay." I don't think she even makes it out the door before I pass out. All too soon, I'm roused from my sleep by a horrible noise . . . it's so annoying and loud. My head is pounding and all I want is quiet. What is that stupid noise? I'm definitely still drunk and my alarm says it's 2:00 in the morning. So late. What's that terrible noise? It stops. Relief. I begin to drift once more. It starts again and somewhere my mind registers what it is. Phone. It's my phone. I reach out blindly towards the bed stand and grab it up, not even glancing at the caller ID as I mumble a greeting. "Bella?" the voice on the end of the line is Edward's. I sit up in my bed, now completely awake. I don't reply but he must hear my breathing, which I notice has become incredibly loud. "Please don't hang up. I'm outside. Can I come up for a second?" "But it's two in the morning," I protest. "Can't this wait?" My mind is reeling, trying to figure out what the hell he wants. "No, it can't."

"The fire which enlightens is the same fire which consumes." Henri Frederic Amiel Chapter 12: October 9th, 2010 From Chapter 11: "Please don't hang up. I'm outside. Can I come up for a second?" "But it's two in the morning," I protest. "Can't this wait?" My mind is reeling, trying to figure out what the hell he wants. "No, it can't." ~QF~ There's a sigh on the end of the line. I flip the light on and glance around the room. I'm not dreaming; Edward's downstairs and he wants to come up. To say I'm surprised would be an understatement . . . I'm completely floored. "I don't understand . . ." "Please, Bella. I have to talk to you." Against my better judgment, I give my assent, clambering out of my bed and buzzing him in. A minute later he knocks. Realizing I don't have a bra on and I'm wearing my pajamas, I grab my robe from the closet and quickly don it before opening the door. Edward stands in the hall with his hands in his pockets. His hair is disheveled and his expression is intense. When his eyes meet mine, I realize how bloodshot they are. Is he still drunk? My buzz is completely gone now, leaving me with a pounding headache to match the furious pace of my heart. It makes no sense for him to be here right now. "Hi," he says softly. "Can I come in?" Without a word, I step aside and allow him to enter. I shut the door slowly, leaning against it for support while I get my bearings. I'm afraid to turn around. "Bella..." he says. I move slowly at the sound of his voice, looking over my shoulder. Edward nervously taps his foot. I can't blame him, really, since

just under three hours ago I pretty much attacked him. Remembering our encounter I'm ashamed, embarrassed, and angry all over again. "How did you get my address?" I ask. As far as I know, I'd never given it to him when we'd worked together. "Does it matter?" "Kind of," I grumble, closing a little of the distance between us. "Rosalie." "What?" Oh, she is in such big trouble. Why in the world would she have given it to him? "I called her . . . I had to see you. Tonight." "I can't believe she told you," I murmur to myself. He smiles sadly, glancing around the room. I feel strangely exposed with him here like this, looking at my things. This is my safe place, my inner sanctum, and his presence here is unsettling. For a second I'm nervous, worried that I've left some memento out for him to see . . . His books! But no, they're carefully stowed under the bed, as always. "Believe me, there was a lot of . . . convincing required." "I don't understand," I confess. "To tell you the truth, I have no idea why you're here. I mean, I pretty much said everything I had to say at the party." Of course that's not entirely true. But I'd said enough . . . definitely enough. "And you won't answer my questions. So what is there left, Edward? What couldn't wait?" I say tiredly, walking over to the couch and flopping down. After a second, he follows suit, sitting at the far end, obviously uncomfortable being close to me. Don't worry, Edward. I won't hit you if that's what you're thinking. An awkward silence ensues, punctuated only by his foot taps. Finally, he turns his body, making a steeple with his fingertips as he leans forward with his elbows on his knees. "Before. At the party"

"I made an ass out of myself," I say, completing his thought. "No. Please," he says, holding up his hand. "You said something . . . about letters." My face flushes hotly with embarrassment over how I'd exposed myself by mentioning the desperate, pleading correspondence I'd penned as a child sentiments he'd not felt it worth responding to. I pull my robe protectively across my chest. "Yeah." I reply, shrugging. He moves a little closer. "Well, I was wondering. What did you mean?" Even though I want to look away, his eyes are deep and they hold mine, just like always. Him, here, asking these questionsit's a form of slow torture. My breath quickens as the cavern in my chest threaten to implode. "What do you mean, what do I mean? My stupid letters." "What letters, Bella?" He's closer now, just a foot away, and his voice is urgent, demanding and fierce as his eyes. I instinctively want to back away, but there's no place to go. I shrink back into the couch cushions, drawing my knees to my chest. "My letters," I whisper, not understanding. "The letters I wrote to you and Alice." Why is he doing this to me? "What letters?" he asks again. "I never got any letters." "What?" I shake my head in disbelief, not able to comprehend what he's telling me. How can that be? Impossible. "What do you mean?" "I never got letters," he says again, pain and anger cracking his voice. I look into eyes welling with tears . . . No. It can't be. "But . . . I wrote you. I wrote you for months . . . for over a year. You never replied." All of those days of disappointment, filled with tenacious and terrible hope that today would be the day I'd hear from them, come flooding back. "I wrote to you. For a long time. I never got any reply."

"What?" My voice is louder now. "Impossible." "I'm telling the truth. I swear to God I did," he says fiercely. He's looking directly at me and I know he's not lying. "But if you wrote to me, I never got any. Alice never got any." His confession hits me squarely in the chest. I can't breath. I can't think. All of these years . . . And Alice never read a word I wrote. And now she's dead, and she'll never know! "I did! I wrote even though I never heard from you. I waited . . . I wanted . . ." I choke out, gasping. "And you, you thought I didn't . . ." He doesn't finish his sentence, burying his face in his hands with a groan. "I thought you . . . I didn't think you . . ." Loved me, wanted to be my friend. Anything. My hand clutches my chest, willing the air in. I'm very close to hyperventilating now. It's happened before; my lungs haven't been the same since the fire and they never will be. They're damaged, irreparably. Edward lifts up his head, alarmed, and I can see his face is wet... it's too horrible. I wonder why he's looking at me like that, when somehow it registers I'm making small, wounded noises. "Bella? Are you okay?" I nod frantically, looking awayat anything but Edward. There's an inhaler I haven't needed to use in years, but I don't know where it is or even if I've packed it. Stupid Bella. All of a sudden, I feel his arms around me. "Shhh," he whispers, pulling me from my position at the edge of the sofa very nearly onto his lap. I'm helpless to do anything but try and breathe. In and out. In and out. His arms feel so warm, so strange, and after a minute I feel myself calming as the pain in my lungs recedes. "Take a deep breath, okay?" I nod against his chest, feeling the rapid beat of his heart there. He's touching my hair and shushing me, and it's only after I've started breathing more fluidly that I realize he's shaking. "Edward?" He buries his head into my shoulder, murmuring. Instinctively, I wrap my arms around him, holding tightly around his ribcage and feeling the movement of his body. When I inhale I smell his aftershave mixed with stale booze and mint. The hug reinforces my previous observationshe's so much firmer and broader than I remember. Because he's all grown up. And I've missed it.

I start to cry. I didn't think there were any tears left, but they come streaming and impossible to staunch. Edward rocks me and for a while we just cling together. I don't know or care how much time passes. "I can't believe this," he whispers in my ear, his voice cracking. "I can't believe it. I thought you didn't ever want to talk to me again. After a while, I just stopped writing." He grips me tighter and I know from a feeling of wetness on my cheek that he's been crying too. "I thought you didn't. But I don't understand . . . You never came to the hospital . . . I thought you hated me. Or that you were disgusted . . ." I can't believe I said that last part out loud. Did I? "Disgusted?" he asks, pulling back and holding me at arm's length. "No, Bella. Never." "Then why?" "I did come. On the first day . . . You were unconscious..." I wrack my brain trying to remember, but there's nothing, no memory of him. Still, why didn't he return later, once I was awake, if he'd wanted to see me so bad? "But I woke up. Alice visited. I saw Carlisle, Esme. Why didn't you come again with them?" Edward releases my arms and the blood begins to flow again; I hadn't realized he'd been holding so tightly. Tight enough to leave bruises. "I have no excuses," he says bitterly. "I always knew you'd hate me for that. It's one of the reasons why you never writing made sense." I cock my head, looking at him quizzically. I can see his features harden againis he angry with me, or himself? "So you didn't want to come." Edward sighs and runs his hands through his hair, his face downcast. "I was a coward, Bella. I couldn't face you. When I saw you in the coma, wrapped up in bandages, so fragile . . . I overheard Carlisle talking to one of the residents and he said you had a 50/50 chance of pulling out of it. I was so fucking angry."

"Angry?" I'm struggling to understand him, but it's difficult after so many years of lost contact. There's so much that's still unclear. "Angry, yeah," he scoffs, "At myself, at the whole damn thing." "Why would you be angry with yourself?" I ask in disbelief. "You didn't start the fire." "I didn't stop it either, Bella," he says, turning to me again. His eyes have that haunted look again. "I should never have listened to you when you told me to keep out of it. I should have taken you home to my house immediately and told my parents. But I didn't, I fucking didn't." "But you . . ." "Don't you see? None of this would have happened if it wasn't for me." "I was the one who stopped you, Edward," I protest, unthinkingly placing my hand on his arm. I can feel the tension radiating from him. "I made you promise." "I know," he says darkly. "I was mad at you, too." "It was my fault," I whisper, fat wet tears dropping again. I can't even look at him. But he's right. It was my fault and mine alone. And I'll never be able to take back those hateful things I said to Renee. All I'd wanted to do was say I was sorry. I'll never be able to tell her I loved her. Or Alice. Edward shakes his head emphatically. "No, that's not what I mean. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't. You were just a kid. You were worried about your mom. Anyone in your position would have done the same thing. You're not to blame." I nod to appease him but inside I know the truth. It was my fault. Only I'd known how bad she was. Not even Edward knew the extent of it. Even though the fire was ruled accidental, it never would have happened if she'd been in her right state of mind. If I'd told someone. "But I couldn't see you in the hospital . . . not like that. You couldn't even breathe," he chokes out the last word. "Then, my parents told me your guardian was coming to take you away, back to Washington. I had a chance to come and see you, with Aliceto say goodbye. And I didn't. I couldn't."

What Edward's telling me does nothing to contradict my feelings of abandonment; he's just admitted he made the intentional choice not to visit me. "I needed you, Edward." "I know." "It was . . ." "I have no excuse. I was a coward. If it makes you feel any better, Alice hated me for it." Thoughts stumble around in my mind. I'm trying so hard to understand the motivations of people I've long misunderstood. "But Esme and Carlisle... they just let me go. It was so easy for you all . . . It was horrible, horrible for me." I can't keep the bitterness out of my voice. "Alice wanted to keep youwanted my parents to fight for custody. But they thought being with Billy would be the best thing. He was legally bound as your guardian through both of your parent's wills. Esme and Carlisle met with him and he seemed to care for you so muchhe was the closest thing you had for family. Carlisle didn't think they had any legal recourse . . . and then . . ." he trails off for a moment. "They didn't treat you badly? God, please don't tell me . . ." "No! No. Nothing like that! Billy's a wonderful person and so is Jake. They've been very good to me." Edward nods and swallows but I can see his hands gripping his knees. "What about you?" I ask. "What?" "You said Alice wanted your parents to keep me. Did you?" "At first . . . I didn't know what I wanted. I thought my parents might be right, that you'd be better off . . ." "How could you" "I don't know! I wasn't myself," he says, cutting me off. "Once the anger wore off . . . by the time I'd realized what a mistake I'd made, you'd already gone."

Even after all these years, it hurts to know he'd doubted my place with him when I never had. Edward looks stricken. "I'm so sorry," he says, his hand reaching out to touch my hair tentatively, then dropping quickly back down to his lap. "Can you ever forgive me?" For a long time, I felt I'd already forgiven him . . . forgiven and moved on. How foolish I was. It's clear the resentment is still there, unwanted and roiling in my stomach. Even understanding his motivations, or at least hearing his explanations, it doesn't feel like enough. But at the same time, strangely, I don't want to cause him any more pain. "I think so." "Well, I don't deserve it. I broke our promise." "To always be friends." "No matter what happens," he says softly. "But you said you wrote letters." "Yes," he sighs. "I started a couple days after you'd gone. It was like I finally realized you weren't coming back. I knew you probably hated me." I shake my head. I'd never hated him. I just wanted my friend. "I had to do something to make it up to you," he continues, "But I was afraid you wouldn't talk to me. So I got your address and started writing. I was always better at getting my thoughts down by hand, anyway. But you never replied." "I did . . . I would have . . ." He shakes his head sadly. "I thought I could convince you to forgive me. When you didn't write back my parents said you needed time. But you never answered Alice, either. I tried to talk to them about it, but by then they had other things on their minds . . . Alice . . ." his pauses again, rubbing his hands over his face in a gesture of weariness. "Please," I say, putting my hand on his leg. He stiffens for a second but then seems to relax. There's an internal struggle inside of meone side wants to know and the other side longs to hide from the truth. Edward had seemed so angry with me before and I'm afraid to know why.

When he speaks again his voice is emotionless. "She was diagnosed about four months after you left. Acute Myeloid Leukemia." "Cancer?" I gasp. I don't know why, but that'd been the furthest thing from my mind. I sit, struggling to remember if she'd ever appeared sick, tired maybe, but never sick! "By the time they caught it, her white blood cell count was low . . . very low. She was . . . unresponsive to treatment." I don't know much about cancer, but I know that leukemia has something to do with bone marrow. That siblings and sometimes parents can act as donors. "What about a transplant?" Edward looks at me with dead eyes. "No donor match." Which means that he wasn't a match. "Oh, Edward," I whisper, and he glances away. The pain he must have felt over not being able to help his sister. I know what it's like to not be able to save someone you love. He shifts out of my reach, clearly not wanting to be touched. Now my hands are empty. "My parents were separated for a while. My mom took Alice to a treatment hospital in Philadelphia and I stayed behind in Elgin with my dad. He couldn't leave his practice, or there would have been no way to pay for Alice. "I wanted to go with them, but mom thought I should stay behind, look after dad, finish school. I'd go and visit over vacations, sometimes on weekends." Edward's eyes are far away and I wonder what he's remembering. "She held on for a long time, a little over a year. She was the one always trying to comfort us," he says wistfully. "Even at the end." "Were you with her . . . when it happened?" Edward nods imperceptibly. "After that things went downhill. My father . . . he blamed himself. He didn't recognize her symptomsthought she was just depressed . . . because of . . ." The force of it hits me with cold, starling clarity. The fire. Carlisle thought she was depressed over the fire, over my leaving.

"Oh my God. No. No!" It's even worse than I'd imagined. It can't be true. I don't want to know this. I don't. I draw my knees up to my chest again, but it does nothing to stop the horror. I can't even cry . . . there's nothing . . . nothing left. Edward's embrace catches me off-guard, but I push him away. How can he even want to be in the same room with me? After all this? And before he'd asked if I could ever forgive him for what he'd donehow could he ever forgive me? "No wonder you hated me," I whisper, almost to myself. "I wondered why how you could." "I never hated you," he says gruffly. "You did. You must have thought I was a terrible person. It's . . . oh God." I can't stop shaking. "Bella, it's not your fault. You didn't know. It wasn't my father's fault, either. The doctors said that, even if they'd caught it a couple months earlier, she still . . ." His words are meant to comfort me, but they seem almost absurd given the situation. "You say that but you think it's your fault, don't you? Because you couldn't donate for her." He doesn't answer me and I don't press him, but I know it's true. "You said they were separated, your parents." "They're back together now. It took a while, though. I thought they'd get divorced." His voice is quiet. "There was a lot of anger after she died." I try and imagine Carlisle and Esme, who'd always seemed so in love and happy together, on the brink of ending their marriage. It seems impossible. But at least they found their way back together again. "When did you stop writing me?" I ask, not really wanting to know the answer. "A few months before Alice died," he says. "But by then I was writing more for me, than for you. I don't really want to talk about it, right now, if that's okay." So he wrote to me for a year, maybe longer. What horrors did those letters describe?

And where are they? That's the unspoken question that's now hanging between us, unsettled and unsettling. The one neither of us wants to consider. Could it be? But no. Impossible. Maybe he had the wrong address. Maybe mine were lost... "Do you remember when I used to sneak out and come to visit you at night?" "Of course. I used to freak out thinking that Esme and Carlisle would catch you. Or that Renee would find out." "We used to have some good talks." "Yeah. We did," I say, smiling a little at the memory. How excited I'd get when I heard the ping of a pebble at my window. "This reminds me of that," he says. "You never knew, but sometimes I'd come over even when you were sleeping. Just to check and see everything was okay." This surprises me and I straighten up a little. "Really?" "Mmm-hmm." Edward sighs and leans his head against the back of the couch, closing his eyes. The room is heavy with exhaustion, sadness, and the waste of lost time. My body feels devoid of anything, leached to the bone. I don't know what to do or say to bridge this gap of time and space between us. Everything seems lost, and I'm drifting again without anchor. I know I haven't even begun to deal with the repercussions of this, final midnight talk. A bit later, I'm startled awake by Edward's voice. I must have fallen asleep. "What?" No answer. I shift on the couch, trying to make out his face in the darkness. He's completely conked out, his lanky legs awkwardly stretched out in front of him and his head angled in a way that looks uncomfortable. There's faint light coming now from the window, and I don't need to look at my alarm clock to know that dawn is breaking. I consider waking him up, but that

seems cruel. Instead, I decide to try and shift him to a better sleeping position. Moving cautiously, I take him by the shoulders and guide him gently so that he's lying with half of his body on the couch. The action is a bit difficult, since he's so heavy, but surprisingly he doesn't wake up. Before I can move his legs, he unconsciously draws them up by himself. Satisfied he's resting comfortably, I move to stand, but Edward's hand reaches out and grips my wrist. "Don't go," he whispers. "Please." I sit quietly for a minute until his grip relaxes and his breathing evens out. In the early morning light, his face looks so peaceful, his mouth slightly ajar, and I think about the ironies of fate . . . life . . . the divine. Whatever it is guiding us, it's a terrible thing. I touch his face once before returning to my bed.

Do you remember What things looked like when you were young The voice of an old friend Or the notes to your first song It's been a while now Since you asked me to be Your cat, your dog, your owl, or bumblebee Lately I've been feeling like the day has come You'll walk up to me and erase my memory Can't wait to feel brand new I can't wait to meet you again, friend... Seabear, "Hands Remember" Chapter 13: October 9th, 2010 "Bella?" A nice familiar voice edges its way into my consciousness, but I can't quite put my finger on whose it is. "Bella?" Such a nice dream. I don't want to wake up.

I open my eyes slowly when the voice speaks again, confused when the face I see matches the one in my mind in everything except age. "Edward?" I murmur, confused. "Hey," he says, almost shyly. The night before comes rushing back in a blura blend of emotions, words, and gestures, all swirled together. Alice. The letters. Carlisle and Esme. Edward's hands on my arms. I blink rapidly, trying to orient myself. There's cool air on my skin and I blush when I realize my shirt has ridden up in the night, exposing part of my stomach. Edward smiles and looks away as I tug it down and sit up. It's only now that it sinks in . . . he's actually here, sitting on the foot of my bed. Last night really happened. All of those things are true. "Sorry," he says, looking back at me once I'm settled, "I didn't mean to fall asleep." "That's okay. I did too. It was really late." "Yeah." An awkward silence settles between us as both of us try to process what this means. Or at least that's what I'm doing. I don't know where we go from here, how to act around him. In so many respects he's a stranger to me, even though in some ways I feel like I've never known anyone better. How much of the Edward I've seen in the last few weeks has replaced my old friend? Or was he acting strangely out of hurt, the same as me? "Did you sleep okay?" I ask. He laughs a little, nodding his head. "Considering the circumstances, yeah." "I'm sorry. That couch isn't very comfortable." "It was fine . . . I wasn't talking about the couch." "I know." I admit, rubbing my arms through the thin cotton material. They do feel like they might be bruised. "When I woke up, I was glad I was still here," Edward says softly. "You were?"

"Yeah. Bella." He rubs his hands on his thighs, "I'm just can't believe this." When he looks at me again, his expression is so intense, unreadable . . . I feel utterly exposed. I draw the covers up over my chest, not sure if I should get out of bed. "Me neither." "I think there's more to talk about," he says, standing up slowly, "but you probably want to get dressed." He's obviously noticed my reticence, but I'm immediately worried. It's like if he goes now, I'll never see him again . . . or I'll wake up for real and discover that this was a dream. "You can stay," I say, "I'll make some coffee." I make a motion to turn back the covers but Edward has already beaten me to the kitchen by the time I've pulled on my robe. He's rooting through my cupboards like he owns the place. The clothes he's slept in are rumpled and his hair is a wild mess. "Um . . . I think you're out of coffee," he says, turning to me with a sigh. I think back to the last time I went grocery shoppingit's been a while. Most of my meals have been eaten either with Rosalie or out on the way to school. But since I found out about Alice I haven't had much appetite. Edward turns and opens the fridge. "And . . . everything else. Bella, there's no food in here." His expression of concern echoes in the tone of his voice. I glance in. There is a half-empty carton of eggs and some milk that I'm sure has gone off. Edward picks it up and makes a face. "Yeah. I hope you weren't planning on drinking this. September 15th?" "I've just been busy," I reply, feeling a little self-defensive and foolish. There's no excuse for not eating and I know I'm not taking care of myself. I've definitely lost weight. "Okay," he says, cocking his head to the side. "Listen, I'm gonna run down to the store for a second and pick up something to eat. Why don't you do what you need to do, and I'll be back in fifteen?" "Don't you need to change?" I ask. Edward glances down at his clothes with a shrug. "Believe me, I've gone longer." He sniffs at his armpit. "I'd consider these clean."

I laugh, a sound which seems foreign and out of place in this context. Edward grins at me, turning toward the door. "Any special requests?" "Bacon." I say, the word slipping off my tongue without a thought. Even though I'm not really that hung-over, bacon seems necessary. "Bacon it is." He grabs my keys on the counter, holding them up and raising his eyebrows in question. I nod and he pockets them. As soon as he's gone, I spring into action. Scrubbing my skin under the hot water, I try not to think of letters. Toweling off, I try not to think of scars . . . of his pity. Edward said he hadn't been disgusted by what surely lay beneath the bandages and gauze, but he'd never seen what it looked like. If he did, how could he not be? Even now, after all these years of healing, legs that had once been long, smooth and white are marked by trauma. Of course I feel instantly guilty, for even in their imperfection they're still me . . . I'm still here, alive . . . I wipe the mirror with my towel before brushing my hair. Banal activities like showering and getting dressed aren't enough to keep intrusive, worrisome thoughts at bay. A half hour later, adorned in comfortable yoga pants and a tee shirt, I leave the steaming bathroom and enter a room filled with breakfast smells. I approach the kitchen quietly. Edward is busy and either doesn't notice or doesn't acknowledge me. He hums softly as he flips individual pieces of bacon, turns and stirs something in a bowl. The coffee pot begins making gurgling sound indicating its doneness, but still I stand and watch. Now that he's removed the long sleeved shirt he was wearing, his tee shirt sleeves reveal a bit more of the tattoo I'd detected on his left arma black web of right-angled intertwined lines. I want to ask him about it. He removes the bacon from the skillet, draining the extra grease into a mug before emptying the contents of the bowl he's been stirring back into the pan. Eggs sizzle in the remnants of the hot grease, giving off an amazing smell. He's put something else in them, but I can't put my finger on it. "You still like them scrambled?" he asks, still focused on his task. I feel a bit caught off-guard with the awareness he's known I've been watching. "My favorite." "Good." He smiles, turning his head slightly. "Then we know at least some things never change."

"Well some things do," I say, coming closer. "Since when do you know how to cook?" Almost instantly his features darken again. He doesn't answer for a second. "I had to learn once my mom left with Alice. My father wasn't big on hot meals and I got tired of eating cereal." "Oh," I reply dumbly. I could say I'm sorry, express sympathy, but I know that's not what he wants. It's not what I would want. Instead, I wait for him to go on as I pour us both mugs of hot coffee. "At first, you should have seen it . . . or on second thought, no. I was a mess in the kitchen. But over the years, I've gotten pretty decent," he says with a touch of pride. The little smile is back. I pass him his mug, which he takes in the hand not holding the spatula. How strange that our circumstances came to mirror one another so closely. Necessity compelled us both to fend for ourselves when our parents couldn't, or wouldn't, care for us. "It appears that way." I gesture toward the eggs and the bacon draining on the counter. "This looks great Edward. And I'm starving." He smiles at the praise, turning the heat off and giving the eggs a final stir. I retrieve a couple of plates and we both help ourselves to the food. I don't really have a dining area, except for a couple of stools that slide under the kitchen counter, and so I suggest we adjourn to the couch. Edward nods and follows me. For a little while, we're silent as we eatclearly both of us are famished. He's put some cheese in the scrambled eggs, just like Esme used to do on the mornings after I slept over their house. I can't believe he's remembered after all these years. The salty taste of the crisp bacon is delicious and I murmur appreciatively, swallowing thickly past the lump that's formed in my throat. "You like?" he asks. "Mmmmm." I nod, my mouth full once again. He chuckles and takes another bite of eggs. "Do you still cook?" he asks. "Or bake?"

I flush a bit, remembering his enthusiasm for my food. "Yeah. I do, when I get a chance. It's just been so hectic with the move and all and starting school, I haven't been able to really." "Yeah. I get that. Grad school is tough, especially for you guys." "The MFAs have it easy?" "Well," he smiles, "easier." "When did you move back to Chicago?" "A couple of years ago, after Italy. My parents are still living in Elgin. And some of my friends are still around . . . You remember Jasper and Emmett?" "Of course." Over the years I'd wondered what had happened to Edward's teammates and friends. "Well, I actually share an apartment with Em. He works in PR for the Chicago Bulls." "Wow. And Jasper? Where does he live?" It's slightly painful to ask; I'd had such hopes for him and Alice. I know she liked him when we were kids, and I wonder if Edward knew about it. Probably not. "He travels a lot. He's a photographer, actually, so he's gone most of the year. But when he's home he crashes at our place." He pauses a minute, chewing lightly. "They've been great friends. Through everything." I smile sadly, glad Edward has had someone to rely on all these years, like I've had Billy and Jacob. Jacob. Suddenly my mind is filled with thoughts of himwould he be hurt if he knew I was sitting here with Edward having breakfast? Of course he would. The guilt hits me hard, but it's confusing. I'm not doing anything wrong. And then there's the gnawing fear that maybe he had something to do with all of this . . . But no. Jacob isn't connivinghe's one of the most honest, sweetest people I know. He couldn't have. There must be another explanation. Realizing Edward is still speaking, I turn my attention back to him. "You'll be surprised," Edward says as if reading my mind, "He's actually been dating your old friend Angela Webber."

If anything could have rendered me speechless, it's this. I haven't thought of Angela in years. Not surprisingly, we'd lost touch after the move. "What! Really? Does she live around here?" "Yep, she's in Chicago, but she travels a lot for her job, like Jasper. She's a journalist with the Tribune. They've been together for a while now." Edward goes on to tell me how the two met at a human rights convention in Boston, where they'd instantly recognized each other from school. Despite my happiness for my old friend and Edward's, I'm a little jealous for Alice, even though I know it's pointless. She's gone. Something else occurs to me and I set my now empty plate on the floor before curling up on the sofa again. "Did you tell them about me being here? Or your parents?" I finally ask. Edward takes a sip of his coffee and turns to me. "Just Emmett. I had to tell someone. . . . But no. I haven't told my parents yet." "Oh." There's a little stab of sadness and disappointment, but it makes sense that he hasn't told them. To be fair, I haven't told anyone either, except for Rosalie. "You're upset," he says softly. "No . . . It's stupid." There's a little crack in my voice that gives my real feelings away and I curse myself for my inability to hide anything from him. "I didn't know what to think, Bella. I haven't told them because . . . I don't know . . . it would have been like reopening a wound." He doesn't say whether this applies to them or him, but I nod, still trying to understand. "When I saw you," he continues, "that day when I walked into Peggy's class, I honestly thought I was hallucinating." "Um, yeah." I feel myself blushing at the memory. I was the one who fainted, after all. As if sensing my embarrassment over the whole thing, Edward smiles but doesn't mention it. "And then, when you didn't acknowledge me, it was like it just confirmed everything I'd feared. You didn't want to have anything to do with me."

There's a hurt edge to his final statement, and he looks down at the empty plate on his lap. "That's not true, though," I say, taking the plate from him and placing it on top of mine on the floor. "You know that, right? I was feeling the exact same way. I mean, neither of us had any idea..." "No, I know. I'm not mad. It's just not the best memory. So many times I imagined seeing you again . . . it was never like that." "I know. You wrote that note and I was so confused. I honestly didn't see it 'til the next week. I thought you were ignoring me." The emphasis in my statement is not meant to blame, but to help him see where I'm coming from. "I didn't know what to say. I was pissed, but it was weird. I still wanted to talk to you." "I know the feeling," I say, my heart constricting as I remember his coldness. "Well," he says, sighing. "We could spend all day talking about how the last month could have gone differently . . . But instead I think we should call for a do-over." "A do-over?" "Yeah. A do-over." I laugh a little at the thought. It reminds me of being kids again, but perhaps that's appropriate. Edward smiles and extends his hand and I stare at it confusedly, not sure what he's asking for. "If you agree, we have to shake on it," he says, raising his eyebrow. Tentatively, I reach out, gasping a little when his warm, large hand envelops mine. It's like our hands remember each other. We stay like that for a minute, neither of us speaking or acknowledging what we're doing is more like holding hands than "shaking on it." Touching him like this in the light of day seems much more intimate than the comforting embraces we'd shared the night before. My thoughts are drawn back to Jake and I release him, looking away from unreadable green eyes.

"Do you think we can be friends again?" he asks softly. "I'd like to be." "But . . ." His voice is hesitant and sad, but I have to be honest. I do want to be his friend. I do. It's just that I don't know what that means anymore. "It's just a lot to process . . . for both of us. I mean, I thought of you one wayand so did you, think of me, I meanand now it turns out all that wasn't true." "So you don't think . . ." "I don't think we can ever go back to what we were, Edward." I say, tears welling again. I brush them away, angry that some things are irretrievable. "That's true. But maybe we can be something else. I'd like to get to know you again. If you want." There's that sadness againwhy does this have to be so difficult? Yes, we're different people now, but I've seen enough to know that the Edward I knew, my Edward, is still here in this man before me. What will he think of the new me? "I'd like that," I say, not admitting that I'm also scared. What if we find out that there's nothing left to salvage? I think of his story, hidden in a box under my bed. For a second I contemplate showing him, but then I imagine going over and getting itthe exposureand I decide to wait. Edward reaches over, wiping a drying tear with the pad of his thumb. My face remembers his hand. I'm twelve again, shocked into silence by the familiar gesture. He must sense my surprise, because he pulls back with a rueful smile. "I'd like to show you I'm not a complete and total asshole." "I don't think that," I protest, recovering my equilibrium. "It's okay. Most people do. Rosalie does . . . or did." He smiles and I know that whatever transpired between them has changed her opinion at least enough for her to give him my address. "What did you tell her, anyway?" I'm a little nervous about the two of them talking, but Rosalie wouldn't divulge our conversation. She'd promised. "Just that I wanted to make things right."

"Well, I'm glad you did." "When you said that last night about the letters at the party, it all clicked, you know?" "Yeah. I kinda figured. God, I'm so embarrassed," I say, running my hands through my hair in frustration. "I just hate everyone knowing my business. People must think I'm insane." "No, they don't," he says with a grin. "I told everyone I said something rude to you and you reacted accordingly. It wasn't far from the truth." "What did you tell them you said?" He wrinkles his forehead. "You don't want to know." "That bad, huh?" "Well, you might have taken it as a compliment. I can't be sure." Now he's really piqued my curiosity. "Oh, jeez, just tell me." "Nope." "So now, what, if we're trying to be friends, aren't people going to think it's a little weird? I mean, one night you're saying rude . . . or inappropriate . . . things to me and the next day we're chums?" "I really don't care what people think." "I'm gathering that," I reply wryly. "What about you? You asked me before if I'd told anyone. Have you?" "I told Rosalie . . . which you've probably already gathered. No one else." The admission makes me feel dishonest. His expression becomes serious again, but still I'm not prepared for his next question. "Did the Blacks . . . your fianc . . ." he grinds out, "Did they know about me? About the letters you sent?" Know about him? Yes. Jacob had been my confidant for years before he became my boyfriend. I'd known that he'd harbored romantic feelings

toward me, but I'd been unable to admit or acknowledge my own until I was a senior in college. Part of that was because of Edward. I nod, imperceptibly. Edward sighs. "What do you think happened to the letters?" The way he says it gives away his meaning plainly. He's inferring that the Blackseither Jacob, Billy, or bothare somehow responsible for withholding his correspondence or, even worse, not sending mine. I shake my head furiously. "They wouldn't have done that. They wouldn't." "Who else, Bella?" he asks softly. "It's impossible." "Impossible? Think about it. Would there be any reason for either of them to intervene like that? Did they have anything to gain?" "Gain?" The need to defend Billy and Jacob overwhelms me. I can't imagine them betraying me like this . . . my whole life with them a lie. It's just not possible. "What about Carlisle . . . or Esme . . ." Edward makes an angry sound of disbelief. "Do you really think my parents would withhold your letters from Alice knowing how much she loved you? How much it hurt her not to hear back from you? How much I . . ." He stops abruptly, his jaw clenched and tense as he looks away. I nervously worry my hands in my lap. No. I can't believe that they would do that. "I'm sorry . . . I shouldn't have said that." "Well, who else then?" "Edward," I say, my voice small in my throat. "I can't . . ." "Can't what? Try to figure out the truth? After all this time you deservewe deserveto know. Don't you think?" He's so insistent, voicing the concerns that had been worrying me since last night, making them real. I feel myself shrinking back against the couch again. "I just . . . I need time . . ." "Time is what we lost. Time is what's owed us."

"I know. I'm sorry," I whisper. I'm letting him down again, and I know it. He's right but my heart can't take it. I can't lose anyone else. Edward appears about to respond when his cell phone vibrates in his pocket. He pulls it out and groans. "Shit. It's after two. I have to get going." There's a hint of reluctance in his voice, but he doesn't say where. Of course I instantly think back to Kate . . . is that who he's going to meet? Or another girl? I don't want to know, so I don't ask. Instead, I say "okay" and stand, picking up the plates and bringing them to the kitchen. Edward gathers his things. "Listen," he says as I walk him to the door. "I'm not trying to tell you what to do. But we need to find out what happened to those letters." "Yes, you're right. It's just hard, knowing . . . thinking. . . But I promise . . . I will." My voice is hollow, and Edward's expression softens. He reaches out and touches me, his hand warm on my shoulder. "I'm sorry. I know how this must feel to you. I wish I could make it easier." "Thank you. For understanding." Billy's the closest thing to a father I've ever known, and Jake . . . I don't say any of this, of course, but Edward nods. He takes back his hand and I immediately feel the loss. My body is a gathering of feathers, of dust, and only his presence here is keeping me together. I'm afraid once he leaves pieces of me will scatter on the breeze. "Take the time you need, Bella." "Okay." "I'm sorry I have to run." Again, I nod, but I don't ask him where. "But don't forget we need to get this Keats thing sorted out." Thinking of our project, I smile a little. I'll see him again. "Yeah, well you stood me up last Tuesday." "I'm sorry about that." There's that look again . . . the lost one from the coffee shop. Both of us are so easily wounded. I have to treat him with care. "It's okay, really. I understand."

"I thought it would be easier to avoid you. It was pretty stupid of me." He's so serious and ashamed, I decide to lighten the mood. "Believe me, I'm thoroughly practiced in the art of avoidance myself." "Something else we have in common," Edward says with a small smile. I smile back and his broadens. "And maybe . . ." he offers tentatively, "we can . . . I don't know. Hang out sometime." "Hang out?" I tease. His grin flourishes in a way that makes him look sixteen. He's twenty-five. Twenty-five. "Yeah. Do something fun. Maybe play some video games." He winks. "We're friends now, right?" "I'd like that, Edward." "Okay. Good." Then his arms are around me again in a tight hug that catches me by surprise. There's a fierceness about it that leaves me breathless . . . I don't even have time to hug him back. "Thank you for letting me in," he whispers in my ear. Before I can respond, I'm released, and he's gone. I stare at the open door and wonder . . . could it be . . . did I just feel his lips brush against my cheek?

"And where two raging fires meet together, they do consume the thing that feeds their fury." - William Shakespeare Chapter 14: October 9th- 12th Once Edward's gone, I turn my attention to the dishes. As I rinse and dry, I struggle to replay our conversation from the night before and from today as it always is with memory, or at least my memory, the harder I try to recall specific words or moments the more impossible they are to grasp. Already last night has begun to fade; moments from only an hour ago flicker at the edge of my consciousness like vulnerable candlelight. It's only the things I want to forget that I remember with ease.

Edward wants to be friends. Such a strange concept, and one I'll have to get used to. The change in his demeanor towards me appears genuine. There's no reason to doubt him . . . is there? For just a second I wonder if he could be lying to me about the letters. But there was nothing that suggested he wasn't telling the truth . . . his grief, his tears over Alicethat was real. But is it my wishful thinking making me so easily believe him? My confusion returns. Why should I trust Edward, who I haven't seen in almost ten years, over Jacob and Billy, who've been supportive and loyal to me for just as long? What if he's right about them? I try and come up with reasons for why they'd be motivated to do something so horrible . . . I just can't. It hurts my head to doubt so many people I care about. Cared about. Care about. Edward. Can I let him back into my life? Can we be friends again? Scanning the now clean kitchen, I notice the milk still sits on the counter. My phone starts ringing and I hurriedly open the fridge to stow it, but I almost do a double take when I see the inside. Fresh milk, yogurt, bread, fruit neatly stowed away. Butter and cheese in the bottom drawer, along with a package of something that, upon closer investigation, I realize is deli turkey. The persistent ring of the phone forgotten, I pick up a red apple, feeling its smooth weight in my hand. Edward shopped for me. He bought all of this. And he didn't say anything about it before he left. Why? There's a hot welling sensation in my throat. My stupid eyes sting again. He did all this for me. For some reason this simple gesture just affects me so . . . I put the apple back and slowly close the door. My apartment feels empty now, changed, the bed still rumpled from sleep. I strip the bed mechanically for laundry day, but the action fatigues me. Once everything is sorted, I pour myself another cup of coffee and sit back on the sofa, sinking back into the softness and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The past twelve hours completely and irrevocably altered the way I've thought about the last nine years of my life, and I don't know how or if they'll change the future.

A "do-over," Edward had said. As if it were that easy. If only it were that easy. I don't know how to begin, but I decide to start small. I pick up my cell phone and send him a text message. Thank you. It's all I can think to writeI hope he'll understand what I mean. A couple minutes later my phone buzzes in my lap. You're welcome. But for what? I sigh; I should've known Edward would want specifics. For one, the food. You really shouldn't have. But it was nice. Not long after I hit send, I have another reply. I was glad to do it. And for two? What? I look through our previous messages, until I finally understand what he means. He's teasing . . . I think. But it takes me a little while to get up the nerve to send the next one. For taking a chance. Because I am thankful that he came last nighteven with the still-nebulous outcome. You would've done the same. It's a statement of fact. He seems so certain of my reaction. But would I? Something that feels like cowardice creeps into my mind, unbidden. And I know that Edward is brave. This doesn't feel like a conversation to continue via text, so I change the subject quickly. He'd said he'd call me to set up a time to meet, but I don't figure it'll hurt for me to suggest the same. Keats. Tuesday, after class? His one word answer puts a smile on my face: Definitely.

I don't send a reply and nothing comes from Edward either. A quick look at my call history tells me Rosalie called earlier. If I know her, she's frantic to know what happened last night and I'm sure she also thinks I hate her for giving Edward my address. I dial her back and she picks up on the first ring. "Hello?" she answers, her voice a little fearful. "Oh don't hate me! Pleeease." "I don't hate you," I reply. "You don't?" "No." I pause for a second and she huffs on the end of the line. "Well don't leave a woman hanging, Bella! Tell me what happened!" Without rehashing the most horrible revelations or talking about the more intimate details, I summarize the night's events . . . there's one thing she immediately latches onto, of course. The letters. "So he wrote back to you . . . and you never got the letters?" "That's what he says." I say, standing and running my hands through my hair. "And you don't believe him?" "No. I do. I . . . It's just a lot to think about, you know?" "Yeah, I can imagine. So. You're not mad at me for the address thing?" "No. Though I was, before I knew what he wanted. I do want to know what the heck he said to you to make you give it to him." She sighs a little. "He said he made a mistake and he wanted to set it right." "Is that all?" "Pretty much. But it was just the way he said it, Bella." "What do you mean?"

"I actually feel a little bad saying this, but I've never heard anyone sound that desperate before." Desperate? Was that what he was? Thinking back to last night, I remember the look in his eyes. Yes, he wanted to know the truth even more than I did . . . it makes sense. He must have seen Alice suffer so . . . "Oh." "So. Are you gonna find out what happened to them?" she asks. "Yeah, I will." "You must be just like . . . whoa . . . right now." "That just about sums it up." "Well do you wanna do something? Maybe come over here?" "I kinda have to do my laundry." "I have a washer and dryer!" We don't have much reading for Peggy's class on Tuesday since we'll be watching a movie, so I immediately agree. Going to Rosalie's sounds like just the thing I need. ~QF~ Rosalie has a new therapy appointment before classshe's trying to work out her residual feelings about Finleyso on Tuesday I walk alone. It gives me a little time to sort out my thoughts before I see Edward . . . I wonder if he'll ask me about the letters again. My first attempt was a complete failure. I'd called Jake on Sunday. Since he works such long hours and goes to bed early during the week, our conversations on the weekend are the only time we can really talk. At first, I planned to just blurt it out, but as we continued to speak I completely lost my nerve. He was so sweet, so happy to talk to me . . . I couldn't imagine he'd had anything to do with it. And he'd want to know why I hadn't told him about Edward. Every time I tried to make the words leave my throat they got lodged there, stuck and unspeakable. Billy was out fishing with Harry Clearwater, so I didn't get the chance to talk to him either.

Today I'm no closer to the truth, and I can almost feel Edward's disappointment already. When I enter the classroom, I remember about half of the people in my class were at Erin's party and witnessed the great kitchen debacle. Rosalie isn't here yet, but Edward sits at the far end of the table. He smiles and waves me over, indicating the seat next to him while Rue and Alison look on with disbelief. I join him and quickly take out and open my notebook. Edward closes the one he's been writing in and turns his head to me. He looks different for some reason and I finally figure out whytoday he's replaced his usual grey or black tee with a green one. It makes his eyes even more vibrant, his coloring more alive. It suits him. "Hi," I say, feeling suddenly shy. "Hey." "Did you have a nice weekend?" I ask casually. Such a stupid question. "It was . . . okay. A lot of writing, actually," he says, tapping the book on the table with his pen. "What're you writing about?" "Oh, just insane ramblings." From the other side of the room, I can hear whispering. I glance up and Rue gives me a "What The Fuck" look. I shrug and turn my attention back to Edward. "Sounds interesting," I offer. "Maybe. I hope so. But probably not." "Why do you say that?" "Ah, I don't know." He sighs and shifts a little in his chair, indicating this isn't a comfortable topic of conversation for some reason. So I'm surprised when he goes on. "It's just some days the words come out so fast, I can't write them down quickly enough. Then I re-read it later and I want to toss the whole thing."

"You don't think it's good?" He must be getting constructive criticism back from his workshops, though; isn't that what the MFA's do? "I don't know," he says again. "It could be." I almost ask if he'd like me to read it when Rosalie comes in, taking the seat to my right. She offers a tentative "hello," eyeing Edward warily. He replies similarly and I'm sure the rest of the class is about to die from curiosity. The seventh circle of hell must have frozen over for Rosalie and Edward to behave civilly to one another. A second later Riley comes over and strikes up a conversation with Edward, turning his attention away from Rosalie and me. "How was it?" I ask her. She quirks her mouth and shrugs. "We'll see. But so far, so good. She seems pretty nice. It was mostly introductory stuff." "That's good," I smile. My own experience with therapy hadn't exactly been positive, but I know it does help some people. Peggy comes in wheeling a geriatric looking TV/VCR combo and muttering apologies. "You'll have to forgive me. I have no idea how to use the newfangled contraption up there," she says, gesturing to the overhead data projector. "And I've made an idiot of myself more than once. So today we're doing things the old-fashioned way." The class titters a little as she plugs in the TV and dims the lights. The film in question is Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein, starring him as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and, strangely, Robert De Niro as the monster. Never having seen it myself, Rosalie had assured me over the weekend that it's a pretty respectable adaptation of the novella. The story enthralls me immediately and I find myself swept up in the film. Though a little melodramatic at points, Branagh's captured the story's pathos. Once in a while, I glance at Edward out of the corner of my eye; he too seems focused, lost in thought. His body heat radiates the measured distance between us. Victor's obsessive love of knowledge-his fascination with the potential power of science to overcome and eradicate death-leads him on a dangerous, selfdestructive path once his mother dies unnaturally early in childbirth. His war

against death, ultimately reflected in his creation of the monster, suggests not only his misplaced hubris, but also the depth of his grief and suffering. During the scene where Victor tries desperately to revive his mother to no avail, I glance at Edward. He looks stricken and I immediately think of Alicehis own self-perceived failure to save her. His jaw clenches. And when the monster murders Victor's young brother in retribution for his abandonmentmy hand somehow finds itself settling on Edward's jumping knee. He stills, glancing at me quizzically before I realize what I've done. Embarrassed, I pull back and refocus my attention on the movie. But the end. . . I'm not prepared. Branagh takes a certain liberty with the storyline. When the monster insists Victor make him a mate to share his solitude, the doctor begins to comply, then refuses. Enraged, the monster murders Victor's longtime love, Elizabeth, on the night of their honeymoon. That would be bad enough, but of course Victor, maddened by her loss, reanimates her. Elizabeth comes to life and, horrified by the monstrosity she's become, burns herself. As she's engulfed in fire, all I can see is my mother's body lurching, grotesque and alive with flames. I feel my breathing quicken, the nausea rising, and I know I have to get out of the room, and fast. Blindly groping my way to standing, I tear my eyes off the screen and hurry to the door, at the same time trying not to draw attention to myself. Once outside, my footfalls echo through the empty hall as I speed to the bathroom. I make it just in time to lose the remnants of my breakfast in one of the stalls. I slouch over the toilet, heaving and ill, bile burning my throat as I try to erase the images of burning from my mind. A few seconds later, my stomach lurches again and I choke up the remaining contents of my stomach. The door opens and I flush the toilet, standing quickly and bracing myself against the wall. I feel dizzy and weak and utterly humiliated, waiting for whomever it is to find me. "Bella?" Edward callsI'm so glad it's him and not someone else. I won't have to explain. The stall door pushes open slightly and Edward peeks in, his eyes wary with concern.

"Are you okay?" he asks. I shake my head, grimacing with the bitterness of vomit on my tongue. Without saying a word reaches out his hand and takes my arm, gently guiding me out of the stall and over to sink. He turns on the water and I cup my hand under it, giving my mouth several rinses. Edward stands a little to the side, looking away to presumably give me privacy. Once I'm as fresh as I'm going to be, I turn off the tap with a shaky hand and look at myself in the mirror, considering the irony. The last time I was here like this was on the day I fainted. The day he walked back into my life. Now he's the one tending to me. My face slowly turning from green to its normal color. "God, that was . . ." he says, breaking the silence. "A little too much for me, I think," I whisper. "Bella, I'm so sorry. I never saw that movie before . . . I never would have. . ." "It's okay . . . I shouldn't have reacted like that. I just . . . it was too close to home." "I know what you mean," he replies softly. In my preoccupation, I'd almost forgotten his reaction to certain parts of the film. "Alice." "I know it's stupid. But when I see things like that, I just remember." "It's not stupid. Look at me, for God's sake. I can't even watch a movie." "You're not stupid." "Then neither are you," I say, my logic faultless. "Okay, Neither of us is stupid," he replies with a little smile. "The movie was, though." I murmur in agreement. "Very." "Good. Glad we cleared that up."

The door opens again and Rosalie enters carrying my bag. She doesn't seem surprised to see Edward in the ladies room. "It's over," she explains. Edward nods and looks at me; he looks unsure, like he doesn't know whether to stay or go. "Peggy's decided to let us go early since she has another faculty meeting. You want me to take you home?" Rosalie asks. "That's nice of you, Rosie, but Edward and I have some work to do." "Bella," he says, surprise evident in his voice. "If you're not up for it, it's fine. Really. We still have a week." "I'm fine. Honestly. I'd like to get things finalized." "Okay," he says, stepping back. "I'll just be outside then?" "Okay." Once Edward's outside, Rosalie puts her hand on my forehead. "You're freezing, Bella. Are you sure you don't want to go home? Edward's right. You have a week to get it done." I shake my head firmly. "I'm fine, really. But thanks." I appreciate her concern, but if I go home, all I'll do is think. Remember. I want to forget. "I'm so sorry, Bella," she says, "I completely forgot about the ending. What a shitty movie." "Yeah. Edward and I already settled on that verdict." She smiles a little at that and we join Edward in the hall. The three of us walk outside into the early afternoon sunlight and Rosalie hugs me goodbye before we part ways. "Call me if you wanna talk," she whispers. When I came to Chicago, I'd never expected to find such a friend. Edward and I start to walk without a destination; I'm feeling perceptibly better but still a little on edge. "Lunch?" Edward suggests. I know I should probably eat something, but he seems to have a new-found obsession with my food intake. "Is it like your mission in life to get me to eat?"

He looks a little sheepish. "No. I just thought you might be hungry after . . . We can do something else if you want." "Actually," I admit, "lunch sounds good." Edward suggests a place and we make our way towards his favorite diner a few blocks away. A UC undergrad haunt, the place pulsates, crowded and loud. It's not exactly conducive to studying, but it smells awesome. Once we're seated at the booth, Edward quickly orders cokes for us both. I give him a look of consternation. "What?" "Please don't order for me." "Sorry. But it's good for the stomach." He smiles, removing his hoodie with a flourish. His hair stands up with the static electricity and I raise my hand to stifle a laugh. "Who says?" "My dad," he replies, patting down his errant hair. "He always made sure we had coke in the house when either Alice or I had a stomach thing." I guess I can't argue with that. When the cokes come I take a sip and, damn him, he's right. The knots in my stomach begin to untie themselves. "Good?" he asks. "Mmmmhmmm," I grudgingly answer. Though thoughts of the movie remain on the periphery, I try not to dwell on it. Edward doesn't bring it up either. Instead, we chat a bit about inconsequential things, and I gradually relax. My appetite returns just as my meal arrivesa plain grilled chicken sandwich, no mayo. My plate looks downright empty compared to Edward's double cheeseburger and fries. After swamping the two meat patties with more ketchup than most doctors would recommend, he takes a huge bite, moaning in appreciation as the juices dribble down his chin. "Best burger in Chi-Town," he informs me. It certainly looks like the greasiest.

"Chi-Town?" I repeat, laughing at gangsta Edward. He shrugs and grins and goes back to eating. Once we're finished, we get down to work sharing the close readings of the poems we've done over the past week and a half. Edward's critical eye surprises and impresses me. Even though he says poetry isn't his thing, he picks up on some things that I didn't notice. After about a half-hour, the major components of our presentation are in place and both of us feel pretty confident, though I'm still a little nervous about presenting in front of the group. "So you'll take care of the PowerPoint," he says. "And you'll do the discussion handout." "Yep." "Perfect." "See? This isn't so bad. Us working as partners." "Not anymore," I reply, thinking of the tense few meetings. Sure, we'd gotten work done, but I'd never felt at ease. Today's the first day I have. "Yeah, not anymore," he echoes, his hands busily knotting his straw wrapper. "You know, I was thinking." "That's a stretch," I joke. "Ha. Ha." "Sorry. What were you thinking?" "I wanted to ask you a question." Alarm bells go off and I know what's cominghe's going to ask about the letters. He must read the nervousness in my eyes, but his gaze doesn't falter. "What?" "You don't have to answer if you don't want." "Okay."

"I asked you before, but you didn't answer me. I understand why now, of course. But why did you . . . change your name?" I sigh, thinking back to that time in my life. How can I explain so that he'll understand? "A lot of reasons," I begin, taking another sip of soda. "I'd been living with Jacob and Billy for some time . . . long enough to consider them my family. Billy never formally adopted me, but he's like my father. You know? I thought it would mean a lot to him. And it did." Edward nods slowly, but seems to understand there's more to it. "And then . . . it was my mom. I was going through a hard time. Remembering a lot of stuff. I couldn't sleep well." Sometimes I still can't. Edward lowers his gaze, but he's listening intently. I decide to go on. "I thought of it like . . . kind of a symbolic break, or something. Like I could start fresh without looking back. For a long time I was afraid . . ." My eyes meet his and for a second I don't remember what I'm talking about. "Of what?" he asks hoarsely. "Of being like her." "You're not." "No." "Are you still afraid?" "Sometimes," I admit. "When I get anxious or nervous. I know. I mean, I've read a lot about it. I know it's pretty unlikely at this point. But it still scares me sometimes, like maybe one day I'll wake up and I won't even notice I'm sick." "That won't happen." "Probably not." "It won't," he says, as if willing it true with his very conviction. "Yeah. I know that intellectually. But it's different. I can't explain it. It doesn't make the fear go away."

He nods and tears at the straw wrapper, shredding it to bits and gathering them into a little pile with his long fingers. "I'm sorry. I don't want to make you uncomfortable, after the movie and all." "You're not." It feels surprisingly good to talk about it, actually, though a little strange. But there's obviously something still on his mind. His forehead furrows deeply as he speaks again. "I thought maybe you didn't want anyone . . . to find you." He thinks I changed my name to hide from him. While this first strikes me as absurd, I begin to wonder if maybe it holds some truth. "I didn't think anyone would look," I reply. Edward smiles ruefully and leans back in his seat and I feel the gap widen again. The hurt. But these things need to be spoken. "Thank you. For telling me," he says softly. Now's my chance. "While we're at it, can I ask you a question?" He looks a little unsure but nods his assent. I gesture to his tattoo. "What's that mean?" Edward hesitates for a second, then rolls up his sleeve, displaying the entire cuff wrapped around his finely muscled arm. The design is uniform throughout: interlocking black squares. Without thinking I reach out to tentatively trace one of the lines, his skin warm beneath my finger. "It's the Endless Knot. Its supposed to mean all things are interwoven . . . what happens in the past affects the present, and the present, the future. It's Buddhist. I don't know," he says dismissively, covering it again. "Just some impulse I had in college. I was drunk at the time." "I like it," I say. "It makes sense." Tattoos are like scars, I think. Scars that never go away or heal. "Does it?" I nod slowly in realization.

Edward's been holding onto his past and I've been running from mine. What a pair we make.

"Wood already touched by fire is not hard to set alight" African Proverb Chapter 15 April, 2010 "Isabella?" "Yeah, hey! I'm up here! For the past couple of months I've been so busy with graduate school applications, I've hardly had any time to spend with Jacob. I've wanted to be as thorough as possible, though, and of course he understands. He always has. He knows how much I want this, and I know how much it hurts himbut I've told him time and time again, it's not for forever. Of course, tell that to your boyfriend when the closest school you're applying for is a seven-hour drive away. There aren't any universities nearby that focus on what I want to study: Romantic literature and, more specifically, William Blake. And I know he's not going to like it when he sees what's clasped in my hands: An acceptance letter to my number one choice, The University of Chicago. Peggy Riordan, one of the most prestigious scholars in my field, wants to work with me. It's just what I wanted. It's also close to home. My old home. The irony isn't lost on me. I never thought I'd go back there. Do I want to go back there? "Hey!" he says, pushing the door open. "Hey," I say, a little less enthusiastically. I consider hiding the letter under my leg, but he spots it almost immediately. "What's this?" he says, gesturing towards it. "What's wrong?" "It's . . ."

"You didn't get accepted?" he asks hesitantly, dropping down on one knee and leaning against the bed where I sit. I shake my head and my reply is almost a whisper. "No. I did." "What!" he exclaims, jumping up and pulling me into a hug. "That's amazing, babe! Congratulations!" When I don't reply he holds me out at arms length, concern on his face. "Aren't you . . . happy?" "Yeah. I am. I am." "But?" "I'm nervous. And . . . I'll miss you . . . Jacob," I say, my voice starting to crack. How can I say goodbye to my best friend? I don't know why, but now that it's become real, my leaving, I'm afraid. "I'll miss you too. But I can visit. And you'll come home for holidays. Like you said, it's not forever. Right?" "Right." I say, not daring to mention how unlikely it is either of us will be able to do much visiting. We don't exactly have a discretionary income with Billy's salary, and even now, with Jacob doing so well at the garagehe's trying to save enough to buy into Sam's business. But I don't say anything right now. I just sit back down on the bed, and he sits next to me, still holding my hand as I consider . . . aloneness. "Isabella," he says suddenly. His voice is so strange and intense . . . not at all like him. "I know this is probably crazy . . . and you'll probably say no. But I've loved you since you first came to live with us. You know that. I know you haven't always . . . felt that way about me-" He trails off for a second, then turns my hand over in his palm, kissing it. "Jacob?" I ask. "Will you marry me, Isabella?" ~QF~ October 19th, 2010 Are you nervous?

Edward's text message momentarily distracts me from my desperate search for the only high heels I own. I only wore them once-the day I graduated from college-but today I want to feel and look professional. Earlier in the week, I'd met with Peggy after she sent me an email wondering about my hasty departure from the film. I'd assured her I was fine, and finally made a long-overdue appointment to visit her office hours. Our talk had gone wonderfullyshe agreed to serve as my graduate advisor and told me my performance in the class so far had been exemplarybut now I feel added pressure to do well today. I should have gotten up earlier, rather than scrambling to get out the door on time. Now where are those damn shoes? Maybe they're in one of the boxes in the corner . . . Oh. Edward's message. I forgot to reply. A little, I type out quickly. It's a blatant liemy nerves are on edge and I almost wish I had a Valium. But then I'd be nervous and out of it, and I need to be at the top of my game. My phone buzzes again. We'll do fine. No worries. Hah! I thinkeasy for him to say! Edward's always been at ease talking in front of people, even when we were kids. I know once we get underway it won't be so badanticipation always makes everything worse. Okay. If you say so. I'm sure Edward will stroll into class wearing his hoodie and jeans, like always. I do. I'll see you in a few. Ah-ha! Finally, I locate the shoes in a long-forgotten hidden corner of my closet. I fling the box open and slide them on my feet, turning to look at myself in the mirror. Not too bad. The purple, fitted button downa recent purchaselooks sophisticated without being stuffy, worn over an off-white cami. My charcoal grey wool trousers sit smartly on my hips, and the two-inch black heels nicely elongate my legs. With the makeup and my hair done up in a French twist, I look startlingly different from my usual self.

As a final touch, I put on Peggy-approved silver dangly earrings and a bit of lipstick before grabbing my coat and bag and heading out the door. I can do this. This is why I'm here. For the past week I've thrown myself into my studies, fearful of falling behind. Peggy suggested I begin reading journals in my field to familiarize myself with the discourse, and so I immediately logged in to the library database after our meeting. Doing outside research will only help me later once I begin dissertation writing, but I find the reading difficult. To make it easier, Rosie and I have agreed to read and discuss one article per week outside of our normal coursework. Even though someday we'll be competitors on the job market, right now I'm incredibly thankful we're in the same boat. A little voice inside me wonders if concern over scholarship is the only reason I've been so diligent. I haven't seen Edward since our meeting after class last Tuesday. Our revelations then had been somewhat . . . intense. I found myself pulling back a little when he asked me about my weekend plans. He'd seemed a bit disappointed when I told him I wanted to stay in to work, and I knew what he feared. I'd assured him I wasn't having second thoughts about trying to be friends. And I wasn't lying. I want that. So much. I just feel so bare with him. Once I had a dream that Jacob killed my bird, Finch. It was years after the poor thing had died a natural death, but when I woke up I found I was angrystupidly, irrationally so, but still. Even though he hadn't done itmy mind hadthe anger took a while to dissipate. Later that day, when he asked what was wrong, I told him about the dream and it sounded so silly. We laughed about it and my unhappy feelings vanished. What if one day you woke up and you realized your life was a dream? How much laughter would it take to make it disappear? I'm so deep in my thoughts I almost don't recognize Edward standing outside the Humanities building as I approach. And that's not the only reason. He's wearing a suit. Well, not a suit, really, but close enoughdark jeans and a brown blazer. And the shirt underneath . . . it's tucked in. Do I detect a belt? I'm pretty sure I've never seen Edward dressed like this. Ever. A belt? I'm nearly speechless.

"Hey," he says once I'm in earshot, a crooked grin on his face. "You look . . . really nice, Bella." "Thanks," I say, my face heating at the compliment. "So do you. Wow. I just never . . ." "Is it too much?" he asks a bit warily. "No. No! It's great. You look so . . . professional." "Well, you know, setting the bar high and all." He chuckles a little selfconsciously. "Consider it set." "Shall we?" Edward asks, gesturing toward the door. I nod, but then out of the corner of my eye I notice a tag hanging from under his arm. He must've just bought the jacket. I try to bite the smile that's forming on my lips as he looks at me perplexedly. "Um. You have . . ." My hand hovers between us for a second before I reach out and yank the tag; it gives with the force and Edward's eyes widen as I hold it out to him. He pockets it quickly with a shy smile. "Yeah. This is new." "So I gathered." "Never speak of this again?" he asks hopefully. "Oh, I can't promise that," I joke. He fakes a frown but his eyes are alight with suppressed laughter. "This is what I get for going shopping with Angela and Jasper," Edward grumbles. "Oh, Jasper's in town?" I ask casually as we continue up the stairs. "Yeah, through Thanksgiving. He just got back from covering the elections in Sudan actually. We went out on Friday." So maybe that's why Edward was asking about my weekend plans? Did he want me to come out with them? Well, why didn't he tell me? "Wow. What an experience," I reply, my mind still dissecting Edward's possible intentions.

"He said it was incredible. His pictures areunbelievable. You should" "I should . . . ?" I ask, urging him to go on. Now that we're at the top of the stairs I can see people milling around outside of the classroom. We still have a few minutes until class. Edward glances towards them and motions silently for me to follow him down the opposite hall. Once we're at a safe distance, he leans toward me with serious eyes. I catch a waft of mint on his breath as he sighs. "I told them . . . Angela and Jasper . . . that you were here." "Oh." "I was drunk. I'm sorry. I hope you're not mad." "I'm not mad." I'm just thinking about all the people I haven't told about Edwardand wondering what exactly he told them about me. "Did you tell them . . . about why . . ." "No. Not the whole story. But I did say we'd lost touch due to a misunderstanding. I had to explain some way. Anyway, I don't think they'll ask too many questions. But they want to see you. Angela, especially . . ." Edward steps back, waiting for my response. He looks hopeful, but nervous. Angela. We're thirteen and riding bikes at her house. She swerves on some gravel and falls, skinning her knee. Back at home, her mother dabs the wound as I turn away, my stomach queasy from the sight of raw flesh. Later Alice joins us and we eat ice cream outside on her front steps, the incident long forgotten. In school, Ben Cheney tells her he likes when she wears braids in her hair. She smiles bashfully and gives me a sideways glance . . . a look only I would understand. "I'd like to see them, Edward," I say softly, raising my eyes to meet his. "Well," he starts, leaning against the wall next to me, "I'm doing a reading this weekend with a few other MFA's down at Odyssey Books. The others are planning on coming . . . so you should . . . if you feel up to it. We usually go

out afterward, and you can join us if you want . . ." He's rambling a little as I try to imagine what the encounter would be like . . . the thought of seeing old friends is exciting but unnerving. But Edward had said "the others;" if other MFA's are at the reading, surely Kate, Garrett, and the rest will be there too. What might they think of me showing up? The idea of hanging out with them isn't very appealing. Kate obviously dislikes me. But I do want to hear Edward read. "You can bring Rosalie, too," he offers. Another glance down the hall tells me class is starting soon. I need to make a decision but I can't right now. "I'll think about it, okay?" I tell him. "I want to see you read. It's just a big step for me. Seeing people again." And socializing with your new friends. "I understand," he says. His voice holds a trace of disappointment even as he maintains his smile. "Just let me know." "I will." "So, shall we go 'wow' them?" "Let's do it," I agree. Edward and I are the last to enter the room and I feel the nervous flutter again . . . thankfully it's not as intense. Peggy beams at us and relinquishes her spot at the front of the room while I set up my laptop for the PowerPoint. Edward takes a seat next to where I stand, shuffling through papers in a folder. When he finds the handout he passes a stack of them to Alison, seated to his left. I finish up connecting the requisite wires, sweating a little from all of the eyes focused on my task. But Edward's presence calms meI know we're in this together. I'm supposed to go first with the introduction, so I clear my throat, but just as I'm ready to speak my mind goes blank. I can't remember what to say. I glance up and meet Rosalie's kind eyes. She smiles warmly and gives a slight nod, urging me to go on. "Hi everyone," I begin. "Today, as you know, we're presenting on John Keats's poetry and work. I'm going to begin with a PowerPoint just to set the

scene, but we'd like this class to be as interactive and focused on discussion as possible." Edward nods as I speak, but he's focused on a paper in front of him, jotting down some notes. I start to relax again and the words flow more easily. "Some of the questions we'd like you to consider are on the handout, but of course those are only guidelines. Let's get started, shall we?" I begin the PowerPoint and Edward and I take turns discussing the slides-I focus on Keats's early years and he explains a little bit of his history in Rome, using some of his own pictures to provide visuals. The conversation moves fluidly between us, and every once in a while I cast a sideways glance at Peggy. She's observing us carefully with a thoughtful look on her face that I hope is a good sign. After a short break, we move onto the critical reception of the poetry, both then and now, and of course the poetry itself. "Since he died so young, Keats never lived to see the height of his fame. He also believed he never reached his full potential," I conclude as we transition to more open-ended discussion. "In fact, one of his last letters to Fanny Brawne reads: 'I have left no immortal work behind me nothing to make my friends proud of my memory but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember'd'." "But," Edward adds, "it also poses an interesting questiondo we in some ways fetishize him because he died so young? How does his position as the quintessential Romantic poet shape the discourse itself?" I smile a little at Edward's effortless transition to our discussion handout. From then on, conversation flows like wine. People clearly have a lot to say about the topics we've raised, and more than once discussion becomes heatedbut not in a bad way. It's exciting, leading class like this, being at the center of it all. Time passes quickly; before I know it class is over and we haven't even covered half of the assigned readings. This indicates our preparednessanother good sign. "Ms. Black," Peggy remarks from a few seats away as I shut down my computer, "I'm impressed by your technological prowess." I smile and blush-now everyone in the class probably hates us. People are packing up but her comment was clearly audible.

"Thanks," I mumble, trying to accept the compliment gracefully. "I always feel bringing multimedia into the classroom really aids with learning, with graduates as well as undergraduates. Well done, both of you." She nods at Edward beside me. We chat for a few more minutes as the rest of the class files out. Rosalie has a TA meeting with the bastard Finley, so I give her a quick wave and a concerned smile before she departs. She's wearing her game face, but that doesn't stop her from giving me a "thumbs up" sign. I try not to laugh because Peggy is still talking. "Your reading of 'To Autumn,' was especially smart, I thought. Good consideration of how Keats uses imagery and stanza formation to show how death can be a sort of renewal. Your close-readings were spot-on." "It was all Isabella," Edward says firmly. "It was both of us," I amend, giving him a look. I don't want or need all the credit. "I'm sure," Peggy says with a little smile. "In any case, it was very interesting." Peggy congratulates us again before she leaves. As soon as she's gone I flop down into a conveniently located chair, sighing loudly. "Whoa. That was intense." "You can say that again," Edward agrees. "How do you think we did?" Edward smiles a little cockily. "I think we kicked ass," he says, reaching out for a high-five. I slap his hand. "Peggy seemed to like it." "Definitely." I feel a little giddy. The relief of everything going off so well, coupled with Edward and I here, together, just talking, makes me laugh. It feels to good to be true. "What's so funny?" he asks.

"I don't know!" I say with a giggle. He considers me with an amused expression, shaking his head. "You're in hysterics." "Maybe." "I think this calls for a celebratory drink." "But it's only noon." "It's five o'clock somewhere," Edward rationalizes. "Come on. We deserve it." "All right," I agree. Why not? I wasn't planning on doing work today anyway. "Where do you wanna go?" "I know just the place." "Is it far?" I ask as I stand up, remembering my shoes. They're not the most comfortable things to walk in. "Maybe we can stop by my apartment first so I can change and drop off my computer?" "We'll take a cab." Edward says, glancing at my shoes. "Unless your feet hurt now." "No, they're fine." "Good. Then, let's go!" "All right! Pushy, pushy." Edward grins and we finish gathering our things. Before I can stop him, Edward takes my laptop bag and casually hoists it across his shoulderjust as he used to do. I almost say something but think better of it, instead following him out of the door. Out on the street, we're not long in getting a cab. Edward gives a Delaware Street address and the driver assents with a nod. It's one of those beautiful fall days where the air seems especially clear and crispno trace of the sweltering humidity that you find in summertime Chicagoand so I roll down the window a bit, letting the breeze swirl around me. Edward watches the street quietly from his seat as we drive, his knee bouncing. My phone buzzes in my bag and I pull it out: a text message from Jacob.

How'd it go? Really good. Call you later? I reply. If Edward is curious about who I'm texting, he makes no indication. Ten seconds later: Congrats babe! Sounds good. So like him. Happy. To the point. He has no idea I doubt his honesty like this. That just by being here right now . . . I am dishonest too. Ten minutes or so later we're disembarking at the curb, as I shake off my slight misgiving. Edward pays quickly, dismissing my attempts to retrieve my wallet from my bag. "It was my idea," he explains as we start to walk. "Fine," I huff. "But I'm getting the drinks then." "Sounds like a deal." "Where are we going anyway?" We're down on the Magnificent Mile, surrounded by skyscrapers, stores, and restaurants. I rarely come to this part of town. "We're here." "What?" Edward gestures towards the building in front of usI hadn't even noticed we were standing in front of the Hancock Center. "Have you been here before?" I shake my head, a little alarmeddoes he want to go to the top of the center? I know there's some sort of observatory up there but I've never been. The truth is I'm not exactly fond of heights. Edward must read the hesitation on my face because his smile falters. "You're afraid of heights," he says, matter-of-factly. "Just a little."

"We don't have to. It was just a stupid idea." I hate when he says things like thathe can be so dismissive of himselfhis writing, the tattoo, even this well-intentioned impromptu plan. "No." I firmly reign in my own fear. "It's an awesome idea. I'd love to check it out." "You're sure?" he asks skeptically. Despite the fact my palms have already begun to sweat, I nod with an emphatic "yes." Edward's answering smile is so sweet I know I've done the right thing. Once we're inside, the elevator speeds us to the top so rapidly I don't have time to change my mind. I have to steady myself on Edward's arm when the elevator lurches to a halt, and he reaches his hand to my hip automatically. The doors open. He removes his hand quickly and I let go of his arm, both of us slightly embarrassed at the contact. It reminds me of the unconscious way I'd touched his knee in class during that horrible movie. Or hugging the night he came to my house. Familiar gestures, but different. For some reason they stand out more clearly than the most intentional embrace. Edward pays our fees and we follow the other guests out into the observatory, forgoing the "audio tour" one of the employees tries to foist on us. I gasp as I realize how high up we aredefinitely higher than I've ever been. Edward follows close behind as I make my way towards the tall windows the place is so open, affording a spectacular 360-degree view. It's a breathtaking sightthe city is bathed in afternoon sunlight, shadows from the shorter buildings dipping and twisting in sinuous paths around their neighbors. The clear day makes visibility extend for miles, probably beyond the borders of Illinois. I reach out and touch my hand to the thick glass. Everything is so far below it seems surreal, more like a movie than real life, which provides a sort of comfort. My vertigo seems contained for now, at least. "What do you think?" Edward asks cautiously. "Do you like it?"

"I do. It's incredible, Edward." I can't tear my eyes away. So many people. I imagine myself back down on the ground, in another life, inhabiting another body. "I thought you would. Well, maybe that you would have liked it. When we were kids." "I still like it now," I say, turning to him with just a hint of a smile. I'm not prepared for the pain in my chest that wrenches and pulls when my eyes meet his. I'm not expecting to see sadness there, matching mine, but I do. For the first time in nine years it feels like we're friendsreal friends. It shouldn't be sad, but it is. I want to speak these things out loud, but I don't know why my heart hurts. My mind grapples with reasons, but my thoughts speak only in pictures, images. The tender growth of new skin. Sometimes it hurts when skin knits together, each side seeking its wholeness. But how to describe this to him? Perhaps it can't be put into language. Perhaps we all have our own ways of envisioning pain. I clear my throat and look away, self-protective instincts kicking in. Today we should be happy. Edward seems to follow my train of thought. "So. We came to celebrate, right?" he asks. "Right." "A drink then?" "Definitely." There's a relatively well-stocked caf and Edward lets me buy him a beer and a sandwich. I select a glass of white wine and a grilled chicken salad, and we choose a small table near the windows and away from the throng of Midwestern tourists that teem the place. We sit and chat while we eat. Edward points out a few landmarks and swears he can see his apartment building from where we sit. We talk about Peggy's class and school in general. I tell him more about my life since I've moved here, though there isn't much to say. But I'm happy to be officially working with Peggy and Edward seems proud of me too.

He tells me about Emmetthe's apparently single and lookingand I immediately think about Rosalie. I suggest it and Edward laughs dismissively. It is kind of a silly idea, I suppose, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. I don't ask him about Kate or if he's dating anyone at the moment, and he doesn't offer any information on that front. I don't talk about Forks, Jacob and Billy, or letters and Edward doesn't mention those things either. But once I catch him looking at my left hand and I control the sudden, strange impulse to move it from the table. Somewhere my mind guiltily registers it's not the first time I've done so. Jacob had been embarrassed about the modest engagement ring, but it was all he could afford. As if I would have wanted more. I'd never been big on jewelry, even as a kid. The necklace my mother had given me had been the only one I'd really ever owned, and that was lost in the fire along with everything else. Well, almost everything. Edward looks back to my face and flushes a little at being caught staring. To break the tension, I offer to buy another us another round of drinks. Two hours later, we're finishing our third, and I'm feeling quite fine. I'm not used to drinking in the daylight, but night is rapidly falling. When I glance at my cell phone, I can't believe it's gotten as late as it haswe've talked for so long. Edward drains the rest of his beer and wonders if I'm up for one more. A fourth. Why not? He sets off on his errand and I sit, watching the spectacle unfold before me. The setting sun is alive. Vibrant, fiery, oranges and pink hues light up the October sky, almost blinding in their brilliance. It reminds me of something Blake would have illustrated. It reminds me of something Renee once said when she was well, when I was a very little girl. Mom? Why does the sky turn colors when the sun sets? Every day, God works so hard keeping track of what happens on Earth, so in the evening he relaxes by painting the sky. He chooses glorious colors, but he's never satisfied with his picture. He erases it with night and tries again the next day. That's why the sunset is different each night. But I thought God was perfect? Wouldn't he paint a perfect picture the first time?

Sometimes you're too smart for your own good, baby. Like so many of my memories, I'm not sure if it happened quite like that, or if I'm remembering and fusing several different moments together. But it feels so real. So real I can almost imagine her here with me right now. "Bella? Are you okay?" Edward's back at the table and I'm startled from my reverie. "Yeah. I was just thinking. I'm sorry." "Don't be sorry. You want to talk about it?" he asks. "No," I shake my head, not wanting to bring down the moment by being a sentimental drunk. "It's just so beautiful." "It is," he replies, but he's not even looking outside. "Edward," I say, taking another sip of wine. "Can I ask you a question?" "Uh-oh," he says, "another one of those?" "Yep." "Okay. What's your question?" "My question is . . . what's the best thing you ever ate?" I giggle a little at his wide-eyed expressionobviously he wasn't expecting such an easy one. He smiles slowly, taking another sip and leaning back in his chair. "My mother's beef stew." "Ah-ha!" I exclaim, "I thought you'd say my blueberry muffins, just to placate me." "Well, they're second place, of course," he says with a grin. "What about you?" That's easy. "The cake my mom bought me on my twelfth birthday." I think for a second, wracking my brain for another innocuous question. "What's your favorite non-90's band, and if you say The Killers I'll puke."

"What? The Killers suck," he replies with a frown. I can't contain my smile, remembering Kate's shirt. He scrunches his forehead and looks up at the ceiling like he's trying to figure out the meaning of life. Finally, he exhales with a triumphant, "Sonic Youth." "I said non-90's!" "They formed in 1981, Bella," Edward replies smugly. "I should have known." "What about you?" "Easy. The Beatles," I say. Edward rolls his eyes. "Still a hippie, I see." "Of course." Edward grins at me and we continue our game, covering everything from places we'd like to visit to favorite cartoons. "Worst game show ever?" "Wheel of Fortune." "Wrong! The Price is Right." "That's entirely subjective," I complain. "The Price is Right is moderately entertaining while Wheel of Fortune has been proven to actually kill brain cells." "Oh has it?" Edward asks, arching his eyebrow. "Yep. Scientifically." "I see. Fine. After a few more rounds, we're bordering on total nonsense arguing over the best Saturday Night Live character. I laugh as Edward does his best Wild and Crazy Guys impression, trying to convince me. I'm strongly loyal to Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, however, and cannot be dissuaded. "Give me one good reason," Edward insists.

"They're from Aurora. They're locals." "Is that your only defense?" "No! Two hilarious spin off movies? I'd say that beats your crappy sketch." "Well, what's Mike Meyers done lately? Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd are legends." "I think you're forgetting Dana Carvey," I say. "Garth is key." "Oh, his career is in the toilet." "I don't recall seeing Ackroyd in any decent films, I don't know, in the past decade," I tease. Edward rolls his eyes. "He's currently filming Ghostbusters 3," he says with hopeful shrug. "You've got to be kidding me. That's all you've got? Pathetic. No one likes Ray." "Do you remember," he says with a little grin, "the day we played Ghostbusters?" I groanhow could I forget. It was one of Edward's favorite movies when we were kids, and he'd convinced Alice and I to play along one day. He'd of course gotten to be Peter, the coolest Ghostbuster, and I quickly snatched up Egon, leaving Alice to choose between Winston and Ray. "Alice was not happy." "And the game lasted about a half an hour before she went crying to mom." "Bella and Edward are being mean!" "It wasn't our fault she was being held hostage by ghosts!" "Definitely not," I agree, laughing at the memory. It feels good to talk about Alice like this. We reminisce for a little whileat one point I'm in such a fit of laughter that I grab his hand on the table. I don't know if it's the alcohol, or what, but it doesn't feel weird at all. Until he covers my hand with his. Then something strange happens . . . my mind feels fuzzy and confused. I pull away slowly,

returning my hands to the stem of my wine glass. Edward's hands stay on the table, palms up as if in supplication. I take another sip and try to clear my head. "I don't know why you're bringing this up, Edward, because it completely disproves your point. She picked Winston. Even a nine-year-old knows better than to choose Ray." "Fine," he says with a sigh. "Agree to disagree." I laugh. "You're just upset I'm right." "Okay, okay," Edward says, throwing his hands up. "One last question. It's your turn." "Hmm . . ." I tap my chin, trying to think of a good one. It comes easily. "What was your happiest day?" Edward's face slowly becomes serious. "Do you want me to tell you the truth, or a lie?" "Why would I want you to lie?" "I don't know," he says. "You might." "I don't," I reply, but something about his demeanor makes me nervous. Still, I want to know. "Okay. Well . . . there are two days. But I'll just tell you one." "Not fair!" "The original question asked for 'happiest day,' singular." "But you just said you had two! I hate when people say they're gonna tell you something and then they don't." "Do you wanna know or don't you?" I nod. "The night of Erin's party," he says quietly, "When you told me about your letters."

I don't know what I'm expecting, but it's certainly not that. My mouth immediately goes dry . . . He's looking at me so intently and I can barely speak. "Really?" He nods slowly, looking away. I can't believe it. Out of all of the days, and he picks that one. "See? You'd rather I lied." "No," I whisper, but it doesn't even sound convincing to my ears. "What's your happiest day, Bella?" One day comes to mind immediately and it's shocking . . . Have you ever been kissed, Bella? It's not the day it should be. But I can't tell him. "Oh, I don't know. I don't think it's happened yet," I lie, looking down at my hands on the table to avoid his gaze. I can't think of anything else to say . . . any untruth that would sound convincing. "Ah, yes. Your wedding. I'm sure that will be a very happy day." Edward says. His voice holds a trace of coldness . . . and when I look up again, his eyes dart from my hands on the table to my eyes. They're searching for something. He's misunderstood me, but what can I say? So I remain silent, watching the last glimmer of light fade from the sky.

The most tangible of all visible mysteries - fire. ~Leigh Hunt Chapter 16: October 22, 2010 "How'd it go?" On the day after our presentation I lay in bed nursing a bit of a hangoverI definitely drank too much wine last night. Edward and I had shared a taxi back from the John Hancock and as I speak to Rosalie, my mind drifts back to the look on his face as I exited the cab. He doesn't seem happy. Not just last night, either. In general.

"Oh, it was a shit show, of course," Rosalie replies, and I feel bad for my wandering attention. Yesterday was the first time she'd met with Finley in a professional capacity since they'd broken up. "What happened?" Rosalie sighs on the end of the line. "Honestly Bella, I don't even want to relive it. But just suffice it to say that it was enough to make me wonder what the hell I ever saw in that guy. He's a fucker." "Do you think you can keep working for him? I mean, do you think he'll treat you fairly?" I'd encouraged my friend to ask for another assignment given the situation, but TA positions are hard to come by and it's too late at this point in the semester, anyway. If Rosalie gives up her job, she's out of funding. "He fucking better, and he knows it. I have a pair of his underwear and I'm not afraid to bring them to the administration, if it comes down to it." "You're amazing." "No. Just pragmatic." In my book, she's amazing. We chat for a while and Rosalie asks what Edward and I did after class. I tell her about the visit to the John Hancock Center and how much fun we had, leaving out, of course, Edward's confession about his favorite day. I don't want to share it. "Wow. That's really nice. I didn't know Edward had it in him," Rosalie murmurs. "Don't be like that." For some reason, her doubting him bothers me now. It hadn't before. "Sorry, sorry. Old habits and all," she replies. "I know you guys are trying to be friendsI'll be good. I promise. I just don't want him to hurt you." Her words sting just a little. Maybe a lot. "Yeah, well. It was nice." "So . . ." "Yeah?"

There's a sharp inhale on the other end of the line. "I met with Alison yesterday evening." "Aaaand?" "It seems people are talking about you and Edward." "What?" "That you guys are an item or something." My heart skips a beatand all I can think of are four letter words. "Well that's just crazy. What the hell did she say?" "Whoa! Bella. Relax. I told her it's not trueit's just that people have noticed how you guys have started acting differently around each other. I mean, one second you're mortal enemies and the next you're working together, completing each other's sentences . . ." "It was for class. It was just a . . . And we didn't . . ." "You don't have to defend yourself. Don't listen to what people say. You know the truth and that's all that matters. I told you from day one academics are the worst sorts of gossips," she says with a dismissive laugh. "We live vicariously through other people." "Unless you're an MFA," I sigh, stretching and thinking of Edward and Kate. The upcoming reading. "Exactly." "So I guess this isn't the best time to bring it up, but Edward asked if I'd go to his reading on Friday." "Down at Odyssey?" "Yeah." "Are you gonna go?" "Um. I was thinking about it. But it's gonna be weird. Edward's friends . . . some people I knew when I was a kid . . . they'll be there too." "Whoa. And you haven't seen them yet?"

"No, not since I was 14." "And do you want to?" I think back to my conversation with Edwardhow much he'd wanted me to go. And now that I have the chance to see Angela again, I can't pass it up. "Yeah, I think I do." "Well, what's the problem then?" "Weeellll . . . I was kinda hoping you'd come with me." I pause, waiting for her response. I don't wait long. "Hell yeah, I will!" And this is another reason I love Rosalieshe's always game. "What are you doing right now?" "I have some work to do for class tomorrow, then nothing." "Oh good, 'cause we need to go shopping." "We do?" "Yes. We do." ~QF~ On Friday as Rosalie and I hop off the "El" and onto the platform, I thank God for the cold night. Chicago air is not like the verdant, oxygenated air of Forks. I miss air that fills your lungs and refreshes, making everything clearersharper. Here, only the cold provides that same clarity of mind. "You ready to do this thing?" Rosalie asks, clutching onto my arm for support. She's wearing heels the likes of which I have never seen. I'll stick with my flat, brown riding boots, thank you very much. Only about a block away, I can see the illuminated sign of the bookstore beckoning. "Yes. Sort of." For the last couple of days, I've been in a perpetual state of dread and excitement. Aside from the fact I'll be seeing my long-lost friends for the first time, I'm also a little nervous about how Edward's other friends will react to my presence. All I know is that I don't want Kate to know about my historyI don't trust her one bit. At least focusing on tonight has kept my mind off of one thing.

I hadn't even realized it until yesterday. A glance at the calendar on the kitchen wall shocked me. October 24th. Just a date, written in black ink like any other day. Just a date. But every year it creeps up like a slow-moving, stealthy beast. This year, it's pounced quickly, taking me unaware. How could I not have remembered? "Bella?" Rosalie asks as we approach the building. I nod and she gives me a supportive smile. "All right, then. Let's go in." I've never been inside Odyssey before, but when we step in I instantly love it. It's a used bookstore, one of those places with hidden corners you can get lost in. The musty smell of well-worn leather bindings and yellowing pages mingles in the air with another comforting aromaa few candles burn, lighting the reading area and creating a warm, albeit pretentious, atmosphere. Candlelight, I have grown used to. "Oh God," Rosalie whispers lowly in my ear, "I see . . . hipster people." I giggle a little at her ancient movie referenceRosalie is a master at using humor to diffuse tension. A few people, some who I recognize from campus, mill around the store. Others begin to fill the rows of folding chairs. Towards the back of the room, a table displays a modest array of cheese and wine, but I've already decided I better not drink tonight. At first I don't see Edward among the crowd of people gathered at the front of the room, but then I notice his telltale hair. That, coupled with the fact he stands about a half-head taller than most people, makes him conspicuous. "There's your bud," Rosalie says playfully with a poke to my side. Edward looks up and over at us, a grin spreading over his face as he turns to speak to the dark-haired man next to him. Holy crap. Emmett McCarty swivels his head, his eyes searching till they alight on Rosalie and me. He's just how I remember himolder, of course, but the same broad shoulders, the same wide, sincere smile. Edward says something else and Emmett nods. "Who the heck is that?" Rosalie asks with interest.

"Emmett. Edward's roommatehe's the one I told you about." "You didn't tell me he was fine." "Yeah, well. I was fourteen the last time I saw him. And I had a boyfriend . . ." I trail off. "Here they come," she grits through her teeth, patting her hair as they start making their way towards us. Edward looks scruffy, handsome, and very much like an author with his notebook in hand. He told me after the presentation he wasn't going to shave for a week and the thick growth of stubble along his jaw proves it. He's back to wearing his usual clothes-a black Sex Pistols shirt and jeans with a chain hanging from his pocket. Emmett's button down shirt and black trousers look much more formal by comparison. My heart thrums nervously as I glance at them, and then behind, but Angela and Jasper aren't here yet. "Little Bee," Emmett says with a grin. Before I can answer, he envelops me in a tremendous hug, nearly lifting me off the floor. Though I can't see him, blinded as I am by Emmett's shoulder, I can hear Edward's throaty chuckle. "Emmett," I whisper. "When Edward told me I just couldn't believe it. And here you are," he says, releasing me. "Here I am." "Are you . . ." "I'm okay." I have a feeling there's going to be a lot of this tonight. People want to know how I am but they're afraid to ask. It's the elephant in the roomthe fire, my scars. Even with Edward. We have yet to talk about my treatment or my time in the hospital. I wonder if he's waiting for me to bring it up, or if he just doesn't want to know. Maybe both. "It's so good to see you . . . and this kid," he says, elbowing Edward, "has been sooo" Before he can finish, Edward cuts him off with a "Fuck off, Emmett." He shoves Emmett aside, closing the distance between us with a hug. "Thanks for coming, Bella," he whispers in my ear.

"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss it." Rosalie clears her throat and I turn my head and to find her watching us expectantly. "Emmett," I say, stepping away from Edward, "this is my friend Rosalie. She's in the program with me." "Very nice to meet you." Rosalie smiles and a very transfixed Emmett takes her hand. "Any friend of Little Bee's is a friend of mine." "I'd say the same about Edward's, but I don't want to lie," she replies. Emmett laughs at that, slapping Edward on the back again. "Yeah, I'm with you on that one, Rose. Edward sure has some interesting friends. Where is your shadow, anyway?" My stomach lurches uncomfortablyI know immediately he's talking about Kate. It's only confirmed when Edward grumbles, "She's not my shadow." Just then the door chimes again and we all turn round. I immediately recognize Angela's petite frame, her long straight hair parted at the side. Jasper ushers her in the door, taller and blonder than I remember. Her arm is looped through his and they're laughing about something. In this moment, before they notice us, I can tell they're happy together. And I'm glad for them. Jasper's gaze sweeps the room, finally alighting on us as a warm smile spreads across his face. Angela follows suit, her eyes widening in disbelief as they meet mine. "Bella, oh my God," she says, letting go of Jasper and rushing over to me, "I can't believe it! I just can't believe it!" We stand and hug and cry and I don't care there are so many people watching. It's so good to see her. For the moment, I allow myself to just revel in seeing this girl, now a womanone of my only friends from home. I hug Jasper too, happy he's here even though I never knew him very well.

Rosalie introduces herself and the six of us stand catching up for a few minutes as more people filter in. But . . . One is missing. Edward looks on pensively, not really joining in the conversation until I catch his eye. In that one moment I can read his mind, and I'm sure he can read mine. The last time we were all together like this Alice was alive. Angela wants to know what I've been doing, how I ended up at Chicago, what I'm studying. She tells me a bit about her job, but there's not much time for serious conversation. Happily, the reunion isn't half as awkward as I feareduntil Angela notices the ring on my hand and snatches it up with an exclamation. "What's this!" "Um . . . I'm engaged," I murmur. "You're engaged! Edward," she scolds, "You didn't tell us Bella was engaged!" "It wasn't my news to tell," he replies with a shrug. "Well," she says, turning back to me, "I think it's wonderful! Who's the lucky guy?" I tell her about Jacob, averting my eyes from Edward. Luckily, he's deep in conversation with Emmett and Rosalie. She grins over her shoulder at Jasper, their hands finding each other surreptitiously. Such an intimate gesture of comfort and familiarityI feel another one of those pangs. I wish it could be easy. I wish it didn't make me feel uncomfortable to talk about Jacob in front of Edward. But while the words coming out of my mouth make Angela smile, they feel strange on my tongue. I haven't been able to forget what Edward said about his favorite day and what I felt but didn't say. The guilt weighs heavily and uncomfortably in my chest. I feel like I've been unfaithful to Jacob even though Edward and I are just friends. Just friends. Five minutes before the reading, Kate, Riley, another girl arrive, who Edward introduces me to as Carmenshe's stunning with black hair and eyes to

match and a soft, shy voice. I decide that I like her much better than her more gregarious and irritating friend. Kate greets me civilly but I detect an icy undercurrent to her tone. Of course she immediately gravitates toward Edward. But I'm spared from anything else as the bookstore owner calls us all to attention, and people begin to take their seats. "I'm a little nervous," Edward whispers as we trail the others towards our reserved seats. I investigate his face to see if he's jokinghe seems serious. "Why?" "Because it could be crap." "It could be, but it won't." I notice Peggy seated next to a handsome grey-haired man; she waves as we pass. "I'm glad you came," Edward says, squeezing my arm quickly before taking his place at the front of the room. I settle down in-between Rosalie and Angela, my heart beating more quickly for him. It's really quite exciting. Edward has two pieces to read, he tells us, both very different in tone and subject. At the sound of his voice, the audience immediately stills to listen. Edward has an incredible stage presence and a beautiful reading voiceso why wouldn't you? I'm transfixed, and so proud of him even though he's barely begun. The first story surprises meit's incredibly funny and smart in a way that reminds me almost of a young Philip Roth. It's the story of a young unmarried couple moving in to their first apartment together and Edward really captures their hopefulness, excitement and the fearhe enters both of their heads, giving us a glimpse at the things that make them nervous, the things that irritate them, the things that they desire. It's really well done, and by the end of the story, the entire audience is laughing and cheerful. The audience claps. Rosalie gives me a quick, wide-eyed smile before returning her attention to Emmett, who sits on her other side. The two of them speak lowly together during the short pause between stories and I smirk to myself. Perhaps there might be a love connection there after all. "Wasn't that good?" Angela whispers in my other ear. "Most of Edward's stories are, but that's one of the best I've heard."

"It was awesome," is all I can reply because Edward's getting ready to read again. He takes a deep swig of water from a bottle, his Adam's apple bobbing, before he returns to the lectern. "This is a story about a journey," Edward begins quietly. This time, his voice is much more subdued, immediately setting a more melancholic tone. The story is of a young, recently discharged American soldier abroad in Rome, and so I automatically listen for signs of Edward, hoping for a glimpse of his real life through his fiction. During our first in class argument he'd insisted I was misguided for doing sobut I can't help it. Set in 1918, the story begins just after the Armistice is signed and before the rise of Fascism. There is a sense that the soldier, who is never named, is adrift. Once Edward begins reading, the rest of the world melts away. "He went to the same caf every day, ordered the same cup of coffeea double espresso. Because he was an American, he tried hard to speak the language, but tripped over vowels, bent consonants foolishly. He was a consummate foreigner waiting to be absorbed by an ambivalent country. But still the proprietariolistened patiently every time the young man placed his order, confident that one day, he would get it right." Edward pauses, and when he begins again his voice is firmer, though still that familiar velvet. I glance around me and notice everyone, especially the women, in rapt attention. I like the formal, old-fashioned narrative styleit's much different from the jaunty, comic, modern prose of the first. "On this particular day, he had an errandan unusual one. His landlady had requested he pick up a bouquet of flowers at a negozio di fiori on the other side of town. Her niece, a young woman from the countryside, was coming to visit, and she had never been to the city before. That night, dinner would be served at seven. By all accounts, the expected visitor was quite beautiful. The landlady, especially, seemed keen on his meeting her, and while he was vaguely intrigued by the prospect, he met the day with no real excitement." Edward continues on, describing the soldier's journey through Rome on a spring dayhe sees the beauty and wonder of the city but as an observer, not an active participant in the life around him. The story recounts several stops he makes on his way to get the flowersseveral mishaps and encounters with denizens of Romebut still he remains impassive. Just under the surface of his character, you can tell the trauma of the brutal war

has had a lasting and devastating impact. He, like the city itself, appears unsettled, waiting in the calm between two storms. "There was one place he felt entirely comfortable. Some days he would visit the Il Cimitero Acattolico for no reason other than to marvel at the tombs. Here, in the foreigner's cemetery, he would wander through the narrow paths, reading names and marveling that the most beautiful and peaceful place in Rome was a place of death. He loved its inhabitants well." Edward pauses, glancing over at me. This is the cemetery where Keats is buried the pictures of his grave flash before my eyes. A glimpse of Edward's life in Rome. It's devastatingly sad. "But one tomb in particular, designed by a famous American sculptor for his wife, particularly captivated him. The Angel of Grief, her body prostrate and weeping, seemed the most perfectly executed expression of loss he'd ever seen. The surrender of the Angel's down-turned wings recalled a memory he could not let go." The piece ends perhaps a little predictably, but beautifully. Instead of taking the flowers, a bouquet of lilacs, back to his accommodations in fulfillment of the landlady's request, he leaves them for the Angel of Grief. The unnamed soldier never returns to his lodging, and we're left wondering where his journey will end. When Edward finishes, I blink back tears. Such an understated storyso filled with emotion without melodrama. He wrote it beautifully. Edward smiles a little shyly at the applause before retreating to his seat at the end of our row. I feel like I've learned something about him, but I'm still trying to figure out what it is. ~QF~ An hour or so later, after another MFA has read stories that in no way compare to Edward's, I find myself at Eclipse, the infamous hipster bar down the street from the bookshop. There's a pretty sizable crowd of us, and everyone wants to talk to Edward I can barely congratulate him before he's swept away into a sea of people who want to know more. Though I'm not drinking, everyone else is, and soon the room is filled with voices. Still, I can't shake off the impact of Edward's second story.

The place appears intentionally grungy, filled with kitschy memorabilia from the 80'sincluding a Ms. Packman video game. I can see why Edward likes it here, but somehow it seems fake to me, like it's trying just a little too hard to be cool. The music is too loud and it's difficult to carry on a conversation. Maybe you have to drink to have fun here, I think, finally giving in to Jasper's insistence and having a beer. Rosalie whispers something in my ear about being right back and I turn round to see her move off with Emmett to a recently vacated table, leaving Angela and I alone. We share a knowing smileI'm so happy they seem to be getting along so well. Jasper's wandered off to where Edward is, over at the other end of the bar with his MFA friends. It's nice to talk to Angela without an audience, but I feel a little slighted and out of place. The irritating sound of Kate's loud laughter filters over, and I glance over to see her standing next to Edward. Of course. For the better part of an hour, Angela and I have a chance to catch up. She tells me about her job in investigative journalism and how she and Jasper had met. They seem pretty serious, though both of them travel quite a bit. Jasper's working freelance right now, and is currently in the midst of negotiating a book contract for his African photography. When it comes to my life, Angela is hesitant at first. When I ask her why, she says that Edward warned them from asking too many questions. It's a little irritatinghe's trying to make me more comfortable, but I don't want to be treated like a child. "It's okay," I tell her. "You don't have to be afraid to ask." "I just . . . I'm so sorry we lost touch. I don't suppose I was a very good friend. I did try to call a couple of times, but I never got through. I thought maybe you didn't want to talk to us." She bites her lip hesitantly. I smile at her, trying to convey I'm not angry. "It was my fault, too. I was just so out of it after the fire . . . I was in the hospital for three months and then when I got out, it was just so weird. I couldn't walk . . . I couldn't do anything." "Oh, Bella," she says, resting her hand on my shoulder. "I thought about you a lot over the years. And then when I met Jasper again, sometimes you'd come up in conversation. I always wondered where you were. If you were okay. Everyone did." "Did Edward . . ."

"He didn't like to talk about you. It was too hard for him," she pauses, as if considering whether to go on. "If you don't mind my asking, what did happen? Why didn't you write?" "I did. I never got his letters," I sigh. "He never got mine." "What!" she exclaims, shocked. "How in the world . . ." "I don't know," I reply, not wanting to delve into the subject right now. Instead, I take another sip of my beer. Angela seems to understand. "Is it weird? Seeing Edward again?" "Yeah. Well, it was really weird at first. But it's not so bad anymore. We're trying to be friends." "You guys were always so close," she reminisces. "Even before you dated." "Yeah." "He was always so protective of you . . . and Alice." At the mention of her name, I glance over Angela's shoulder towards Edward. Someone I don't know is talking to him, but he's looking over at us. Our eyes meet for a second before Angela recalls my attention. "What does your fianc think of the whole thing?" she asks, laughing. "Is he okay with you and Edward hanging out? He must be a pretty awesome guy." And I am caught in a web of my own lieshow do I explain why I haven't told him? Anything I say will sound horrible . . . "Isabella," comes a singsong voice from beside me. It's Kate. She wears black eyeliner around her huge blue eyes and red lipstick on her plump lips, which are curled into a smile. "So nice of you to come to Edward's reading." "Yeah, well, I wouldn't have missed it," I reply, not missing a beat. "He thinks very highly of your opinion," she continues. "It's sooooo nice to see." The insincerity of her words is almost shocking. This girl considers me some kind of threat, but I'm not in the mood to be bullied. "Is that so?" "Yes. And I think it's just so sweet for him to invite you, knowing you used to be such good friends and all." She speaks with authority and

condescension and my stomach drops. Edward's clearly filled her in on our relationshipand I don't like it one bit. Her nastiness just cheapens it everything. Angela clears her throat. "So nice of you to join us Kate," Angela says equally condescendingly. "And where's Garrett this evening?" Kate rolls her eyes. "I don't keep track of my exes, Angela. Unlike some people." She looks at me pointedly. "What's that supposed to mean?" I ask, angry now. Is she insinuating I came here to stalk Edward? The way she's acting confirms there is something between them . . . she's marking her territory, telling me to back off. But . . . how could he want to be with a person like this? "Oh, nothing, nothing," she says noncommittally. And I can't believe Edward told her about usI don't like not knowing how much she knows. Now the rest of the department is sure to find out, too. I feel completely betrayed. When Edward approaches, I can't even look at him. "Hey," he says, his hand on my shoulder, "is everything all right?" I cringe away from his touch, thoughts of him with Kate making me sick. "Perfect," Kate says, now the wide-eyed innocent, taking a sip of her drink. "Yeah. Well. I actually was just leaving," I tell him, my throat dry as tears prick the backs of my eyes. "What? Don't go. I hardly got a chance to talk to you," he says with disbelief. "Yeah, well, you're busy," I reply. "And I'm tired. I'm sorry." Angela looks a little bewildered at my sudden change of plans, but she gives me a fierce hug. I feel stupid for running away, but I just can't deal with this. "It was so good to see you," I whisper. "Please, don't let her run you off," she whispers back. "I have to go. I'm sorry. I'll call you," I tell her. "Okay." "Bella . . ." Edward says, his whisper an near hiss, "What's wrong?"

"Edward," Kate replies soothingly, reaching out. "She's tired. Let her go. Your friends are here; that's all that matters." "Stay out of it," he growls at her. "I'm going now," I say, mustering my strength to look him in the eye. His expression is a combination of confusion and anger as his gaze darts between the two of us. But I don't want to make a scenenot again. "Goodbye, Edward," I say softly. "There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke." -Vincent Van Gogh

From Chapter 16: "Bella . . ." Edward says, his whisper an near hiss, "What's wrong?" "Edward," Kate replies soothingly, reaching out. "She's tired. Let her go. Your friends are here; that's all that matters." "Stay out of it," he growls at her. "I'm going now," I say, mustering my strength to look him in the eye. His expression is a combination of confusion and anger as his gaze darts between the two of us. But I don't want to make a scenenot again. "Goodbye, Edward," I say softly. Chapter 17: October 22, 2010 Suddenly Edward's expression changes to fear . . . he thinks I mean forever. I shake my headtonight's events have utterly confused and bewildered me and I don't know what to say. I give him a pleading look before retreating, but before I can his hand clutches my arm, guiding me away from the other two women. He grabs our coats on the way out the door and I catch a confused glance from Rosalie that I can only meet with a weak smile as Edward ushers us into the cool night air.

"Bella . . ." he growls lowly, holding me close once we're on the sidewalk. "Can you please just tell me what's going on? What the hell happened?" His proximity distracts me for a second, his clear green eyes dark and intense with emotion. Even in the fresh air I can smell him-Edward. My thoughts flash back to a younger him, a younger me standing in the hallway near his locker. "Is that a picture of me?" I ask. "Maybe," he says, the hinged door swinging shut with a clank. "You have a picture of me in your locker?" "Maybe." He smells like home. But then my thoughts return to Kate and her insinuations. She looked at me like she knew everything. How could he have told her? I shrug my arm out of his grasp, walking quicklyand perhaps cowardly away. "Goddamn it," he says, his long strides allowing him to overtake me easily despite my best attempts to hurry. "Will you just wait a second? Jesus. You're always running away from me." He grabs at my arm but I whirl around, my anger returning. "How could you, Edward? How could you tell that . . . girl about me?" "What are you talking about? Tell her what?" He appears genuinely confused. "She acted like she knew everything about us," I say, walking again. "She basically just accused me of coming tonight to keep tabs on you." "What? That's crazy." "Well, that's what she said." "Bella," he says again, walking in front of me in that annoying way he has. I wish there was a snow bank for him to fall into. "The only thing I told her was that we were old friends. If she says she knows anything else, she's lying."

"She seemed to know more." He groans in frustration. "Kate's manipulative. Whatever she said was just to get a rise out of you." "Why are you friends with her then?" I ask with a huff, probably sounding as catty and immature as Kate herself. By now, we've reached the "El" stopI place my hand on the railing and begin climbing the steps to the platform. A crowd of boisterous teenagers jostle each other around, the boys shouting out rude remarks, and the wind has picked up quite a bit, encouraging me to wrap my coat more tightly around my body. Edward still hasn't spoken. Finally, I glimpse at his profile: jaw clenched, conflict plainly written on his face. "I think we should go someplace to talk," he says. "What do you want to talk about?" I ask stubbornly, no longer sure what my reaction to him should be. "Not here, please. I want to tell you about Kate." Oh, I don't want to hear this. Not at all. "You don't have to tell" "I do," he says, his voice serious. "Give me a chance to explain to you. The truth. My place is nearby. Will you come over for a little?" Edward's house is about ten minutes from the "El" stop, and we walk there mostly in silence. I can tell he's thinking, mulling things around in his head, and so am I. The anger I'd felt just a little while ago dissipates as I try and keep up with Edward's lilting steps. He leads me down a quiet street. Soon, I find myself standing in front of a beautiful three-story brownstonefrom the lights shining out through the darkness I can make out wrought iron filigree decorating the upper story windows. Edward jostles with the keys in his pocket as I wait on the short, squat landing behind him. "This is all yours?" I ask in disbelief as we finally enter and Edward flips on the light. The place is huge. Though the exterior is surely turn-of-the century, inside is a modern wooden interior, decorated by a couple of tastefully placed Persian rugs. The walls are a creamy off-white and I suspect a couple of the original rooms have been gutted and extended to create a wide-open space for the living room to the left of the entryway. An L-shaped leather sofa and imposing flat screen TV feature prominently, and

the room incorporates other masculine elementssome modern paintings, a steamer-trunk side bar, filled with numerous unknown bottles. Straight ahead, I think I detect the kitchen, but it's too dark to tell for sure. The stairway to the other floors rises to the right. I turn to look at Edwardnothing about this place reminds me of him. "Emmett pays a good portion of the rent," Edward confesses sheepishly. "And Jasper, too. They did the decorating." "Oh." "They have real jobs. And Emmettlets just say his paycheck is . . . substantial." "Must be," I murmur, glancing around. "He also got a pretty sizable inheritance when his dad passed away last year." "Poor Emmett," I whisper. "How did it happen?" "Pancreatic cancer," Edward replies. "That's horrible." Edward nods curtly, looking away. But I feel his pain stab out, slicing through the room like an invisible force, before he pulls it back inside. "Well, do you want the grand tour?" he asks. I nod my head in assent to prolong the inevitable. Edward smiles tightly and takes my coat to stow in a hallway closet. He leads me forward and confirms that the darkened room ahead is the kitchen. But it's a kitchen right out of my dreamsall of the fixtures are beautiful muted steel. They must have a cleaning woman, or somethingit's far too nice in here for three bachelors. But that's not the most impressive thing to mea set of handcrafted copper cookware dangles from an iron holder over the center island. "Wow," I say, automatically moving towards them and reaching out my hand to touch. "These must have cost a fortune." The comment isn't meant to be spoken out loud, but Edward obviously hears me.

"They were a gift. From my parents when I graduated college. I told you I got into cooking." "They're beautiful." Growing up in the neighborhood I did, I'd always been self-conscious being in other people's homes. I couldn't help comparing them to mine and unfortunately that old habit hasn't worn off. It irritates me, to still feel somehow unworthy of being in a space like thislike I'm in some sort of museum or something and not a real home. "Come," Edward says, holding out his hand. He leads me through the kitchen and to a simply furnished dining room. A long, stately mahogany table sits flanked by two equally fine benchesvery old school, like a King's mead hall. There's a vase of fresh cut flowers on the center of the table, placed on a deep red table runner. I instantly think of Angelait must be her doing. An unframed rectangular mirror hangs lengthwise on the right hand wall, reflecting the entire room. "A lot of this furniturewas Emmett's parent's. His mom moved out of their house about six months ago, took an apartment in the city." I run a finger over the smooth, varnished wood. "Funny, how things like thatinheritanceswork. You get these material objects, when all you really want is the person back." Of course, nothing remained of our old house when it burnedwhen Renee. . . "Two days," Edward says softly. I turn back to him, shocked. "Yes. You remembered?" "Of course. Every year. I'm sorry, Bella." "Thank you," I whisperI can't believe it. He nods and for a minute we just stand there, staring at each other, understanding passing between us. Somehow, the fact that he remembers comforts me. "The others will probably be home soon. Shall we?" I follow Edward back out through the kitchen and up the stairs. The second floor, he tells me, is Emmett's, and Jasper's when he's at home. Down the hallway, there's another set of stairs leading up to the third floor.

Edward's room is a converted attic space and as soon as we enter I feel a wave of relief. Thisthis I recognize. A smaller flat screen TV stand rests on a glass stand, video game consoles tucked neatly away inside. There's a desk strewn with papers, notebooks, pens, and closed laptop computer. I laugh when I recognize a couple of Edward's old band posters, framed now, hanging on the far side of the room. He notices the direction of my gaze and laughs along. "Those are classics," I say. "Yeah. My mom threatened to throw them away, so . . ." he drifts off and both of us remain standing. Other than a desk chair, he doesn't have anyplace else to sit. Except the bed, which, I notice with an unwanted blush, is huge. Next to it along the wall a couple of bookcases teem over capacitysome rest on their sides on top of their upright neighbors. And along the shelves are knick-knacks, a couple of pictures. I allow myself to drift closer, my breath catching when I spy a small, framed photo of toddler Edward holding a tiny baby Alice. He looks overwhelmed, staring with wonder at the small bundle on his lap while she regards the camera steadily. And then another photo. Alice lays half-reclined, swaddled in a pink blanket on a narrow hospital bed. She's bald and far too thinbut her eyes. Her eyes are luminous, lit from within, a sort of resigned wisdom reflected in their depths. I glance at Edward and he nods his assent before I pick it up, drinking in the image. At the end of the bed a tired, teenaged Edward sits holding her small white feet in his lap. A foot rub. "That was two weeks before she died," he says hoarsely. "She's beautiful," I whisper. There are some emotions that are too strong for tears. I stare at the photo for another minute, memorizing it, before gently restoring it to its place on the shelf. "I don't usually have company . . ." he says, glancing around. "That's okay," I sit down on the edge of the bed a little self-consciously. I wonder how many women Edward's entertained up here, but I push that unwelcome thought away.. As if sensing my thoughts, Edward chuckles nervously, running his hands through his hair.

"I met Kate and Garrett last year," he begins without warning, taking a seat on the floor a couple feet away and leaning against the wall. "We were all first years, and we started hanging out, doing readings together, you know. After a while I realized they weren't happy. Garrett was sleeping around on Kate and she didn't know about it. When she found out, she was pissed. They'd been together . . . since high school." He picks nervously at the light blue carpeting, stretching his long legs out in front of him with a sigh. "She'd been a good friend to me," he continues after a beat, "so she crashed on our couch for a few days. Then Garrett called. He wanted her back, but he wanted to see other people. I was totally surprised when she agreed. So, that's how it was. She went out with a few other guys, but nothing serious. He dated a little here and there," Edward pauses and glances at me, gauging my reaction. I try to remain impassive. "Anyway, I thought it was a little weird, but figured if that's what they both wanted, it was fine." He pauses again, bending his knee and leaning forward. A jittery, nervous energy radiates from his body. "But then, this summer, Kate and I . . . I was drunk. It was fucking stupid, Bella. Anyway, it happened, and I immediately regretted it. Garrett was pissed off and Kate, well, it became pretty clear she wanted something more with me." "Oh," I say, feeling sick. So they have been togetherthe thought makes my skin crawl. Kate is just so . . . horrid. Was it here? On this bed? I almost make a move to stand up but think better of it, willing myself to remain seated. "Oh? That's all you have to say?" he asks. "It's none of my business, Edward, who you sleep with," I reply, trying to control the tremor in my voice. Talking about sex with Edward makes me uncomfortableI feel inexperienced and foolish. Jacob and I have done certain . . . things . . . but we'd planned to wait till we were married, both of us for different reasons. Edward scoffs a little. "The way I see it, it is. If you're my friend. Friends tell each other things, right?" His tone is more than a little accusatory and I realize my selfishness. I should be able to hear these things, if he wants to share.

"I'm sorry. Go on." "She broke things off with Garrett completely about a month ago, even though I told her I wasn't interested. She's a friend. Nothing more." "But she's not giving up?" "Apparently she thinks I'll come around," he says darkly. "Will you?" "No. And to be honest, we haven't been hanging out much lately anyway. I asked her to come tonight to keep the peace. I'm sorry for whatever she said to you. But I swear to God, Bella, she doesn't know anything about you. At least not from me." I think about what he's saidit is true that Kate didn't actually give any concrete details about what she knew. And of course Rosalie told me people have been gossiping about us anyway. She could have heard something, or she could have been bluffing. I know Edward's telling me the truth. "People are talking about us," I tell him. "What do you mean?" "Like I said they would. On campus. Rosalie told me." "Don't listen to everything Rosalie tells you. I know she's your friend, but I think she's given you the wrong idea about me." I raise my eyebrow, which seems to piss him off. "I know what the department gossip is, Bella. I'm not stupid. And yeah, I have gone out with a couple of peopleso what? But if you think I'm some sort of man whore, you're wrong." "I don't think that." "Don't you?" "No . . . I" "Don't lie to me, Bella. I can see it in your face when you lie. It doesn't become you."

I flush, looking away. He's right. I did believe Rosalie. But now I'm so confused. I doubted Edward so quickly when Kate accosted me. Why? I'm looking for any reason not to trust him . . . I still don't, do I? "I'm sorry." "I know we're still . . . trying to figure out stuff. But I think part of the problem is you don't know me . . . not anymore. Or at least you think you don't. And I don't know what's okay with you . . . where the boundary is, what's okay to tell people and what's not." "About?" "Don't be obtuse, Bella. About who you are in my life," he says with some exasperation. "I don't know . . ." "I know you don't trust me . . . not yet. It's frustrating, but I understand. Just give me a chance, please. I think there are some things we need to talk about." "You're right." "Can I ask something?" "Yeah." His voice is quiet and serious. "Why haven't you tried to find out about the letters?" I expected the question, but my answer seems inadequate. "I'm afraid . . ." "Of what?" "Knowing. Having it confirmed that Billy or Jacob . . . betrayed me like that. What if they knew about Alice? That she was sick? I could have . . . said goodbye." I choke out the last words, glancing again at the photo of Alice and Edward in the hospital. He cradles her feet so gently, the delicate veins visible through translucent skin.

Edward considers me stoically. "Do you think it's better, not knowing?" He stands and comes to sit next to me on the bed, tentatively placing his hand on my left knee. The gesture elicits a warm, slow burn. I stare at his hand. "I don't know." "Well," he says, "I'll be honest and tell you how that makes me feel. Like you don't care. I know you lost something. But I lost something too. When Alice was dying, writing to you was the only thing that kept me together . . . I imagined you'd get those letters and maybe . . . help me." "Oh Edward," I whisper. "I thought you might forgive me for abandoning you. But then, she was so sick. I had no one else to talk to. You never replied and I . . . You think you're the only one that was alone?" "I don't think that. I'm sorry . . . I do care!" I say vehemently, the words just spilling out. "I care so much! I'm so sorry about what you must have went through, Edward. Every day I was in the hospital, I thought about you. About Alice. I know how much those letters mean to you. They mean the same thing to me! But it's just not something I can do over the phoneI've tried!" Now I'm crying and I don't know what to say; I feel the weight of his words and know he's right. I've been holding back so muchhe's been trying to reach out to me, but I'm afraid. A part of my mind screams for Jacob-for him, here, to anchor me. "Please don't cry," he says, scooting a little closer. I want to lean into him but I don't . . . I don't because I want it too much. Instead, I wrap my arms around my body, rubbing my hands up and down. I feel so cold. "I'm so sorry for making you feel like that," I whisper. "I can't do it over the phone. But I promise. I swear to you I willwhen I go home." "You're going to Forks for Christmas?" he asks softly. I nod abruptly, the tears still spilling. I hate how confused I am, how strange I feel right now with him sitting beside me. Edward groans dejectedly. "Please forgive me. I'm a fucking hypocrite anyway." He sighs when he sees my confused expression. "Back when you went away, I could have called you. But I didn't because I was too fucking afraid. I thought you'd just hang up on me and that would

be that. So I started writing. But once I started and you didn't reply . . . then I really couldn't call. And the days went by." With a quick movement, he stands and disappears into the adjoining bathroom, returning moments later with a wad of toilet paper. "It's all I have," he says. "Like I said. Not many visitors." "Thank you." I take it gratefully, wiping my face. "But Bella, there's not one day I don't regret not picking up the phone." My thoughts immediately flash to Angelawhat she'd said about trying to call and not getting through. I'd never received any phone callsjust another confirmation that my old life, my old friends, had been purposefully kept from me. Could Billy have done such a thing? And why? It's becoming increasingly plain that even if Edward had tried to call, I'd never have gotten the message. But I just nod. I understand his regret. "I never told you . . . but I got arrested." "What?" "Well, not exactly arrested. 'Taken into custody,' is more like it. I got it in my head that I'd just drive to see you." "Are you kidding?" I ask, surprised. "No," he laughs mirthlessly, "I stole my mother's car and got picked up on the Illinois border. It was just about two months after you left. My dad put me under lock and key." "I was so lonely, then," I whisper. "I'm not saying this to make you feel bad. But it hurt. A lot. The operations. I have . . . horrible scars." Edward inhales sharply and I look away. I don't want to see the pity in his face. "But you don't want to hear about that." "That's not true. I do." "You never asked." "I didn't know if you wanted to talk about it. I didn't want to make you uncomfortable," he says. But I know there's more to it. "Bella . . ." he reaches out, his light touch barely grazing my arm. "You're beautiful."

"You haven't seen." "I don't need to see to know that." "Don't. Please," I choke. "Don't feel sorry for me." "I'm a bastard," he whispers to himself. I don't know what he's talking about . . . but when I look up I see his face contorted with guilt. "It's not your fault, Edward." "I" "No. It's not." He sighs, scrubbing his hands over his face. "I want to know about what happened. If you want to tell me. I'll listen to anything you have to say." The prospect of telling him about what my life was like after the fireit seems too much of a burden. He's suffering too, and I'm afraid right now he'll take anything I say as more blame. "I do want to tell you. But not tonight." "It has been a little . . . rough." "Yeah," I sigh in agreement, stifling a yawn. "This was supposed to be your night. And I had to go and ruin it." "No, Kate ruined it by being a bitch." "Yeah, but I listened to her," I reply with a wry grin. "Can I ask you what you thought? About the reading?" "I loved it." "Really?" "Yes, really. I mean, I liked both of them. But the second one . . . I loved it." "What did you like about it?" I think for a second, and while I do, Edward fluffs up a pillow and pats it, urging me backwards towards the head of the bed.

"I can't stay, Edward," "I know. Just rest. You look exhausted." "Okay." I comply shyly, leaning back against the pillow while he covers me with a soft white throw. "Now, tell me why you liked my stupid story." "The writing was beautiful, that's one thing. I loved how understated the emotions wereand it was so sad, but there was more to it than that . . . I know you'll probably get annoyed, but I felt like it gave me a glimpse into your life . . . what you were feeling when you were in Rome." "Why would I get annoyed?" he asks, sitting back down near my feet. "That day in class, you were talking about the authorial fallacyhow it's wrong to assume a writer always incorporates their own life experiences into their work." "Ahh," he says, remembering with a light chuckle. "Well, maybe I just said that to throw you off my trail. I think it's impossible to write about something you have no experience with, you know? I mean, at least a part of itwhether it's the emotion, the action, something." "That makes sense," I say, watching cautiously as Edward scoots over to the other side of the bed, grabbing another pillow and reclining against it. I clear my throat, suddenly incredibly aware of our proximity to one anotherI should definitely go. But I can't moveI'm frozen in position, watching the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes. "What else?" he asks. "Umm . . ." I say, staring at the ceiling to get my bearings, "I could identify with your protagonist. How he seemed stuck in limbo . . . too close to death. Did you . . . feel that way?" Of course he didhow could he not have? "Yes. That's not to say I didn't enjoy my time in Rome," he says wistfully. "But yeah, I felt pretty disconnectedfrom a lot of things." "The girl in the story. The dinner guest. Was she real?" "I did meet someoneMaria," he says, crossing his arms in back of his head. "I liked her quite a bit."

"What happened?" I ask. "I realized I didn't love her," he says, turning on his side to face me. "Any more questions?" "Just one. Why lilacs?" "Hmm?" he murmurs distractedly. "In the story, the soldier leaves lilacs on the grave. Do they have any special meaning?" "Well, if I told you, it wouldn't be much of a mystery, would it?" he teases, his hand reaching out to brush a strand of hair off my face. My face heats when he lingers just a beat too long. "Fine. Be that way," I whisper. "I'm glad you liked it," he says, rolling over to his back again. "Actually . . . I'm trying to get it published." "Really? That's amazing, Edward. I'm sure some magazine will snap it up. Have you had any luck?" "Not yet. But persistence is the name of the game." "Keep trying. I definitely think it's good enough." For a while, we just lounge and talk. I forget that I should feel weird about laying in Edward's bedI forget about Kate, about my mom, Jacob, everything. I'm sleepy and warm listening to the sound of his voice. "Bella," Edward says, "I wanted to tell you something about Alice." His statement rouses me and when I turn to face him with a worried expression, he smiles. "Don't worry. It's something good." "What is it?" "She never believed it, even when I did. That you didn't want to talk to us anymore. She never hated you." "But her letters . . ."

"I'm not going to lie and say she wasn't hurt, but she always said there was a reason. I thought, I don't know, it was wishful thinking or something. A couple of days before she died . . . she said . . . someday, I'd find you again." "Really?" "Yes. And see? She was right." "Girls blush, sometimes, because they are alive, half wishing they were dead to save the shame. The sudden blush devours them, neck and brow; They have drawn too near the fire of life, like gnats, and flare up bodily, wings and all. What then? Who's sorry for a gnat or girl?" -Elizabeth Barrett Browning Chapter 18: October 22-24, 2010 My eyelids flutter open onto the hazy contours of an unfamiliar room. Where am I? The soft red illumination of an alarm clock provides minimal light. Without thinking, I snuggle backward into the source of the comforting heat behind me. Heat? Edward. Memories of the night before come flooding backwe'd talked so late into the night, I must have just fallen asleep in my clothes. Somehow during the night the distance between us has dissolved, and he's now laying flush against my back, wrapped in the same blanket he covered me with hours before. I notice his head rests on his arm next to my pillow, his own probably abandoned on the other side of the bed. And his other arm . . . is around me. My heart stutters in my chest, rendering me fully awake. Move. I should move away. But I don't dare to stir lest I wake him. And it feels nice . . . really nice. I know it's not good that it feels nice but it does. Once we started dating, Jacob used to sneak into my room sometimes when Billy was asleep. I'd awake in the night with his body wrapped around mine, his erection sandwiched between us. At first, it was an unspoken embarrassment, both of us aware but not daring to acknowledge what was happening. But soon we moved to touching, grinding onto each other needily. I would never let him see me without my clothes in those moments, and Jacob was adamant about not going "all the way," but on occasion he would

sneak his hand down my pajama bottoms, his fingers searching, trembling and unsure at first and then, eventually, becoming more confident. Only rarely did he allow me to do the same, but when he did I was surprised and pleased by how his body reacted to my fumbling touches. He was the only man I'd ever seen in that way and, while he was embarrassed of his pleasure, I found it fascinating. Lying here, I try to remember what Edward's lips felt like on mine. Yes, we were children then. I now understand that I'd misread his desire for me as discomfortthe way he'd pull away when things got too intense. I was so innocent. I still am in many ways, but this at least, I know. He was protecting me, who he considered much younger and more vulnerable, from himself. But today, what would it be like? Until now, I've stopped myself from indulging in visions of what might have happened if the fire never did. If I never left Elgin and Edward and I had finished growing up as a pair. Would we have stayed together? Would we have wound up here, like this? I am beset by images. I see the two of us sharing an apartment like the couple in his first story Edward carrying boxes and cursing when he bashes his shin against a misplaced coffee table. Me cleaning cobwebs out of long-forgotten corners. Laughing at the silly belongings each of us has brought along to our new homefor him, old band posters, for me, a collection of tickets to all the movies we've seen together. Eating Chinese takeout on the floor then making love on a mattress with no sheets, my body molded to his with no scars on either of us, body or mind. Edward's warm breath on my hair sends chills through me as I imagine it . . . allow myself to think of it, here in this dark cocoon, what his hands would feel like if they drifted over me, soft and gentle, rough and demanding, what he would look like in this new, older body if I could see all of him, if he were still mine. I know that such is the stuff of fairytalesit doesn't happen like that in real life. But could it have, with us? Would we have survived, or would we have drifted apart, as most teenaged couples do?

But the fact remains the fire did happenit did. And I've promised myself to another man. A good man, who doesn't deserve this, whatever he may have done. I feel strangely calm. Moving very slowly, I turn on my side to regard Edward. He's sound asleep, probably not even aware of his positionhe's still fully clothed and no doubt unconsciously sought my warmth in the night. But his face is so peaceful, like a child, I think as the early morning light begins to filter in through the windows of his attic space. His eyelashes softly fringe dark circles I hadn't noticed until now. As I study him, his eyes begin to move under closed lids. Even in sleep, he doesn't rest. He's breathtaking. What does he dream about? I never knew, even when we were young and he was my most trusted confidant, he'd grow into such an honest, caring, loyal man. He doesn't hold anything back and he needs someone to do the same for himsomeone who can give them her whole heart without any reservations. Not Kate. Someone as sweet and good and kind as he is. My heart fills with longing for him to be happy. But that longing is followed by a swell of bitterness and resentment toward whomever that girl might be. How hypocritical and unfair of me. Still, I allow myself the indulgence. Just this once. It's time for me to leave before he wakes and feels guilty or awkward about this moment. I'd rather keep it perfect. And so carefully, so carefully, I slide myself out from under his arm and down onto the floor, trying not to make too much noise in the process. He doesn't stir, and his eyes return to their resting statethat deep, fathomless sleep that only comes after dreams. I draw the blanket up around him and look down his face, impulsively leaning down to kiss his cheek, just where smoothness meets stubble. He smells like sleep and blankets and unwashed hair. You'll always be my friend, I silently promise him. A certain resigned melancholy settles over me as I walk through the early morning Chicago streets. I memorize everythingthe way the mist rises and settles in the alleys, swirls around streetlights. A scraggly looking tomcat appears, giving me a skeptical, wary look before returning to his hunt. It's cold but not mind-numbingly so, and I take my time, stopping for a cup of coffee at a bakery just opening for business. The smell of warm bread

assaults me as I enter, arousing my hunger, so I buy a croissant as well. In Rome, Edward says, they're called cornettia favorite breakfast, usually served with either chocolate or jam. I smile thinking of him in a caf with his espresso and morning pastry. Even though I must've only slept a few hours, I feel like walking. So I do, drinking my coffee and eating as I weave through neighborhoods I don't know, watching as the city wakes up. Weekends in Chicago are the best. I love seeing people begin their routinesjogging or bicycling, getting their morning papers, walking their dogs. And later, there will be brunchwaffles and omelets and granola with yogurt and honey. This morning seems particularly busy. People must sense that the relatively pleasant weather will only hold for so long, and soon winter will bring the cold, driving wind Chicago is famous for. Finally, after I've finished my coffee, I seek out an "El" stop to wait for the train. My mind is peaceful, but just barely staving off the sadness that always haunts me this time of year. I don't want to be sad anymore. It feels tiresome and self-indulgent, when I know I'm one of the lucky ones. I've survived. I'm healthy. I have people in my life that love me, and people that I love. I'm pursuing a degree in a subject that I'm passionate about, on a pathway to a fulfilling career. But what I wouldn't give if I could just tell my mother . . . just once . . . that I loved her. I was so fragile thenthe year after the fireand Billy and Jake were extremely protective of me. In a very short time, I came to depend on them for everything. When I was strong enough, Billy finally told me about how the fire had started: a careless cigarette in her littered bedroom. I was so angry, but I was also relieved. For there'd been a horrible dread festering somewhere in my mind that whispered she'd done it on purpose for what I'd said to her, for being an ungrateful child. Of course my memory of her trying to save me completely contradicted this fear. But still, it was a relief to hear. It allowed me to mourn her with my whole heart, but it didn't erase my grief or my guilt. Only Jacob knew the depths of those feelings. I remember the day I told him about what I'd said to my mom the day before she died. It was my sixteenth birthday, and the two of us were walking down on our beach, down at La Push. I'd just recently learned to walk again without my cane, but still I leaned on Jacob for support, fearful of slipping on the wet rocks. He was always so strong.

"Bella," he'd told me, "your mom knew you loved her. And she loved you." "How can you be so sure?" "From the things you've said. But also because I've seen parents and kids fight before. You know Seth?" Seth Clearwater was a good friend of Jacob's. He'd been in and out of juvenile detention recentlyhe was a good kid at heart, but troubled. "Yeah." "Well, one day I was going over there and I heard him fighting with his mom through the door. I didn't want to go in, but I didn't know what to do, so I just stood there for a second." "And?" "Well, Seth was saying something about his parents not caring or giving a damn, and that's why they let him go to juvie. And Sue said that she didn't know how to help him, or what to do. But that whatever Seth did, he'd always be her son. She'd always love him, no matter what." "Do you think that's true?" "I know it is." I didn't know whether to believe him, but his words were my only comfort. Now, I'm doubting my trust in him, and I hate it. These missing letters weigh so heavily on my heart, part of me wants to just call and be done with it. This strange limbo I'm in is horrible, especially when I talk to Jacob. But I know what I told Edward was true. It's not something I can do on the phone. But today I wonder if that's the only reason. I hop off the train a couple blocks from my house and am almost there when my cell vibrates in my pocket. It's a text from Edward. Where'd you go? Lots of work. I didn't want to wake you. I reply quickly. Oh. I wanted to take you to breakfast. His reply makes me smile. Always trying to get me to eat. Sorry. Rain check? The contrition in his voice is almost audible.

Definitely. I'm not expecting the next message. My pillow smells good. Like your perfume. I'm not wearing any. Well, then I guess it smells like you. I re-stow my phone, fiddling in my bag for my keys with shaky hands. A few minutes later, just as I enter my apartment, there's another message. Was that weird? Never have I had such a fraught internal debate over what to reply. If I say 'yes,' or even 'a little,' he'll feel bad. I decide to go with just a simple "No," even though it's a complete and total lie. Okay. Don't mind me. I'm an idiot. No you're not. We could continue on like this, but I decide it's high time I took a shower. I quickly discard last night's clothes and hop under the warm water, feeling simultaneously light and heavy. Edward's text . . . his arm around me this morning . . . I can't stop thinking about it. Here under the spray of the shower and bright light of the bathroom, my fantasy seems more like a betrayal, and I feel the horrible sting of guilt. I lather my hair, surprised at how long it's grown, preparing myself for my Saturday call from Jacob. He'll want to talk about Renee, knowing the anniversary is tomorrow. And I've just spent the night in another man's bed, conjuring up a life with him instead. Doubting Jacob's honestyimagining his betrayal. Confused tears mingle with angry ones in the watermy weakness disgusts me. How easily I devolve into this crying, sniveling mess. My one comfort is that there are no witnesses this time. Now out of my shower, I notice two missed callsJacob and Rosalie. Emmett had dubbed her Rose. I like it, and I wonder how she feels about it.

Though I'm eager to hear how her night went after I left, I dial Jacob back immediately. He picks up on the first ring. "Isabella?" "Hey Jake." "I'm so glad to hear your voice," he says. "Me too," I say, an awkward pause ensuing. I haven't been able to negotiate this terrainhow to talk to him like nothing's wrong when . . . everything is. "Where were you last night?" he asks. "I called pretty late and I didn't get any answer." "Um . . . I was with Rose," I lie. "We went out. A couple of people from our class were giving a reading." What a horrible person I am. "Oh. I guess that's good. Did you have fun?" "Yeah. It was pretty good. I'm a little tired today, though." "I hope you didn't get too crazy," he laughs nervously. "You're being careful, right?" "Of course," I reply. "I just had a beer." "Seems like you're drinking a lot lately. You were never like that here, at home." "I'm not drinking a lot," I say defensively. "And anyway, it's graduate school. That's how functions are. Everyone has a glass of wine or a beer or two." "Yeah, I guess I wouldn't know," he says bitterly. "What? What's that supposed to mean?" "You just haven't been very . . . I don't know . . . present lately." I sit down on the edge of the bed, my hands sweaty and nervously wiping at my yoga pants. He's right, of course. I just didn't know he'd noticed. "I'm sorry. I have a lot of things on my mind."

"That's what you always say. And you know, I was looking at my call history . . . you never call me." "I'm sorry, Jacob. I'll be better about the phone thing." My heart is thrumming in my chest, fearful that my guilt, like an alive and slithering thing, will cross the expanses between us. "That would be nice. But it's weird, Isabella. Even when we are on the phone, it's like you don't want to talk to me, like you have something better to do." "That's not true." "It might not be. I hope it's not. But I'm just telling you what its felt like to me, okay? I mean, you're my fianc. We're supposed to be planning our wedding." "I told you, I'd rather do it over break. When we're together." "Have you bought your ticket yet?" "Um . . . no, not yet." "Jesus, Isabella," he says with exasperation. "The flights are just getting more expensive the longer you wait." I had completely forgotten about my ticket. The last time we'd spoken a few days before, I'd promised to buy it straight away. "I know. I was planning on doing it today." "Do you want to come home?" he asks. His voice sounds so bleak, it hurts my heart. "Of course I do," I tell him. He sighs deeply. "Okay." We speak for another half hour, our conversation turning to lighter topics, but still the early part of our conversation lingers in my mind. While we're on the phone, I finally purchase my plane ticket for December 15th, the day after my essay for Peggy's class is due. This seems to appease him to some extent . . . he brightens quite a bit, sounding more like my Jacob. I can tell the hurt isn't completely erased though . . . he's so bad at keeping things to himself.

Just as we're hanging up, he finally brings up Renee. "So, do you want me to call tomorrow, or do you want to be left alone?" he asks softly. It varies year to year. Some years I don't want to speak to anyone, other years I need to surround myself with people. This year seems like one of the former, but in the context of our conversation, I decide to go with the latter. "Okay. Well, I'll talk to you tomorrow then." "Okay." When we hang up, I realize it's the first time neither of us has said, "I love you." I text him immediately and he responds a minute later, but it still feels strange. I go about the rest of my day feeling hollow. I finish up the work for my classes, gratefully losing myself in the beauty of Wordsworth's poetry. I listen when Rosalie describes her nightshe and Emmett hit it off, just as I suspected they had, and they plan to go on a "real date" in a couple of days. I can tell how excited she is, and I'm pleased for hershe needs a good guy like Em in her life. She asks me about my encounter with Kate and Edward, but I gloss over it. If she suspects something more, she's good enough not to pressure me. And if she's hurt when I tell her I don't feel like having dinner that evening, she doesn't show it. Just for good measure, I tell her about the anniversary. "Oh Bella," she says. "Do you want some company tomorrow?" I tell her no, but in my heart there's only one person I want to see. ~QF~ On the day of my mother's death, I take a long walk down by the water. Jacob calls, as promised, and I speak to him and Billy, but something doesn't feel right. Their potential deception seems more brutal today, more heinous. What if they knew about Alice? I never got to say goodbye.

It's so tiresome, these warring impulsestrust and doubt, anger and love. I don't know how to reconcile them, and I'm sick of thinking by the time I approach my apartment. From a distance, I'm utterly surprised by the sight of Edward standing by my building's gate. We haven't spoken since our text messages the day before. He's leaning against the iron gate, busily scribbling in a small notebook with his hair in his eyes, so he doesn't notice me at first. "Edward?" At the sound of my voice his snaps up, a little smile playing on his lips. The sky is darkening, and even wearing his brown leather bomber jacket his face is ruddy with cold. He tucks the book into the inside pocket and steps forward hesitantly. "What are you doing here?" I ask him, gladness blossoming under my initial confusion. "Hey. Uh. I was waiting for you." He grabs me up into an embrace, and I'm engulfed by the scent of leather and spicy aftershave. His face is smooth on my cheek, and it feels so good . . . just to be hugging him. I'm warm and safe despite the chilly air. "Did you call?" I murmur. "No. I . . . actually I got here just as you were leaving. I saw you walking off and I thought I'd wait." "But I've been gone for nearly two hours," I say incredulously after he releases me. "I thought . . . you might want to be alone . . . for awhile." He looks sheepish . . . nervous. Like he's afraid I still don't want him here. "That's . . . nice of you, Edward. But you should have called. It's cold out here." He shrugs it off. "I'm fine." "Oh, tough guy." "You know it," he says with a wink. "So do you?"

"Do I what?" "Want to be alone." "No. I've had enough of that. You want to come up?" "Actually, I've been thinking . . ." "Don't hurt yourself," I say, indulging in one of our old jokes. "How do you feel about bowling on a scale of one to ten?" "Are we talking playing, or just the concept in general?" Edward rolls his eyes. "Playing, smartass." "I don't know . . . maybe like a five?" "Five's good enough for me. Come on," he says, tugging on my arm. "But . . ." "But what?" "Um . . ." "Give me one good reason you shouldn't go bowling with me right now." I shrug, giving up. Edward answers with a vindicatory grin and steps out into the street to hail a cab. The way he uses them left and right, you'd think he was made of money. Once we're settled in the backseat, I become hyper-aware of Edward's widelegged straddle. His knee brushes against mine and I'm suddenly shy, remembering the other night. "What?" he asks. "Hmm?" "You have a funny look on your face." "Do I?" I ask, flushing and looking out the window. "Are you still weirded out by my text message?"

"No. I wasn't weirded out." "You lie like a dog, Bella Swan." "I'm not lying," I grumble. For a little while, Edward is quiet, and when I look back at him he's watching me carefully. "Where did you go today?" he asks quietly. "Just down the lake," I reply. "It's nice down there this time of year." I agree with a murmur. Out of all of the places in Chicago, that's the place that reminds me of my mother. Of course, we'd gone there together once when I was a child. But it's more than that. "I always feel closest to her near the water," I say, looking at my hands. "I don't know why. Or . . . I don't know. Maybe I do. There was this picture of her that I loved. She was next to a lake, in Forks. But the picture was . . . lost. When I moved there . . . I finally got to see it." "That must have been special," he replies. "It was. It was neat . . . visiting a place where she lived before I knew her." "What's the name of the lake?" "It's more a pond than a lake, actually. I don't know that it has an official name. But the Quileutes call it Two Moon. 'Cause of the way the moon reflects on the water." "Billy . . . and Jacob. They're Quileute?" I nod, glancing away. "Yes. We used to go trout fishing there." I smile a little at the memory. How I used to look forward to those trips. "Edward?" "Yeah?" "When did . . . Alice die?"

"March 21st." "The first day of spring," I muse aloud. He nods, swallowing deeply. "By then we were back home, in Elgin. She died at home. It's what she wanted." His hand skitters unmoored on the fake leather seat of the cab. I allow mine to drift over to where our fingers are just grazing each other. I can't bring myself to go the whole way, but I have such a fierce need to touch him. "Hey, did you know Alice liked Jasper?" Edward asks, grasping my hand firmly and threading our fingers together. My heart stops, then beats again in a staccato rhythm as he pulls it onto his lap, forcing me a little closer to him on the seat. "She told you that!" I exclaim with an exhalation, trying to calm my stupid heart. "I can't believe it. She always denied it to me, but I knew she was a liar." Edward grins, tracing his finger over the back of my hand absentmindedly. "Yeah, well, when she came back to Elgin, just a couple of weeks before she died, she confessed to me. She . . ." he laughs, shaking his head, "she played the whole 'last request' angle. She said she didn't want to die without ever being kissed." "Oh my . . . did Jasper?" "He kissed her." "He did?" "Yup." "Oh, Alice," I murmur. So she got her kiss. It's so horribly sad and beautiful at the same time. "And you know what's funny?" he asks, not waiting for me to respond. "I think Jasper . . . if Alice was older. I think he might have liked her too." "Did he tell you that?" "Not in so many words. I think he thought I'd probably kick his ass."

"You would have." "Yeah, I know." "But still." "But still," he echoes. We both turn our heads at the same time, and I see him. I really see him. Our faces are so close together I . . . His green eyes crinkle a little at the sides as he smiles, glancing down, and I realize with some embarrassment that I'm squeezing his hand too tightly. "Sorry," I say, releasing him. I don't have much time to be self-conscious, because we've pulled up at the bowling alley. Edward pays and helps me out of the car. For the rest of the night, there's no more talk of dead loved ones, of missing time. Instead, we lose ourselves in the game. I haven't bowled much in my life, but even I'm better than Edward. He's terrible, but he makes a show of it, cursing at errant gutter balls and doing silly victory dances when he so much as knocks down one pin. Truth be told, neither of us fares very well, and after two pretty dismal games, we adjourn to the cheesy bowling alley bar for pizza and a pitcher of beer. He tells me funny stories, and even though I'm onto himI know exactly what he's trying to take my mind off ofit actually works. He asks if it's okay with me for him to tell Esme and Carlisle that I'm here, and I agree. It would be nice to see them after all these years, if they want to see me. He grins, certain Esme especially will be thrilled. By the time we pay our check and make our way outside, I'm pretty sure that this day has gone from one of the worst to one of the best of my life. "Love is the Fire of Life; it either consumes or purifies." Chapter 19: October 31, 2010

My mother stands with her back to me. We're high up on a rocky cliff looking down at the sound below. The water hurtles against craggy rocks, frothing and foaming, but I only hear the howl of the wind.

Why are we here? All I see is the wide expanse of stormy grey-green water. A couple of gulls wheeling on gusts of air. "Mom?" I call, barely able to hear my own voice. "It's powerful," she says. Her eyes are focused on the water and rocks below. "What do you mean?" "If you fall . . ." she says, "there's no way back up." She gestures downwards. No. She can't mean to jump? "It will hurt." "Perhaps." She turns to me, a small, enigmatic smile playing over her lips. "But it will be worth it." Before I can stop her, she's gone. Gone, over the edge. ~QF~ "I don't do Halloween parties," I protest. All week long, Edward's been harassing me to go with him to this stupid party at Riley's house, and all week long I've been deflecting. But he hasn't given up and I've run out of excuses. Rosalie's decided to forsake all Halloween festivities to go out with Emmett and I don't have any other plans. "Neither do I," Edward replies on the end of the line. "That doesn't make any sense. Why are you trying to get me to go then?" "Because, this is the only time I'll ever get to see you dressed up as a literary character." "Uhhhggghh," I sigh. Riley apparently thought it would be and ironic to throw a costume party with a literary theme, since we're English graduate students and that's what's expected of us. So he's attempting to thwart that expectation by doing exactly what's expected. I'm unconvinced. "Please, Bella. I don't want to go alone." Since when does he care about doing things by himself? I smell a rat.

"Then don't go," I reply stubbornly. "You know you want to come." "I don't. I really don't." "We won't stay for long." "I don't have anything to wear." "I'll be by in an hour to go costume shopping. See you then!" he replies, hanging up before I can protest again. True to his word, an hour later Edward arrives at my apartment wearing a ridiculous-looking mustache. It's crookedly attached under his nose and I laugh, gesturing to his face. "What the heck is that?" "My Edgar Allen Poe costume," he says with mock-indignation as I skeptically regard his holey t-shirt, bomber jacket, and jeans. "Huh?" "This is only part of my costume, Bella." He swings his bag around and shakes it at me. "The rest is in here." "Ahh. Well, I was going to say that's pretty much the saddest costume I've ever seen." "Hold off on your judgment," he replies with a laugh. "We haven't picked yours up yet." An hour and a half later, we return to my apartment with a pair of black, feathered wings. After we'd struck out several times at second-hand stores, we'd finally gone to a cheesy costume shop. Though the selection was pretty picked-over, Edward had spied the wings and in a burst of inspiration suggested I dress as the raven from Poe's famous poem. I'd been hesitant at first since it seemed too much like a "couples" costume. I'm already uncomfortable enough with the gossip about us. But the wings are pretty cooldark, shiny, smooth. The price was right, too, since I already own black jeans and a mock turtleneck to make up the rest of the costume.

Edward could sense my reticence, but he didn't pressure me. Finally, I decided to go for it. Why should I let stupid people influence me? They can think what they like. We order Indian takeout and share a bottle of sweet white wine before I hop in the shower. For some reason, my excitement about the party increases as I get ready . . . all week long I hadn't wanted to go. Parties make me uncomfortableat least they used to. In college, sometimes I'd tag along with a roommate or two, but generally I stayed in my room on the weekends to study. Or I went home to visit. It rarely bothered me. Or at least, I didn't allow it to. I did sometimes envy how easy it seemed for the other girls . . . to get ready, to meet boys, even go home with themthough I'd never have done that. To have fun. But this year . . . it seems easier. I can't account for the difference . . . I like getting to know people in the department. Putting on my costume in the steamy bathroom proves difficult, but finally I wriggle myself into the jeansthey fit a little tighter than I remember, but luckily they button. The shirt comes next, and I look in the mirror. The dark clothes make me look too pale. I definitely need something else. Turning to my mediocre makeup supply, I fish out some black eyeliner and smudge it around my eyes. I apply a couple of thick coats of mascara and search for lipstick. From the bottom of my bag I excavate an ancient tube that I don't recognize. It's deep red, and it's not mineprobably one of my old college roommate's. It's ancient and smells a little funky, but beggars can't be choosers, I decide, smearing some on my lips. It's thick and cakey, so I have to apply some chapstick and rub my lips together to make the color uniform, but when I'm finished, I barely recognize the girl in the mirror. I decide to leave my hair down; it falls in long, thick waves around my shoulders. "Bella?" Edward knocks on the door. "Rosalie's on the phone. Sorry. I answered for you." Nothing prepares me for how handsome he looks. The cell extended in his hand momentarily forgotten, I stare.

He's wearing a black suit, a high-collared white shirt and a black necktie. Without the mustache on, or the equally silly-looking wig, he looks like he just stepped out of the 19th Century. Only taller. Much taller. His eyes widen and I wonder if I look weird. "What?" I mouth silently, bringing the phone to my ear. He shrugs and grins, looking bashful. "Bella?" Rosalie says. "Hi. You getting ready for your date?" "Um . . . Edward's at your place?" "Yeah." "He said you guys were going to Riley's." She sounds surprised . . . and why shouldn't she? I'd been adamantly "not going" all week. "Yeah." "Kate will probably be there." "Yeah." I hate being reminded of thisthe last time I saw her was such a disaster. "Can you say anything but yeah?" "No." "Oh, I get it. Your company." "Exactly." I turn around and catch Edward watching me before he looks away. Sneaky. "Well, I want to hear all about it tomorrow." "Most definitely." I pause, deflecting to a safer topic, "So . . . your date?" Rosalie lets out a great gust of air. "I'm a little nervous. Emmett sent a bouquet of roses today . . ." "Oh my!"

"Yeah. He's incredible. I just want this to go well, you know?" Anyway, that's what I was calling for. I need your advice. Skirt or dress?" "Hmm . . . where are you going again?" "Di Violeta." It's one of the most expensive Italian restaurants in town, but trendy. "Skirt." "Blue or purple?" "Blue." "You're so right. So right," she says breathlessly. I hear the sound of hangers being dragged along the metal bar of her closet. "Okay. Got it." "This might be the first time anyone's ever called me for fashion advice," I confess. "Speaking of fashion, what're you going as?" "Tomorrow," I whisper. "Okay, okay. Have a good time." "You too." I click the phone shut and glance back at Edward, now sitting on the couch with his wig in his hands. He glances up at me again, this time his eyes traveling down and then back up again. I don't have the wings on yet and I feel self-conscious and very Goth, but the way he's looking at me . . . I . . . don't know . . . "Wow," he says. "What? The lipstick? Is it too much?" I ask, glancing down. "No . . . um . . . You look hot." Hot? Really? "I do?" I ask uncertainly, turning to look in the mirror. With my black heels, jeans and form-fitting shirt, makeup, I don't look like me, that's for sure. Objectively . . . I guess I do look kind of hot.

"Yeah, you do." His voice resounds deeply, certainly. He stands. Stalking over to me with my shimmering wings in his hands, his eyes locked onto mine in the mirror, I almost don't recognize him. I hold my breath as he helps me secure them to my back, fitting the straps around my arms. His firm hands linger on my shoulders, a smile playing upon his full lips. I feel warm. Even so, an inadvertent shiver runs down my spine. Suddenly it hits me. The way he's looking at me is not friendly at all. When he speaks, his voice resounds lowly in my ear. "You make a beautiful raven . . . Isabella Sw" The half-spoken word hangs in the air, a silent wall between us. Edward clenches his jaw and looks away, but not before I see the look of pain there. It makes my stomach drop. "Well, shall we?" he asks gruffly. And just like that, the spell is broken. ~QF~ Almost everyone from my classes is at Riley's, along with some other people I recognize from the department. A few MFA's I don't recognize. People are already getting pretty drunk and it's only nine o'clock. Edward goes off to find us some drinks and I spy Rue, Alison and Marjorie on the other side of the room. They've dressed up as characters from A Clockwork Orange. Rue looks especially intimidating as Alex in her top hat and long eyelashes. "Whoa, Bella," she says. "You look amazing. Um . . . what are you?" I turn around, displaying my wings. "Nevermore?" I offer as a second hint. "That's great . . . the raven. Very clever." "Thanks." I don't bother to mention it wasn't my idea. "Did I see you come in with Edward?" Alison asks. "Yeah," I reply dismissively, ignoring her knowing look. It doesn't seem to dissuade her. "You guys have become pretty tight, it seems."

"Oh shut up, Alison," Marjorie chimes in. "You're just as bad as Kate." "What?" I ask. "Kate . . . she's just been talking shit. Everyone knows she's full of it," Marjorie says in a whisper. I glance around nervously . . . so she's at the bottom of the rumors. Out of the corner of my eye I spy Kate with another girl I don't know, probably an MFA. She's wearing a 20's style flapper dress and holding a long, thin cigarette holder. I instantly recognize the look she's going for Daisy from The Great Gatsby. Typical hipster, Rosalie would say. Her eyes meet mine, cold and hard, before flickering away. I see where they alighton Edward. In a flash, she abandons her companion and saunters over to where he stands talking to Riley. She slips his arm around his waist and leans her head against his arm, and I'm instantly nauseous. I stand trying to keep my cool while the topic of conversation changes to something else . . . I can't help thinking it was a mistake to come here dressed like this. How could I have been so stupid? I refuse to look back at Edward and his "friend." A couple of minutes later, Edward returns with a glass of red wine for me. "You having fun?" he asks, diverting my attention from the girls. They're engaged in a fierce political debate and don't seem to notice. I nod in my best attempt to look convincing. "Liar." "No, I am . . . it's just . . ." My eyes drift automatically to where Kate stands with Riley. "Oh Kate? Fuck her." The irony almost makes me laugh. Edward gives me a warning look, fiddling with his fake facial hair. He looks so cute . . . the stupid thing has obviously lost its adhesiveness.

"Bella . . . you're not going to let someone like her ruin your night, are you?" I can't get the image of her arm around him out of my head . . . so possessive. I shake my head half-heartedly and Edward chuckles. "Come on. I want you to meet someone." ~QF~ For the next couple of hours, Edward never leaves my side. I forget about Kate and start enjoying myself. Some people have spent an inordinate amount of time on their costumes, basically defeating all attempts at irony. I get a text from Rosalie at around midnight that makes me smile. Just got home. Fantastic. Edward watches me as I re-stow my phone, taking a measured sip of his beer. "Rosalie," I explain. "Home so soon?" he asks. "I know what you're trying to say, Edward. But it seems like it went well. So there." I resist the impulse to childishly stick my tongue out at him. He sighs a little and shrugs. "Well, I guess that's good." "Come on, she's not that bad. And anyway, she admitted she was wrong about you." "She did, did she?" I can hear the skepticism in his voice. She hasn'tnot in so many words, but I can tell her feelings have changed. I'd told her, not in full detail, but just in general strokes, about the exaggeration of Edward's reputation. Whether or not she believes me, she's kept her opinion to herself. And she's stopped speaking badly of him. "Just give her a chance. Emmett is." "I will . . . for you," he says with a smile. His wig looks a little crooked and I reach up to fix it. He bends down to give me better access.

"So, have you talked to your parents?" I ask the top of his head, smoothing the waxy plastic hairs as much as possible. I want to rip the thing off. "Not yet. They're actually in France right now. I forgot to tell you," he says, straightening up. "My dad hasn't taken a vacation in forever, but they'll be back in another week or so." "Do you think they'll be upset?" "Bella, why? They'll be fucking ecstatic." "Yeah, but will they understand . . . about why . . ." "Of course. And if not, I'll make them." "Okay." "Hey," he says, touching my arm lightly. "It'll be okay." I don't know if it's the wine or something else, but for the first time in weeks I feel free. As the night draws on, dancing begins in earnest. Feeling a little tired and tipsy, I find myself sitting with Edward and Rue on Riley's overstuffed sofa. "So, you guys look pretty awesome," she says, gesturing to our costumes. Edward had removed his wig about an hour ago, claiming it was too itchy. I prefer his natural hair so much more, even though it interferes with the "authenticity" of his costume. "So whose idea was it?" "His," I say, pointing at Edward. "I wasn't even going to come tonight." "Well, I'm glad you did," Rue says sincerely. "You're the shit, Isabella." "The shit?" I ask with a laugh. Edward nods in agreement and Rue stands up with her hands on her broad hips. "Yeah, girl. Hey, come on and dance." A bunch of the other girls from our class are on out on the floor dancing to a song I don't recognize. "Noooo," I protest, shaking my head. "Aww, come on!"

I look at Edward indecisively and he gives me an encouraging nod. I mutter something about poking someone's eye out, finally allowing Rue to drag me along out to our classmates. Alison and Marjorie squeal at our approach, and soon we've formed our own little circle on the side of the room. At first, none of the guys dance, but eventually some begin to join in. Eventually, almost everyone at the party is on the floor and it gets a little hard to move. I discard my cumbersome wings and lose myself in the rhythm of the music: this kind of dancing isn't so hard, after all. It's just swinging your hips to the beat. Of course the three glasses of wine don't hurt either. After a few songs, I feel familiar hands on my sides and I turn my head, breathless from the exertion. From the looks of it, Edward's had a couple more drinks since I last saw him. He looks happy and tired. "Hey," he murmurs in my ear, resting his chin on my shoulder. "You're having fun." "A miracle, isn't it?" I ask with a nervous laugh, trying to disguise my desire to lean back into him. Something about the way he holds me feels so safe. And there's no sign of the stupid mustache. "No, it's not. Don't be like that." The crowd surrounds us thickly, and I imagine no one can see. We begin to sway together, his front just barely grazing my back. His hands stay firmly in place and I can feel his breath tickle the side of my neck. I shouldn't be doing this. But it's just for a few seconds. Friends dance together. Don't they? Almost immediately, Alison's quizzical glance shatters the illusion. I step forward, gently removing his hands from my body, remembering where I am . . . who I am. "Sorry," he says softly. I smile and squeeze his hand to let him know we're okay. "Well isn't this cozy?" comes a voice from beside me. I whirl around to find myself face to face with a very drunk, very angry looking Kate. "Kate," Edward says, his voice a warning. "Oh, I'm sorry, Edward. Am I interrupting your little dance? I just wanted to come to talk to Isabella here." She weaves a little on her high-heels, reaching out to steady herself on Edward's arm. He shrugs her off. "You don't mind, do you?"

"Anything you can say to Bella, you can say to me," he says firmly. Maybe he's not so drunk after all. "Really? How protective of you. I would have thought that would be a job for her fianc. "Funny, Isabella," she says, drawling out my name. "What does your fianc think about you being such good friends with Edward here? Yeah, that's right. I've seen that ring on your hand. Don't think it's some big secret." "That's none of your business," I say sharply, glancing around. This whole public confrontation thing is getting out of control. "Isn't it, though?" she says, nearly spitting her words. "Isn't it my business who fucks around with my good friend here, especially if that person is engaged?" I flinch back immediately from her suggestion. Luckily, the rest of the party is so loud no one seems to be paying much attention to us. Even so, Edward guides Kate over to the corner of the room while I trail behind. She stumbles a little and Edward helps her to right herself, but I can see he's angry. "I don't know what you're talking about," I say, recovering myself. "I have every right" "Kate," Edward interrupts me. "You're drunk. Just leave it." "So what if I am? At least I have the decency not to screw around behind someone's back." "No," I say, standing my ground. "You just do it in front of them." "Why you little bitch!" "Don't you dare talk to her like that," Edward snaps at her, his eyes livid now. "You don't know what you're saying." "Fine, Edward. I see how it is. But I can't believe you're choosing her," she glares in my direction, "over me." "There isn't any choice," he says coldly. His face remains impassive, but Kate shrinks back like she's been slapped, her blue eyes clouding with tears. And I know at that moment, she truly cares for him. I feel sorry for her. It's terrible to love someone when they don't love you.

But Kate's quick on her feet: she doesn't stay silent for long. A second later her eyes narrow through her tears. "That may well be. For you. But just ask yourself something, Edward. Who will Bella choose? You or her fianc?" She turns on her heels, her drink in hand, and stalks away, leaving me dumbfounded . . . confused . . . and so guilty. My eyes fill with tears of shame and embarrassment. "Let's go," Edward says softly, his hand at my waist. "Come on. I'll take you home." Once we're outside, I can't even speak or look at Edward. Kate's venomous words keep replaying in my head. Edward keeps his hold as we begin to walk. "Please, talk to me," he says. "I . . . I just. I shouldn't have come." "Yes, you should have. We were having a good time." "But Kate" "Don't listen to her, Bella. God, you see how she is! Nothing she says is true." "But it is Edward, it is! I'm going behind Jacob's back, don't you see? I haven't told him anything. If he found out, it would kill him." "Then tell him." "I . . . can't. Not . . . yet." The stupid tears start falling and I let them this time, no longer caring if he sees. "Why? Because of the letters?" I nod, the realization dawning that I've left my wings behind. I'm not going back to get them, that's for sure. "Are there . . . any other reasons?" Edward asks quietly. "I'm afraid . . . he won't want me to be . . . friends with you." Is that the right answer? Is it true? Yes, I'm afraid . . . I don't want to hurt anyone.

Edward sighs deeply, kicking at fallen leaves on the sidewalk. The moon shines brightly above us, reflecting on pavement damp from a late night rain shower. But nothing is clear anymore. "But when you ask about the letters, what then?" "I don't know," I say honestly. I haven't thought that far ahead, but I realize I have to. "Do you think it would be easier," he says, drawing out each word, "if we weren't friends?" "What! No!" I turn on him, blinking through my tears. "Please, don't say things like that to me! Please! I . . . I just . . . found you again." My voice breaks a little at the end and I realize I'm gripping Edward's shirt in my fists. He brushes my hair back from my face and pulls me against him, his chin resting on the top of my head. He's always comforting me. Who will comfort him? I wrap my arms around his back and hug tightly. "Do you think that it would be easier? Would it be better?" I whisper. "I'll always be your friend, Bella. As long as you want me," he says softly. He hasn't answered my question. But I know what that means . . . easier. Yes, perhaps easier. But easier would break my heart. I can only nod into his chest. "Always."

Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if I had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction ice Is also great And would suffice. Robert Frost Chapter 20: November 6, 2010

"The 'rents are coming home tomorrow." "Really? That's great," I murmur. "Did they have a good time?" The two of us are lounging around in my apartment on a Saturday afternoon. He's reading Coleridge for Peggy's class while I work on an annotated bibliography assignment for theory. "I think they did. My mom sent me an email yesterday with some pictures of Paris. Shit made me jealous." "Have you ever been?" "Nope. But I'd love to go." I sigh, wondering if I'll ever be able to afford Europe. "Me too." "We'll go together one day," he affirms. "We will?" I ask with a smile. "What are you, psychic?" "Runs in the family." I chuckle at him and shake my head, returning to the task at handwading through about fifty articles on my subject. Since Halloween, Edward and I have seen each other almost every day. Mostly, we hang out at one of our apartments and work, since it's getting to that point in the semester where both of us are swamped. With only five more weeks of class, and two, twenty page seminar papers to write on top of my regular course assignments, I've been dedicating at least five hours of each day to research and reading. The night before, I'd met up with Edward, Angela, and Jasper for dinner at Edward's place. He prepared a simple meal of pasta and salad, apologizing for not having had time to make anything fancier. But when I took a bite of the Bucatini all'Amatriciana, the tang of the zesty tomato sauce and the Romano cheese was shockingly good. Such a simple dish, but it was one of the best things I'd eaten recently. Edward brushed off our compliments, though I could tell they secretly pleased him. It was nice, slowly getting to know Jasper and Angela again. They seem so well suited, anticipating each other's needs wordlessly in that way some long-term couples have. And I like the way they are with Edward. They're so

supportive and enthusiastic about his workI can tell that Jasper thinks of him like a brother. He needs good friends like them in his life. Soon our conversation drifted to Emmett and Rosalie. Edward still isn't entirely at ease with their new romantic attachment, but he's trying. I smiled a little to myself, thinking of my friend off with Emmett again on another date. A few days before the dinner with Jasper and Angela, Rosalie and I finally had a chance to catch up regarding both of our weekends. She nearly glowed with happiness as she relayed the details of her night with Emmett. He's smart, but not in an overbearing or pretentious waya relief after Finley. Not only that, he's down to earth, funny, and (according to Rosalie) a helluva kisser. For the past week, he's sent flowers every day. Roses for a Rose. She wanted to know everything I remember about him. I told her I didn't remember him being so romantic, that's for sure, but I did recall his gargantuan appetite. Rose laughedapparently this is something he still possesses. I've never seen two people fall for each other so quickly. I just hope it works out for her. Emmett's such a nice guy, there's no reason for it not to. And she deserves it. Rosalie was eager for details about the Halloween party, and I'd given her plenty, including a brief synopsis of my confrontation with Kate. "I underestimated Edward," she said, clearly surprised over his reaction. "He really cares about you." "I know." "I asked you a question once about your feelings for him." "Yeah." "You said you didn't know." "Rosie . . ." "Don't make a mistake, Bella. That's all I'm going to say. Just don't make a mistake." Rose's comments replayed in my mind during dinner at Edward's. After we ate and spent a couple of hours playing cards and drinking wine, I decided to

call it a night. Angela suggested coffee the following week and I agreed, excited to catch up with her on our own. Then, Edward walked me to the "El" stop. When the train pulled away, leaving him behind on the platform, I felt strange. Don't make a mistake, Bella. "I just love this. Listen to this," Edward says, interrupting my reverie. I swivel around in my chair and smile as he scrambles up to a seated position, his expression becoming serious as he begins to read: "Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee, Whether the summer clothe the general earth With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall Heard only in the trances of the blast, Or if the secret ministry of frost Shall hang them up in silent icicles, Quietly shining to the quiet Moon." "Frost at Midnight?' I ask with a smile. It's one of my favorite poems Coleridge's meditation on his lonely childhood and his hopes for his newborn son to have a happy one. "Right again. Damn, you're good." "Well, I already did the reading this week." "I'm sure you'd have known it anyway," he replies with a laugh, placing the book on the floor and sinking back down onto his elbows. "Yeah, well. Maybe," I confess, watching as he studies the page with a frown of concentration.

"That phrase, 'the secret ministry of frost,' it's great," he murmurs. "I love the last line." "The repetition of 'quiet.' It's perfect," he agrees. With a swift movement, he rolls over on his back and clasps his hands under his head. "See," I tease, remembering our encounter at the bar weeks ago, "There's more to Coleridge than 'Kubla Khan'." That night at The End seems so distant nowhe'd been such a stranger to me. But I hadn't seen him clearly. Not at all. "You're right. You know, sometimes I wish I could've been a poet." "Why can't you?" "Writing chooses you." "Okay, so then, why a poet?" "Because . . . poetry just does something that fiction can't. The way a good poet can appeal to all of the senses simultaneouslylike in this passage. Sound, smell, taste, touch, sightand thoughtall there at the same time. You're surrounded by the moment. It's so hard to capture that in a short story, or even a novel." "But fiction does that, too," I insist. "What about Proust? Joyce?" "Yeah . . . that's true. But it's one thing I've been working on latelyhow to represent sensory experience." "Give me an example." "Like for instance: right now. I'm lying here on your floor. I feel the hardness along my back. My hands under my head. But there are other things happening. My foot itches." "So scratch it," I joke, throwing a pen cap at him. It glances off his side and lands a couple inches away. "That's not the point. My foot itches at the same time I feel the floor underneath here. And it smells." "Thanks," I say with mock-offense.

"No . . . like coffee. And you." I make a show of sniffing myself. "I showered today." "Everyone's home has a particular smell. Your smells like . . . cinnamon and laundry and fresh water. Old books. When I come in here, I think of you." "I never noticed," I say softly. "That's because it's your smell." "Oh." I blush at his words. How can he say he's not a poet? "Umm-hmm. So there's that. Then taste. My mouth tastes like the coffee we just had, a little cream. It's a little sour. I could use a mint," he chuckles, fishing around in his pocket. "And of course soundthe click of your keyboard as you type, the traffic outside. Shuffling of pages as we both read. You humming." "I am not," I object, but he turns his head to me and nods. "You're not even aware of it, but you are." "I didn't know that." "I know." "Okay . . . what else?" "Well, sight, of coursethat's the big one. So important. My eyes take in this whole room, but focus only on one or two objects at a time. We see everything and nothing at once. We forget about things, take them for granted. Like this book here," he says, glancing upwards with his eyes and scrunching his forehead. "I know it's here even when I'm not looking at it. But I forget about it, too." "What else do you see?" "It's late afternoonsee the sun coming into your window over there?" "Yeah." "It reminds me of the Dickinson poem." "There's a certain slant of light," I say with a smile.

"Exactly. But that's only one thing . . . I see your ceiling . . . a couple of cobwebs up there, Bella," he teases. "Hey, now. I'm too short to reach." "This cap," he says, picking up the pen cap and throwing it back at me. I catch it with my right hand and set it on the desk. "And there's you." "Me?" "You fill up this space . . . even when I'm not looking at you." My breath catches in my throat, and I glance down at the theory book in my lap. But Edward doesn't seem to notice how his words affect me. He goes on. "When a writer picks detailssensory detailsto include in whatever he's writing . . . " "He?" "Or she," he says, correcting himself and raising his eyebrow at me. "It has to be for a purposeto set the scene, give the reader insight into the charactersand so they're carefully selected. You can't put too much in." "Or you'll overwhelm the reader." "Or lose his . . . or her . . . interest." "Right." "But, to meI don't know. I'd like to be able to capture it everything on paper. All of those thingsand my thoughtsbut it's impossible. Language is so linearone thing follows the next. Poetry is the closest way, I think, of capturing what I'm talking about. There are some moments . . . that shouldn't be lost," he says quietly. "But you are a poet," I say. "What you described to me just now? That's poetry. And your writing has some very poetic qualities." Abandoning my work on the desk, I move to sit on the floor next to Edward. He smiles a little and rolls to his side, propping his head up on his arm.

"Do you really think so?" "Yeah. I do. I've . . . always thought so." "I always forget about that silly story I gave you once. I was so proud when you told me it was good," he laughs. "I was so afraid you'd hate it." "It was amazing," I whisper. My heart begins to pound. "I hardly remember it, honestly." My eyes drift over to my bed where the book in question resides, my teeth worrying my lower lip. "You know, about that . . ." I say softly. It's now or never . . . I either show him . . . or I don't. "What?" Edward asks with a smile. "Close your eyes." "Hmm?" "Close them." Edward obliges with a chuckle, rolling onto his back again and draping his arm across his face. I see him peek out from underneath deviously and I reprimand him with a poke to the side. "Hey! I see you!" "Sorry, sorry." He removes his arm and scrunches his eyes closed dramatically. "Is this better?" "Yes. Now keep them shut." Before I lose my nerve, I tiptoe over to the bed, angling my head to ensure Edward's not cheating. It's weird enough I've saved the story all of these years, I don't want him to know where I keep it. But I want him to know I'm invested in it . . . our friendship. I feel for the box, sliding it out and removing the cover cautiously while Edward hums a familiar tune. "Is that Claire de Lune?"

"Yep. It's what you were humming before." "Was not." "Were too." Edward shakes his foot impatiently. "Can I look yet?" he asks. "No. Just relax." I remove his notebook, then the Blake. The pages of both are yellowed, singed with acrid smoke and the telltale lick of fire. It's a miracle they survived at all. My heart picks up speed as I re-stow the box and clutch the books, returning to Edward's side on the floor. Once I show him, I can't take it back. "Bella?" Edward asks, his hand groping blindly before landing on my knee. "What's wrong?" "Um. Nothing. Just . . . I wanted to show you something. Something special. You can open your eyes only if you promise not to laugh or make fun of me." "I promise," he says with a smile. "I would never do either of those things." "Okay." Edward opens his eyes and looks at me. I feel shaky and unsure, still holding the books tightly against my chest. His gaze drops down and I slowly expose the cover of his blue notebook. Almost instantaneously, his expression shifts from curiosity and concern to shock. He sits up quickly as the blood drains from his face. "Oh my God," he whispers. "Is that what I think it is?" he gestures to the notebook. Takes it from me. Then the other. A look of discovery as he opens the cover, sees his inscription. Ghosts his fingers over the delicate, discolored paper. "The pages . . . " "They're a little burned," I murmur. "But I can't . . . I don't . . . How?" he asks incredulously.

"I had them with me . . . when they found me . . . I got them back when I was discharged. No one knew what they were. Billy thought it was stuff for school," I laugh halfheartedly. "Jesus, Bella." "It's stupid, I know." "It's not stupid." "I don't remember what I was thinking. It was one of those weird things when you just automatically do something." I say, trying to put my motivation into words. "I know what you mean," he replies. Edward waits for me to go on, turning the books over in his hands. "I . . . could've gone to the roof. But I heard . . . something. I went back for her. The doorknob was hot, but I opened it anyway." "My brave girl," he says, touching my face. But I'm caught in the memory burning hair, fleshI shudder. "No. I was foolish. It was too late. It was horrible. I . . . saw her." Edward's eyes flash with pain, anger, something else. He puts the books down and pulls me onto his lap. I go willingly, nestling my head in the crook of his neck and inhaling his comforting smell. He's right. Everyone has one. I just never knew what mine was until he described it to me. "She was trying to get to me," I whisper. "God." "If I . . . wasn't . . ." "She was your mother. She would've tried to protect you no matter what. It's not your fault." I lose myself in Edward's gentle rocking, feeling small in his armsalmost like a kid again. But it doesn't erase the memory of her flaming hair. Edward listens as I tell him what I remember. Waking up in the hospital. Moving to Seattle, then to Forks. Surgery upon countless surgery. Being

alone. My pet bird and how I cried when it died. What it was like to walk again without a cane. How my lungs won't ever be completely normal. When I finish, he's silent. I steel myself, awaiting the inevitable expressions of pity. He must be thinking of my scars, what they look like. Everyone does. "The Blacks took good care of you," he says, leaning back against the couch. I'm still in his lap. "Yes." "It's funny . . . I'd like to hate them . . . but I can't. They kept you safe." "Yes." I know I should get off of him, let him go. But I can't. I don't want to. "They must really love you." "Yes," I say again. "Thank you," he says simply. "For what?" "Trusting me. Telling me. It's not easy . . . to do that." "No, it's not." I know he's speaking from experience as much as I am. "And you kept these? All this time?" "They were all I had left," I say. I don't have another explanation. All I had left . . . of my mother, of Elgin. Of him. "You brought them here to Chicago with you? Why?" "I . . ." "Why, Bella?" His voice is soft and serious. My mind fumbles in confused inarticulate sentences that I can't vocalize. Because I don't think . . . I don't think . . . I . . . "Bella," he whispers against my cheek. His body is so much more than a comforting embrace. I feel everything. The way his warm thighs support my weight, the strength of his arms, his chest

and the heart beating there. So strong and fragile. I long to sink into him, to learn what it's like to live in his body. It's there in my lungs and all around me . . . a pulsing, quiet energy. He looks down at me, something flickering in his eyes. His question remains unanswered, but I give it away with every shaky exhale. His eyes. I can almost see their color expand . . . They're like the sea, I think; swirling eddies of colorgreen and grey and blue with flecks of brown and gold. One arm still holds me and the other moves. I turn my head and close my eyes as he touches my face tenderly. His hand leaves a burning trail on my skin, tracing and retracing. Stopping now to cup my chin, touch my cheek. A feather-light movement over closed eyelids that I think might be his lips. How I long for his lips. I attempt to focus my jumbled thoughts but I can't. As long as I don't look into his eyes I'll be safe. But the thrumming of his heart under my ear is my undoing. Now his hand moves up through my hair and cradles my head, scratching lightly against my scalp. He whispers my name again and I do it. I look. They're too much . . . those sea-eyes. I could drown there and do it gladly. Edward brushes away a tear from my cheek and rubs it into his palm, before his thumb moves down, gently playing across my lips. "See? This moment. This," he says, brushing my lips again with his thumb. He tastes the place on his palm where my tear dried, the place where he touched my lips. And I know with certainty that when I die, my last thoughts will be of him. "I would give anything . . . to be able to kiss you right now," he says hoarsely. "Edward, I" I don't know what to say. Can he . . . want me . . . now? Or is he just remembering the girl I was? "Shhh, I know," he says, placing his finger over my mouth to silence me. But he doesn'tit's impossible. His hand moves again through my hair, so softly. I close my eyes and lean into his touch. I let myself be swept away by this dangerous dream. "Do you know what you mean to me, Bella?" he whispers.

I shake my head foolishly, stupidly. He can't know what he's saying, how it shatters me completely. "You're everything to me." He buries his face in my hair and inhales. I feel his lips on the side of my face and nothing has ever been sweeter. Then it happens. My telephone rings, bringing reality with it. Jacob's Saturday call. Edward drops his hand immediately as I shoot out of his lap, guilt twisting my stomach as I fumble for my phone on my desk. Yes, it's Jacob. I can't even look at Edward as I bring the receiver to my ear. "Hello?" I ask, shaky with adrenaline. "Isabella? Hello?" There's some feedback on the line . . . a crackling. His voice sounds strange. "Yeah, Jake, it's me. Where are you? I can't hear . . ." "Isabella?" "Jake? The interference subsides and I can finally hear him. "God, I . . . need you right now, Isabella." In all of the many times I've spoken to him on the phone, he's never been like this-desperate. Something doesn't seem right. "What's wrong?" I ask, alarmed. My body is still warm from Edward's. "It's just . . . I don't know. I've been thinking about how wrong it is without you here. I don't even know who I am anymore. I just . . . I need you to come back, Isabella. Here to Forks. It's where you belong, where both of us belong." "Jacob . . ." I hear Edward shuffling papers behind me, my heart beating in my ears. Jake's voice. Too many noises. "Just hear me out, okay? I'm thinking maybe instead of me moving to Chicago, you can come back here once you finish your coursework. You can write your dissertation from home." His words confuse methey feel so wrong. I like Chicago. I don't want to finish my degree in Forks. I don't want to move back. And his voice

"Jacob," I say softly, trying to stay out of Edward's earshot. "I can't talk about this right now, okay?" He rambles on for another minute or two, but all I can think of is Edward. "Okay. Okay. I know . . . I'm getting a little ahead of myself. But it was just a thought. I think we should consider it. You know, after the wedding." The wedding. Until now, all thoughts of our marriage remained nebulousa hazy prospect looming in the distant future. But the summer is not far away. July. Eight months. I envision it . . . a white dress. Jacob in a tuxedo. A cake and dancing. Vows to remain true to him for the rest of my life, when I've already been faithless in my heart. I am faithless because . . . I love another. How stupid I am. I've always loved another. Edward. Yes, a voice inside of me whispers, you fool. How can you deny it? I think of the past few weeks . . . how had I not seen it until now? "Jacob. II have to go," I say, trying to maintain the calm in my voice, but I feel faint. "Okay. I get it, work in all," he jokes. "Yeah," I reply roughly. "I'm sorry." I'm sorry for so much. "I love you, babe. I miss you." "I miss you, too," I whisper, because it's true. I miss my friend. The one I could confide in, the one who told me stories and made me laugh. But it's also not true. I can live without Jacob. I'm doing it now. I've never really lived without Edward. And even though he's here with me now, I miss him so fiercely my heart can't contain the longing. It wells up and seeps out and fills the room, so palpable it must be visible. Jacob is still talking. "So, I'm gonna be busy this coming week. But I'll give you a call on my lunch break." "Okay. Sounds good." The forced cheerfulness of my words echoes hollowly in my ears. It's not me, it's another person speaking. I'm a liar.

"Oh, and Dad says 'hi.' He's watching the game now though so he can't talk." "Tell him I say 'hi,' too," I whisper. "Will do." "Bye, Jacob." "Bye, sweetheart." I close the phone and set it down on my desk. The room is unnaturally silent. Slowly, very slowly, I turn. My apartment is empty. "Edward?" I call. No reply. The bathroom door is open. He's not in the kitchen. He's gone. My heart stops beating.

"I gaze into the heart, lowly it may be, Thought the words be higher still. For the heart is all the substance, The speech an accident. How many phrases will you speak, Too many for me. How much burning, burning will you feel, Be friendly with the fire, enough for me. Light up the fire of love inside, And blaze the thoughts away."- Rumi Chapter 21: November 6th, 2010 Panic rises in my throat as I inspect the room. His books, papers, coat gone. Clearly he's not intending to come back. I run over my conversation with Jacob in my mind . . . I'd said I missed him . . . just after Edward . . . You're everything to me.

I grab my coat without thinking, checking quickly for my wallet and keys before bolting out the door. He's not in the hall. "Edward," I whisper to no one before I take off towards the stairs and the lobby. He couldn't have more than a three or four minute lead, I think, my heart hammering in my chest. But when I get to the street in front of my building, I search vainly for his tall frame, his copper hair. There are only a few people on the sidewalk and none of them are Edward. He could be anywhere. My hand shakes as I retrieve my phone from my pocket and check for messages. Nothing. I immediately call him and it goes straight to voicemail. I don't bother leaving a message. Instead, I walk to the closest "El," station, my gaze darting from person to person. The ride is excruciating. I tap my foot restlessly on the dirty floor, willing the train to move faster. Twenty minutes and one transfer later, I'm in Edward's neighborhood trying to remember how to get to his house. Luckily, the one time I'd been here I'd explored many of the nearby streets, so it doesn't take too long before I'm on the right track. I already feel better, closer to him. I just hope he came right home. As I walk, the evening falls quickly and so does the temperature. It occurs to me I should have worn a warmer coat, or at least put a sweater on over my thin t-shirt, but for some reason the cold isn't bothersome. It keeps me alert. My eyes move restlessly over passersby as I try not to think about how Edward must have felt . . . for him to left that way. What if something happens to him? It's not likely, I know that. But I can't help the dread creeping over me . . . More than anyone, I know sometimes you don't get to tell people what they mean to you until it's too late. Finally, I arrive at Edward's house, out of breath and afraid. I steel myself before ringing the bell. It's very likely he doesn't want to speak to me. Nothing happens. I ring again. Disappointment tinged with hopelessness. I'm just about to turn around when the door opens. "Little Bee?" Emmett stands at the top of the stairs looking disheveled. His sweats and matted hair tell me he's just woken from a nap. I feel bad for disturbing him, but I look eagerly behind his shoulder.

"Hey, Emmett. Um. Is Edward here?" "I thought he was at your place," he says with a large yawn. "Yeah, he was. I . . . it's a long story." Emmett looks concerned, opening the door wider and waving me in. "Well, I've been sleeping. He could've come home. You can go check if you want." "Thanks, Em." But somehow I already know he's not home. "No problem." I hesitate on the bottom of the stairs. "If he's not, I might just wait." "That's fine. What's ours is yours or whatever." "Thanks." When I get to the third floor, my intuition is confirmed. I flip the light switch and blink, absorbing the scene. His room is a little messier than last time. The bed isn't made, the comforter nearly half on the floor. Absentmindedly I run my hand over the soft, rumpled sheets. A half-drunk cup of coffee sits on the nightstand, a book tented next to it. Dylan Thomas. Sighing resignedly, I kick off my shoes and pace the room, unable to sit still. There's a strange intimacy, being in here like this without him knowing. I feel a bit like an intruder. I am an intruder. Will he be upset? The photo of Alice calls to me from the bookshelf. She stares back at the cameraat mewith her wise, knowing eyes. Perhaps this is one moment that Edward has tried to capture in words. The photo doesn't even come close. I close my eyes, imagining I'm there with them in the hospital. It's not difficult to recall the smell of bitter antiseptic, laced with undertones of bleach. The stale air. Sounds of whooshing machines and the low hum of mindless TV no one's really watching. At least Alice died in peace, at home. At least she had that. "I miss you, Ali."

The picture of Edward holding her feet makes my heart hurt. I pick the photo up and kiss them both, not bothering to wipe the trace of my lips from the glass frame before returning it to its perch overlooking the room. A few of Edward's notebooks are stacked next to his opened laptop. It takes more than a little willpower not to open them and read, but I resist. Instead, I grab a book from the shelf and retreat back to Edward's bed, propping up his pillows against the wall and leaning against them. I pull the comforter up around my body, enveloping myself in his scent. If I close my eyes I can recall the feel of his arm around me, how warm he was. I can imagine he's here right now and not wandering around Chicago doing God knows what. My mind drifts to Kate. The jealousy, once it emerges, is almost impossible to repress. No. He wouldn't. But even if he did, could I blame him? I bury my head in his pillows, inhaling deeply, trying to put his scent into words as he did mine. All I can think of is green. His bed smells like green. I ball the sheets up in my hands, an ache in my chest that longs for something I've never had. Then my mind returns to Jacob, his plea for me to come home, back to Forks. The sadness and strange desperation in his voice. How will I stand hurting him? I don't know how much time passes, but I don't get very far in the book I've picked. In fact, I pretty much keep reading the same sentence over and over again, trying to sort through the insane mess of my life and not think about Edward's whereabouts. There's no guarantee he'll come home tonight and do I want to live with that knowledge? A little while later, I hear footsteps on the stairs and I start up rigidly, eyes focused on the doorway. "Little Bee?" Emmett calls as he enters. "You still here?" I flush to be caught in Edward's bed and look down at the book in my hands. "Yeah. Is that okay?" "Of course. I just wanted to tell you I'm headed out. Rose and I have a date." He grins. "That's great. Say 'hi' for me." I haven't seen much of Rose latelyboth of us have been busy. But I miss her. My voice threatens to crack.

"Will do. But there's food downstairs if you're hungry. Edward has all sorts of weird Italian shit. We have tons of cereal . . ." he says, drifting off. "I'm not really hungry, but thanks." "You still haven't heard from him?" I shake my head despondently. "He'll turn up sooner or later. He gets like this sometimes. Wants to be alone." "Oh." "Less so recently." "Really?" I grasp onto the insinuation with both hands. Emmett nods. "I don't know how to describe it. He's writing a lot more. He seems happier." His voice sounds thoughtful as he leans against the doorframe. "Look." He turns to me with a serious expression. "I know this is none of my business. Whatever happened with you guys wasn't your fault, and things have happened since then, you've lived your life or whatever. But Edward . . ." he pauses. "This is gonna sound weird. But Edward's not like other people. Once he loves something, he loves it forever. Just keep that in mind, Bella." I nod, my stomach plummeting. It's not really an accusation, but it is. These past few weeks I've been so self-absorbed with my life, I haven't even considered that Edward might be hurting. If what Emmett's saying is true . . . Kate's words from Halloween return. She was right. And he thinks I've picked Jacob. "That's why I'm here," I whisper. He smiles a little and slaps the side of the wall. "I gotta get going. You take care, Little Bee." "Okay," I say. More hours pass. It's after ten now and I've been waiting for nearly six hours. Another phone call goes straight to voicemail. I want to leave and go

look for him, maybe at Eclipse, but I'm afraid I'll miss him if I go. I attempt to read again but give up in frustration. Anything would be better than this horrible waiting. I shudder, suddenly chilled and wishing I'd worn a long-sleeved shirt. On an impulse, I go Edward's dresser, cautiously opening the top drawer. T-shirts, messily folded. Another drawer contains socks, boxer shorts. I smile at a pair with cartoon characters on them. Laundry day underwear. Finally, I find the drawer that contains what I'm looking for. I select a random grey sweatshirt and pull it over my head, more than a little disappointed it smells clean and not like Edward. Glancing down at myself in the full-length mirror on his wall is pretty funny. It's more like a dress than a shirt. A glint on my hand catches my eye. My ring. Jacob brought it home for me a couple of days after we got engaged. I insisted he not buy one, but he didn't listen to me. He said he wanted to do things right, and by right he meant "traditional." Billy was so happy. I remember how it felt on my handa foreign object I couldn't quite get used to. I justified that strangeness because it was the first ring I'd ever owned or worn. But I don't even notice it anymore. Thinking back on it now, shouldn't that have come as a warning sign? I should have been ecstatic about the ring, worn it proudly. My body told me what my mind refused to acknowledge. Other things, like how his kisses felt. Nice. Enjoyable. But never more than that. I told myself that our relationship was more stable, more realistic, than any fantasy love. That love based on friendship is bound to stand the test of time. That no one else would evercould everlove me. Not the way I am now. I still don't know if that's true. That self-doubting part of me refuses to believe Edward would really want me if he saw my body. He could have any woman he wanted. I don't even know if I'm good . . . in that way. Before Jacob, I dated very little in college. One guy, Demetri, was especially persistent, and I'd finally given up and gone out with him a couple of times. When he tried to kiss me on our second date I pulled away. I couldn't stand his touch or the feel of his lips. He called me a tease and a prude, and I didn't know enough about sex to tell if he was right. I hated him, I hated my scars, and I hated myself for being so ashamed. I wasn't afraid to touch myself. But when I did, thoughts of Edward intruded. I felt pleasure, but when I finished I'd cry into my pillow because I knew I'd

never see him again. And so I didn't do it oftenit only heightened the feeling of lack, of pain. And then there was Jacob. With him, no pain. But no fierce desire, either. Comfort. Is comfort enough to build a life on? Just to see how it feels, I wriggle the ring off my fingerthe first time in seven months. It hurts to feel the tenuousness of our bond now. Jacob deserves so much more. But I don't want to let him go. I slip the ring into my jeans pocket and it weighs there heavily, but my hands feel lighter. If I hadn't doubted Jacob about the letters, would I be so readily removing his ring? Another question I can't answer. The longer I wait without seeing Edward, the more confused I become. I don't like the frantic state of my mind, and I look for something, anything, to focus on. My attention returns to the neat stack of notebooks I'd observed earlier. Emmett said Edward was writing more frequentlyI've noticed it, too. He's always scribbling away in one of those notebooks, but he hasn't offered so much as a hint. I shouldn't read them. That's such an invasion of privacy. If he wanted me to see what was written there, he would show me. But they call to me seductively, tempting me with knowledge. The Biblical ramifications of this moment are not lost on me, even as my hand gently touches the binding of the top notebook. Surely just one little taste won't kill? But I know how this story turns out. More minutes pass and my unease increases. I'm circling the notebooks like a shark in the water. I'm disappointed in myself, but not enough to stop myself from flipping open the cover. Edward's handwriting curls over the first page, nearly illegible. But inside the top right-hand corner of the cover neat, decisive letters clearly indicate: Property of Edward Cullen. If found, please return to 32C Hawthorne, Chicago, IL.

Reward. So cute. My heart clenches painfully. How I love him. My eyes drift to his wild cursiveI'll only allow myself one sentence. Maybe two. He walked past the familiar spot, a quiet fire burning. Even though the plot had been razed and grass had long since covered the ash, in his mind her house still stood there. Silent, still, and immovable even in flames. Oh my God. "Bella?" Edward's voice materializes out of nowhere, startling me. I hastily flip the notebook closed, but he's already seen. He watches me remove my hand guiltily, his face cast in an unreadable expression. Words choke in my throat. I want to run and throw my arms around him, but there's a wariness about him that stops me. "I'm sorry. I only just opened it. I didn't read . . . just a sentence," I say, trying to disguise the shakiness of my voice. "Okay . . ." he says carefully. He runs his hands through his hair, exhaling deeply. "Are you surprised?" "About what?" "What you read." "I didn'tI" I stammer, not knowing how to defend myself. I feel untrustworthy, sneaky, and awful. He comes further into the light so that I can see him. His face is flushed from the cold, but he doesn't look drunk, which I realizeshamefullyis what I expected. "Don't lie," he says softly. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have read any part of it." My mind is still reeling from what I read. "You might as well. It's about you. But you already know that now."

I don't know how to reply, so I stand there dumbly. He's writing a story about me. About us. I can't believe it. It makes me want to cry and beg his forgiveness. "What are you doing here?" His tone isn't angry, but nor is it happy. It's tired. Maybe I shouldn't have come after all. "I was waiting for you. You left . . ." He nods. "I needed some space. And you had a call." "Where did you go?" I ask. "Where do you think I went?" he shoots back, his green eyes serious. "I don't know." "Not to fuck Kate, if that's what you're wondering," he answers a little snippily. I'm ashamed that the thought had crossed my mind. There's no way I'm worthy of him. He thinks so highly of me and I doubt. I always doubt him. "I went on a walk. A long one. To think." "Of course," I say, shaking my head stiffly. From this moment on, I'll never think the worst of him again. If this ends badly, it will be my fault. "What do you want, Bella?" He starts removing his coat to throw it on the bed, and just then seems to notice I'm wearing his sweatshirt. His eyebrow quirks up and I see the hint of a smile on play upon his lips as he glances down. The thing nearly reaches my knees. "I got cold," I explain, moving to take it off. "It's okay," he says, holding his hand up. "Keep it." "Edward" "I can't do this right now," he says. My eyes widen as he continues. "I'm not mad at you, okay? We're still friends. I know you have . . . responsibilities . . . I just . . . when you showed me you'd kept my story . . . and the Blake, just for a second, I thought that . . ." There's such pain in his voice. It cuts to the bone. "Please, can I just say something?" I move towards him. So many expressions dance over his featuresbut the predominant one is fear. I'm

afraid too, but I don't stop my advance. It's been far too long since I was honest with anyone, even myself. I don't know how to begin. "Please?" I ask again. He nods, glancing around the room like a caged animal. I dig my nails into my hands to keep from touching him. I don't want him to feel cornered. We take a seat on the side of the bed for lack of any better arrangement, and it doesn't escape my notice that he sits at a safe distance. I play with the long sleeves of the sweatshirt nervously, noticing the little tears on the end. How like Edward. He always wears his clothes until they're rags. "I shouldn't have taken that call today," I say. "No, you were right to," he sighs. "You were right to." "I shouldn't have, and I'm so sorry." "Bella, don't. Don't apologize. You can't help how you feel. But neither can I." "How do you know what I feel?" I ask. "I saw it in the way you looked at me when the phone rang." "I wasn't thinking clearly. I was startled. I felt guilty." "You have no reason." "Don't I?" "Well, I'm sorry for making you feel that way." "You didn't," I say, more forcefully. "It was me. You're a poet, Edward. You are. You made me feel something today I haven't felt in years. Realize so many things. What you said" "Was stupid." "No," I reply fiercely, willing him to look at me. "It was beautiful, the things you said. II'm sorry if you felt I was dismissing you by talking to Jacob. I wasn't. I was trying to escape. Because . . ." I trail off, realizing I'm not making any sense at all. There aren't enough words and they all sound wrong in my head.

"Because?" "I was afraid." "Why?" he asks. I can hear the fear and hesitation in his voice, but there's also something else. "When I came over here, you know what I did?" "Besides go through all my stuff?" he jokes. "I'm sorry," I say shyly, my face reddening again. "Okay, what did you do?" "I climbed right into your bed." "I haven't washed these sheets in awhile." "You stupid," I say softly. "I don't care. I just wanted to be close to you. When I saw you left . . ." "Bella, what are you trying to say?" My hands rest my lap, useless. I pick listlessly at the pills on his sweatshirt just to have something to do. Suddenly, Edward grabs my left hand. I look up into green eyes filled with confusion and hope. "Your ring?" "I took it off," I say. "Did you . . ." I know he's about to ask whether I've broken off my engagement. I shake my head and his expression rapidly falls. "You don't understand. I realized today I don't . . . love Jacob. Not enough to marry him." "You don't?" "No," I say. "I don't. I don't think I ever did."

"Is it because of the letters? Because he might have had something to do with it?" I shake my head and he looks at me and I try to convey with my eyes the words that still stick in my throat, hopeless, voiceless. I can only stare and pray he saves me. And he does. He always does. I stare and stare as lips move closer. Full, delicious lips that make my stomach curl with want before they even meet mine. His eyes flash, a final question. Edward taught me some moments can't be captured by words. Edward is a writer and a poet. His eyes are like the sea: green, depthless, and unfathomable. Because of him, a pebble pinging off a pane of glass is my favorite sound in the world. When I was thirteen, he kissed me and I fell in love with him. And it was like drowning, because I've never reached the surface. I try to memorize the instant before he kisses me. His sweet breath on my face. The way his eyebrows furrow gently in concentration. He whispers my name and it's like I've never heard it before. Not able to bear it another minute, I close the distance between us, my lips hesitant at first, just ghosting over his. I feel him smile against me as he cups my cheek, his other hand in my hair, then at my neck. Then his lips are everywhere, drawing me nearer, deeper into him, velvet and pliant and demanding at the same time. I angle my head, pouring out everything I am into this moment. And when my mouth opens and he moans as his tongue touches mine, I gasp at the current that passes through my body. Kissing Edward is like coming home. No longer tentative, I tangle my hands in his hair, rubbing at his scalp. Anything to get closer. We're desperate and greedy and I realize I may be crying. I want to feel. I want him to make me forgetJacob, Billy, Alice, everything. I want him to erase everything in my mind but him. "There's sand in your hair," I whisper, feeling the grit. "It's windy outside," he says, breaking away to answer me. I hate the little distance between us. I can't bear to be so far away. And so I kiss him again, and again, and again, breathing his air as he breathes mine.

Somehow arms and legs become tangled, and we're lying on his bed, and he's pressing into me with his whole body. I can feel his hardness on my thigh and I unconsciously grind my hips up into it. I ache so much and I love how he feels and I want more. He moans and grinds back harder, his hands running over my shoulders and down my sides and all thoughts and sanity have fled. His scruff scratches my chin with each hot, wet kiss and I revel in the pain. The feeling of his hand fumbling with the fly of my jeans makes me freeze. Suddenly my mind catches up to my bodythis is happening too fast. I'm confused. And I'm petrified for him to see my scars. Edward notices immediately, stilling and rolling off me to the side with a groan. "I'm sorry," he pants. "I think I got a little carried away." "It's okay," I say, my breath coming in short spurts. Edward reaches his hand into his pants, shifting the arousal that's so evident now, straining against his jeans. The sight makes the ache between my legs nearly unbearable. "Bella," he says, shifting to his side. "We can't do this." "I know." "I don't want you to . . . get into something just because you're confused about Jacob." "I'm not confused," I say, but I can see he's not convinced. "Yes, you are." "Edward, I" He reaches out and pulls me into his arms. My desire still courses hot and thick and being pressed against him isn't helping, but I can't bear to pull away. "I'll confess I'm confused," he whispers, his hand gently caressing my face. "Until today, I had no idea your feelings for me might be . . . like mine. I thought for sure you were going to marry him." "I'm not," I say, my eyes tearing. How can I make him understand that this is real?

"I don't want you to. You have no idea how much that idea kills me. But I don't want to push you either. Bella . . . you coming here, this," he says, gesturing between us. "It's more than I ever could have hoped. I just want you to be sure. I need to be sure you're not just doing this because you're scared to lose me. Because that will never happen, I promise. Even if you marry someone else. I promise. Okay?" His words are so sincere but I can't help my frustration. My chest hurts at the thought of leaving him now. But he's right. Maybe I'm expecting too much . . . again. I haven't taken his feelings into account. Why should he believe me, trust me with his heart when I've yet to earn it? "I love you, Bella," he says softly. "But when . . . if . . . you tell me the same . . . I want you to feel it with your whole heart. With no regrets. No other people in our way." "I'm sorry," I whisper. "No need to be sorry, love," he says, kissing my forehead. I close my eyes and blink back tears. Edward loves me. He loves me. I can't stop replaying the words in my mind. "I'm glad you came after me." "I had to." I wrap my arms around his torso, rest my head on his chest. He sighs and strokes my hair and, despite our predicament, I feel calmer. Happy and sad at the same time. "My mom used to do that when I couldn't sleep," I say. "Touch my hair." Edward doesn't reply, just kisses my forehead again. My stomach takes this inopportune moment to growl and Edward smiles, patting it through his sweatshirt. "I bet you haven't had dinner." I shake my head shyly. He clambers off the bed and reaches out his hand. I take it and slide slowly off the bed and into his arms. "Well, let me make you some. You like meatballs?" "You make meatballs?"

"Secret recipe," he grins playfully. "Well, how can I resist?" And as I follow him out and down the stairs, I vow to make this right.

"All thoughts, all passions, all delights, Whatever stirs this mortal frame, All are but ministers of Love, And feed His sacred flame."-Samuel Taylor Coleridge November 6th-9th, 2010 There are some things time can't erase. Like how easy it is to hug Edward. Even though I'm so much shorter, our arms just seem to fit together. I hug him from behind and rest my head on his back as he boils pasta to feed me at midnight. "Why Italy?" I ask, twirling the strands around my fork. "Why not?" he answers back, giving me a smart-alecky grin. "That's not an answer." "Mostly I was drawn to the history. The art. It's so incredible how many of the cities are relics in themselveseach building a masterpiece. Then I took Italian in college and just . . . well, it was where I needed to go." "I wish I could've gone." My voice is wistful and Edward places his hand on mine. All thoughts of food are forgotten. "Me too." "So, did you like college? Did you have a girlfriend or anything?" I ask, trying to keep my inquiry casual. "No one serious. I was . . . pretty fucked up, Bella." "Like fucked up how?"

"I was angrywith my parents. Myself. I didn't write. I partied a lot." I eye the tattoo on his arm and think about what he'd told me about how he'd gotten it. "You drank a lot." He nods, going back to his pasta. I don't bother to mention that he seems to drink a lot now, though less so when he's with me. "Because of Alice?" "Of course. Just the thought that if I had the right fucking marrow, if I could've been a match for her. She might've . . . I don't know. And you. I couldn't . . . forget you. And it drove me crazy . . ." He trails off, taking another bite. His jaw muscles work tensely, and I'm mesmerized. He swallows and takes another sip of water and I feel kind of creepy for staring. "What about you?" he asks. "I didn't . . . date much . . . before Jacob." I blush "Love must be as much a light, as it is a flame."Henry David Thoreau Chapter 23: November 9th, 2010 "What do you mean?" He looks away, stubbornly burying his face in my hair. There's no way to catalog or make sense of the questions running through my head. The Cullens knew? So does that mean they were the ones who kept us apart all those years? Maybe it wasn't Billy or Jacob after all . . . The hope that blooms, hesitant and shy, feels like a betrayal of Edward. Of Alice. What a horrible thought that while she lay dying her parents . . . horrible. For Edward's sake I hope it's not true. And for mine. It's bad enough thinking Billy and Jacob might have . . . but the Cullens too? Esme? I can't believe it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I need to know more. "Edward," I say, turning my head and forcing him out of his cocoon. "What did they say? Did you talk to Esme?" "Yeah," he says quietly. "Yesterday evening."

Getting him to talk is like pulling teeth. He murmurs something and moves my hair aside, gently kissing my neck. The first pecks are light, sweet on my collarbone, then higher. Gradually, he becomes more insistent, demanding, pulling at my flesh with his lips and making my eyes roll back in my head. His moan against my ear electrifies my spine all the way down to my toes, fuzzying my mind. How did he learn to kiss like that? Right on my pulse point, so I can feel his tongue laving the beat of my heart. My head nearly lolls, held only by his hands. Distractions. He's trying to distract me. Gently, I turn my head, cutting off his access. He grunts with disapproval. "Hey, hey, hey," I say, taking his face between my hands, not wanting to stop him but needing to. His green eyes are feverish with grief . . . desperation. I don't quite understand his reactionyes, if it's true it's terrible. But there doesn't seem to be any anger there, just defeat. "Tell me," I say. "From the beginning." Edward sighs in resignation, taking my hands from his face and folding them together under his chin. "I told her you were here. That we'd been getting to . . . know each other again." The corner of his mouth turns up and it takes nearly all of my willpower not to kiss him. A couple holding hands walks by, giving us a curious glance and distracting Edward. His eyes follow them for a moment before returning to mine. "And . . . ?" "And that we'd talked about what happened after the fire. How you wrote to me just like I wrote to you. I asked her if she . . . knew anything about it." "What did she say?" I whisper. "Well, she was surprised you were here, that's for sure. She asked if you'd talked to Billy, and I told her no, that you were waiting for Christmas to ask him in person." Just then I realize I haven't yet told Edward about my intent to get my ticket transferred to Thanksgiving. But the situation has just become more complicated. We have to get to the bottom of this thing, even though nothing he's said so far seems to warrant how upset he is. "That doesn't sound bad. Seems like a reasonable response."

"Her tone was off. And the strangest part was she didn't sound surprised that you'd written. Bella, it was like she knew." "Well, maybe she was just in shock. It is kinda weird, us meeting again and all," I say, but the wheels are turning in my head. Something about what he's saying feels . . . off. "It was the way she asked . . . so carefully . . . it wasn't like her at all. I asked her again if she knew anything about it, and she was evasive. I could tell there was something she wasn't saying." "Did you talk to your dad?" "Briefly, but it was before I talked to her. After I told her about the letters and wanted to talk to him again, she said he'd gone out. I don't know if that was the truth or not." "So then what happened?" "I got pissed off and hung up on her. She tried to call back but I didn't answer." "Edward . . ." He doesn't answer. I know it as surely as I know my name. We need to go back to Elgin. Back to where I lived, where my mother died. The prospect looms before me. Until now it's been an ambiguous thingI'll go in the future. Someday. Not now. Not yet. I don't know if I'm ready to do it. And Edward. I understand his silent battle . . . I've lived it too. Not knowing who you can trust, if anyone. All he has are his parents. And me. "I'll go with you." He says nothing, and I wrap my arms around his neck, willing him to look at me. His eyes gaze across the open water. Sea green and troubled. I wish I could take it away. "I'm so fucking sorry," he whispers finally, kissing my forehead. "I don't think I understood before, what you felt like. I didn't understand why you didn't want to know. But I know now. I don't want to fucking know."

All I can do is nod into his shoulder, wishing there was a way I could get closer, make his pain mine. It is mine. It always has been. "It'll be okay," I say, using the words he's so often used on me. Then, I kiss his neck, inhaling his musky scent, just under his ear. He lets out a little moan that spurs me on. My lips travel across his cheek to the corner of his mouth. An aching pull. I stop at the edge and wonder if I should go on, or if he will. He sighs and turns his head, opening his mouth and slipping his tongue against mine. I know it's wrong; it's too soon, that I still have Jacob on my conscience. But I can't help it. I'm hungry and wanton, giving him access to everything. Anything. He sucks my top lip and my whole body feels alive with wanting pain. The fear of losing him, still lingering from our earlier encounter, heats my blood and makes me desperate. The mint just masks the stale alcohol on his breath, but nothing is sweeter than his soft, full lips. "I wish it . . . God, Bella," he groans, pulling his mouth away. "I want you too much." "I'm sorry." I'm breathless and embarrassed for getting so carried away, and on a park bench no less. Edward shifts beneath me and I can feel him though our pants, how much he's affected too. It's thrilling. My heart beats its wings against the cage of my chest and Edward slips his hand into my coat, resting his hand lightly over my breast as if to still it. It only makes the flapping more furious. "I'll come with you," I tell him again. "We'll go together." Edward's stormy, tired eyes meet mine, some undisclosed emotion simmering there. "I'll never forgive them," he says. "We don't know . . ." "Never." There's no use arguing with him over this, not when everything is so raw. He needs sleep. "Where did you go last night?" "Out."

Stupid insecurity makes me ask the next question. "Alone?" He sighs little, his eyes blinking once, twice, hypnotizing me with their long lashes. "With Jasper for a while. Then he left and I stayed out a little longer. And then home." I try not to be hurt he didn't think to call me, but I am. Still, I'm more worried about him than anything else. "That scares me." "I didn't go home with anyone, Bella," he says. Even though that thought is enough to make the bile rise in my throat, I shake my head; he doesn't understand. I try to think of a way to put it that won't rile him. "No. You drinking like that. It's not . . . good . . ." His eyes narrow perceptibly and I worry I've said the wrong thing. That fills me with even more fearhis denial. I bite my lip and look away, sliding off his lap slowly and back onto the bench, my hair falling as a curtain between us. I don't know how to handle this if he does have a problem. Edward's hand rubs lightly on my shoulder. "I'm sorry." His voice is hoarse, and when I turn again to look at him, I see contrition. He thinks I'm judging him. "You're right," he says softly. "I just want you to take care of yourself." He nods, looking down at his tented fingers. I've been so caught up in our conversation I've barely noticed how the wind has picked up. The weather begins to change. Threatening looking clouds move in from the west, foreshadowing rain. I love the way the fiercer wind riles the water of the lake. It reminds me so much of another beach. Jacob. In my heart I know that this changes nothingeven if it was the Cullens. I don't love him the way I should. But, oh, the guilt returns, making me feel it in every inch of my body. If he's completely innocent, I'm a horrible, ungrateful person. I need you to come back, Isabella. Here to Forks. It's where you belong, where both of us belong.

I have to talk to him, but I don't know what to say. For the last few weeks I've doubted his honestyeven while something has told me he knows nothing about any of this. Nothing else makes any sense. My need to speak to him nearly surpasses my need to care for Edward. Yet it doesn't. I swallow thickly, understanding it never will. "Come with me," I say, standing and reaching for him. He looks up, examining my hand with wonder before taking it. Our walk back to my apartment is mostly silent, but I'm so aware of his presence next to me, wanting to know the thoughts swimming around in his head. When we arrive back in my neighborhood, I make a quick stop for groceries, pulling Edward along. He shakes his head, says he'll wait. He doesn't want to be in the crowded store. Inside I select carrots and celery, chicken, parsley, and garlic. Tiny noodles in alphabet shapes to make him smile. I pay quickly and return to Edward, my eyes scanning to find him leaning against the side of a neighboring building, scribbling away as always. The crowd is thick and he doesn't notice me at first, so I take a moment to admire him. Long legs stretched out, mussed hair and light stubble. He doesn't even notice when women pass him, their eyes widening with shock and wonder at his beauty, some even turning their heads for another glimpse. Mine, I think to myself, surprised at my possessiveness. My heart stutters when his face lifts at my approach, the worried creases still there, but fading. A smile appears on his face as he pockets the notebook, and I try not to be too curious about what he's written. "What did you get?" he asks, reaching to take the bag from me automatically, his other hand finding mine again. "It's a surprise," I murmur. Back in my apartment, I ignore the blinking of my cell phone. Edward pokes around the shopping bags curiously, but I shoo him away out of the kitchen. Soon, I'm lost in the easy rhythm of peeling and chopping. I haven't cooked in so long and it feels good, soothing. Out in my room I catch a glimpse of Edward sitting on my couch with his head in his hands, still wearing his coat. Once I've brought the soup to a boil, I wash my hands quickly and dry them. He's still sitting in the same alarming way.

He lifts his head and attempts a smile. "It smells good." "Are you hungry?" He nods shyly as I kneel on the floor by his feet. I ignore his protest as I lift one into my lap, untying the knotted lace of his shoe and removing it, then the other. His socks don't match, which makes me smile. I squeeze his feet gently, meeting his eyes. Cautiously, I stand and slide my hands between his coat and his shirt, feeling the heat and strength of his arms as I tug it downward. He leans forward, letting me drag it away and toss it to the side. "Stay a while," I whisper. He nods and leans back on the couch, resting his head while I return to the kitchen. When I come back a couple of minutes later, he's out like a light. I drape a blanket around him and curl up by his side cautiously, not wanting to disturb him. For a while I watch him sleep as I try to decide what to do. What this will mean for us all . . . for Edward and me? I can't help but fear we're involved in some sort of strange, vast conspiracy, but why? I wonder if it's worth it, knowing your family has betrayed you. Might it not be better just to accept the lie and move on? Sometimes truth comes at the expense of great pain. Outside, I hear the storm begina distant rumble of thunder, surprising for November. Something that sounds like hail pelts the window. Edward makes a sleepy sound and I sweep back the hair from his face, kissing his brow before going back to check on the soup. The chicken has cooked through and I turn off the heat, removing it carefully and setting it on the counter to cool. I add a little more parsley to the broth and skim some of the fat. The kitchen is warm and deceptively pleasant, especially with the storm raging on outside. The appealing contrast reminds me again of Forks. We never would get much snow, but sometimes the rain would come down torrentially. Being wrapped up in a blanket always made me feel so safe and content. Jacob and I would spend all day playing games in his room and I'd think about the people who had nothing . . . homeless people, people without heat. I felt so sorry for them and so glad to be alive. To have survived. I try to push thoughts of Jacob away. I can't have both worlds-Jacob's friendship and Edward's love. But I can wish.

Edward said by the lake he'd never forgive his parents if they were involved. Yes, he was speaking out of anger . . . but there was conviction there, too. Will I forgive Billy? Or Jacob? It's clear now I'd already condemned them in my heart. I'd hoped it wasn't true, but I feared it was. In some ways I've already come to terms with it. Edward's still dealing with the shock of possibility. And I know likely the answer lies somewhere in-between. This whole thing has gotten so out of hand, and I know I'm partially to blame. If I'd just asked Billy in the beginning, perhaps we could've saved ourselves so much heartache. Or at least it would have come quickly, not with slow drawn out torture. Once the chicken has cooled, I pull it apart and chop up the meat, returning that to the pot and adding some salt along with the pasta. It smells good, as Edward said, but my appetite has flown. My cell phone blinks madly and accusingly on the kitchen counter. I'm sure I've missed calls from Jacob. I ignore my churning stomach and flip it open, relieved to see one missed call from Rose and one from Angela. Oh no! I completely forgot about our coffee date during her lunch break. And in such terrible weathershe must be so irritated. Dialing her back quickly, I step outside into the hall to apologize. "Angela, I'm so sorry," I say, getting her voicemail. "Something came up . . . something big. I can't talk about it right now, but I promise I'll explain soon. Call me." Back in my apartment, Edward is awake. "Hey," I say, smiling at the way his hair is plastered to the side of his face. He doesn't smile back. I don't understand the hurt gaze he's leveling at my hand until I realize I'm still holding my phone. "If you wanted privacy, I could go," he says coldly, moving to stand. He thought I was making a secret call to Jacob. "Don't be like that. I didn't want to wake you and I had to call Angela. I missed my coffee date with her to make you soup."

He sinks back again with a sigh. "Sorry. I'm being an asshole again. How long was I asleep?" "Just about an hour," I say, sitting next to him. But I'm not willing to change the subject so quickly. The way he's acting is just too strange . . . "So who did you think I was calling?" "Bella . . ." "What did you think I was saying?" He shrugs and I put my hand on his knee. He still doesn't trust my feelings for him. Suddenly, his behavior starts to make sense . . . the letters . . . Jacob . . . the feverish kisses in the park. "Edward, you need to talk to me." He takes my hand and kisses the sensitive space in between my knuckles. "This will change your mind." "What?" "You can't tell me you haven't thought about how this changes things," he says darkly. "What, if it was your parents that kept the letters? I'll change my mind about what?" "Breaking it off with him. If he's completely innocent." "You still think I'm doing this because of the letters?" I demand, my voice rising in pitch. "I told you that wasn't true." "But if you hadn't doubted him to begin with" I interrupt him with a flash of my palm. "I'm not going to lie and say it had absolutely no impact. But you must think very little of my feelings if you think I'm just reacting because of the letters. My God, Edward. Do you know what a hard . . . Jesus." I can't even finish my sentence; I'm up on my feet and pacing the room. Can I even be angry with him for these thoughts? I haven't told him about Thanksgiving yet . . . all I've been is hesitant . . . scared. Running. He has every reason to doubt me . . . except for his heart.

"Fuck, Bella. I don't know what to think," he mutters, alarmed by my agitation. I turn on my heel and face him with my hands on my hips. "Well, know this. I talked to Rose and she had an idea . . . I can go back to Forks for Thanksgiving, transfer my ticket." "You told Rosalie?" There's a touch of disbelief in his voice, mirrored in his expression. Happiness. I feel myself softening a little. It's almost impossible to be mad at him with that bewildered look on his face. "Yeah, we had coffee this morning. And I was thinking. I can't go on like this . . . not until Christmas." Edward's smile widens furtherhe looks more like himself. "You're serious." "Yeah," I say, nodding. "I am." He moves so quickly I can barely register his movement before his arms are around me, lifting me off the floor like I weigh nothing. A surprised sound escapes my mouth and I automatically wrap my arms around his neck. "BellaBellaBellaBella," he murmurs into my hair, peppering it with kisses. "I want you to believe me," I whisper. For the third time today, his mouth is on mine, stealing my breath away. This time it's so much more intense. I feel myself growing damp, wrapping my legs around him as he staggers towards the bed, his knees buckling as they hit the edge. And then he's hovering over me, kissing me lightly, then deeply. One hand cups my face, the other roves down my body to rest where I'm burning, pressing there firmly with a groan. I can't help the way my hips lift up into his hand as he rubs, curling his long fingers between my thighs and cupping me. I wish he'd rest his whole body on mine. I reach out, wanting to feel him so badly. Edward evades my grasp, gathering my hands together and holding my arms gently over my head while his other hand continues to rub me over my jeans. I feel almost certain the wetness is seeping through them but I can't find it in myself to be embarrassed. Instead I moan and bring his mouth to mine. All sane thoughts have fled. I'll give him anything, all of me, right now. He can take what's his. Edward doesn't seem to have any objections, either.

Our tongues thrust together in a rhythm that makes me crave more . . . more. "Please," I whisper, not knowing how to ask for what I need. "I wish I was the first one," he growls into my ear. "The only one to take you here." Without thinking I pant, "Yes. You are. You are." Edward's hand stills, his eyes snapping to mine. "What?" I blush ferociously, covering my face with my hands. He pulls them away gently, forcing me to meet his gaze. "Do you mean you've never . . ." he trails off. His voice is so soft and full of care, but it does nothing to alleviate my embarrassment. "God, this is so embarrassing." I close my eyes, not having the sanctuary of my hands to hide behind anymore. Edward's stopped touching me and I ache . . . so much. "Don't be embarrassed," he says, kissing my eyelids. "Look at me." "I can't." I stick my tongue out at him and try to turn away. Of course he won't let me. He chuckles, the bastard. "You're so precious to me." I feel his lips move lightly along my temple but still I don't look. "I don't want to be precious. I want to be sexy." "You are, silly girl. You're both." "I fail to see that." "I know." He sighs and I dare to sneak a peek at him. His face is filled with love, longing. It makes my heart stutter. "I promise . . . I'll take care of you. I'll make it good for you."

My eyes widen further and he smiles, caressing my face. "If you only knew what you do to me." His voice sounds rueful. "What?" I ask, wanting to hear it. Never in my life have I felt sexy or desirable, but under Edward's stare, I do. He chuckles again, more darkly this time, taking my hand and guiding it down, down his chest. My breath hitches as I realize his intent. With eyes blazing into mine, he moves my hand down between his legs. "This." I gasp at the feel of his erection under his jeans. Pressing his hand against the back of mine, he moves it up, then down, then up, so I feel the entire length of him, the width. His eyes roll back into his head and he mutters something before he moves my hand away. But I'm fascinated. Instantly, I'm drawn back. I press more firmly and he groans again. It's so . . . long. Wow. His reaction makes me ache even more I move my hand again, up and down. "Bella, you have to stop," he says. I can hear the regret in his voice and I know if I don't stop . . . he won't. I do it again anyway. Now his breathing is coming harsher. He covers his eyes with his arm, and I know I'm playing a dangerous game, crumbling his resistance. But then his words from Saturday come back to me . . . it shouldn't be like this. Not like this. As if I didn't have enough guilt about Jacob. I don't want my relationship with Edward to be tainted by cheating even more than it already is. Of course that's hypocritical of me. I already am a cheat. And Jacob is perhaps completely innocent. I move my hand away and Edward sighs, grabbing my hand and kissing it. For a while, neither of us speaks. "This can't happen again . . . not until." "I'm free. I know. I should never have . . ." "It's not your fault. I'm an idiot. I should have known I . . . It's not just because I want to forget, this," he says, gesturing between us. "But I want to forget." The pain is back in his eyes, and I squeeze his hand tighter. I still don't know what we're going to do about the letters.

"It's too tempting to be here with you . . . alone. I should go." He lifts himself up and swings his legs around the bed. I feel such a flutter of panic at the thought of him leaving. I don't know what he'll do. "But I made soup." "Bella . . ." "Chicken soup. With vegetables. Please." I scramble to sit next to him, adjusting my rumpled shirt. He smiles and touches his hand to my face. "Okay." I pop up from the bed excitedly, but before I can move toward the kitchen, Edward's hand is on my arm, drawing me back to him. He holds me at arms length and looks at me seriously. "Bella, will you come with me to Elgin?" "Yes." I nod, moving in for another hug. "Of course." His arms wrap around me again and I realize with a shock that, despite our intimacy moments ago, I hadn't once thought about my scars.

"Where no wood is, the fire goes out; so where there is no tale bearer, the strife ceaseth." Biblical proverb November 13th, 2010 My truck. I haven't driven it in over two months, and when it comes into sight in the long term lot I get a little choked up. So many memories. Jacob rebuilt nearly the entire engine as a gift for my eighteenth birthday. Although it's over twenty years old, it's never given me a problem. Some people look down on mechanics, but they don't understand the artistry behind the work, the skill required to take bits of metal and create something so solid and dependable. With a little pang, my mind drifts back to our conversation from the day beforeJacob's voice still held that intense edge, full of plans for us. He started again with the idea of me coming back to Forks to complete my

degree after my coursework . . . but what then? Where did he expect me to teach, at Port Angeles Community? It irritated me that he hadn't taken what I wanted into account at allor just assumed what I wanted was what he wanted. In some ways I guess I can't blame him. Until now, I've never really asserted myself. I knew I needed to tell him right then, but no words seemed right. It's over. I've met someone. This isn't going to work out. I don't love you enough to marry you. Apparently, I didn't have to. When I told him that we needed to talk and that I was changing my ticket for Thanksgiving break, he became very quiet. "What do you want to talk about? Can't we do it over the phone?" "No. There's a lot. Jacob, you" "I've been expecting this." He cuts me off with a wavering voice. "Please, don't say it. Please." "But you don't understand. I" "I'll fight for you. You'll come back for Thanksgiving and we'll make it right again, I promise. It's this distance. That's what's pulling us apart. I've felt it, too. But once you're back home, you'll know . . . we're meant to be." I hadn't bothered to press further, but his determination alarmed me. I don't know what else I expected, his easy acquiescence? For him to accept it all with a lighthearted smile and a hug? He's not going to let me go. How different he is from the boy I knew when we were children. Or could I just be seeing a side of him I've never acknowledged before? I run my hand over the edge of the flatbed in contemplation. "This yours?" Edward's voice beside me brings me back from my reverie. I haven't told him about my conversation with Jacob, or lack thereof . . . it

won't do anything but upset him. I nod and watch his face as he takes it in, expecting some sort of comment about the way it looks. But he doesn't say anything. He already knows the history. On Tuesday Edward stayed late. After we'd eaten, we talked for a long time about what we should do and finally decided to confront his parents as soon as possible. We settled on going to Elgin on Saturday, since his father usually got off early on that day and we wanted to ensure both of them were at home. Edward's initial resistance had given away to a quiet resignation, but even now I can feel the tension radiating off his body, from the hard set of his jaw to the uncharacteristic stillness of his legs. He's fearfully calm. But I know him well enough to understand that despite the seeming placidity of his demeanor, it won't take much to shatter it. My hand drifts and settles on his leg, rubbing into the coiled muscles there. "Are you ready?" I ask. His eyes flicker to mineand there it is, just under the surface: dread. Oh Edward. He feels everything. It's one of the reasons I love him so. He gives a curt nod and I turn the key in the ignition, relieved when the engine instantly roars to life. Over past couple of days, Esme has left Edward several messages begging for him to answer so that she 'can explain'. But now that we're on our way to see them, I'm worried. The ride to Elgin is only forty-five minutes, but it's enough time to think over all the possible outcomes of our meeting. If they did have something to do with it . . . what will they think of Edward and me together? If they wanted to keep us apart as children, why would they want us together now, as adults? The ramifications of the situation start to sink in. Perhaps the Cullens cut me off from their family. Perhaps Esme, who I loved fiercely, didn't feel the same way. Will that matter to Edward, once his anger with them dissipates, if it does? I don't want him to ever have to choose between his family and me. A glance over at Edward tells me he's lost in thought as well. Soon, familiar landmarks come into sightMcCabe's, an old restaurant where I'd sometimes go to dinner with the Cullens. Edward loved something . . . their mashed potatoes. It looks much smaller than I remember, surreal like a movie set. Here and there, signs and street names long forgotten pop up. I inhale sharply when I notice a faded billboard for the Ramblers, Edward's old baseball team.

"Are you okay?" His brow furrows with concern as he reaches over to stroke my hair. "I think so." "Do you want me to drive?" "No. I'm okay," I respond automatically. But inside I'm wondering if I'm really ready to do this. My body starts sending warning signsmy breath comes more rapidly, as does my pulse. I don't want to see my old neighborhood. I can't. My grip on the steering wheel tightens as the fluttering in my stomach increases. "Bella . . ." I glance at Edward quickly and I know he sees it. It's always been impossible to hide from him. "I'm okay," I say again. But when we pass South Elgin High, I'm not. I feel dizzy as the blood roars in my ears, blackness encroaching on my field of vision. Just in time, I steer to the side of the road as the panic crushes my chest. I rest my head on the steering wheel, willing the faint away. How did I think I could manage this? I feel so fragmented, as if a piece of me could break off with just the slightest breeze. Before I can register it in my dazed state, Edward is out of the truck and around by my door, opening it and unbuckling my seatbelt. I fall into him, feeling helpless and weak and needy, but so, so thankful he's with me. I cling for dear life with all of my limbs as tearless sobs wrack my body. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked you to come. I'm sorry." He murmurs soothing things and I try to let myself be calmed. We need to do this. I know we do, but there are just so many memories, especially here. So many. Edward, Alice, my mom. I feel his lips against my hair but I'm far away, remembering. The last day he walked me to school and kissed me, not caring if anyone knew that I was his girl. I wish I could have gone to the dance with him and seen how handsome he looked in his tux. So much has been lost, and why? Will they even tell us the truth? A few minutes later, after I've calmed, Edward slides into the driver's seat and wraps his arm around me, holding me close to his side. "The clutch sticks," I whisper as he starts the truck.

"Okay, love." He pulls away from the curb and into a three-point turn, right in the middle of the deserted road. My eyes widen in alarm when I realize what he's about to do. "No! We have to go see them. Edward. Please. We have to. Please." "But Bella" "Listen, I'll be fine. I promise. I was just a little overwhelmed for a second . . . I didn't know I'd react like that. But I'm okay now, I swear." All I know is if we don't do this now, we never will. I'll be fine. I'll have to make myself be fine. "Are you sure? You're really sure?" "Turn around. We need to go. Please." Edward sighs and I can sense his reluctance, but he complies nonetheless. It's only a little farther . . . When we finally enter our old neighborhood, I'm strangely calm. All of the emotion has been leeched out of me. Still, Edward wisely avoids taking the route that runs by my old house, or the place where it used to be. We pull up in front of the Cullen home at around five o'clock. It's incredible just the same. Black shutters and white siding, dim now in the oncoming darkness. The well-kept lawn. Esme's rose bushes, cut back for the winter. How lovely they are in full bloom-red and pink and yellow. Alice and I used to, very carefully, steal the occasional bloom to play 'He loves me, he loves me not.' Even the tire swing hanging from the venerable old oak tree on the side of the house. I can't believe it's still there. If I close my eyes and imagine, I can almost hear Alice's squealing laughter as Edward pushes her 'higher, higher'! Edward stiffens at the sight of an expensive-looking car in the drive, his arm tightening around me. I don't recognize it but he clearly does. "My father's home." "Good. Well, I guess that's why we came."

The window of Esme's second story office is illuminated. She must be home, too. It irritates me that they can just go on with their lives while Edward and I hover in this painful limbo. True, his mother has been calling him incessantly since their phone call days before, but still. Edward pauses with his hand on the door, turning to me with a serious expressionthere it is again, that fear right under the surface. He smiles ruefully as if to say, this is it. I lean into him, searching for his mouth, both of us seeking reassurance and comfort. I feel his tongue press gently, but insistently against my lips and sliding softly inside. My pulse quickens automatically. If I lived forever I'd never get tired of kissing him. I vow to stay strong for him today when he needs me. "Whatever they say in there, I'm with you. Okay?" I say when we finally break away. "I love you," he murmurs against my cheek. Even though he's said so before, the words send a secret thrill through me, down to my toes and up my spine. I know he doesn't want me to say it back, not until I've officially broken things off with Jacob, but he must feel it, he must know. My sweet Edward. "I talked to Jacob yesterday about Thanksgiving." Edward's face is awash with emotionfear, happiness, concern. I know if I told him what Jacob said he'll get upset, so I just nod. We have enough to deal with today. "Do you want me . . . to go with you?" From the look on his face I know he wants to, and while I'm sorely tempted, I know I need to go alone. "I have to do it by myself." He swallows, nods. It's not settling well with him but he's good enough not to pressure me. The walk up to the front door seems interminable, and once we arrive Edward hesitates with his hand on the knob. His jaw clenches as his hand changes tacks and rings the doorbell instead. The other one grips mine firmly. I give him a squeeze. About a half a minute later, the door swings open.

I think I gasp when Esme emergesshe's so different, but the same. Illumined from the hall light behind her, I notice her hair, neatly swept up in an elegant bun, shows streaks of grey. Though still fit, her figure is a little thicker now around the middle. Her eyes widen immediately, taking in Edward and then me, her hand darting to her mouth to cover her shock. From behind her the smell of food cooking wafts into the early evening air. "Bella?" Just a faint whisper from in-between fingers as her eyes rake up and down my body. The last time she saw me I was swaddled in bandages in the intensive care unit, so I suppose it makes sense. What is she expecting to see? A damaged girl? Her eyes immediately begin to glisten with unshed tears as they move to Edward, then to me again, then to our clasped hands. "Yes," I choke out. Edward doesn't release my hand and I watch him regard his mother impassively. Her demeanor radiates discomfort. Coupled with her pleading look at him, it is a confirmation of sorts. "I've been so worried about you. I . . ." "Can we come in?" he asks quietly. She nods and widens the door. Edward moves first, his hand still clutching mine . . . I feel awkward openly outing ourselves here before knowing how much, if any, contact they've maintained with Billy. Still, his hand is my only support and I'd never let it go. Once we're inside, Esme shuts the door and glances up the stairs . . . I assume Carlisle is there in his study. He either hasn't heard the doorbell or doesn't care to know who it is. Now that we're inside I can see just how much the years have changed Esme. The lines around her temples and forehead tell the story of time. Watching a child die is a terrible thing. She certainly looks older. "You're all grown up, Bella," she murmurs. "So beautiful." I don't know what to say to that, but I offer a small smile. Then her arms move hesitantlyshe reaches out, then pulls back, not sure if I want her to touch me. I don't make any move toward her and she fists her hands at her side, her gaze alighting on the stairs once more. She seems nervous, a bird about to take flight. "Is he home?" Edward's voice is cold and Esme starts. It's so unlike him. "Yes. Just. I . . . we've been calling you, sweetheart. If you could understand how hard . . . I was so worried . . ."

"Save it, please. You know why we're here." I can't help but cringe a little at the way he's speaking to herhow angry he is. Of course he has every right to be if what we fear is true. Esme nods and swallows, playing a little with the gold buttons on her cardigan. "Sweetheart" "Let's just cut the crap, shall we?" Edward says. "Bella and I came for answers." "Esme?" Carlisle's voice sounds from the top of the stairs before Esme can reply. "Who's there?" "Please come downstairs," she calls back. "It's Edward." There's nothing for a moment, then the thumping sound of footsteps on the stairs. When Carlisle comes into view, I almost don't recognize him. His once blonde hair has lightened considerablyit's nearly white, accentuated even further by the crisp white button down he's wearing. When his eyes land on Edward and me, he freezes on the stairs. There's none of the same surprise there, as with Esme. His green eyes, so like Edward's, are unreadable; they stay trained on us while he completes his descent. "Edward," he says, rounding the banister. "Your mother told me you'd spoken. But I didn't expect . . We've been trying . . ." His words break off as he notices our hands for the first time. "Bella. How good to see you." There's a calculated, measured calm to his voicetoo practiced to be real. When we were young, something about him always intimidated me, though he never seemed to be around much. Just like in Edward's story. Always working, not involved in his children's lives except to dole out punishment. How I hated him when he refused to listen to Edward about the pot. "Likewise," I manage. Edward pulls me closer to him. "What a small world," Carlisle replies, smiling now and extending his hand. I don't take it, less from the desire to be rude than from being entirely overwhelmed by the situation. "I guess so."

His demeanor falters for a second and he pauses, glancing between the three of us. For a second, the air is thick with weighty silence. "Esme tells me you're a student at Chicago. In Edward's class." "Yes." "How fascinating," he murmurs. "After all this time." "You never expected it, did you?" Edward's sharp interjection causes Carlisle to flinch visibly. "Son, please . . ." "Come into the living room," Esme says in a pleading tone. "Will you? Just come and sit down for a minute, sweetheart, Bella. Would you like anything? Are you hungry?" "No, we're not." Edward answers for us both. With my stomach roiling and all the tension I couldn't eat a thing, despite the delicious smells in the air. "There's something you're not telling us and we want the goddamn truth!" "Please," I add, my voice a whisper. Esme glances at Carlisle but I can't read their silent communion. She gestures at the door to the living room. I don't recognize any of the furnishings. As always, Esme's design sense is impeccable. Plush beige carpeting gives softly under my boots and I momentarily wonder if I should've taken them off. The room itself is cast in a soft yellow glow from an overhead hanging light fixturealmost, but not quite, a chandelier. I look hesitantly at the twin deep red sofas facing one another before Edward moves toward the one on the left. A solid dark wood coffee table bridges the gap between them. How I loved coming here as a child, everything always clean, new, and nice. But it was more than thatit was a home, filled with life. A family. Edward and Alice bickering, Esme upstairs drafting plans. It's so quiet now, save for the ticking of a handsome pendulum clock hanging on the far wall. The setting would actually be quite lovely if it wasn't for the task at hand.

"Edward," Esme begins, settling down across from us. Carlisle stands for a second before sitting next to her. It's difficult to determine which one of them looks more uncomfortable. "Where are the letters?" Edward demands. He lets go of my hand and leans forward in a challenging posture. I immediately regret the loss of my anchor, so I sit on the backs of my hands to keep them from trembling. When Carlisle speaks next his voice is tired. "Son, I understand you're upset. But" "Upset?" Edward snaps, his eyes livid. "I swear to God you better tell me what the hell is going on. I'm a whole helluva lot more than 'upset' right now." Carlisle's eyes widen infinitesimally and Esme gives her husband a hard stare. "Tell your son, Carlisle." I'm surprised by her authoritative tone . . . not much like the sweet and docile Esme I once knew. "They're going to find out, or hate us either way." So there is something they've been hiding. I'm actually surprised they appear willing to talkI feared that once we got here we'd only get more lies. But perhaps they understand their cause is lost. Carlisle sighs, rubbing his hands over his face. "I was only trying to do what I thought was right." "Don't tell me," Esme says with exasperation. "Tell them." "Well someone better start talking, or else Bella and I are walking out that door and never coming back." Esme's already pale face blanches at Edward's statement. Her obvious, quiet desperation makes me feel sorry for her despite everything. A suffocating silence ensues, and I have to remind myself to breathe. Then Carlisle speaks again. "Can I just ask that you hear me out?" Neither of us replies, which he takes as a cue to go on. "From the beginning," Edward snaps.

"Bella." Carlisle turns to me with a grave expression. "When you were a little girl, Esme and I were very . . . concerned for you and your mother. I'm not sure if you know this, but we tried on several occasions to get her help. But state laws are designed to shield the rights of the mentally ill, as they should be. It's very difficult to get someone involuntarily committed unless they're a danger to themselves or othersand proving that it nearly impossible unless the person makes an attempt on their life or threatens someone else." This is something I've learnedonce I was in college, I became obsessed with researching Bipolar disorder, both to better understand it and to determine if I had any of the symptoms. Though laws vary state-to-state, most are very protective of patients' rights. "I could get into the history of why this is the case, but suffice it to say it has to do with how horribly the mentally ill were once treated in this countrylocked away by their families with no legal recourse. As a doctor I've heard terrible things. So advocates lobbied for stricter, more protective lawsand of course this is generally a good thing. But in some cases, unfortunately, these same laws have made it more difficult to get people like your mother treatment." I nod and swallow, feeling ill. The irony of it all is too muchif a person doesn't want to be treated they have every right not to beI know all too well the burden and stress this places on families. All I wanted was for her to take her medicine and be all right, but she wouldn't. She just wouldn't. What I didn't know was they'd tried to help her. At this moment I don't know whether to be grateful or to scoff at their failed efforts. Edward takes my hand again and squeezes softly and I move more closely to him on the couch. "But then there was you, a child in a bad home environment. The reality is that with parental rights and the strict mental health laws, children slip though the cracks every day. And added to the fact the foster care system is already overburdened, there's always the chance a child will be placed in a living situation even worse than the one they were removed from." Yes, and there it was . . . my deepest fear. To be taken away to foster care and never see Edward again. Another irony. I can't suppress a sarcastic smirk. Carlisle smiles sadly and runs his hands along his thighs, leaning back in the chair. From this angle he looks so much like Edward . . . but I see Alice, too,

in both of them. How differently our lives might have turned out if she had lived. "Esme and I discussed it, and disagreed, many times. She wanted you to come to live with us. We didn't know you had a guardian or any other family, and really no legal way of finding out. And then your mother seemed to be doing better. We had no idea the situation had gotten out of hand again." "I'm so sorry, Bella," Esme whispers. "We waited too long." I cringe, thinking of how I'd wanted to keep it secret . . . how I made Edward promise. Now the burden of guilt lies distributed across all of our shoulders. Esme's face is all concern. "You could have come to us." "I was ashamed," I say to the floor. Edward presses a kiss against the side of my head and murmurs in my ear. "You have no reason to be. Ever." I blush at the intimate gesture and Carlisle clears his throat. When I glance up I notice both parents watching us with careful expressions; they're still trying to figure out what we are to each other now. Well, it's probably pretty obvious now. Hand-holding can always be explained away, but not a kiss. Carlisle hesitates before continuing. "We also had no idea that you and Edward were . . . involved." Edward sneaks his arm around my waist, giving them even more confirmation that what's past is present. "I thought there might be something going on, but I wasn't sure. I didn't say anything to Carlisle," Esme confesses. "Of course once you were injured, Bella, the situation became more complicated," Carlisle says. My heartbeat picks up and Edward rubs my arm lightly. Please please please don't make me relive this. Thankfully, he doesn't dwell on the events of that fateful night. "The authorities alerted Billy Black and he flew in immediately with his son. I met with him on several occasions and those meetings put my mind at ease. I knew he'd be a good caretaker, and he was eager to do it. He told me all about his friendship with your father.

"But I'm getting ahead of myself. After the fire, Edward . . ." Carlisle focuses his gaze on his son. "Edward was . . . inconsolable." I have a feeling he's leaving something out as Edward stiffens beside me. I remember our conversation in my apartment that first night he'd come. He said he couldn't bear to come back to the hospital after that first daya betrayal that still stings, though I understand it now. If I'd been in his position at that time in my life . . . "We were so worried," Esme interjects, her eyes seeking mine out. "Edward blamed himself for the fire . . . That's when my suspicions were confirmed that he had a romantic attachment to you." Attachment. The word seems hardly sufficient to describe what he was to me. "Alice was so adamant we fight to keep you," she whispers. "We should have. I know that now." "But you were so young, both of you," Carlisle says. "I was worried for Edward's sake, for yours. Afraid that your treatment would put too much of a strain on himI didn't know how he'd deal with it if it didn't go well. And your relationship, to be honest I disapprovedBella, you were just barely fourteen. I had to do what was best for my son. And I'm sorry if this sounds callous, but a relationship with a much younger, seriously injured young lady wasn't in his best interest." Carlisle's words cut me to the quick. He saw me as damaged goods perhaps he still does. Edward squeezes my shoulders and from his profile I can discern the pulsing of his jaw. "That wasn't your decision to make," he grits out between clenched teeth. "It was. I'm your father, and I was doing what I saw fit." "I was sixteen, not a goddamn child." "That very well may be, but you were in no state to make decisions." No state to . . . Oh Edward, what happened to you? He's about to reply but Carlisle cuts him off. "Billy would have taken her whether or not we consentedhe was granted the legal right. But yes. I

discussed the situation with Billy. He was quite alarmed, much more so than even I was, by your relationship. He wanted an immediate end to it. From his perspective, Bella needed time to heal away from Elgin, without all of the memories of this place. We decided a fresh start for both of you was the right thing to do for everyone involved." Of course Billy would have been completely freaked out by Edward and me. "But both of us knew that would be impossible if communication between the two of you continued. Billy had the idea of intercepting any letters and screening any calls that might come through, and I confess I thought it was a good plan." So it was the two of them working together! "Billy has the letters?" I choke out . . . this confirms all of my worst fears. He's kept them from me all these years. Carlisle nods. "I assume he disposed of them, but I don't know. I never thought to ask, and I haven't spoken with him in quite some time." It hurts so much-the thought that all of those years the Cullens were so close, only a phone call away. Billy and Carlisle talking, who knows how often, while I suffered and suffered for my own good. "I didn't know any of this," Esme says, casting a hard glance at Carlisle. "I agreed to let Bella go, but your father never told me about this no contact agreement. I didn't find out until just before . . ." She trails off and looks down at her hands. Just before Alice died. Poor Esme. Carlisle's eyes soften as they consider his wife. He places his hand tentatively on her shoulder and she covers it with her own. She's forgiven him. Still my mind is reeling from Carlisle's words. It's out . . . there's no going back to the way things were. Not anymore. Hot tears prick at the corner of my eyes but I fight them. They won't see me cry. "Then what?" I ask hoarsely. "So I arranged care for you in Seattle with a friend, a top reconstructive surgeon." "Doctor Banner." I remember him wellhis kind smile and perfect white teeth. I haven't seen him in years but I've often thought about him. I wonder if he knew about any of this. Probably not.

"Yes. Richard is one of the best. So you were transferred, Bella, and even though my children were upset, I figured we'd all move on in a couple of months when they didn't hear from you." "How dare you," Edward seethes. "Please. Let me finish. Eventually I saw how wrong I'd beenneither you nor Alice gave up so easily. I must say I admired you both for your perseverance. You kept writing, and asking us about her, and I kept deflecting, hoping you'd eventually give up. But I underestimated you. You proved me wrong." "What about when Alice got sick?" I ask, surprised at the strength in my voice. "How could you have kept us apart? She died thinking I never wanted to talk to her again, and I . . . I never got the chance to say goodbye." Just like Renee. Just like Renee. Oh, sweet Alice. The tears come whether I want them to or not. I can't control them anymore. Esme presses her hand to her face, but her concern does nothing to allay the ache in my chest . . . the ache she helped put there. "Shhh," Edward whispers in my ear, bringing my head to his chest. I'm so embarrassed to be reacting like this. I close my eyes. "When Alice got sick, and I saw neither of you were giving up . . ." Carlisle's voice infiltrates my thoughts and I force myself to listen, even though I'd rather block him out. "I talked to Billy. I told him I'd made a mistake, that the plan wasn't working . . . and that my daughter was very ill. "But Billy was firm. Bella wasn't doing well . . . she was so upset about her mother. He didn't want to add to her burden. He said the psychologist she was seeing thought she was dangerously fragile. So he said no." No no no. The words echo in my ears. It was Billy . . . Billy who kept me from saying goodbye? Oh no. I squeeze my eyes tighter, startled when I feel the eruption of anger from Edward's chest. "I can't fucking believe this! Why didn't you tell me and Alice?" I lift my head again, wanting to see Carlisle's reaction. His face is studiously impassive, but I think I might detect a faint blush of shame.

"What good would it have done? He didn't want you to see her, Edward. He didn't want her to know about Alice. If I told you that, you never would have gotten over it." "I would have gone to her." "And then what? Stolen her away? Be reasonable. You were always so impulsive as a child. When you took the car to drive cross-country, your mother was beside herself. " "I would have found you," Edward whispers in my ear. I nod, alarmed by Carlisle's next statement. "You would have gotten arrested." "That's bullshit and you know it. You were covering your own ass. You didn't want us to know you'd fucked up, isn't that it? I mean, you didn't even tell Mom? God, what a fucking coward." "Is it wrong that I didn't want to lose my family?" Carlisle shoots back. "I almost did as it is." "The separation . . ." Edward questions, looking between the two of them. Esme frowns a little and rubs her forehead. "I overheard your father talking to Billy one day. I'd picked up the phone to make a call, but they were talking . . . it was just before Alice . . . it was when we brought her home." "Yes," Carlisle says again. "That's how she found out." "I couldn't believe he'd done it. All that time, I felt something wasn't quite right, but I was so caught up with Alice . . . I'm sorry, Bella. I thought you'd moved on with your life. I should have known better." Esme's voice is soft, wavering slightly. I can barely make out her words. Edward mutters something under his breath, his eyes cast in a steady glare. "The two of you lied to me . . . all these fucking years. I can't believe it. I can't fucking believe it." He stands up suddenly and runs his hands through his hair, pulling at it. I can't get a good look at his face, but he's livid. I can't decide what's worse, the original betrayal or the fact they'd kept it a secret all this time. I want to reach out towards him, but he's pacing the room.

"What the hell am I saying? Yes I can. You obviously never gave a damn about how I felt. About Bella, Alice, anything. All those fucking years and the two of you were so caught up in your own shit you didn't notice what was going on with me." His voice gets louder and for a second I worry that he'll actually strike out at his father. That fear seems to resonate with Carlisle as well. He flinches backwards as Edward approaches. Esme sits with tears streaming down her face as her son's wordsangry and full of painsink in. But I could care less at this moment how she feels. My heart breaks for Edward but there's nothing I can do. His words come in fragments, choppy bits of rage and sorrow. I can't even follow some of what he's saying. "I thought Bella hated me for leaving her there in the hospital. I wrote her those letters . . . it was all . . . You never said so, but I knew, I knew, you were disappointed in me for not being able to donate for Alice. "Edward, no!" Esme says in shocked wonderment. "And Bella . . ." he says, turning on Carlisle again. "You thought it was just some teen romance, well fuck you. I loved her. I still fucking love her. And you were so goddamn selfish. Too worried I'd be pissed at you to see what you were doing was far worse." "I already lost my daughter. I didn't want to lose my son," Carlisle whispers. "Too late. You already did."

A/N: Whoa. Thank you for your patience in sticking with me during this whole letters debacle and for continuing to pimp, rec, and read this story. You're my reminder that people in this fandom are awesome. I was a little nervous about this chapter, so I'd love to hear from you! Perhaps now is a good time to check out the Twilighted forum? http:/www(dot)twilighted(dot)net/forum/viewtopic(dot)php?f=44 &t=13373&start=1060 Voting for the Inspired Awards is now going on. AQF is nom'd for Best Rosalie: Check it out and vote! http:/inspiredfanficawards(dot)blogspot(dot)com/?zx=b971b48538 3099a0

Last, I will be out of town next week and without internet access, so updates for both this story and Strange Brew will not post until next weekend at the earliest. Thanks for your understanding! "I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for their religion I have shudder'd at it. I shudder no more. I could be martyr'd for my religion Love is my religion And I could die for that. I could die for you." -John Keats

Chapter 25: November 13th, 2010 "Don't go. Edward, please. Bella, I'm so sorry." So so sorry. Esme's words ring in my ears as I drive through the thickening darkness, a slight drizzle obscuring my view. I turn the windshield wipers on and focus on the road ahead. My heartbeat won't settle and I can't bear to look at Edward in the passenger's seat. It hurts too much to see him like this, even worse than my pain. He hasn't spoken a word since we got back in the truck and I don't know how to reach out to him, how to deal with any of this. I'm afraid if I say the wrong thing he'll snapperhaps the silence is the only thing keeping him together. He'll talk when he's ready. Calm, Bella. Stay calm. I have to get us home in one piece. I breathe deeply and try not to think, but my mind has always been a traitorous organ. It never lets me forget, and the quiet in the cab only encourages remembering. Carlisle's faceashen when he hears Edward's parting words. Maybe it's the first time in his life he really listens. "I'm sorry, son."

Edward stands in the doorway, not blinking when Carlisle says the words. Hurt flashes briefly before it disappears, replaced with a cold, impassive stare. His words, too, are like ice. "It's too late for apologies. And anyway, you're only sorry because you got caught." "I know you don't believe me, but I am. More sorry than you'll ever know." He's only middle-aged, but in this moment he seems an old man worn by time and guilt. "Too fucking bad." Edward nearly spits out the words and in that moment, despite what they've done, the disappointment and sadness they've caused, I feel sorry for them. The rage he feels is for Alice tooI wonder if it will ever be surmountable. "Edward," Esme calls after us, her tears flowing freely now. Edward's hand grips mine tightly as I trail after him, trying to get a handle on all that's happened. "You don't mean that. You don't." He turns on his parents, standing in the doorway. Esme clutches at his sleeve and Edward pulls back as if he's been burned. "It's too late." Esme's hand flutters to her heart and she buckles over, Carlisle moving quickly to steady her. The finality of Edward's statement hangs resolutely in the air as we walk down the brick path towards my truck, leaving them both behind. I didn't even get a chance to say anything to them. I didn't know what to say. All of the lies, all of the deceptionand what was at the heart of it? Me. They felt I was bad for their sonbad enough to send away to live with people I didn't know, despite the historical connection between our families. The Cullens didn't want to deal with me. Too young. Damaged goods. Damaged. And they're right. Edward hasn't seen my scars. How will he react when he does? He says I'm beautiful to him, but how can that not change when he sees? How will I ever know he's telling the truth and not just saying he doesn't care to placate me? Or worsepity me. Will I survive seeing revulsion replace love in his eyes?

I fiddle with the radio, tuning it to an alternative rock station that I know Edward likes. As the sounds of the Stone Temple Pilots fill the silent cab, I try to push the poisonous thoughts away, only to have equally virulent ones replace them. Billy's betrayal hurts so acutely, more so than it did before. He knew she was dying. He knew and he forbade me to see hermy best friend! I try to recall how I was after the accident. A lot of that time is a blur, thankfully. I remember meeting with the therapist and telling her about my friends and how much I missed them. She listened sympathetically but I knew even then she thought it was a lost cause. Hot tears threaten to blind me, but I wipe them away, feeling anger build in my chest. All the guilt I've felt about doubting Billy has vanishednow I'm sick at myself. How easily I'd trusted him, let him fill the place in my heart left vacant by Renee, Edward, and Alice. A child so desperate for love that I clung on to any affection that was thrown my way, even if it was a poor and unworthy substitute. It was all a lie. A twisted, perverse manipulation of lives justified under the guise of parental concern. And what of our lettershad he read them? Thrown them away? Either option is unforgivable, but the former seems worse. The thought that Billy could have been privy to all of Edward's secrets, all of Alice's, meant for me but never receivedhow could he? And Jacob. Something in me still refuses to believe he had a hand in all of this. It was always Billy who mailed my letters when he went to town for work, and who picked up our mail from the post office in town. Surely Billy wouldn't have included Jacob, only four months younger than me, in such a deception. Would he? Jacob had always been my confidant, the one who listened to me when I needed to talk about Renee. He himself had never known his mother, since she died in childbirth, but I know he always felt that lack too. It was one of the reasons we bonded so easily. He showed me a picture once of our mothers together, both so young. Mary Ann was Quileute and beautiful with dark hair and complexion distinct from Renee's fairness; side-by-side, the two women created a lovely study in contrasts. "She's lovely, Jacob," I say, but I can't tear my eyes away from my own mother. I drink her in eagerly, my eyes memorizing every tendril of hair. The two of us are seated on his bedroom floor after school looking through old photo albums. There are many pictures of my parents that I've never

seen before, both together and with Billy and his wife. What's startling is that all of them are not much older than we are now. Billy never looks at the pictures or speaks of her. I think, even after all these years, he still loves her. Jacob smiles wistfully. "I wish I knew her." I wish that for him, too. No, he couldn't have known. He wouldn't have done that to me. I repeat the words like a mantra, willing them to be true, but I don't know what to believe anymore. And Edward. What happened to him after the fire? Both he, and now his parents, have hinted at things I'm not sure I want to know about. He's so quiet. I chance a glance at him, but his face is turned away, his leg bouncing again with nervous energy. Thankfully, our exit finally appears. I pull off just as the rain begins in earnest, wanting so much for him to speak to me. I can only imagine the state of his mind right now. A few minutes later I pull up into my lot and still the engine. It's only eight o'clock but every joint in my body aches with tiredness. "Edward?" Rain drums steadily on the roof of my truck, nearly drowning out my whisper, but he must hear. He turns and looks at me with red-rimmed green eyes. I realize suddenly that's why he's been looking awayhe didn't want me to see him cry. "I'm sorry," he says softly, extending his hand to my face. Just a soft touch against my cheek, but it's enough to unleash all the tension in my body. I sag against the seat, leaning my head back on the stiff fake leather upholstery and gazing at the ceiling. I can feel his eyes trained on my face, waiting for my response. "For what? You have nothing to apologize for." "I do. For them. For what they said. What they did. I'm so fucking sorry." "It wasn't your fault." "I'm so ashamed of them." "This is so . . . fucked up."

Edward lets out a staccato laugh at my languageI rarely swear. But there's no other way to describe this situation. It really is fucked up. Then Edward leans over and unfastens my seatbelt, pulling me across the seat into his lap. I feel dampness on his shirt when I lean my head against his chest and the warmth of his breath in my hair. His comforting smell surrounds me, soothing away some of the tension. When he speaks again, the words rumble from his chest. "I can't believe him. And her. I can't believe she kept his fucking secret and took him back. She could have told me." In some ways I understand Esme's actions, though I couldn't tell Edward that at this moment. It must have been such a difficult decision with Alice dyinghow horrible it would have been to find out that her father had lied to her for over a year? But there's no excuse for not telling Edward or for neglecting him when he clearly needed his parents. Despicable. I nod, smiling despite the situation when his warm lips press to my forehead. However, my smile quickly fades when I remember what Carlisle intimated. Edward was . . . inconsolable. I don't know if he'll tell me or not, but I want him to know it's okay . . . it's okay for him to tell me. "Can I ask you a question?" He nods, but I feel his body tense underneath me, bracing for it. "What really happened . . . after the fire, with you? It's just . . . you don't have to tell me . . . but you can, if you want." Edward sighs and tightens his hold, burying his face in my hair. "I'd like to tell you. But I'm ashamed." "You don't have to be." "I'm not proud of it." I turn to face him, noting the discomfort in his expression. I don't want to make him feel worse, so I stay silent, surprised when he goes on.

"I was fucking depressed, Bella. Seeing you like that . . . knowing I was to blame. I couldn't bear it. I felt so fucking weak and useless. I should have protected you, but I didn't." "But it wasn't" "I know we've been over this, but I can't help how I felt. Right or wrong, I felt responsible." "You don't still feel that way, do you?" I whisper. He doesn't answer me directly, but the guilt is written all over him. "So yeah. I thought you should go, that you shouldn't . . . be around me anymore. But it killed me. And then when you left and there was nothing I could do to make it right . . . I went to school, but I dropped out of baseball." He pauses, his voice heavy and tired. Hearing that me so sad . . . he'd loved being on the team. "My grades slipped. I pretty much didn't do anything but sit in my room like a fucking zombie. Then I took the car to go find you and my parents flipped. They tried to get me to see a shrink but I wouldn't. One day, just before we found out about Alice, I overheard my parents talking. They were discussing optionseven hospitalization. That's when I learned I had to hide it." "What do you mean?" I ask hoarsely. "I mean I realized if I didn't, I'd end up in . . ." he trails off, shaking his head. The conversation conjures memories of my mother, her resistance to undergo treatment for her illness. I can understand his fear to some extent, but he needed help. He sighs before continuing. "So I started going out again, acting more normally. My parents bought it. Alice knew there was something wrong, but after she got sick I hid it from her, too." "Hid what?" "You're not gonna like it." "Tell me." "Do you remember James?"

I nod, my surprise giving way to anger and revulsion. I'll never forget his sneer, the horrible way he treated Edward. "Yeah, well . . . I couldn't get by in school. It was . . . awful. People knew what happened and they treated me differently. And every corner I turned I saw . . . you. I saw our classroom, the one we used to meet in. Remember that?" "Of course." How could I forget? I looked forward to those meetings more than anything else. "I thought I was losing my mind. And by then James was pretty much dealing. I ran into him one day, looking pretty shitty. He started hooking me up." "With what?" I ask, feeling sick. "Well, booze for starters. And then other drugsmostly prescription, but I dabbled in a lot of shit. My parents, well, my mother was gone with Alice. My father was working, and he had no fucking clue. He gave me money for food and I used it, along with my allowance." My breath catches in my throat and I try to control itI don't want him to see me panic. I had no idea it was that bad. How could Esme and Carlisle have been so blind? "I couldn't handle Alice being sick . . . I knew she was going to die. I couldn't donate and she was so fucking weak. It was stupid and clich, but I did it to cope. And I wrote you." "Oh, Edward." I try to take his face in my hands to kiss him, but he doesn't want my sympathy. "Don't," he says hoarsely, looking away. Then he scoffs. "You know what? It's probably for the best you never got those letters. I wrote some pretty horrible stuff." "Did your parents ever find out?" "I got pretty good at hiding it. I stayed clean when they tested my blood for the marrow donation. Later, I think they might have suspected something, but they were so caught up in their own shit they didn't really notice. I was

functional. Kept my grades decent. And I was halfway across the country most of the time, once I went to college." I dread the answer to my next question, but I need to know what I'm dealing with. "Do you still . . ." "No," Edward replies emphatically, cutting me off. "Jasper and Emmett finally knocked some sense into me. They knew what was going on and they called me out. At first I was pissed, but then I went to Italy. It was kinda like a turning point, I guess. I realized that I had to keep living for Alice . . ." He trails off, as if considering how to continue. "I didn't even drink for a while, until last year. I guess I kinda got caught up in it again." I can't help thinking about Kate and the othersthey didn't see Edward had a problem, either. They just fed into it. "Your story, about the solider . . ." "Yeah, it was metaphoric for how I felt. Maybe a little self indulgent," he says with a light chuckle. The soldier leaving lilacs by the grave has always felt autobiographical, but I read it more as Edward's mourning his dead sister . . . perhaps even me. I hadn't even considered that it might have other valences. A choicelife over death. "Why didn't you tell me before?" He shifts underneath me again and I worry his legs are falling asleep, but when I try to clamber off him he won't let me go. "I knew you'd be upset but I thought . . . I don't know. You would think twice about being with me. What you said the other day about my drinking hit a nerve. You're right . . . I shouldn't drink to hide from my problems. Like right now? I really want a fucking drink. And that scares the hell out of me. I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I won't blame you if you don't . . ." "Don't even say it. Don't even think it," I tell him, hugging tighter. He looks so lost and I'm scaredscared I can't help him. I don't know the first thing about alcoholics, if that is indeed what Edward is. Sensing my fear, he kisses the side of my face. "I don't want to be like that anymore, Bella."

"Okay." My mind is spinning, trying so hard to deal with all of today's revelations. He says he doesn't want to be like that, but even I know that's easier said than done. I'm terribly afraid he'll leave tonight and go do something reckless. "I'm not going to be like that anymore." I want to tell him not to make promises, but he's looking at me so seriously, with such determination. I want to believe him. I want him to be okay. "Okay." "I'll show you. I'll show you. If you stick by me, I'll prove I'm worthy of you." His voice wavers, and I can hear the anxiety therehis fear of rejection. "You already are," I assure him, leaning into his chest. The rain continues to fall steadily, but I can hear Edward's heartbeat, firm and strong under his ribs. His lips move against the top of my head and suddenly I'm so aware of his body under me, how alive he is. How thankful I am for that, when apparently it could've gone much differently. Edward not existing . . . I can't even complete the thought. He takes my chin gently and turns my head up, resting it back on the crook of his arm. More lips, this time on mine. I meet his kiss eagerly; what starts gently soon gains intensity. Edward's mouth is simultaneously soft and forceful as I open to him, our tongues meeting each other in a frantic attempt to erase the past few hours. The sounds of need he makes flood my body with desire until soon I'm gasping for breath, pressing against him insistently for more, more. His hands rove down my sides, pulling at my shirt and sliding under. My skin comes alive when his warm palm rubs across my abdomen, then up to cup my breast over my thin lace bra, rubbing, kneading lightly. I feel my nipple harden under his touch and Edward does too, groaning and slipping his hand inside against my skin. He rubs my beaded nipple, heightening my desire. I imagine what it would feel like for him to kiss me there. "So soft," he whispers against my neck, sucking and nipping at the skin under my ear. My mind has gone completely blank except for the feel of his hands and mouth and the firmness under my thighs that I know is his answering response to mine. I moan quietly, not knowing whether to arch

upwards into his hand or downwards against him, wanting both, wanting him never to stop, not caring about anything else. The windows have completely fogged and I'm reminded for an instant of that scene in Titanica ridiculous thought that exits my mind as soon as it enters. I breathe him in deeply, running my hands through his hair and tugging lightly. He likes that and I do it again. His hips lift against mine, seeking friction and without thinking, I run my hand down between my legs to where his hardness lies trapped against his thigh. "God, Bella," he groans in between kisses. "We have to stop." But he doesn't move my hand away when I squeeze him firmly through his jeans. His eyelids flutter closed and I kiss his mouth again, absorbing the short bursts of air he pants. I don't care about anything else anymore. Just Edward. I don't care what this makes me . . . I'm surely a bad person but I don't care. I'll die if he doesn't quell the ache building in my belly and flaming out through my entire body. I make a move to release him but before I can he covers my hand with his own. "Bella," he says again, so lowly, almost a growl. "Come upstairs. Please." I don't know what's come over me, but something seems to have shifted. This day, this momentI don't want to wait anymore. I can feel his need radiating, mingling with mine. My whisper hangs in the air of the cab under the hum of the lightening rain. Edward removes his other hand from my shirt and raises my chin to meet his eyes. Stormy sea-green. I see desire there, and fearand so much love. It hurts. "Please," I say again, unable to keep from squirming in his lap. His eyes dart down with a hungry look to where our hands rest against him, straining and hard. I want to keep him with me always. I see it happen, his surrender. His eyes flicker darkly and he licks his lips, pressing my hand against him more firmly. He groans, leaning into my neck and placing fluttering kisses there. Surrender. Without another word we spill out of the truck onto the wet pavement. Edward surreptitiously adjusts himself then grabs my hand as we run through the downpour. Neither of us has an umbrella and the wind whips the rain against our bodies, the sensation recalling a memory that hits me with startling force. "Bella," Alice laughs, twirling and extending her hands to the sky. "Come out, come out!"

I peek my head out from the door before taking a tentative step outside. The warm summer rain instantly wets my skinit seems so decadent and forbidden to be doing this. But my mom's not home. She'll never have to know. Then I see Edward a little ways off . . . he's standing with his hands in his pockets, a mischievous smile on his face. My secret boyfriend. "Come on!" Alice calls again. Edward's eyes are focused on me and I feel warmer still. Without any more hesitation, I run down the stairs to meet my friends. I let out an exultant laugh as my feet smack against the wet pavement, smiling wider as I hear Edward's deeper chuckle beside me. I wonder if he remembers that long ago summer day. By the time we reach my building, both of us are giggling and soaked through. Edward shakes his head, running his free hand through his wet hair. I have to release him to find my keys, my hands trembling not with nervousness, but with anticipation. I want this. I want this so much. Our sneakers squeak against the linoleum as we hurry up the stairs, hands clasped again. When we're outside of my apartment I fumble with the keys again, dropping them with another curse. Edward laughs as he bends to retrieve them, making quick work of the lock and pulling me inside. He grunts, pressing me against the door with one swift movement and trapping my hands above my head. Now he's the frenzied one, all restraint gone, his thigh anchoring me as he kisses down my neck to the vee of my shirt, nipping at my collarbone. My eyes are cloudy and the room is dark, but I can see his head moving, feel his hot, wet kisses against my rain soaked skin. I'm afraid to speak lest I break the spell between us and let the outside world in. I try to blot out everything but the feel of his lips on my body. Finally, he releases my hands and I slip them down in between the collar of his shirt and his jacket. He seems to understand what I want and helps me; soon the jacket is discarded and so is his shirt. My hands run over the planes of his chest and the light smattering of hair there, not daring to land because I want to touch all of him, all at once. His mouth returns to mine

and I turn my head for a better angle, surprised when I'm suddenly weightless. I squeal out involuntarily and I see the flash of Edward's teeth as he smiles. He strides to the bed with sure steps, my heart stuttering a nervous rhythm as my legs kick helplessly in the air. We'd vowed to wait. I know on some level that doing this is wrong, that I shouldn't be here with him like this, but it doesn't feel wrong to me. I've waited for him forever. I'm tired of denying myself things that I want, letting other people control my destiny. He sets me down softly, so softly, kicking off his shoes and climbing until he rests above me. I'm cold from the rain and I welcome the press of his warm body, wrapping my arms around him as his lips return to mine. Now that my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, I can see him more clearly. His arms are so beautiful, firm, and strong, holding me so gently despite his fervent kisses. The memory returns . . . Later that day Edward and I are down in his basement room. His parents are out and Alice is in the bathroom. Edward pulls out a fresh, dry t-shirt and tosses it over to me. I blush with the garment in my hands, not knowing where I should change. With a little smile, he respectfully turns away. "I won't look," he says softly. I close my eyes and yank the wet shirt over my head, my pulse firing rapidly. It's weird. I want him to look. The press of Edward's hips against mine brings me back to the present moment. Unable to help myself, I whimper and arch up, straining for contact, and I moan when I feel his erection trapped between us. He swivels his hips again, and then backs off, each movement a pleasurable torment. "Mmm." I sigh, clutching at his back.

"Bella?" he whispers. I open my eyes and Edward's face is so close, his expression so intense it takes my breath away. He cradles my head softly between his hands, bending to kiss my cheek with a sweet exhale. "Tell me you're sure about this," he murmurs near my ear, licking and nipping lightly. "I can stop now. But I don't think I can if we go much further." "I'm sure. I'm sure," I pant, loving the feel of his tongue on my neck. He draws my skin into his mouth in sweet, sucking kisses. "I don't want to hurt you," he whispers hoarsely. I can still detect the pain in his voicenothing can blot it out. I want to try. I want him to be happy, to feel pleasure and not pain. I don't want to think of the past anymore. I want a future. A future with him. "You won't. It's okay. Please." He smiles and I have to close my eyes again, unable to bear the sight of his beauty. How can this man love me? I remember a dream I once had . . . a dream that was apparently real. Bella, I'm so sorry. Crying. Someone is touching my hand. I know that touch. I know that voice. I'm so, so sorry, Bella. Wetness on my cheek. Someone is touching me and this time I want it. I know his name. Don't I? I can't remember his name, but I know it. I know the feel of his face against mine. It's Edward. I know it is. He's holding my hand. I'm not alone anymore even in the darkness. I love you, Edward. Please . . . please . . . please. I love you. "I love you, I love you." His voice reverberates against my skin, making it stand up in gooseflesh as he pulls my wet shirt up over my belly, planting featherlight kisses as he goes. I struggle to help him lift it over my head. When it's discarded, he unfastens my bra deftly, flinging it away before I can catch my breath. Then I'm bare before him from the waist up. I'm not ashamed of this part of my body, and so when his eyes rake over my breasts and stomach, desire plain there, I revel in it.

But I'm nervous, knowing that even in the dark my scars will be visible. I want to hide under the sheet before he goes farther. I want to make him promise not to look at the rest of me. "So beautiful," Edward murmurs, bending his head to do what I imagined before. His full mouth takes my nipple inside and I groan at the soft, wet pulling sensation. His hands move over my body, warming me as his tongue swirls each peak taut. I clutch at him and bite my lip, delighting in the feel of solid muscle under my palms. When he reaches for my zipper, I freeze. "Don't be afraid.," Edward says breathlessly. "We don't have to do this." I can tell that the last few words are painful for him to say; they're painful for me to hear because I'm surely at the point of no return. But still that fear . . . that nagging fear that won't go away. "I'm afraid for you to see." He cups my face in his hand, forcing me to look at him. His eyes are wide, sincere, and full of longing. "Don't be. I love you. Trust me and let me love you." Just the tips of his fingers slide under the waistband of my jeans and I gasp with desire, wanting them lower despite my fear. I have to trust him. If I don't, we have no future anyway. I nod my acquiescence, turning my head to the side and closing my eyes. If nothing else, I don't want to see that look in his eyesthat look of disgust that will surely flit across his face, if only for a second. Edward's mouth returns to my left nipple, then lower, lightly kissing the concave curve of my belly, just under my ribs. It's a ticklish spot, but I gasp when his mouth opens and his warm tongue sweeps out, leaving a trail of hot, then cold wetness. It drives me to distraction so that I barely notice when he returns to my zipper, slowly lowering it. My jeans fit snugly because of the rain, though, so I have to move to help him slide them off my hips. He pulls off my underwear too, tossing the wet clothes somewhere into the darkness. Then, he curses and I feel the bed move underneath me as he fumbles with his belt. The awareness that we're both fully naked makes my whole body blush despite the cool air of the room. I keep my eyes shut, wanting him to say

something, anything. He doesn't though, and I bite my lip, sure that my pulse is visible everywhere but still afraid to open my eyes. "You're so beautiful," he murmurs, running his hand down along my side. And then he's touching me everywhere, his mouth trailing down my abdomen to my hipbone, breathing lightly over my sex before planting a light kiss there. But he doesn't pause for long, instead he moves lower, parting my legs and kissing the inside of my thighs . . . and lower. I know that even in the darkness he'll see the irregular flesh on my left knee, the mottled skin on my calf. I gasp, feeling his mouth there, just where smoothness meets scar tissue. He kisses, sweeps his tongue out, and I feel the light tickle of stubble even through the nerve damage. I wait for him to pull back, for him to make a sound that indicates disapproval, but there's nothing, just a moan of pleasure as he kisses again and again, paying equal attention to my scars and the rest of me. His hands are so warm, and his mouth so soft I feel myself relaxing, reveling in the fact that he's neither ignoring nor focusing on my damaged parts. A couple drops of water fall from his wet hair, shocking the heated skin of my inner thigh and leaving a tingling, cool trail that he follows with his tongue. He murmurs against my skin and the pleasant vibration ripples through my body. I feel exposed, vulnerable, but safe at the same time. Whole. I feel whole. I open my eyes just as he moves in between my legs, spreading them with a look of intense desire. My breath quickens as I finally allow myself to see his entire form. He's nearly perfect, at least to meI greedily drink in his broad shoulders and chest, narrow hips and strong thighs. And that part of him I've never seenonly felt and wanted to feel, juts thickly from between them, its size both daunting and fascinating. Edward smirks a little, cocking his head and I blush, embarrassed to be caught staring. He chuckles lightly, his eyes dancing with mirth and desire, and I know it's okay. He wants me to look. Some instinctual desire makes me long to touch and stroke him, but Edward seems to have other plans. He nudges my knees wider, placing his hands on my inner thighs and bending down to kiss me again, so lightly, then again, all the time teasing with small kisses at the crease of my thigh, the top of my sex. I lift my hips and whimper when he pulls away, a devilish grin on his face. I've never been open like this before and I worry momentarily about how I look, how I smell, afraid I'm too wet and that he'll be disgusted. Maybe I should have shaved?

Seeming to sense my nervousness, Edward whispers comforting words, his hands gently caressing my thighs, working them further apart. I gasp and lurch off the bed again when his mouth finally covers me, his warm lips sucking and pulling and driving me out of my mind. Never in my life have I felt such intense pleasureall worries and fears instantly flee and there's nothing but Edward's mouth and his hands, his long finger lightly teasing my entrance before sliding inside. I take it easily, wanting more, bucking my hips against his face wantonly as he secures me with his other hand pressing lightly on my belly. There's so much sensation everywhere, I feel utterly and completely consumed by him, wetter and hotter than I've ever been before. But I want more. I want to touch him. Trying to express my desire, I pull uselessly at his hair, his head, but he ignores me, so intent on his task. I feel that pull from deep inside my belly, he won't let me go, he's merciless, making me give him everything, everything until I clamp my thighs around his head, crying out as my release overtakes me. As I come down, I realize I'm chanting his name incoherently, awash in the sensation of his fingers and his mouth still rubbing me lightly, not letting me completely relax. I pull on him again and this time he relents, sliding up my body to lay over me. I'm all too aware of his erection between my legs, so close. I reach my hand down and slide my hand over his silky skin, loving the contrast of softness and hardness, the way he groans into the side of my neck as I rub him again. "That feels good," he murmurs, thrusting his hips lightly into my grip. Frankly, his size intimidates me, but it's strange how I want to feel it stretch me . . . how much I want it inside. But of course there's the matter of protection. I'm not on the pill and I certainly don't have any condoms. I can only hope to God that Edward has one. "Umm . . ." I say hesitantly. "I don't have any condoms." Edward nods his understanding, kissing under my ear again. "I have one," he admits. I don't want to know why . . . who he was planning on using it with. I try to clear my mind as he rolls of the bed to retrieve it. This is us. Whatever happened in the past now, this is us. He's back in a flash, tucking the foil packet neatly under the pillow. And then he moves over me again, his mouth covering mine. I wrap my arms around his body and pull him tightly against me, enjoying his solid weight and the way his chest hair tickles my body. Finally, I can touch him the way I want. Our hands are greedy, seeking and searching pathways both familiar and

foreign. I discover he likes it when I run my nails over his back, when I touch his pleasantly fuzzy bum. I love when he presses into me, letting me feel his hardness on my leg, on my belly. The kisses he plants on the underside of my bicep send chills up my spine. Some of the things we do make us laughthere are ticklish places that we learn and then respectfully avoid. He doesn't laugh when I take his length into my hand again. He whispers sweet words into my hair, half of which are incomprehensible, drowned out by his trademark soft, wet kisses. It doesn't take long before the need is back, fiercer than it was before. I whimper and arch into him as we writhe together. His eyes seek mine out, asking permission, wanting to know if I'm okay. I nod, reaching toward the pillow. Edward is quicker. I watch fascinated as he removes the condom and rolls it down his length. My eyes widen again, wondering how he'll fit inside. But he touches me again and I feel how wet I am, how ready. "Have you ever been kissed, Bella?" I am shaking my head, blushing. He makes me nervous now in a way he never has before. He's only 15soon to be 16but he seems like so much more of a man to me, the two-year age gap between us expansive. I bite my lip and realize I'm still shaking my head. He chuckles. "Would you like to be?" I almost gasp . . . is Edward asking me . . . if he can kiss me? My throat is dry as I nod, the word struggling to make its way from my brain to my mouth. Yes. YES. And when his lips meet mine it's nothing like how I thought it would be. His mouth is soft and gentle; he brings his hand to my face and cups my cheek softly. It is brief but when he pulls away I am left with a strange sensation, a longing that I've never felt before. Almost without volition, I touch my finger to his lips. Mine tingle. "I wanted to be your first," he says, smiling as he kisses the tip of my finger. "Me too." The words finally come and I know they're true.

"I love you," he whispers gruffly as he positions himself in the darkness, his face only inches from mine. His eyes search my face for any sign of fear or discomfort but I can only nod and push up into him, wanting him inside. My whole body stills in anticipation as I feel just the tip press against me. With restraint that makes his neck muscles strain, he begins to push forward. I immediately feel the stretch and will myself to relax, to let him do it. He pauses, letting out a soft moan as his head drops to my shoulder. "I don't want to hurt you." I can hear the pain and the pleasure in his voice, the need to keep going. His eyes focus on my face, full of intense concentration and desire. Love. "Do it, please. Please." He presses in just a bit further and the pressure builds, becoming somewhat uncomfortable. Edward groans and bites softly at my neck, one hand moving down between us to where we're just barely joined. He rubs my clitoris lightly and I feel my desire begin to build. "God," he pants again. "This is hard. I just want to be inside you so bad." I move then, catching him by surprise, taking him in more fully. The discomfort returns but Edward doesn't stop moving his hand. Then, with a growl from deep within his chest, he pushes again. The pain is sharp as I feel something give way inside me and he's there. All movement ceases. I feel myself stretched and full while he's groaning, telling me how good I feel. I nod against his shoulder, glad he's unable to see my face because at this moment it hurts. Blessedly, he doesn't move, giving me a chance to accommodate him, to relax. "Are you okay?" he asks, his voice strained. His eyes meet mine again, all concern and care. "I think so. Just . . . go easy." He nods kissing my mouth slowly, bracing himself with one arm. I run my hands along his back, welcoming the comfort of his kiss. The hand that stopped moving when he pushed inside starts again and I feel myself grow wetter, expanding around him. The pain recedes until it is only a dull memory, replaced by a need to move, to feel him rub against me. I swivel my hips lightly, testing it out. Edward is inside me.

I can't control the welling of emotionthe stupid tears that fill my eyes. "Bella?" Edward's eyes widen in alarm, but I shake my head and smile, trying to indicate that the tears are happy ones. He touches my face reverently before kissing me again. "I love you so much," I whisper. I don't care if he wanted me to wait to say it. I feel it so acutely I can't stay silent anymore. Today has changed things and for better or worse there's no going back. There will be consequences, but I'll deal with them tomorrow. Right now, it's just us. I look at his face, the emotions playing over itI'm worried I said the wrong thing. But then he smiles a large, triumphant smile and kisses me and I know it's all right. When he begins to move it's with a mutual groan. Our mouths find each other, muffling our noises of pleasure. At first, he's quite gentle, but then he quickens his pace, holding my hips gently and swiveling his pelvis against me with every downward thrust. Gradually, I learn the rhythm, how to move in a way that feels good for us both. It's incredible how effortless it is, how much I crave him inside when he withdraws. "You feel so good," he groans again, his eyes feverish and wild. I can only murmur an incoherent response, spurred on by the sound of our bodies coming together, the noises of desire he makes. He touches me again where we're joined and I feel the pulsing throb, so pleasurable it's almost a pain, building again. Suddenly, without warning, Edward withdraws and flips over on his back, pulling me on top. I lay down and he slips back inside with ease, but I'm not sure what to do. He helps me, guiding my hips up and down as we gradually build rhythm again. In this position, I feel so much more. I find myself grinding down onto him, rubbing that part of me against his public bone. He seems to know what I need, holding me to his chest as my orgasm begins to build. "Do you feel good?" he pants. I nod, embarrassed and needy but unable to stop myself from writhing. He brushes my hair back from my face and kisses my neck and the pressure of him inside of me is too much. I come again with a cry that Edward absorbs into his mouth. Still fluttering around him, he withdraws and moves us back into the original position, moving with more force. His eyes roll back into his head as he pumps erratically, so deep it's nearly painful. But it's a strange, pleasant pain.

The happy tears come again, rolling down my face. My heart feels so stretched and full I can barely contain it. His expression contorts with pleasure and I've never seen him more hauntingly, humanly beautiful. I arch against him, urging him to find his release. "I'm . . . gonna . . . God . . . I'm . . ." he moans a final time and thrusts and I feel himI actually feel him throb inside of me. I kiss his face all over, feeling wetness on my cheek that might be sweat or tears, his or mine. I can't tell and it doesn't matter. Because we're the same. He pants and shudders, holding me tightly to him, and then he's kissing me again, so sweetly, so softly. "Are you okay?" he asks, his brow creased with worry. "Did I hurt you?" He wipes at the wetness under my eyes with the pad of his thumb. "No," I whisper. "I'm okay. I'm better than okay." "Are you sure?" he asks again, running his hands over my neck, my arms, as if trying to account for all my parts. I can't help smiling over his unnecessary concern. "Yes, silly." He sighs, seemingly satisfied, his expression lightening, drawing me to his chest and rolling us over so we're facing each other. The movement causes him to slip out of me, which reminds me again that he was inside. The thought brings a smile to my face. He's always been inside me. "What?" Edward regards me curiously. "I'm just happy." "Me too. I'm so fucking happy." He kisses me again, a languid, slow kiss that leaves me quivering. And when he pulls away his eyes shimmer in the darkness. There's so much joy . . . I can't believe that only hours before everything seemed so bleak. A nagging voice tells me that this won't last, but I push the intrusive thoughts away. Because another voice, a more optimistic one, says this is just the beginning. A beginning for us.

"Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs. Being purged a fire sparkling in lovers eyes, being vexed a sea nourished with lovers tears, What is it else? A madness most discreet, A choking gall and a perserving sweet." -William Shakespeare

Chapter 26: November 14-16th 2010 The waters of Two Moon obscured by mist. My footfalls break the silence, snapping twigs underfoot. How I've missed this place. It must be fall. The air is crisp and the needles of the fir trees are crystallized with frozen dew. I take another few steps . . . I know I'm supposed to be looking for something, but I don't know what. It is then that I see her. My mother sits on a large rock overlooking the water, wisps of hair stirring lightly in the slight breeze. As always, she's turned away from me, gazing out over the water. My breath fogs the air as I approach cautiously, not wanting to disturb her solitude but at the same time needing to. It's been so long since I've seen her face. Come sit, baby girl. The words surprise me. I can't tell if they've come from the still figure before me or from inside my own head. I'm dreaming, I suddenly realize. This is just a dream. Then why do I feel so cold? Come sit. I do as she asks, or as my mind encourages, arriving at the boulder and clambering on, feeling the cold slickness of the stone under my legs. Shocked, I look down. I'm wearing shorts and my skin is completely smooth, white. Perfect. I reach out, stroking myself in disbelief.

It's cool today, Bella. You should wear warmer clothes. My mother turns to face me, and I'm overcome by her beauty; it's enough to distract me from the flawless skin of my legs. Her eyes seem different lighter than I remember. She's wrapped in a warm-looking, yet delicate red shawl. Mom. Come. She reaches out, extending the material with her arm. I tuck myself under gratefully, curling up by her side as her arm settles around my back, warm alive. I miss you, Mom. I know, baby girl. I miss you too. Her voice is so sad, so full of longing. It brings tears to my eyes. Is it . . . lonely where you are? She tilts her head to the side, a small smile drawing up the corners of her mouth. No. I have someone waiting for me. Dad? Her smile grows wider and she blushes, looking so young. I . . . I don't want you to go. I cling on tighter to the shawl, clutch at her arm. If I hold tight enough, she won't be able to leave. Or she'll take me with her. Slowly, so slowly, she gently pries herself away, wrapping her shawl around me. You'll be all right, baby. Mom? Mom? You'll be all right.

"Bella, love? Bella?" I blink rapidly at the sound of Edward's voice, focusing on his face. For a second, I have no idea where I am . . . but I know I was dreaming . . . I was in the middle of the most beautiful, sad dream. The emotions it invoked linger even while the images fade, replaced by Edward's concerned gaze. "Edward?" "You scared me," he sighs with relief, drawing me to his shirtless chest. "You were having a nightmare." His chest hair feels rough and delightful against my cheek, my awareness of his body helping me shake off the last remnants of sleep. "Was I?" A blush I can't control erupts on my face, probably everywhere else too. I move my legs; they, like the rest of me, are intertwined with Edward . . . and bare. A slight ache in between them confirms what I'm now remembering in vivid detailthe feel of him pressing me down, entering me . . . the pain and then the incredible euphoria. His face when I told him I loved him. Tentatively, I stretch out my hand, feeling the firm muscles of his stomach, surprised when my hand grazes his erection. I pull away immediately, worried that I'm invading his personal space or something. I know about morning wood, but I've certainly never woken up with it. I'm not exactly sure about the protocol. Edward chuckles and wraps his arms around me more tightly and when I chance a glance at his face again his eyes are full of laughter and . . . something darker. An answering pull stirs in my belly and I move my legs again, luxuriating in the delicious sensation of the way we fit together. "What were you dreaming about?" His question evokes a memory, a feeling . . . I try to grasp onto it, but chasing dreams is always a futile enterprise. I shrug, rubbing my cheek against his chest again. "I don't remember. But I don't think it was a nightmare." "You were crying." "No . . . really?" "I hope it wasn't about me."

"No . . . not about you." His hand runs though my hair lightly. "Okay, good." "Did you sleep all right?" "A little. Mostly I just watched you sleep." "That's creepy, Edward," I joke, poking him lightly in the side. He flinches away with a laugh and covers my hand with his, drawing it up to kiss it and then holding it captive so I can't tickle him. "Maybe so. But I couldn't help it." His revelation makes me smile, though I know his sleeplessness probably more to do with yesterday's dramatic confrontation than anything else. "So you stayed up all night just to watch me?" "I don't think I would have slept no matter what . . . luckily I was here with you." He releases my hand and runs his hands through his hair, making it stick up even more crazily. I don't know whether I should press him or not. "Do you want to talk about it?" I ask finally, giving him a chance to say no. He sighs a little then kisses the top of my head. "I just . . . I was wondering where the hell I go from here, you know?" "Mmm-hmm." It's not the first time in my life I've faced this question . . . and I know it's not for Edward either. His confession last night proved that. "You're probably the only one who does." "So," I start hesitantly, "did you figure anything out?" "One thing. But I already knew it anyway. Wherever I go, I want it to be with you." How does he know how to say those thingsthose perfect things that just make me love him more? I scoot up on the bed a little, so that we're face to face, looking into his sad, green eyes. He looks lonely. Oh, Edward.

"I want that too," I whisper, closing the distance between us, all the while hoping my morning breath isn't too horrible. His lips find mine, warm and gentle. We kiss for a couple of minutes before Edward pulls away again, looking at me with a serious, determined expression. "Bella . . . " "What?" "I want to come with you to Forks." My eyes widen in disbelief as he regards me stoically. Edward coming with me . . . it's alarming . . . and comforting. But I know I have to do this on my own. And the thought of Edward and Jacob together . . . it's not something I want to put either one of them through. Jacob. My guilt flares up againI've betrayed him and he has no idea. But can I regret it? No. I don't. But bringing Edward to Forks would just prod Jacob's wound. I can't be that cruel. "I don't think" "You came with me." "But this is different. I have to talk to Jacob . . . You can't . . ." "I don't mean I'd come with you when you go to talk . . . to him," Edward says, not even able to say his name. "But I could fly with you, stay at a hotel nearby. We . . . we could stay at a hotel." "Edward," I say with a snort. "I don't think you realizethere's one hotel in Forks and it's a dive. Not even truck drivers want to stay at The Lodge." "You can't mean to tell me you really plan on staying with the Blacks?" I consider his question for a secondhe's right. I hadn't given much thought to itbut how can I stay in their house, knowing what I know? And after Jacob and I have our discussion, he probably won't want me there anyway. He'll probably never want to see me again. "Listen. I know this is uncomfortable for you. But I won't feel right if you go on your own. I know you can do it, but I'll go crazy . . . just worrying." "About what? You don't think I'm going to break it off?"

Guilt flashes over his face for a second before dissipating. I know a part of him is worried about that very thing, even after last night, and that hurts. But in some ways I understand . . . Jacob had been very adamant on our phone conversation about making things work. But Edward doesn't know that. How can I tell him now without him completely flying off the handle? "No. About your safety." "Edward, they would never hurt me." "They already have," he replies softly. His words sting, but they're true, at least of Billy. I swallow thickly as worstcase scenarios play in my head but none of them include physical violence. I can't imagine either of them actually hurting me. Edward kisses me again. "Just think about it. Okay? That's all I ask. And remember that Billy's . . . choice affected me too." "I know it did." We lay quietly for a minute as I grapple with Edward's request. I know he does have every right to hear Billy's account first hand, but while I'm not afraid for my own safety, I'm afraid for Edward's. I know that Jacob has a jealous streak and the thought of them getting into a fight . . . But why should I make things easier for Billy? He betrayed both of us. And Alice. And in some ways, even Jacobif he didn't know. The anger that had started growing as the Cullens told their side of the story returns . . . how dare they make these unilateral decisions about our lives? "I'll think about it," I say finally, hugging him again. "Can we just not talk about it now?" "Yes . . . for now." I want to forget about all of this, just be with Edward in our warm blanket cocoon. His face moves closer, his stubble grazing my chin, and I wince back, the skin there still tender from our kisses the night before. "Sorry," he apologizes, thumbing the area lightly. "You're so soft. I should have shaved."

"It's okay." He presses his lips to mine again, and then brushes his cheek against me. "I'll just have to concentrate on . . . other places." His words send a chill through my body as he rolls me over, the look on his face making my heart pick up speed. I can't believe we actually did it . . . and that we could do it again. "Like this place, here," he says, kissing the hollow at the base of my throat. "I don't think this place got enough attention." His tongue darts out, surprising and smooth. Equally unexpected is the way he pulls back the sheets so that I'm exposed from the waist up. I flush, my hands automatically moving to cover my breasts. Edward lightly restrains my hands, forcing them down by my sides so he can see. "Or this place." His mouth moves lower, touching just above the crease of my arm. Wherever his lips touch, tingles. "What about here?" he asks, raising his eyebrows as his fingertips lightly tease my nipple. I inhale sharply as his lips barely graze it, his warm breath washing over my skin. That, combined with the coolness of the room, causes the skin to pucker instantly. "Do you like that?" he asks, kissing again, then again, then sucking it into his mouth. The sensation is intense, pulling some chord deep within my stomach. And lower. "Yes," I manage, barely able to speak. My hips lift unconsciously and Edward chuckles, moving up and between my legs . . . and yes, now I can definitely feel him, firm against my belly. He runs his mouth over my chest again, then up to nibble at my ear. "What are you thinking about?" I don't know why I'm suddenly shy. But I am . . . I feel stupid and girly, and more like a teenager than I've felt . . . well, even when I was a teenager. "Umm . . ." "Bella . . ." His voice is hoarse and needy . . . so sexy. I close my eyes and breathe him in.

"I want you. Please." "Are you sore?" He touches his hand to me and I open my legs further, loving the feel of his fingers on me, wanting more. He slides one in and I gasp, bucking into him. There's a slight soreness, but the ache of wanting him is far, far more painful. Another finger curls inside, and it feels so good. I want all of him . . . it's incredible how much I crave him, strangely primal. "Please . . ." "God . . . don't tempt me." "Why not?" I ask, my eyes widening. Is he rejecting me? "I don't have any more condoms," he groans, his head dropping into the crook of my neck. I know it's a terrible idea to even consider not using protection . . . I know it. But I can't help myself from imagining what it would feel like for him to be inside with nothing between us . . . A little moan escapes me and I writhe against his hand. But then he removes it and I whimper . . . until I feel him against me. He makes a guttural sound and allows his erection to rub between my legs, sliding and creating a delicious friction as he kisses me with a mind-numbing passion. I can only feel tongue and lips and his warm, heavy body covering mine as he passes over me again and again. At one point, his movements become so frenzied that he slips inside . . . just a tiny bit. I feel him start to stretch me before he catches himself with a moan. I know this is wrong but all sanity has fled. I want him to keep going and I don't care. "Jesus . . ." he says panting, pulling back even as I lift my hips to draw him in deeper. "This is so not a good idea. We need to be careful, baby. Here." He touches me again, sliding his fingers back inside. I whimper, raising my hips, struggling to press against him. I gasp against his mouth, feeling the need build, begging him not to stop. He doesn't, murmuring sweet and wicked things in my ear, holding tightly as his fingers move. My entire body is stretched and begging, so warm. I cry out and come, clenching wildly around his fingers, clinging to him with all of my limbs. Yes. Please. He watches with a heated expression on his face as I shake, my body relaxing after a final pulsing shudder. "Beautiful," he murmurs, kissing my neck.

The covers fall around his waist and I look down, seeing how hard he is, how his hips move almost without volition. I reach out and take him in my hand, pumping lightly as he groans a low, throaty sound. He flops over onto his back and puts his hands behind his head, looking at me with questioning eyes. I try again, grasping him and moving from base to tip slowly, then again. Just a whisper . . . yes. A sigh in the air. He bites his lip and I grow bolder. He thrusts against my hand, and I drink it in, his expression, how hard he is, how he seems to grow even more as I stroke him. I kiss his chest and I touch his stomach, feeling the straining, taut muscles against my palm. "Am I doing it right?" I ask him. He gazes me with hooded eyes, gives a hesitant smile. I want to touch him how he likes to be touched. I want to learn. "Show me," I whisper. With eyes that never leave mine, he covers my hand with his, demonstrating how to use the wetness from the tip to make the gliding easier. I catch on pretty quickly, stroking around the top, moving to the bottom, squeezing harder than I thought was okay. There's nothing more erotic than the sight of both of our hands moving together . . . how solid and warm he is underneath. I gain more confidence, stroking more boldly, loving it when his eyes roll back in his head. After a minute or two he releases my hand and clenches his fists by his sides. "Yeah, just like that. Just like that," he gasps. "Jesus." He's losing control and it's a heady feeling. Suddenly, I have an idea. Without breaking rhythm, I lean forward, placing a kiss on the head of his penis. Edward curses, and I reel back, afraid I'm doing something wrong. "Sorry," I say, my tempo faltering. I look at him with wide eyes. "Don't be . . . I . . . uh liked it." There's something so incredibly endearing about his crooked smile, a faint blush coloring his cheeks. It's strange, this place we're in now, both of us unsure . . . tentative, but filled with longing. He has more experience than me, but even though I have no idea what I'm doing, I don't feel bad. This is new for us and I'm not ashamedI feel safe.

"Do you want me to do it again?" His blush grows and he throws his arm over his face . . . I'm teasing him and he knows it. "God, Bella. Are you really gonna make me answer that question?" I shrug, smiling deviously. He groans again and laughs, but it's the sexiest thing I've ever seen. "Is this funny?" I ask. "Not really. Jesus. You're killing me." Taking pity on him, I lean forward again, letting him slip inside my mouth as my hand continues to move. He tastes salty and musky and so like Edward . . . I can smell myself on him, but it's not nearly as weird as I thought it would be . . . I do it again, sucking harderjust the tip. Silky smooth. I try take him in further but I'm not sure what to do, afraid my teeth will scrape him. His skin seems so delicate despite the hardness-so easily breakable. Not wanting to risk it, I concentrate on just the top couple of inches, working my hand around the rest. Edward doesn't seem to mind. He moans, mumbles my name, fists the sheets with his hands, and I know whatever I'm doing is okay. Better than okay. I look up at him through my lashes, watching him as he watches me, the most carnal, desperate look on his face. I feel incredibly powerful and elatedI'm making him feel good, which makes me feel good. I feel myself growing wet again and Edward reaches out, touching me wherever he can my breasts, my neck, my arm. He sweeps my hair back from my face, his hand resting on my shoulder gently, scratching the back of my head, and caressing my cheek. He grunts and moans and I love it . . . I love the sounds he makes. "Faster," he whispers. "You won't hurt me." I comply, my hand working more quickly while I suck and lick . . . I want to see him come in the daylight like this. Seconds later, he's pulling my mouth off of him, dragging me upwards. I feel the warm liquid on my hand as he pulses, shudders. He grunts into my mouth, almost as if in pain, and I give him a final squeeze, careful to release him gently. I can feel his heart pounding under my other hand, the beat gradually slowing along with his breath.

"Bella . . ." he murmurs. "You didn't have to do that." "I wanted to. I liked it." "Well that's awesome," he replies with a boyish grin. I giggle, resting my head on his chest again, my hand still sticky and wet. Suddenly, I have the overwhelming urge to take a shower and brush my teeth, but I've never walked naked in front of anyone before . . . and now that it's light out, he'll be able to see . . . "Hey," he says, touching my face. "Are you okay?" "Yeah. I just . . . I'd like to take a shower." "That sounds like fun," he replies cheekily. "Um . . . yeah. I . . . alone. If that's okay." Edward looks a little disappointed, but nods. "Of course." I move to sit up, my eyes darting around the room to consider how to make it from here to the bathroom. My clothes are pretty far away . . . I could wrap myself in this sheet . . . "Bella?" Edward touches my shoulder. "Yeah?" I turn to him, feeling sheepish. "I've already seen you naked." "Not in the daylight," I whisper. He smiles, kisses my shoulder. "And how unfortunate is that?" "Edward . . ." "If you don't want me to look, just tell me. I won't." He shrugs and I know I'm being stupid. He has already seen . . . I'm just not used to being so . . . exposed. I kiss him then with a fierceness that takes him by surprise. He blinks rapidly as, without another word, I stand and walk to the bathroom.

~QF~ After a run back to his apartment to get some things, and a quick stop at the grocery store for food and . . . other supplies, Edward and I don't leave my apartment for three days. Both of us turn our phones off. We read, cook, and spend a good deal of time in bed. But Tuesday comes all too quickly and with it, reality. I don't want to leave our bubble, but I know it's inevitable. And I keep telling myself it will be all right . . . I'll be with Edward. This is just the beginning, after all. When Rosalie calls in the morning to see if I want to walk to class, I cast a glance over at Edward who is currently standing on one leg, struggling into his jeans. Shirtless and sockless Edward might just be my favorite. He buttons the pants and brushes them off, looking up and smiling when he catches me staring. "Bella? So meet you in fifteen?" "Hmmm?" I say, still blushing. "Were you listening to me?" "I . . . yes. Um . . . fifteen?" "Oh my GOD," she nearly shouts in my ear. "You're not alone, are you?" "No," I admit quietly, all too aware that Edward is shamelessly eavesdropping. "No WONDER Edward wasn't home at all this weekend. I was wondering where the heck you disappeared to, girl. All holed up in your love nest, huh?" "Something like that." I haven't told Rose about our trip to Elgin, but I figure that's a conversation for another day. "Well, I want to hear all about it! Did you tell Jacob? Are you still going to Forks? Oh, shit. I guess you can't really talk right now." Her voice is so loud I'm sure it's nearly audible. "No."

Edward is pretending to look at the books in my bookshelf. I pick up one of his socks from the floor and throw it at him. "Okay, well soon. Jesus. Okay. I'll see you in class then?" "Yeah. We'll . . . I'll see you then." Rose laughs at my slip. "Bye." "Bye." I flip my phone closed and Edward turns to me, smiling mischievously before pulling his shirt over his head. "You're an incredibly nosy person, you know that?" I chide with a grin. "Where you're concerned, yes." "What am I going to do with you?" "Kiss me?" he suggests hopefully, coming closer. "I don't know . . . I think you've had enough kissing." "Nope. I'm pretty sure I'll never have enough." He takes a strand of my hair and tugs it, his eyes light. I tilt my head up and he kisses me softly, and I'm pretty sure I'll never have enough either. "We're going to be late," I say finally, pulling away. "Okay. Okay. William Wordsworth waits for no man," Edward says, referencing the reading we've had to do for this week. "Or woman." He smiles and kisses my nose and we finish gathering our things for class. According to the weather it's a freezing cold day, so I grab a wool hat from my closet and pull it on, ignoring Edward when he laughs at me. "You're so cute," he says. "Shut up."

"Like a little Eskimo." He pulls the fluffy green pom-pom on the top of the hat. I roll my eyes and bat his hand away. "Let's go." And we walk to school together, just like we used to. I'm nervous to face the class, certain that the past few days are written all over my face. Edward assures me it will be fine, ignoring my protests and slinging my bag over his shoulder. Just like he used to. But only now is so much better.

"Love is a sweet tyranny, because the lover endureth his torments willingly." ~Proverb Chapter 27: November 20-24, 2010 "So what are you going to say to him?" Rosalie asks, her wide eyes focused on my face. The two of us are sitting in my apartment after a late Friday afternoon lunch. With both of our busy schedules, today's the first chance we've had to really catch up, and I've been talking her ear off for the past hour and a half. Though I wouldn't have traded the past week with Edward for anything, I've missed my friend. And since Edward had to meet up with Riley and a couple other MFAs to discuss next semester's fiction reading, I figured I better distract myself somehow, knowing in all probability Kate would be there. Even though she and Edward have ceased all regular communication, the thought of him meeting with her still bothers me. I don't trust her. But it's for school, and he doesn't really have a choice. Of course, the other side effect of my somewhat irrational worry has been a newfound understanding of how Edward feels about me meeting with Jacob. On a much different scale, I'm sure. Rosalie takes another sip of her tea and leans back against the couch, waiting for my answer. I sigh and tuck my legs under the afghan we're sharing, feeling the oncoming rush of nervousnessit's been growing more and more acute as the date of the trip approaches. It's a good question. What will I say to Jacob? Last night I barely slept for worrying about it, imagining how the conversation will play out. Obviously I have to talk to Jacob first. I have to

tell him about Edward and the letters, Billy's involvement . . . but will he even believe me? Will I find out he's known all along? "I have to tell him the truth." "Are you going to tell him . . . you know . . . about you and Edward?" She raises her eyebrow to convey her meaning and my face heats, thinking about the last few days. "Well, about us . . . yes. But I don't think he needs to know all the details . . . I don't know. Maybe it's just me being cowardly." "Cowardly or not, I'd say he doesn't need to know details. But you better work on your reactions, babe. The way you're blushing right now is a dead giveaway." "I know." I've never been a good liar, but in this case . . . if Jacob knew about Edward and I having sex . . . I don't know how he'd deal with it. "And are you going to tell Jacob Edward's with you?" "Yeah," I sigh. "I'll have to. Edward wants to talk to Billy." Edward had finally convinced me to come along on the trip. I'd thought long and hard about it, but realized what he said was truehe deserves to hear from Billy firsthand. And the idea of leaving him alone on Thanksgiving is awful, especially given what just happened with the Cullens and his history of turning to alcohol when things go badly. He hasn't been drinking at all this week, but I was afraid of what might happen if I left. And even if that wasn't a factor, it's plain I need him with me. Luckily, he was able to buy a ticket since my flight from Chicago to Port Angeles wasn't fully booked. "But you're going to talk to Jacob alone." I nod, picking at the fuzz on the blanket. "I guess I'm going to drop Edward off at the motel first. But the question is where to go for the talk. I mean, it doesn't feel right to do it in public, but that's what Edward wants me to do. What do you think?" I watch her thoughtful expression as she considers my question. Of course, in typical Rosalie fashion, she turns it back on me. "What do you want to do?"

I shrug. "I don't want to make a scene, you know? Forks is such a small town and the gossips can be pretty cruel. I think it would be best to be alone. I'm sure Jacob won't want all of this broadcasted, and I don't either." "But Edward's worried?" "He thinks Jacob might get violent or something. But he won't. He's not like that." I can't help the pleading tone that creeps into my voice at the endI want her to believe me. Jacob might not be perfect, but he's not a violent person. Rosalie sighs and rubs my arm. "You know him. Edward is just being protective, but I say go with your gut. You need to do what makes you feel most comfortable." "Nothing about this situation makes me comfortable." "I know. But girl, I have to hand it to you . . . the way you're dealing with this is really admirable. I mean, I know the situation is beyond horrible, but you seem so much stronger than you were a month ago. I think it's going to be okay." I shake my head, wanting to agree but unable to be terribly optimistic. "I don't know." When I spoke to Jacob the day before and told him my plan to rent a car at the airport in Port Angeles and drive out to Forks, he hadn't been pleased. Since I'm arriving on Wednesday, and he's working, I persuaded him it was for the best, though I could tell he wasn't entirely happy about the idea. Our conversation in general had been stilted, both of us aware of what he wouldn't let me say. Later, when he passed the phone on to Billy, I almost cried. He was so excited I was coming home for Thanksgiving, so eager to see me. Whatever suspicions or fears Jacob has, he's kept them to himself. "Well," Rosalie says, smiling sadly. "I don't mean to say that it won't be difficult, but you're doing the right thing, Bella." "You think so?" "I do." She nods just as her phone starts ringing. She reaches down to retrieve it from the floor, beaming when she notes the caller ID. "Sorry," she mouths to me. I smile and gesture for her to answer.

"Hello? . . . Yes! Of course . . . I'm at Bella's now. . . . Yeah, seven? . . . I'm excited too." The way she's blushing and smiling, I know the voice on the other end of the line is Emmett's. I stand up and grab our now empty mugs and take them to the kitchen to give her some privacy. A few seconds later, she joins me. "Emmett?" I ask with a knowing smile. "Yeah. We're going to dinner later." She sighs contentedly and I almost want to roll my eyes, but I'm certain I look and sound exactly the same way when I'm thinking about Edward. "You guys coming tonight?" Edward and I had briefly discussed whether or not to go to the release party for Peggy's new book. She'd announced it on Tuesday and invited the whole class even though I'd rather stay home to be with him alone, Edward thought I should go to establish my presence in the department. Since Peggy's my advisor, it makes it even more important I attend. Politics is just as important in graduate school and academia as it is in the business world. "I think so. Are you going with Emmett?" "Yeah, we'll probably stop by for a second just to congratulate her. Maybe we could meet up with you guys there and then go do something?" Before I can answer her, the door opens and Edward walks in, tossing his bag on the floor and ripping off his coat. I can tell by his quick, forceful movements that he's angry. He seems surprised when he notices Rosalie's still here, but quickly composes himself. "Hey," he mutters. "Sorry . . . am I interrupting?" "Hi Edward," Rosalie says, smiling pleasantly. It's amazing the progress the two of them have made in the past few weeks; I know it's out of necessity, but they're getting along better than I ever thought they would. "I was just leaving, actually." She turns to me and squeezes my hand, leaning in for a hug. "Uh-oh," she whispers in my ear, references Edward's sour mood. "You better sort this out. I'll talk to you later about tonight, okay?"

"Sounds good. I'll call you," I reply, noticing Edward's already flopped down onto the sofa, scribbling something maniacally in his notebook. She releases me and says her goodbyes to Edward, which he returns with a half-hearted grunt. As soon as Rosalie's gone, I regard Edward warily. He's been writing a lot these last few days; we all have our own ways of dealing with things and this is his. I know when he gets like this he doesn't like to be interrupted, so I leave him to it, picking up the rest of the dishes left over from mine and Rosalie's lunch and returning to the kitchen. I fill the sink with soapy water and wash our plates, wondering silently what could have happened to make him so upset. In any case, his attitude seems to confirm Kate was there after all. We'd decided that while we're no longer trying to downplay or conceal our relationship, but we're not going to discuss it in public either it's the only way to keep the nosy people in our department out of our business. Edward interrupts my thoughts, his strong arms wrapping around me from behind. After my momentary surprise abates, I lean back against the warmth of his body and revel in the feel of his stubbled jaw nuzzling the side of my face. "Hey," he whispers. I turn my head and notice his rueful expression. "I'm sorry." "It's okay." "Are you mad at me?" "No. I just didn't want to bother you. You looked . . . preoccupied." He kisses my temple and I can smell coffee on his breath; I'm so pleased it's not alcohol. "Yeah. I just had to get something down. I shouldn't have stormed in like that. I should have greeted you properly." With one hand on my hip, he cups my jaw with the other, drawing my lips to his in a slow, sweet kiss. I want to hug him but stop myself when I remember my sudsy hands. Edward gently releases my face and moves behind me, his arms caging me between his body and the sink. He turns on the cool water and takes my

hands in his, rinsing them off and drying them with a nearby dishtowel, a tender gesture that leaves a lump in my throat. Now clean and dry, I lean into him, my arms wending around his back. "I take it didn't go well?" Edward grimaces and shrugs. "It was fine, honestly. I'm just irritated with myself." "Why?" "Because," he sighs. "I'm just realizing some things that I guess I didn't see before or didn't want to see." "Such as?" He rests his chin on my head for a second and I feel completely safe and surrounded by him. "Well, some of the people in this department, they have this perception of writing that just . . . let's just say we don't always see eye to eye. It's like they're here because of the lifestyle, not the art." "You mean they don't take it seriously?" "They do, in their own way. But it's more of an image to them. Grad school offers this extended adolescence; in some ways it's even worse than college because we're older and should know better. Garrett and Kate have this idea of what a writer isand at the heart of it is snobbery. I don't know if that makes any sense." I think about what Rose has said about the posturing hipsters and I nod. "I do . . . I think what you're saying is they're here more for the glamor and prestige of being a writer, more than the writing itself." Edward nods emphatically, his expression thoughtful. "Yeah, exactly. And you can see it in their work, the way they respond negatively to constructive criticism." "They don't want to improve?"

"They can dish it but they can't take it. It's not to say everyone in the department is like that. Carmen isn't . . . she's really good, too." I think about the beautiful girl with the dark eyes and kind smile, wondering how she could ever be friends with someone like Kate. Then again, Edward once considered her his friend as well. That thought is not at all welcome. "So did you guys have a fight or something?" "No," he replies, rubbing my shoulders lightly. "It's not worth it." "Is that the only reason you were upset?" I'm fishing, trying to figure out if there was more to the situation. "You're thinking about Kate?" Edward of course sees right through me, and I blush to be caught so blatantly jealous. "I hardly spoke to her, honestly Bella." He kisses me again, his lips warm with reassurance. Before I know it, his hands are sliding under my shirt and I'm shiveringbut not from cold. When his fingers pull down the cup of my bra and graze my nipple I inhale sharply, feeling the now familiar pull of want between my legs. It's amazing how quickly he grows hard against my hip. "Do you have any other questions?" he murmurs, pinching my flesh between his thumb and forefinger, smiling devilishly when my nipples pucker at his touch. "Um . . . not at the moment." "You know you can ask me anything?" "I do. I trust you." "Okay." He breathes lightly against my cheek before he covers my mouth with his, pressing me up against the counter. I wonder foggily if he'll decide to take me here or in the bed, not caring where, just needing him. Soon, he's pulling at my clothes with determination. I'm equally eager, unbuttoning his jeans and sliding my hand down the front.

"I missed you," he pants, moving his hips lightly as I wrap my hand around his erection. "You were only gone a couple hours." I'm teasing, though secretly pleased at his admission. "It was too long," he whispers against my ear, closing his eyes and running his hands down my now naked sides to grasp my hips. "I agree." He takes me to the bed. We make love slowly. Edward cradles me in his arms, entering me from behind with long, deep strokes. He moans with each thrust, a throaty, guttural sound that makes me writhe against him, seeking more. The position on our sides lends itself to the leisurely pace, but it doesn't give me the friction I desire. Seeming to understand, Edward hitches my leg up and over his thigh, swirling his fingers between my legs until I'm moaning. I clutch at him as best I can, running my fingers through his hair as he licks and sucks at my neck. Never have I felt so utterly adored. "Feel this," he mutters breathlessly, drawing my hand down to where we're joined. I feel him sliding inside me, slipping between my fingers and it's one of the most intense sensations I've ever felt, his hardness inside my wet, his hand covering mine. I gasp, turning my head to kiss him, letting his tongue plunder my mouth softly. When I open my eyes, I'm shocked by the intensity of his expression, the love I see there. I whisper those words to him, wanting to tell him everything, things about me that I don't even know. He sees it all and gives back himself. "So good," he groans. I want him to move faster, but he draws it out, filling me again and again, making it last much longer than ever before. I have no idea how much time passes, only that I never want him to stop. When he finally pulses, holding my hips to him as he comes deeply inside, it shatters somethingsome final barrier between us. I come apart, a pleasure so acute it overtakes all my senses, nearly frightening me with its intensity. I feel him in me and I know that's where he belongs. Always.

It's nearly a minute before it subsides and I'm finally able to relax against his body, the sweat from our exertion slick between us. Edward disengages and goes to discard the condom, but he's back quickly, returning to his position behind me and pulling up the blanket over us. He murmurs contentedly and I feel ready for an afternoon nap. But first, I feel ready to broach the question that's been on my mind since we first made love. "You haven't said anything about my scars. How come?" I trace the musculature of his arm with my pointer finger, wondering how he'll answer. "I didn't want to make you uncomfortable." "You haven't. At all. I thought . . ." "I know." "I don't know . . . I just . . . I don't know how you feel. Honestly. If it matters to you." "Of course it matters to me, Bella." Edward rolls me towards him, his green eyes serious. "I hate what happened to you," he says gruffly. "Every day I wish I could change it. But I love you. All of you. The way I see it, your scars are part of your history. I love that you trust me enough to show me." I can't help the way my eyes tear up at his words, startled when I feel his hand move down my leg to stroke my knee. "Does it hurt you?" he whispers. "Not anymore. I don't have much surface feeling in some places, though. Like there." "How about here?" His hand drifts towards the inside of my leg, down my calf. The feeling of his warm skin on mine is heightened in the places with sensation. "It feels nice." "And here?" His hand rubs lightly against the sensitive spot behind knee. "I can feel that."

"Bella," he whispers, his hand running up again to cup me between my legs. And we don't leave the bed again until it's time for Peggy's party. ~QF~ It snows on the morning we leave for Forks. Nothing severe enough to impede travel, but just enough to remind us that winter is rapidly approaching. When we exit Edward's apartment to hail a cab for O'Hare, the cold flushes his cheeks. Large, wet flakes fall silently, coating the parked cars and the trees on his street, sticking in our hair and reminding me of being twelve. I missed this. Neither of us checks a bag since we're only staying three days, but despite that the lines at the airport are horrific and it takes us almost two hours to pass through security. Everyone is traveling for tomorrow's holiday, and the terrorist threat has been raised to orange. Somewhat embarrassingly, this is the first time I've flown since I was a baby and everything is new to me. Edward shows me how to take off my shoes and place them in the plastic bins for screening, making sure I'm all set before doing the same. I laugh at the noticeable hole in his sock and he grins and shrugs, holding his hands up in surrender as he walks through the body scanner. Edward has never been to the west coast, and I can see little peeks of excitement underneath his unease, the traveler in him eager to visit a place he's never seen before. And I am too. Despite the upcoming confrontation, I want Edward to see the place I grew up after I left him. "We should eat something," he suggests as we make our way through the bustling holiday crowd. I can't believe how big this place is, but Edward navigates it with ease. He flew a lot when Alice was in treatment, mostly alone. "Don't they have food on the plane?" "Ha!" he laughs. "Unless you count pretzels as food, which I don't, no." "Okay, smarty pants." We decide on breakfast sandwiches and grab some coffee as well before heading to our gate. Edward sits beside me as we watch planes taxi on the runway, munching on his sandwich. There's a young familyparents and two young childrensitting across from us. The little girl, probably no more than four or five, sits staring at Edward, but he doesn't seem to notice.

"I think you have an admirer," I whisper in his ear, nodding my head at the girl. Edward glances in the direction I indicated and waves at her, causing her to giggle and hide her face behind her hands. She peeks out again and Edward makes a funny face, inciting another fit of laughter. The parents notice what's happening and look over and smile at us. I rest my hand on Edward's knee, wondering whether he wants a family someday. Jacob had wanted children very badly, but I've never been overly enthusiastic about the prospect. I figured we'd probably end up with one or two, but I wanted to focus on my career first. The life of an academic, especially a woman, is full of uncertainty. First graduate school, then the tenure processI hadn't thought much beyond that. But now I can't stop myself from imagining what it would be like to have a child with Edward. A little girl with long, auburn hair. "What's your name?" Edward asks as the girl approaches with a toya tiny horse that looks like it might have come from a kid's meal. She laughs shyly but doesn't answer. "Lila," her mother replies, smiling fondly. "Is she bothering you?" "Not at all." The girl holds the toy out to Edward as I watch with rapt attention. He takes the toy and gallops it along the arm of his seat, making ridiculous whinnying sounds. This gains him much admiration from Lila, who claps her hands and attempts to do the same. I remember when we were kids he was always so patient with us, especially Alice. I almost forget about why we're here until they call our flight. Edward says goodbye to his new friend before we head to the gate, surprised when she hugs him around his legs. The parents chuckle and call her back over and with, one more wave, we're on our way. "She was cute," he says. "You were good with her." He smiles and I detect a faint blush on his cheeks, and I wonder if he's been thinking the same things as me. And as we board the plane, I feel much lighter than I expected to. I can do this. We're going to be okay.

I hold Edward's hand as the plane ascends, my stomach sinking when turbulence shakes the relatively small craft. "Is it always like this?" I whisper, gripping tighter after a particularly strong shake. "It'll even out. Don't worry." He puts his arm around me and I lean into him, closing my eyes. Five minutes later, I start to relax as we reach smooth cruising altitude. The rest of the flight passes by relatively uneventfully. Edward and I do a crossword puzzle together, but he gets most of the answers. I've never been good at them. But when the flight attendant announces we're nearing our destination, the nervous flutters in my stomach return. "So . . ." he begins. "You're going to go straight to the garage?" I nod, biting the inside of my cheek. I still haven't decided where to confront Jacob. "Yeah." "Then what?" "I . . . I think we'll probably go somewhere to talk." "Why don't you stay at the garage?" "In front of all the people he works with? I couldn't do that, Edward. Come on." "So where?" His green eyes are troubled, and I can see the tension on his forehead. I know he won't like my plan. "I don't know. Maybe we'll take a walk." "A walk? Jesus. Where?" "I haven't decided. Down at the beach?" "I don't like it." Edward says, his expression serious. "I'll have my cell phone. But honestly, you don't know Jacob. You need to trust me on this."

"I swear to God if anything happened to you . . . " he trails off and I can see the panicked look in his eyes, the fear. It hurts to see him like this but I have to do this on my ownI owe it to Jacob to do it privately. "Nothing is going to happen. Please don't worry." I squeeze his hand, my voice choking a little. "You have to call me immediately . . . Bella . . ." "I will. I promise." He mutters something to himself, his eyes darkening. Although he doesn't release my hand, I can tell he's angry with me. But I'm firm in my resolve. Neither of us speaks as the plane completes its descent into the small Port Angeles airport. Rain mists the windows, the grey sky mirroring my mood. The tension between us is thick and uncomfortable, so much like those days when we first met again in Chicago. I hate it. Just as the captain turns off the seatbelt signs and passengers start collecting their belongings, Edward turns to me, bringing my hand to his lips. "I love you," he murmurs, kissing my knuckles softly. I touch his smoothly shaven cheek with my other hand. "I love you." It's all I can say. We disembark with the weight of the visit hanging heavily in the air. How I wish I were one of those people who could just cut ties without explanation. But then I'd be as cruel as Carlisle and Billy. As we make our way through the sparsely populated terminal towards the rental car agency in the baggage claim, I cling closely to Edward's side, knowing our separation is imminent. He seems to feel the same way, hooking his free arm around my shoulders as we ride the escalator down toward street level. I have to stand a step higher than him to reach eye level. "It'll be okay," I whisper. He rubs my shoulders soothingly and plants a light kiss on my lips, smiling a smile that doesn't reach his eyes.

"Watch out," I warn as we reach the bottom. Edward nods and grabs both of our bags, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek before stepping off the escalator. But there's nothing, nothing that could have prepared me for what happens next. Just a few feet away from the bottom of the escalator, a bunch of red roses in hand, stands Jacob. And the stricken look on his face tells me he's seen everything.

A/N: Eeep! Please review and let me know your thoughts? Have I told you lately how wonderful you are? So pleased that you're enjoying this story and letting me know. I have no idea whether or not there's a Port Angeles airport, but I'm taking a little creative license here. "Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul, if either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction."-Kahlil Gibran Chapter Twenty Eight: November 24, 2010

From Chapter Twenty-Seven: But there's nothing, nothing that could have prepared me for what happens next. Just a few feet away from the bottom of the escalator, a bunch of red roses in hand, stands Jacob. And the stricken look on his face tells me he's seen everything.

"Jacob," I whisper, as all the blood drains out of my head in a dizzying rush. Edward's hand squeezes my shoulder, a gesture of support, but I can't turn

to look at him. My eyes focus on Jacob's. I see regret and anger there, but the predominant emotion is pain: raw, real, and totally my fault. My whole body vibrates with tension, and Edward's presence beside me only intensifies it. I take a step away from him. "Isabella?" Jacob's familiar voice tests my name, hoarse with emotion. He's the same as I remember, wearing his coveralls from the garage. They're smeared with grease and engine oil; evidence he probably came straight here to greet me. How could I have been so stupid? In my attempt to spare him, I've done the worst thing imaginable. Edward draws closer, his hand moving to my back in a possessive gesture. Jacob follows the motion with his eyes. "Don't," I whisper to Edward, shaking my head slightly. His hand drops down, clenching at his side, and I catch a glimpse of the worry and hurt marring his brow. I want to tell him I didn't mean it . . . that I don't know what to do. There's no way I can handle this. I . . . I need to think. "Jacob, Please I" Before I can continue, Jacob cuts me off. "This is why you wanted to come home so soon, huh?" he mutters, running his free hand over his neatly shorn hair. "You want to rub this in my face? After every . . ." He grimaces, his fist tightening around the rose stems. I momentarily fear he'll cut himself on the thorns. "No. That's not" "How could you do this to me?" "I didn't want" "Save it. I see what's going on. I'm not blind, Isabella. Not anymore." He nearly spits out the last words, throwing the roses down with a sigh of disgust and turning on his heel. Some petals detach and scatter across the linoleum floor, abandoned. "You don't understand!" I say, crossing the distance between us before he can get too far. I'm subconsciously aware of Edward trailing behind, but I

need to talk to Jacob. This wasn't supposed to happen like this. "Please let me explain. I never intended . . ." "What?" Jacob barks, turning around before I can continue. "You never intended to what Isabella? Come home with some guy and rub it in my face? I see what's been going in Chicago, why you . . ." Suddenly he seems to remember we're not alone, casting his hard stare to my right. "Who is this guy, anyway?" "I'm Edward Cullen," Edward's voice rings out from beside me. Jacob's eyes snap away from my face to his. "Cullen . . ." His features change in dawning realization . . . Disbelief. Shock. Rage. How many times have I cried on Jacob's shoulder, that very name on my tongue? "How dare you?" he growls, advancing on Edward, who meets the coming onslaught with stoicism. My stomach sinks as I watch the two of them face off, mere inches from each other, neither one giving any sign of backing down. It's a small airport, and passersby gawk at us openly. "How DARE you." His voice gets louder, and soon "You have some nerve, coming back into her life. After the way you abandoned her." We need to get out of here before someone calls security. Or before someone gets hurt. "Jacob, you don't understand," I say, glancing between them. While Edward easily surpasses him in height, Jacob is a good deal more muscular, years of heavy lifting adding to his body's natural propensity for bulk. Both of their eyes glint dangerously, but I'm suddenly fearful for Edward . . . the thought of anything happening to him drives me into a near panic. "Just listen. We were wrong. I was . . . you need to listen." "Stay out of this, Isabella." Jacob says, his gaze lethally trained on Edward. "Don't . . . tell me what to do." I approach the two of them and Edward gives me warning look. He's worried about Jacob's escalating temper, but I need to do something to diffuse the situation. Jacob ignores my approach. "You broke her. And I was there to pick up the pieces. Me," Jacob says, thumbing his chest for emphasis. "She might not have even. . . and you, what did you do, huh? How did you weasel your way back into her life?"

"You're right," Edward replies evenly, his expression serious but calm. "Bella suffered a great deal, and some of that was my fault. But you don't know the whole story." I'm proud of Edward for not getting rattled, but I understand Jacob's confusion and anger. "YOU don't know the whole story," Jacob seethes. "I have half a mind to tear you limb for limb for what you did to her." "And what do you think that would do to Bella?" Edward shoots back. "Save her from making the biggest mistake of her life." "As far as I'm concerned she's just narrowly escaped it." The expression on Jacob's face is purely feral. "Why you" "Stop it. Just stop! Both of you," I shout, stepping between them and pushing back lightly on Jacob's chest, feeling the frantic thrum of his heart. "Don't be like this, Jacob. This isn't you." Breathing heavily, he finally relents against my hand, stepping backward a few paces before turning to me. "Did you tell him, Isabella? Did you tell him what you went through, all the pain? How you couldn't eat? Sleep? About the surgeries and the letters you wrote that they never answered?" Edward's eyes latch onto mine, and then away, shame cracking his calm faade. We've been through this before, but I know how much it hurts him to think about my suffering. But I'm struck by something else . . . Jacob mentioned the letters. He doesn't know. "Jacob" "Or did you forget about all that when you saw his pretty face?" The words are a knife to my gut-to think I'd throw him away for such superficial reasons. Clearly, he's too keyed up to have a conversation about this here, not with Edward present. He'll never believe me about Billy, not unless I can get him somewhere to calm him down. "Don't talk to her like that," Edward snaps, his green eyes livid.

Jacob takes another step toward him. "Don't tell me how to talk to my fianc." Edward's jaw clenches and I can tell he's doing everything in his power to hold back the obvious retort. His gaze shifts to me, obviously worried about how I'm handling this. I'm not. I'm not handling this, and I need to start. "It wasn't supposed to happen like this. I didn't bring Edward here to hurt you or rub anything in your face. He needs to talk to Billy, and so do I." "Dad? Why?" Jacob demands, dark eyes flashing. "I wanted to speak to you first." "Bella, tell me what's going on." "I'll explain everything," I say, strengthening my resolve. There's no reason the rest of the day can't go on as planned. "Is there somewhere we can go to talk?" Jacob's seems confused, his eyes darting between the two of us. When he speaks again, the hopefulness in his voice makes me cringe. "So you're not . . .?" I can see the wheels turning in his mind, trying to explain away the kisses on the escalator, Edward's possessive behavior. "We very much are," Edward says, gritting through his teeth. Jacob's expression hardens again. Then his eyes trail to my bare hand. The ring that he gave me is tucked away in my luggage. He inhales sharply and staggers backwards, as if trying to escape that ultimate proof. When his eyes meet mine again, all the fire has gone out of them. "I don't know what more there is to say." The finality in his statement fills me with panic. I can't let him go like this, not when he hasn't let me explain. "Jacob!" I cry out. "Don't go. Please. If I mean anything to you, anything at all, you'll let me have the chance to explain. I didn't . . . want to hurt you." He turns slowly to me, swallowing deeply. "You did."

"I'm sorry . . ." "You lied to me Isabella." Before I can respond, a middle-aged, portly security guard approaches us, wearing a mistrustful expression. He sucks his teeth and stands with his hands on his hips. "Is everything all right here, folks?" he asks, specifically eyeing the two men. I'd known it wouldn't be long before someone reported us. "Yes. Thank you," Edward reassures him. "We were just leaving." "Well see that you do." With that, he turns and goes, casting a small frown over his shoulder. This is probably the most excitement he's had to deal with in the Port Angeles airport for some time. We need a plan, and fast. "Jacob, I need to talk to Edward for a second. Is your truck here?" He nods slowly. "Go pull up and wait for me." "What's he going to do?" "Please, just do this." Without another objection, Jacob strides away, his straight, almost rigid posture so different from Edward's relaxed gait . . . The two of them couldn't be more different. Like oil and water, I was a fool to think they could mix. "Bella," Edward hisses as soon as we're alone. "I don't like this, you driving with him while he's upset. Jesus, what are you thinking? Where are you going?" He pulls desperately at his hair, causing it to stand up on end. Every nerve in my body cries out to comfort him, to make him understand. "I have to do this . . . and anyway, this was part of the plan, remember? I'll never get through to him if you're around." "But things are different now . . ."

"Yeah, the worst is over. I'm pretty sure doesn't have any idea about the letters. This news about Billy . . . it's going to devastate him. You can't be around for that. It would kill him." "I don't care," he says harshly. "I don't want you in any danger. The way he got in my face . . . I don't trust him." "He's upset, Edward. Just listen; Jacob has been my best friend for nine years. He's not going to hurt me." "How can you be sure? You've never been in this situation with him before. People do stupid things when they're angry, Bella. I don't want to take that risk." "Don't do this. Don't do this to me. Please, I need you to understand." I tug uselessly at the front of his shirt willing him to meet my eyes. He does, but his expression is guarded. "It seems I don't have a choice," he replies with defeat. "Get the car and take our stuff to The Lodge. We'll go to a coffee shop or something, and then I'll call you. It won't be more than a couple of hours. Please?" "A coffee shop?" "Yeah. Someplace public. Will that make you feel better?" "Yes," he admits grudgingly. "A little." "Don't be mad at me. I love you." And then his arms wrap around me, hugging me to him with an intensity that literally takes my breath away. "I love you," he murmurs into my hair. I inhale deeply, running my hands under his leather jacket and across his back, feeling his strength. I'll need it to get through this. "I love you," I whisper again before pulling away. His face is still worried. I reach up an attempt to smooth the wrinkles from his forehead, and he captures my hand in his, drawing it to his mouth and kissing it softly. "Be careful. Please."

"I will." "I hate this." "I know. I'm so sorry. I won't be long. I promise." I squeeze his hand one last time, turning before he can see the tears welling in my eyes. I hate hurting him, but I don't have a choice. I've dug myself into this hole, and I'm the only one that can get out of it. Jacob's black pickup idles by the curb as I exit the terminal, the cool, damp peninsula air greeting me like an old friend. I inhale deeply, trying to calm myself as I approach the passenger's side. Once I've climbed inside the cab, I'm greeted with nothing but Jacob's silent stare. His eyes glance away from me almost immediately as he shifts into first and begins to drive. At first, the quiet affords me a chance to get my thoughts in order, trying to think of the best way to begin. But after a few minutes, it becomes unbearable. I don't know where we're going, either, which makes me nervous. "Jacob" "Don't," he says warningly. "Don't start talking now, Isabella, not while I'm driving." I hear what he's not sayinghe doesn't want to get angry behind the wheel. "I just wanted to know where we're going." "La Push," is his short reply. Crap. I told Edward someplace public, and now I'm going to the most private beach on the peninsula. "I thought maybe we could go to Judy's . . ." "A coffee shop? No. I'm not having this conversation in front of all of Forks. If that's what you want you can get out of the truck now." While his ultimatum irritates me, I suppose I expected it. Edward will be so angry, but I can't see what I can do about it right now. I sigh and look out of the window, watching as we leave Port Angeles behind.

The rest of the ride passes by in uncomfortable silence, with not even the radio on to provide distraction. I let myself become lost in the passing greenery, the thickly wooded, rural landscape I've missed in the city. I love this place. But not enough to want to stay here. Once in a while I cast a sidelong glance at Jacob, but he stares straight ahead. I can see the tiny muscles working overtime in his jawthat's one trait he shares with Edward, at least. I can only imagine the bent of his thoughts. And Edward. He's probably going crazy wondering what's going on. Finally, after a little over an hour, we arrive on the opposite end of the coast. The tall trees give way to plunging coastline and rocky shore, the cold November day causing my breath to fog the window as I wearily rest my head against it. Jacob pulls off the side of the road to the place we've parked so many times before. The beach is deserted now, only the waves and a few lonely seabirds wheeling in the air. Still silent, he jumps out of the truck and starts walking; I hurry to follow, wrapping my coat more tightly around me as protection from the wind. I know exactly where he's headedWhale Cove. "Wait," I call, my voice drowned out by the sounds of the surf. Jacob easily navigates the terrain, quickly outpacing me as I pick my way carefully, wary of the notoriously slippery rocks. He freezes, back still turned as I approach. "Jacob," I say breathlessly, automatically reaching out my hand to steady myself on his arm. He flinches away, his face cast to the side. With a shock, I realize he's crying. "Have you slept with him?" he asks, the question taking me completely off guard. My eyes freeze in a widened stare and he grimaces, kicking a rock with his steel-toed boot. "Fuck!" "I"

"You couldn't wait for me? Is that it?" He won't look at me; I know how he feels about sex outside of marriage, and in all probability he views me as nothing but a lowly, cheating whore. And for just a second, that's exactly what I am. But Edward is not a mistake. I won't let Jacob make me dirty about our relationship, even if his view of it is inevitable given the circumstances. I gather my courage to speak the truth. "I'm in love with him," I whisper. The wind carries my voice out to sea and dries the tears that have begun falling softly on my face. "Did you ever love me?" he asks, still looking at the ground. He kicks another stone, more lightly this time. I don't know how to answer him. Yes, I loved him. I love him. But not with the sort of love that makes a marriage. "I love you, Isabella." Instinctually, I reach out to touch his arm, years of love and friendship driving me to comfort him. "Don't," he says hoarsely, shrugging my hand off before it can rest firmly. He turns away and continues walking, his pace just as rapid as before we stopped. All of these weeks I've been pulling away from him emotionally; it still hasn't prepared me for the realization I've lost my friend forever. The reality hits me with crippling force. I never should have said yes to him; if we'd remained friends this never would have happened. And now it's ruined, all of it. Whale Cove, so dubbed by Jacob and me when we came here to watch the migrating Humpbacks when we were young, is just a small inlet set back from the rest of the beach and sheltered from the wind by large boulders. By the time I wind my way around the familiar corner, Jacob's already perched on our rock, looking out at the sea with vacant eyes. I settle down beside him, careful not to sit too close. He doesn't move but I can feel the coiled tension in his muscles, even from a foot away. "How?" he asks. A simple question, so loaded with meaning.

"Edward goes to the University. He was in my class on that first day." "From the first day?" He mutters something that sounds like a curse, which rattles me. Jacob so rarely swears, and this is the second one today. I try to search for the words to explain. "I didn't . . . it wasn't like that at first. I thought he hated me." "Why didn't you tell me?" "At first I didn't want to tell you . . . I didn't want you and Billy to get angry or worry about me." "So you lied." My silence confirms it. "You should have told me." "But I . . ." I was trying to protect you. What a lie. The truth is I was trying to protect myself. "You should have told me," he repeats. "I didn't want to do it over the phone. I'm so sorry." "Well, I'm sorry. I can't accept that apology right now." He sighs deeply, wrapping his arms around his bent knees. Despite his sizable frame, the position makes him look so young. My Jacob. "I understand." We're both quiet for a while. "So then what happened?" "But then . . . oh . . . everything became so confusing." "Tell me from the beginning." He utters the words with the attitude of a man going to the guillotine, full of dread and resignation. So I do. I tell him about how horrible our initial meeting was, how strained those first few weeks in class were, the way we were forced to work together, how confused I was over his hostility towards me.

When I come to the part about Alice's death, Jacob's eyes widen in disbelief, but he doesn't say anything, obviously absorbing the impact of my words. I don't mention how Edward came to me that night, but I know I have to tell him about the letters. "They did write to me, Jacob." "What? But you never got letters." "I know." I swallow deeply, pain constricting my throat. "Billy and Carlisle kept them from us." "What?" he snaps. "Yes. I'll tell you how I know. But first I need to ask you a question, and I need you to answer me honestly. Did you know anything about . . . Edward and Alice's letters?" He shakes his head at me, looking at me with dark, serious eyes. "No. I didn't. How could you think I'd have kept something like that from you?" "I don't know! After Edward told me he'd written to me and that he never got my letters, I didn't know who to trust." "But you trusted him. How? How can you trust him after he . . . abandoned you? Because of your burns?" "He didn't . . . it wasn't him . . ." "How do you know he won't leave you again?" "He won't." I say it firmly, but his words are insidious, picking away at my tentatively established security. Hot tears prick at the corner of my eyes, but I wipe them away quickly. Edward loves me. All of me. He won't leave me. "So what about these supposed letters?" I tell him about our confrontation with the Cullens, how Carlisle explained his and Billy's plan to separate us . . . but when I get to the part about Billy keeping Alice's death from me despite Carlisle's change of heart, Jacob snaps. "Bullshit. My father wouldn't do something like that. The guy, Carlisle or whatever, he's lying."

"I don't think he is." "You lived with us for ten years. You know my dad. He's a good person. How could you believe all this stuff?" "Because it makes sense, Jacob. Edward isn't lying about writing to me. And Carlisle and Esme, they admitted lying to him. He won't even speak with them now. Why would they make this up knowing they had so much to lose?" "I don't know. Maybe to save themselves, Bella. You ever think of that?" He pauses before changing topics. "And you thought I had something to do with it? All this time? No wonder you could barely stand to talk to me." "I didn't know. I didn't know." With a groan, he rubs his hands over his face. "That hurts." "I'm sorry I thought that . . . But after I found out about Billy . . ." "It seems like this guy is trying to put most of the blame on my father to save his own skin. But we're going to get to the bottom of this." He stands up quickly, brushing his pants off. "What do you mean?" "Let's go home and ask my dad. It'll prove these Cullens are full of it." "You don't believe me?" I ask, my defensiveness rising. "I don't know. But for all I know the whole lot of them are liars." I sigh in frustration; it's like talking to a brick wall. "They're not lying. Edward's not lying." "Well, I need proof and I'm sorry, but your word doesn't cut it. Not anymore. I need to talk to my father." My mind races frantically. "But Edward . . ." "Edward can wait," he says angrily. "You come home with these accusations, cheating on me with a new boyfriend . . . God, I don't even know who you

are anymore. I sensed it. I knew if you went away to Chicago you'd change." The disgust in his voice makes me cringe away from him. "I made mistakes, Jacob. But I'm still the same," I whisper. He never really knew me at all; it's all too clear now. He'd created a version of me in his mind, a perfect girlinnocent and weak and dependent on him. My humanity must come as a startling disappointment. "Hmmph," he grunts, picking up a rock and tossing it at the sea. "So you admit he was a mistake?" "No. Edward is not a mistake. Lying to you was. I see that now, and I'm sorry." He scoffs. "Well . . . it's a little late for that now." "I know." He curses again, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Let's go." When we get back to the truck, I immediately pull my cell phone out of my bag and turn on the power. Jacob pulls away from the curb and starts heading home, while I stare at the black screen, willing it on. After a few seconds, it still hasn't powered up. I press the button again, glaring when nothing happens. Shit! It's dead and Edward has my phone charger. And now I have no way to reach him . . . unless he's at the Lodge. I can call him there when we get home. But the upcoming confrontation with Billy quickly overshadows my relief. What if he denies it? What if Jacob's right and the Cullens were lying about Billy to mediate the blame? It's almost humorous how badly wrong our plan has gone, I think darkly. When we pull up to the house, Billy is seated on his rocker on the porch, reading the newspaper as always. His head lifts at the sound of the engine, his eyes crinkling in a smile. I watch as grabs his cane and struggles to stand. The man I thought of as a father-now, who? Someone I never knew at all. In a flash, Jacob is out of the truck. I follow behind much less enthusiastically, still berating myself for not checking my cell phone battery before we left the airport. Edward wanted to

be here for this, and I know he's going to be angry that I came here without telling him. On top of that, it's been over three hours and he's probably frantic by now. "Dad, don't trouble yourself," Jacob says as Billy limps down the steps, his back hunching over as he presses weight into his good leg. I'm shocked by how much he seems to have aged in only a couple of months. Even his hair is grayer. Billy waves off Jacob's concern and straightens himself, his eyes drifting over to me. "Billy," I say hoarsely, feeling such conflicting emotions. I've missed him so much . . . but he's betrayed me. I've come to find out why, but at this moment I don't even want to know. "Aren't you going to hug an old man?" he finally asks, probably wondering why I'm standing there staring. "Yeah," I say finally, wrapping my arms around his back. He feels thinner. He squeezes lightly with one arm before stepping back, resting on his cane. Even though I'm supposed to be furious with him, I can't help feeling worried about how frail he looks. He must notice my perusal, because he smiles half-heartedly. "Haven't been sleeping much. I'm okay." A quick glance between the two men tells me they've been keeping me in the dark about something. Billy quickly changes topics. "Where're your things Isabella? You are staying the weekend, aren't you?" He's joking, but I realize with trepidation I don't have a bag. But does it even matter if it looks suspicious? Before I can reply Jacob does it for me. "I'm not sure Isabella is staying, Dad." Jacob says. "What?" he asks, his eyes darting between the two of us, finally noticing the tension. "Is something wrong?" "Yes," I say, finding my voice. "I need to ask you some questions, Billy."

"About?" Billy's face pales considerably . . . I think I see a flicker of something in his eyes. Again, Jacob beats me to the punch. I watch him warily as he describes the situation in general strokes. "Dad, Isabella has been in touch with the Cullens. They spun some story that has her all backwardssome hogwash about you taking some letters that the Cullen kids sent. She met up with one of them in Chicago. Edward. Says he never got hers either." Jacob keeps his tone light, not giving anything about our relationship away. Is he protecting Billy? Does he want me to have the honor of describing my betrayal? He doesn't believe my story at all, and it shows. It's so quiet, I can almost hear my blood beating thickly through my veins. "My day of reckoning has come. May the Lord forgive me," Billy whispers. Jacob's head snaps to his father's face, his expression confused. "What?" Billy's face has gone from pale to ashen. His legs seem to tremble beneath him. "Is it true, Billy?" I ask him, tears spilling over my cheeks. I'd known it was, but having it confirmed . . . it's nothing like I thought it would be. It just feels like additional torture for everyone. I want Edward. "It's true?" Jacob's voice fills the silence. Billy looks between the two of us, his expression of guilt confirmation enough. I can only stare at him, crying tears I don't want to shed. "Why?" "Come inside, Isabella, Son." He turns and, with Jacob's help, makes his way back up the stairs. When we enter the house, I smell the familiar smell of homepine and Billy's pipe tobaccoonly now it feels foreign. I stand awkwardly in the foyer like an uninvited guest.

"Dad? What's going on?" Jacob asks, the irritation in his voice growing. Billy looks away. "Go sit, please." Without another word, Billy makes his way toward his bedroom, his slow gait impeding his process. My stomach churns. Nothing he could tell me can erase the lies now. Jacob won't look at me, but I can tell from his profile he's having a hard time dealing with this. On another day, we'd find comfort in each other. Not today. Not anymore. Eventually I find my way to the sofa, sinking onto it gratefully. But then I remember Edward; I'm just about to reach for the phone when Jacob sighs with exasperation. "What the heck is he doing in there?" he huffs. "I don't know." Without another word, he stands and leaves the room, probably going to check on Billy. I use the opportunity to grab the phone book from under the coffee table and look for the number to The Lodge. Edward's going to be so pissed at me, but I suppose there's nothing I can do about it now. "Isabella!" Jacob bellows from the other room, startling me just as my finger alights on the number. "Call an ambulance!" "What?" The book drops from my hands. Somehow I find myself in Billy's bedroom at the rear of the house. Jacob's form is crouched over his father's crumpled body, feeling for a pulse at his neck. At his feet, I see a bundle of something . . . papers? Billy's not moving. "Billy?" I whisper, my eyes widening in horror at the scene. Jacob turns to me, his expression pure dread. "An ambulance! Now!" His head turns away, back to Billy.

"Dad. Dad. It's going to be all right. Stay with me. Dad . . ." I stumble out of the room, my mind numb. Phone. Phone. I need the phone. I dial the number with shaky hands but the damn buttons won't press fast enough. "Hello, this is 911; what's your emergency?" I give them the address quickly and the operator asks me a couple of questions. "Please hurry," I whisper before the line goes dead. I'm nauseous as I retrieve the fallen phone book, my hands trembling so violently I can barely flip the thin pages. "Hello. Lodge." A nasally female voice answers the phone. "Hello," I say hollowly. "I need to speak with one of your guests. I don't know what room he's in." "Name?" She snaps her gum casually, a sharp, unwelcome sound. I flinch. "Edward Cullen." "Hang on a second." A minute or so later, the voice returns. "There's no one by that name." "Maybe it's under mine, then. Isabella Black?" "Nope." "Are you sure? He would have just checked in, maybe an hour ago." "Sweetie, I've been here all day. No one's checked in." I hang up the phone, but I can't stop shaking. The only sounds in the house are Jacob's voice and the ticking of the clock over the mantle in the corner. Every second that passes, Billy's life could be slipping away. Oh Edward, where are you?

A/N. I know, I know, another cliffy. Would you believe this is the last one? I promise not to leave you hanging for long. Please review and yell at me. Thanks to DeeDreamer for her awesome review of AQF on RAoR this past Sunday! http:/robert-pattinson(dot)ca/2011/04/10/in-the-smutlight-grandjete-and-a-quiet-fire/#more-15939 Spanglemaker wrote another fabulous review for AQF on the Twilight Awards: http:/reviews(dot)thetwilightawards(dot)com/2011/03/whatwriters-are-reading-rec-from_30(dot)html Thank you so much ladies! xox "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." Mahatma Gandhi Chapter 29: November 24-28, 2010 Seated in the back of the ambulance next to Jacob, everything feels surreal. The quiet, urgent murmurings of the EMTs offer no comfort. They attach an IV drip, bodies obscuring our view of the man on the stretcherthe man who's been my father, the only parent I've known for nearly ten years. I'm a spirit, only grounded to earth by the unyielding grip of Jacob's hand on mine, a physical anchor that reminds me of my corporeality. His face is frozen in worry, ghost-white and fearful. I didn't want him to die. I don't want him to die. Jacob's lips are moving. I listen closely under the dull roar of the engine, detecting faint wisps of prayer. Our father, who art in heaven . . . His father, still with us, for now . . . With eyes wide as a child's, Jacob turns to me. "Will he be all right, Isabella?" I don't know why he asks me this; there's no comfort I can offer. Yet with this question, the reality of the past few hours is set asidea temporary truce dictated by need and fear.

I attempt to squeeze his hand in reassurance, but I can't. He's already clenching so tight. "I hope so." But I know how fragile and useless a thing like hope can be. I clutch my useless phone in my other hand and try to remember Edward's cell number. 4-2-7-3-1 . . . 4-2-7-7-3 . . . the digits flit through my mind, gone before I can grasp them and string them together in any meaningful way. Please let him be somewhere and be okay . . . Where is he? A bar? No, he wouldn't do that to me. Would he? Perhaps his anxiety about Jacob was too great. Perhaps he tried to follow us . . . What if he left? No. I don't let my mind wander into that darkness, not when there's already so much around me. The ambulance lurches, making a quick right turn. One of the EMT's moves to the side, giving us a glimpse of Billy's still, limp hand, upturned as if in supplication. My day of reckoning has come. Regret. That was the emotion I heard in his voice. Jacob inhales sharply, his eyes misting over again. Whatever has happened between us, I need to be strong for him. Still, I feel myself slipping, remembering another loss. Renee. Her hair on fire. Acrid smoke stinging my eyes and burning my throat. "Dad," Jacob whispers. I rub his arm and lean my head against his shoulder while he mumbles a Hail Mary. Still, the pale hand on the stretcher doesn't move.

Luckily, the ride to Forks Community Hospital is not a long one. While the seriousness of situation dictates a larger, more sophisticated facility, there's no time. Time always runs out. ~QF~ Jacob and I sit side-by-side in the tiny E.R. waiting room. I remember the hospital well from my monthly check-ups once I moved to Forks from Seattle. It even smells familiar. It's quieter than I recall, or perhaps I'm remembering wrong. Somehow all the hospitals I've been in feel the same a longing to be somewhere, anywhere else. The only other person in the room is an elderly woman, knitting and nodding asleep on the far side of the room. A TV in the corner relates the day's news on low volume. Save that, we are silent. Once in a while, a doctor or technician passes through the double doors and my head lifts mechanically, hope and fear battling for supremacy in my chest. More minutes pass, adding to another half hour. Why does time drag so stubbornly? I rest my head against the back of my chair, my eyes tracing the thin, spidery cracks in the dull white ceiling. I can't bring myself to read a magazine or the theory book in my bag since my attention darts hummingbird-quick between thoughts of Billy and Edward. I've already called the Lodge twice more, braving the increasing annoyance of the nasally desk clerk. Edward still hasn't checked in. It's well after four hours now since I've seen him. What began as a small worry has metastasized into a coiling and potent dread. My hands twist over my cell phone, trying to conjure those damn numbers. For one terrifying second, I imagine Edward bleeding out just beyond the swinging doors in the O.R. What if something happened? What if he . . . What is it Lear said? O, that way madness lies. He's fine. He's fine. He'll find me.

"Why won't they tell us anything?" Jacob asks, standing and kicking the leg of his chair in frustration. Now that the tension and anger radiating from his body is no longer directed at me, it's almost easy to become complacent. I long for the easy way we used to be. "I don't know, Jake." Is this my fault? If I hadn't come here to confront Billy like this, would things have gone differently? His frailness indicates he's been feeling ill for a while . . . I want to ask Jacob about it, but fear his reaction. Instead I stay quiet. There'll be time for questions later once . . . and if . . . Billy survives. Jacob goes to consult the nurse at the desk and comes back wearing a dark expression, sitting down with such force the back of his chair hits the wall. "She says the doctor will come when there's more information. This hospital is so small and they can't tell us anything? This is ridiculous." I reach out and pat his knee, resting my hand there for a second. He lets me. A string of useless advertisements, louder than the regular broadcast, starts grating on my nerves. No one seems to be watching anyway, so I get up and turn the TV off. "You were right about him keeping your letters," Jacob says quietly. I almostalmostwant to say I told you so. Thankfully I'm able to reel in the childish impulse. "Yes." "Why?" "I don't know. That's what we came to find out." "I should never have confronted . . ." he grimaces, squinting his eyes and looking away. "Maybe he wouldn't have . . ." "It's not your fault, Jacob." He almost seems ready to talk. I decide to chance it. "What's been going on with Billy?"

Jacob scratches his arm absentmindedly, his mouth turning down in a pensive frown. "He's . . . he hasn't been doing well since around Halloween. He's supposed to exercise, eat right, and quit the pipe. But you know Billy." He pauses, heaving a deep sigh from within his chest. "It's heart disease. There are pills he's supposed to take." "Has he been taking them?" "I thought he was. I don't know why he wouldn't . . . I . . ." "Why didn't you tell me?" I remember his increasingly panicked phone calls. I'd thought it was just his fear of losing me, but now I see them in a new context. "I didn't want to scare you. You were away at school and all . . . he thought it would be better." I scoff, shaking my head. "You two both think I can't handle anything." At least he does me the favor of looking a little sheepish. But can I really chastise him for keeping me in the dark? My lies and omissions don't make me a saint. Far from it. "I guess I just got used to protecting you." "Oh, Jake." Just then, I hear the whoosh of opening mechanical doors. A cool breeze wafts in along with bronze hair and a brown bomber jacket I'd recognize anywhere. I leap out of my chair. "Edward!" His eyes flash with recognition, but I only see them for a second before I'm engulfed in his embrace. I inhale sweet mint and sweat and Edward, burying my face in the crease of his neck. I'm weightless. "Bellababybaby," he croons, lifting me off of my feet. All the while I'm babbling and rubbing my cheek against his, touching him everywhere my hands can reach.

"You're here, you're here." "I'm here." "I'm so sorry we went to the beach and my phone didn't work and Jake wanted to talk to Billy so we left and I tried to call you and you weren't at the Lodge and Billy's sick and I thought you were . . ." "Shhhh," he says, whispering. "It's okay. It's okay. Slow down, baby." All the tears I've been holding in threaten to release at the sound of his voice. "What happened?" I tell him again, more slowly this time. Edward shakes his head, the creases between his brows deepening. "God, I was so worried. He told me there was an ambulance . . ." "Who? Who told you?" I ask, pulling away a fraction. "A guy named Sam. I came right here. I thought . . ." His voice cracks, and I know exactly what he thought. Those terrible images were in my mind too. "I'm so sorry." I touch his cheek, and he leans into my palm, whispering. "You're okay." I don't know how long we cling to each other before I remember what we were talking about. "Wait, Sam Uley? Where did you see him?" "I waited for as long as I could, but you didn't call and I got worried. So I went to the diner in town and got Billy's address from the waitress there. I figured that's where you must have gone." One good thing that can be said of this small community-everyone knows everyone. Edward probably hypnotized the poor woman with one of his smiles. "Sam was at Billy's?" I ask, still confused.

"Apparently he'd just gotten home from work when he saw the ambulance pull away. I guess it was a little bit before I got there." Since Sam lives just down the road from Jacob, it makes sense he would've seen the ambulance leave the house and come to investigate when Edward showed up. "He didn't know any details, but I thought the worst." I can still see traces of despair in his eyes. Taking his face between my hands, I channel all of my love and regret into my kiss. Edward responds with a quiet moan, running his fingers thorough my hair with one hand while holding me against him with the other. "I'm so sorry for making you worry," I whisper against his lips. He wraps his arms around me more tightly. "I tried to call you but my stupid cell was dead and you weren't at the hotel. I never should have left you at the airport. I'm so sorry." "Sweet girl, it's okay. It's okay." He kisses the side of my face again, closing his eyes and humming against my ear. "You're not mad at me?" "I'm just so fucking relieved you're not hurt. I'll have time to be mad later. What happened?" "Billy had a heart attack." "Is he going to be all right?" Edward asks, concern overshadowing his dislike. "They won't tell us. We've been waiting." My use of the plural pronoun brings us back to the present, and to the third presence in the room. I glance to the left, to where Jacob sits alone, his head turned awkwardly away from our intimate embrace. Edward slowly relaxes his hold, but I grab his hand, threading our fingers together. I'm not ready to let him go again. "Jacob," Edward says in acknowledgment. Jacob gives a curt nod, his eyes darting to our hands and then away again. Everything about his position screams discomfort. But before I can dwell on it for two long, a doctor emerges from the swinging doors, his expression

unreadable as he turns to us. He's surprisingly young and handsome, not more than thirty by the looks of it. "Are you the Black family?" he asks. Jacob stands, worry and hope playing over his face. "I'm Jacob Black, Billy's son." "I'm Doctor Merchant," the young doctor states, clearing his throat. "Your father has had an myocardial infarctionin layman's terms a heart attack. Right now we're trying to stabilize his heartbeat." "He's alive," I say aloud. Dr. Merchant nods at me, and then turns to address Jacob. "We've located the clot that caused the attack and we're administering thrombolytic drugs to break it up. If it does, he shouldn't require surgical intervention at this point." "Is he going to be okay?" Worry resonates in Jacob's voice. "Right now our main concern are the arrhythmias, but so far he's been responsive to treatment. We have reason to be optimistic, but we're not out of the woods yet." "Can I see him?" Dr. Merchant gestures towards the doors, indicating we should follow. He seems to know what he's doing, which is a great relief. What brought such a bright young doctor to Forks? Jacob starts to follow, stopping after a pace and glancing at me. "Do you want to come?" "You go," I say, drawing closer to Edward. Without another word, Jacob passes through the swinging doors, his heavy footfalls dissipating down the hall. Once they've gone, I sag against Edward's shoulder. My entire body feels weak from the stress and anxiety of the past few hoursand now the relief that Edward is here and Billy seems to be pulling through. At least there's reason to hope.

Edward wraps his arm around me and guides me over to the chairs. He sits and pulls me into his lap, holding his coat open so I can snuggle against his chest. Just for a second I allow myself to luxuriate in his warmth before the inevitable questioning begins. "So this really didn't go well, did it?" "You can say that again," I agree. "Where did you go? Obviously not to the coffee shop like you said you would." I detect a hint of resentment in his tone, but he's trying to keep it at bay. "I know. I'm sorry. Jacob didn't want an audience and I didn't really feel like I could argue with him at that point. He wanted to go La Push, so we did." Edward sighs and I feel his body tense beneath me. "It wasn't my plan. I didn't want to lie to you." "That's it. I'm getting a tracking device." I laugh softly. "What are you going to do, microchip me?" "Maybe." He says it as a joke, but I can see the seriousness in his eyes. There's that haunted look, there because of me. "Oh, Edward." "So," he says, serious again. "How did he react?" "A lot like I expected. He's upset, obviously. When I told him about the letters he didn't believe Billy could've done it. That's why we went straight to the houseJacob wanted to talk to him." "I wish you would have waited for me." "I know. I wanted to, but Jacob wasn't exactly in a reasonable state. It's like once the ball started rolling I just got caught up." "Going off with him when he was angry like that . . ." "I know. I know. It wasn't the best idea. But I told you Jacob would never hurt me. I wouldn't have gone if there was any danger."

He's silent and I stroke his tightly clenched jaw, trying to loosen the muscles there. There's something else bothering him. "Did you think I was going to change my mind?" "Not really . . ." He hesitates. "Maybe just for a second." "You don't trust me?" "Of course I do, Bella. But when you didn't call I couldn't help thinking of all the possible scenarios." "I wouldn't do that to you. Ever." How could I ever live without him again? "I know. Forgive me." I kiss him on the cheek once, letting him know there's nothing to forgive. Both of us have had our moments of doubt. Just as my lips brush against his skin a second time, he turns his head, kissing me back so sweetly. I know he's forgiving me too. "I'm so stupid. I should have written down your phone number before I left. Technology is not to be trusted." "That reminds me. I'm also going to have my number tattooed on your wrist," he grumbles, taking the wrist in question and bringing it to his lips. "Micro chipped and tattooed? Any other ways you plan on marking me Edward?" I tease. "I could think of another one or two," he says with a sexy smile. I blush, feeling just a tad bit guilty about how happy I feel given the circumstances. "Okay, so back to Billy. You got to the house and then what? You asked him about the letters?" I shake my head. "Actually Jacob did. When we got there I could tell he wasn't well . . . he basically admitted it. Said something about his 'day of reckoning'. I don't know. It was weird." "Did he say why?" "We never got that far." I tell Edward how our conversation had gonehow Billy's initial excitement at seeing me had quickly evolved into cryptic statements and behavior, culminating in his collapse on the floor.

"You must have been scared." "I was shaking . . . it just brought back such bad memories, you know?" "Oh, baby. You were thinking about your mom?" "Yeah." I don't remember anything immediately following the fire since I was unconscious, but I do remember those feelings of doom. The bleak permanence of loss. No one should have to suffer like that. "But I had to be there for Jacob." "What about you?" "I feel sort of numb. I'm worried about Billy, but I'm mad at him too. And Jacob. I've treated him terribly and I . . . I don't know. I don't think he's ever going to be able to forgive me." Before Edward can respond, Jacob reemerges from the swinging doors looking weary. I start to scramble off of Edward's lap, but Jacob holds up his hand, averting his gaze again. He can't even bear to look at me, I think bitterly. "Billy?" "He's not awake. But they think the anticoagulants are working." "Oh thank God." "I'm going to grab some coffee. You want anything?" he asks, gazing at the floor. "No. We're fine." "Okay. Stay until I get back?" "Of course." I watch him go with a lump in my throat, wishing my happiness didn't have to come at his expense. Over the next couple of days, Jacob and Edward establish an uneasy truce. We occasionally stop by the hospital to check in, but we never stay for long.

When we do, the atmosphere borders on painfully uncomfortable. I still haven't seen Billy. Even though he's awake and talking, they want to keep his heart rate down, and I don't want to risk having the inevitable conversation until he's more stable. More and more, I'm wondering if it will be possible at all. Doctor Merchant is optimistic about Billy's recovery from this particular attack, though they're keeping him under observation for a few more days just to be sure. But there's no denying Billy is very ill. Doctor Merchant informs us that the coronary artery disease is unusually advanced for someone so young and that surgical intervention might be the only way to assure a long-term solution. His primary care physician is away on vacation, but according to his charts Billy has known about his illness for some time. Even Jacob hadn't understood the severity of the situation. Jacob takes the news particularly badly, but there's little I can do to ease his pain. On Thanksgiving Edward and I eat take-out Chinese chicken in our small, run-down room at the Lodge, trying not to think about all of the people in our lives that are missing. Out of courtesy I invite Jacob over, but he predictably turns me down, opting instead to spend the holiday with Billy at the hospital. I'm pretty sure he's only left long enough to sleep, and I haven't bothered to mention the bundle of papers on the floor of Billy's room. It just doesn't seem right. More and more, the letters have begun to feel like a curse. Edward finally gets his tour of Forks. It only takes a grand total of two hours, though I enjoy pointing out landmarks like Forks High and the Elks Club, of which my father's father, my Pop-pop, was a proud and longstanding member. Edward takes it in with wide-eyed wonder, more like a tourist viewing the Taj Mahal than a run-down convention hall. When I ask why, his answer makes me blush. Because there are little pieces of you here. It's not enough to keep him from teasing me relentlessly when I relate how I came in second in the regional spelling bee when I was sixteen. "I can't believe you didn't know how to spell ursprache," he jokes. "Anyone who's anyone knows how to spell ursprache." "Shut up. Like you would have done much better."

"Oh, a sore loser after all this time?" "It's not even English," I grumble. "I was cheated." "Come here, my little second place speller." I grin and bat his hand away. "Not until you spell ursprache." He loves the forest. On Saturday it pours, but we still go on a walk through the woods. I lead Edward along the well-worn path to Two Moon. Green-grey November light filters through the trees along the trek I've made a hundred times with Jacob and Billy. We stand shivering on the bank as the rain leaves millions of tiny ripples on the surface of the pond, soaking us through to the skin. I look out over the water and think of my mother. Edward lifts his head and lets the rain course over his face, once again stubbly and rough. I can't resist kissing the cool water off of his lips. When we get back to the Lodge, we make love frantically on the lumpy, uncomfortable bed. I dream strange dreamsnot nightmares, but unsettling all the same. I awake trembling in the night, grateful Edward is always there. He never minds if I wake him up. The day before we leave, Edward drops me off so I can spend some time with Jacob alone. We haven't spoken in private since our talk at the beach, and I know we both have things left to say. Still, I'm not nave enough to believe that everything can be mended now. He's sitting outside on a bench waiting for me when we arrive. "I'll be back in an hour, okay?" Edward says, leaning over for a kiss. "Okay." I kiss him quickly, aware that Jacob's watching, and hop out of the car. It's one of those rare, sunny days in Forks that come after days of drear and rain. Despite the cool air, it's pleasant. "Hey," Jacob says as I sit down, stretching my arms up overhead into the sun. "Hi. How is he today?"

"Better. The doctors say he'll be released tomorrow." "That's good." "And you're headed out," he says with resignation. "Yes . . ." I trail off even as Jacob nods. "Billy wants to see you. The doctors think it's okay, but he needs to keep calm." "Are you sure it's a good idea?" "Not really. But it might be more stressful for him if you don't, you know?" "I want Edward to be there, too." "Dad asked for him as well." "Oh." We sit silently for a minute. Jacob seems different todaysofter. I don't feel nervous sitting next to him for some reason. "I haven't been completely fair to you, Isabella." He sighs, scuffing his feet against the gravel below the bench. "All this stuff with Dad, well. I've thought about a lot of things." "What do you mean?" I ask, trying to imagine what he might mean. "Remember a while back, when I told you about Sam and Leah breaking up?" "Yeah. You said she was pretty torn up about it." "She was." "Is she okay?" "Yeah. Well, I don't know. I haven't spoken to her in a couple weeks." "What did you guys, like get in a fight or something?" All of a sudden, it begins to dawn on methe nervous way he's shifting on the bench. The hesitation in his voice . . .

"Jake, is there something going on with you and Leah?" My disbelief rings out over the sparsely filled parking lot. I'm not angryfar from itbut I can't wrap my mind around this new development. "No, it wasn't like that. Not like you're thinking." "What was it like then?" "We got pretty close after her break up. She needed someone to talk to. You know how close she and Emily wereshe took it pretty hard. So we became good friends. But recently, I don't know. I started feeling like maybe it was more. I got scared because of you and . . ." he trails off, gazing into the distance and looking like he might want to run away. "Did you tell her?" "No. I didn't. And I mean, she knew how much I loved you." "You can love more than one person at the same time." I can't believe I'm sitting here having this conversation with Jacob of all people. "But that's wrong," he says. "It shouldn't be like that." I laugh, shaking my head. Sometimes he seems so much more than four months younger than me. "You're human. It's human. So what, you told her you couldn't be friends anymore?" He nods, and it all makes sense now. Dealing with Billy and the guilt over Leahno wonder he'd sounded so frantic on the phone the last few weeks. "How does Leah feel?" "She was upset when I said we shouldn't hang out as much. I told her you might get the wrong idea." His voice takes on a bit of an edge, but this is much more than I ever expected, for us to be talking like this. "Do you think she has feelings for you?" I ask gently. "I think so . . . but I couldn't be sure if it was just her trying to get over Sam or not. I didn't want to lose you. And I didn't want to drag Leah into something like that. But when I said goodbye, I felt awful, like I was breaking her heart all over again."

How ironicthe parallels between our lives these last couple months. Even though he's not being very vocal about it, the way he says her name suggests the feelings he harbors run much deeper than simple infatuation. "And how has it been, not seeing her?" "Hard," he admits. "I miss her." "What are you going to do now?" "I don't know." "You should talk to Leah, tell her how you feel." "She probably won't even want to talk to me." "You never know until you try." It's a trite expression, but it's true. "I want something real, Isabella." His eyes sweep over my face and for the first time since I saw him at the airport, I see some of the old tenderness there. "You deserve it," I reply hoarsely. "I see you, the way you are with him." He still can't say Edward's name without cringing. "You've never looked at me like that before." "I'm so sorry Jacob," I say, my voice cracking. "You've always loved him, haven't you?" "Yes." Even as I say the word I remember the years of denial. As soon as I saw him in class that day, I knew. I just couldn't admit it to myself. "You're happy now." "I am." "That's good." The words are simple, but sincere. It's more than I could have hoped for. He smiles ruefully, his hand hovering over my knee, not sure of whether or not to land. I save him the trouble and take it in mine. We sit quietly, listening to the breeze rustling the nearby pines. There are secret places in

my heart where Jacob has never been, but in this moment I feel closer to him than I have in a long time. When he speaks again, his voice is quiet. "I said before you were a different person. I don't know if that's true. You've always been meant for something more than this town. I knew it, even if I didn't want to admit it." "This town isn't so bad." "No, not for someone like me. But you? You're so smart Isabella. I know you'll do great things." "Well, that remains to be seen," I say, blushing at the compliment. "Nope, it's a fact." "Thanks." "Whatever the reason for what Dad did, it doesn't make it right. But . . . he loves you. He really does." I sigh, not sure if I enter into this territory with him. Whatever Billy did for my own good, if indeed that's why he did it, wasn't. Jacob seems to understand my reticence and doesn't press further. "When you go in there to talk to him, can I come? I'd like to hear it for myself." "Of course. It's your story, too." "It's my story too." He almost laughs. "I guess it is." A few minutes later, our rental car pulls into the parking lot and Jacob releases me. I wonder if it's the last time I'll ever hold his hand. Edward emerges from the car, gangly and graceful at the same time. I watch as he straightens and pats his pocketsthe notebook check. Seemingly satisfied, he turns and approaches us. "Hey," I say with a grin. "You're back." He smiles back. "Always." The t