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This book was automatically created by FLAG on March 2nd, 2012, based on content retrieved from http://www.fanfiction.net/s/7122044/. The content in this book is copyrighted by aWhiteBlankPage or their authorised agent(s). All rights are reserved except where explicitly stated otherwise. This story was first published on June 26th, 2011, and was last updated on February 23rd, 2012. Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated - please email any bugs, problems, feature requests etc. to flag@erayd.net.

Table of Contents
Summary 1. Prologue 2. Yesterday and Tomorrow 3. Bats and Field Mice 4. Sticks and Bones 5. Dreams and Empty Space 6. Car Alarms and Screech Owls 7. Storms and Photographs 8. Prayers and Bits of Dust 9. Sunsets and Blueberry Pancakes 10. Carrots and Makeshift Shields 11. Gravel and Lead Feet 12. Tangled Legs and Back Pockets 13. Spilt Milk and Christmas Cards 14. Wet Skin and Dark Circles 15. Nightlights and BandAids 16. Lightning and Burnt Paper 17. Hands and Front Steps 18. Bella and Edward 19. Smiles and Rosy Cheeks 20. Boxes and Garbage Bags 21. Skylines and Diamond Rings 22. Echos and Twinkling Lights 23. Trash Cans and Paper Memories 24. Wispy Clouds and Heartbeats 25. Kissing Words and White Fabric 26. Nuts and Bolts 27. Tuesdays and Baby Blankets 28. Ugly Money and Stone Faces
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29. Snapshots and Sunday Stew 30. Forgiveness and Hope 31. Sparkly Shoes and Harper 32. Epilogue

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Summary
I know of three kinds of change: the kind that jangles around in your pocket, the kind that happens slowly, every moment of every day, and the kind that blows you away in an instant.

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Prologue
PROLOGUE Bella I was an orphan for two days. I thought it was forever, but like so many things, I was wrong. And then one day, I was right. I'm on the grade school playground in my new school in my new town in my new life. "You have Dorothy shoes." I reach my hand out to be closer to them. "You can't touch them." Her voice is cold and perfect at the same time. "I wasn't going to touch them." I want to touch them. They are too beautiful to be real. Nothing should be that beautiful. Nothing real. "Well, you can't. Keep your stinking fingers off of them. You'll rub the sparkles off. Actually, don't even look at them." She looks at me like I'm nothing. "Fuck you, Rosalie." I watch the beautiful shoes that belong to the impossibly beautiful girl march off the playground and into the school. I sit in the principal's office and wait for Charlie. I look down at my own boring shoes, wishing that they were covered in red sparkles. Rosalie doesn't deserve those shoes. She's not Dorothy. She's the Wicked Witch. Charlie picks me up in the cruiser. I feel like I'm being hauled off to jail. He doesn't say anything. I want him to say something. He clears his throat and I think I might get my way. He doesn't look at me when he speaks. "I know your mother had quite a mouth on her but no child of mine will
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speak in that manner." Fire. "You don't know anything about my mother. You didn't even have a daughter until she died." I don't know who I'm trying to hurt. Somebody. Anybody. Charlie stays quiet. I've won. I could never win with my mother. She always had the last word. I don't want him to let me have it, so I keep going. "She told me to always say what I mean. She told me! Now you want me to be a liar!" I watch the color rise from his neck, up to his cheeks. Brow furrowed. "Saying what you mean, that's all good and well, Bella, but you can't talk to people like that. Not in my house, and certainly not at school. Besides, do you even know what that word means?" I know that 'fuck you' is what you say to someone who is being a bitch. I also know that this is not what Charlie wants to hear. My mother probably would have said those words right back to the principal. But she's not here. Charlie is here. Charlie and his Chief of Police attitude and his badge and his cruiser and his shoes. His ugly shoes that are supposed to be shiny, but aren't. His shoes are worn in and old. He has nothing but old shoes. "Look, kid." He calls me kid. "I'm trying here, but I'm not any good at this stuff. I don't know how to be." I don't know how to be, either. Mother's Day. Charlie takes me to the cemetery. He says it's the right thing to do. There are flowers resting on her grave. Flowers that we didn't bring. We stand next to her headstone and I try to imagine what she looks like. What she used to look like before she was dead in the car. But I can't. I can only see her broken and smashed. I can only smell the blood. I can't remember her face or the smell of her hair or even the sound of her voice. All I have is that day. I do remember Friday in school when Jessica told me that I didn't have a mother. She was right, but if I could do it again, I'd still punch her in the face for saying it.
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I trace the letters with my pinky finger. There is only a name and the years. Charlie says she is buried next to my grandparents. But they are only names. Names I don't know. Charlie turns away and I don't understand. She wasn't his mother. This is my day to be sad, but I can't. I don't cry. I let him have it. One year. 365 days. I am ten years old. I go to school. I do not use four letter words. I do not say what I mean. I do not hit anyone. I do my homework. Charlie is proud of me. Everyone talks about how well I'm coping. I wonder if this is what it is like to be dead. I know of three kinds of change: the kind that jangles around in your pocket, the kind that happens slowly, every moment of every day, and the kind that blows you away in an instant. After all this time, there is one thing that I know for sure: fast or slow, piercing or silent, change is nothing but a thief in the night. My mother claimed to love change. Charlie feared it. And then there was Edward. Edward changed everything, but I couldn't let myself keep him.

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Yesterday and Tomorrow


Bella Yesterday, I was just a little girl and tomorrow, Alice is getting married. Sometimes I blink and wonder how time passed me by. I sit on a plane to San Francisco, butterflies and knots, on my way to see the only family I have left. Although I've distanced myself from them as best I could, the idea of seeing them again makes me suddenly miss them. And I wonder what my life would be if I had never known the Cullens. Trapped thousands of feet up in the air, with nowhere else to go, I try to figure out how I got here. There are a handful of moments I can pinpoint, where my life veered off course. They were blinding, bombs exploding. Losing my mother. Losing my father. Losing Edward. The rest of it is jumbled and confused. The moments that seemed insignificant at the time, but were really the beginning of something, and in some cases the end. I close my eyes and let the memories flood in. Eighteen. Charlie tosses two advil in his mouth and swallows them dry. He doesn't see me watching him from the doorway. He's holding something. A small piece of paper. He stares out the kitchen window and I've seen that look before. I clear my throat. He spins around and stuffs the paper into the silverware drawer. "You scared me, Bells." His face looks old. Old and tired. I should have seen the signs, but I didn't. I had no idea.
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"I'm heading to school." We don't have real conversations. "Alright, then. I'm working late tonight. I'll see you tomorrow. Love you, Bells." "I know." I've never said it back. I've never said it. A nod. He leaves the room carrying something invisible. I stare at the kitchen drawer. It's begging me to open it. I'm too curious to leave it alone. I walk over and open it slowly. Almost afraid. Like there is a live animal inside. Staring back at me. But not alive. Two girls. My mother. I've never seen a photograph of her. Not in this house. They're laughing. Hair in their faces. The sun shining. I carry the tiny picture into the living room to find Charlie standing in the middle of the room, more out of place than usual. I whisper, "You still have her picture. " It could be an accusation, but it's a statement. We haven't talked about her in years. He turns slowly. One deep breath, hands on his face, "I guess, I couldn't bare to part with it. I thought it was all I had left of her." "Well, who's fault was that?" He doesn't deserve it, but I say it anyway. "Bella, if I can be faulted for anything in my relationship with your mother it would be loving her too much. Smothering her." And we're having a real conversation. I know all about loving people too little. I push aside the desire, the need to be indifferent to everything, and ask what I want to ask. "How do you love someone too much?" His shoulders slump, and he turns away from me again. He melts into his armchair and I don't expect an answer.
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"I don't know. You just do. I was in love with her the moment I saw her that first summer. I had to be with her." As I stand awkwardly in the middle of the room, he rubs at his eyes with his palms. "She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was filled with hopes and dreams, and she wore them all over her face. We were married a month later. We were just kids. Stupid kids. Way too young for any of it. But I knew I would never want anyone more than I wanted your mother, for the rest of my life." He shakes his head. "It all seems like a dream now." "Would you change it, if you could go back?" "No." I believe him. "What happened?" I've never asked. "We had been married for a couple of years, still madly in love, at least I was, when I became a police officer. I knew she didn't want to be tied to this town. We talked about getting away from Forks as soon as we had enough money saved. She wanted to buy an old Winnebago and drive all over the country. I don't know when it happened, but we woke up one morning and wanted different things. I thought it was her, that she had changed, changed right before my eyes without warning. Looking back now, it was me." I can almost imagine her, the way she was before she was my mother. "It was the 4th of July and she had this whole adventure planned for us." His smile shows everything. The way he loved her. "I wish I had known. I wish I had known it was going to be the last day I would ever see her. We had a fight. The kind where things are said that you can't take back. The next day, when I got home from work, she was gone. I got the papers in the mail shortly thereafter. You know what they say about loving someone and letting them go. All that hogwash." He almost looks embarrassed. Embarrassed for what, I don't know. "What did you fight about?"
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A deep breath. "It was always the same fight." His face starts to crumple and fold. "Dad?" "It doesn't matter, Bells." "It matters. I want to know." A sigh. "We fought about having children." I feel the words pressing down on my lungs. "She didn't want." "She didn't know what she wanted until she had it, Bells. She wanted to wait is all. She wanted you." "She never wanted to be a mother. It's okay. I can handle it." "Bells, I always wanted you. Always." "I know." "And Bells?" "Yeah?" "I was wrong about not having anything left of her." He doesn't have to say the rest. I know. I run my thumb over her face. Her happy face. "Can I keep this?" He doesn't answer right away and I'm afraid to look at him. "Yeah, you should have it." I slip the little photo into my back pocket and give him a small smile. Real conversation over, and I've never been so eager to get out of this house and go to school. That was, of course, before I knew anything about the Cullens moving to town.
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Forks is the kind of town you're born in and you die in. People don't move to Forks. The halls of Forks High are filled with pointed stares and whispers. New York City. Dr. Cullen. Old money. Alice. Delicate. Graceful. They hate her. They want to be her best friend. They want to be her. Edward. Gorgeous. Brooding. They want to date him. They want to fuck him. They want to marry him. Alice and Edward are both Seniors but they aren't twins, which means one of them is either ridiculously smart or incredibly stupid. All I want to know is why on earth they would ever move here. Or if the rumors are to be believed, why they moved back. I sit at this table every day. Alone. I'm reading The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is explaining to his sister about his misplaced life ambition. If he could be anything, anything in the whole world, he would want to catch children as they are running through the rye. He wants to catch them before they fall off the cliff into oblivion. He wants to save children. The dude can't even fucking save himself. What's even worse, this big dream of his isn't even based on anything real. He got it wrong. I keep re-reading the same page. How can his only aspiration in life be based on a mistaken memory? I hear the unremarkable, yet unmistakable sound of a lunch tray being set on my table. My table. "Mind if we sit here?" She's everything I'm not. "You must be Alice." Even I'm a little startled by the hostility in my voice but I don't know how to do this. "I am. This is my brother, Edward."
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And when I look up, he's smiling. At me. They both sit and start eating their lunches as if it's nothing. And now I'm the one who's staring. He's watching me. He never takes his eyes off of me. His eyes are kind. They see me. They terrify me. They make me want to throw up. I break eye contact first, scanning the room. Most of the faces in the cafeteria are staring, but there's one face that holds more weight than the others. Rosalie Hale's eyes are boring holes in my skin. The faintest smile spreads across her face as she marches across the cafeteria with the kind of confidence that only Rosalie can possess. She drops her tray down next to me. And she is grinning. She's fucking grinning. She sits down like we're old friends. Like she sits at this table every day for lunch. She glances back and forth between Edward and I, the slightest hint of annoyance on her face. "You two know each other or something?" I almost laugh. "No." Her smile is back and she turns away from me. "So, Cullens, what's your story?" Her audacity is infuriating, but if I'm being honest with myself, I want to know too. Edward's eyes don't leave my face. "What do you want to know?" "Is it true that your dad is some hot-shot doctor who up and moved your family from your glamorous life in New York City across the country to live in this shit town?" He smiles, but not at her. "If you want to look at it that way, then sure, it's true." "What other way is there to look at it? Moving to Forks half way through Senior year that's brutal."
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"Our mom grew up here. She always wanted to move back." There is something there. Something in his eyes. Somehow these two act like moving here isn't the worst thing to ever happen to them. "Well I guess we know who wears the pants in that relationship." Rosalie is trying to be cute. She's not. Edward's eyes leave mine for the first time, but only to tell Rosalie to shut up. "She's dead." Alice. She is menacing. And the perky, spunky, peppiness is gone. I'm left wondering if it was ever there to begin with. Rosalie keeps quiet. And this is why. This move is not the worst thing that has ever happened to them. But I'm not going to pretend like we're friends now. I'm not nave. It's their first day. They didn't know any better. And Rosalie will drop the act as soon as she gets in Edward's pants, I'm sure. I leave the table without so much as a goodbye and make my way to English. I try not to think about him. The way he looked at me. Like he wanted to know me. Like he did know me. Class passes in a blur and I'm irritated by how much his presence has affected me. I'm no different than the rest of the crazies in this town. I walk down the hall with renewed determination, not to be like them. And then I am frozen, in the middle of the hallway, watching his hands run haphazardly through his ridiculous hair. He is standing in front of my locker. I don't understand what he could possibly want with me. "Hey!" Shit. And I'm walking. In the other direction. "Bella!" He is relentless. I refuse to let him chase me down the hall. It's getting embarrassing. I turn around slowly. "What do you want, Edward?" He shakes his head and smiles and he's blushing?
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"I just thought we could be friends." He's lying. I think. "Why?" He looks taken aback by the question, like it's a ridiculous thing to ask. "I'm sorry you lost your mom." His eyes mean it and I'm so blindsided by his words that I can't control my own. "I didn't lose her. Losing something implies the possibility of finding it again. So, no, I didn't lose her. She died. She's dead." He closes his eyes as his hands assault his hair. "Bella, I'm sorry." "Don't be." The memory of meeting Edward for the first time sits on my chest like a dead weight. I didn't know then that our lives were already intertwined. I didn't know anything. That was all before. Before Rosalie and I made a truce. Before Alice was my best friend. Before Edward was mine. Before I ruined it. Rosalie and I don't really talk anymore. I guess we've never really been friends but that's not why. She holds a grudge better than anyone I've ever known. I was surprised when she called and offered to pick me up from the airport. When she insisted, I agreed because I figured she'd need the escape. Being a bride didn't exactly bring out Alice's best qualities, and as her Maid of Honor, Rose was left to deal with the brunt of it. I call her as soon as my plane touches down. "Shit, Bella. OK, I'm on my way." "Rose, I can take a cab. It's not a" "No! I'm coming to get you." There is no arguing with her.
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Two coffees later, she's pulling up at the curb. I throw my bag in the back seat. She doesn't get out. There is no awkward small talk. The only words she says to me are, "nice shoes." Two spoken words have the power to bring back memories that have been buried for years. "Thanks." I'm not that little girl anymore. But some things don't change. I glance over at Rosalie in the driver's seat and she's doing a good job of pretending to be focused on the traffic. I reach for the dash to turn on the radio. I need a distraction. Rosalie opens her mouth to say something only to stop herself. But this is Rosalie. She'll say what she wants to say. "He seems really happy, Bella. He finally seems happy." It's a warning. And I was wrong about her motives for picking me up. "I'm here for Alice, Rose. You know that. I'm not here to stomp on Edward's heart." His name burns my lungs. "Well, it never stopped you before." It stings but she's right. "I deserve that." "Yeah, you do."

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Bats and Field Mice


Edward Hospitals are strange places to spend your life. Surrounded by people who are dying. Or just being born. When I was nine years old, I knew what I wanted to be - a doctor. "Have a good night, Dr. Cullen." And yet, I can't get used to the sound of my own name. I'm tempted to turn around and look for my father over my shoulder every time I hear it. "Goodnight." I'm late and I'm pretending like it's not on purpose. I take a cab to the airport and I know I've missed my flight. I've done exactly what I promised Alice I wouldn't do. But some things are out of my control. Some things come with the territory of being a doctor. In this moment it hits me: I'm my father. The version of him I told myself I would never be. I sit at the gate and make a call that is not well received. The next 24 hours will be the most time I've spent with my family in years. I made excuses for not coming home for Thanksgivings, Christmases. They are the only family Bella has left and I didn't want her to spend the holidays alone. But as it turned out, she wanted about as much to do with my family as she did with me. She didn't want us. It took me years of missed Christmases to accept this as true. And now I am going to see her again for the first time in forever. At a wedding of all places. Alice's wedding. As a general rule, I try not to think about her. It only makes everything more difficult.
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I was relieved when Alice told me that they were going to have the wedding in San Francisco instead of Forks. When I left Forks for college I thought for sure I'd be back, that I'd spend the rest of my life there. Because I wanted to. But I can't go back there now, not when every last inch of that town reminds me of Bella. My mom spoke of Forks like it had a beating heart, flesh and bones. She missed it. Even back when it was that place I'd only heard about in stories, I felt like I belonged there too. It was everything she said it would be. She hadn't been back in years, but she spoke of the little town often, particularly near the end. Her voice was shaky and foreign as she told me, "Whether it is real or a fantasy that my heart has created, it doesn't matter because it has always been my very own reality; a reality that I visit in my mind whenever I need a smile or I need solace in times of trouble and despair." In her last few days, she needed that reality. She needed the solace. I can still see her hands lying motionless by her sides when they should have been gesturing wildly. Sometimes I can hear her voice and it's as if she's sitting right next to me. "It will remain in my memory forever. Even when I'm gone." I couldn't imagine it then. The town. Her being gone. Maybe it was too much, seeking Bella out that first day. But I had to know her. I felt like I did know her, before I even met her. Maybe she could tell that I was already obsessed with her. Maybe we were doomed from the start, from the first day in the cafeteria, from the first day in the barn, but it didn't feel like it then. It felt like the beginning. I've been wrong more times than I care to remember. Thinking about that first day, I can't help but laugh a little. I'd heard about the gossip mill in small towns, but I wasn't prepared for a day like that. We were like caged zoo animals. I drive Alice home from our first day of school. "You doing okay, Al?" "I'm doing okay." She squeezes my hand. Twice. Like mom always did. She watches the town pass us by from the car window. The sprawling pastures and dilapidated buildings make it feel as if it exists in a different era, like it's forever suspended in a much simpler time.
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Everyone here seems to take pity on us for being forced to move to this town. But they don't know what it felt like being in New York after she died. The rage in my lungs and my fists. I thought that living in a town that belonged to her might make it worse, but I finally feel like I can breath again. I know that she is here somewhere. This is the only place she'd want to be. Alice heads straight for her room. I don't see her but I know this. I sit outside, watching the sky. I step off the back porch and into the trees like I'm getting on the 6 train downtown. I don't stop. I'm not sure where I'm going. I'm not sure how I would know if I'm lost. I feel like she's one step ahead of me, and if I can only go fast enough, I'll catch her. I walk like I'm going somewhere. There is a sense of calm in my chest that I haven't felt in a long time, maybe ever. An old barn sits in the distance. Even from here, I can tell it is long abandoned. The elements have beaten the whitewashed walls for decades. Moss and lichen have made purchase on the pitched roof. The heavy barn doors remain permanently open, resigned to the fact that this structure is now only home to bats and field mice. I walk tentatively towards it. Rays of light filter in through the siding. Everything is so alive. Old buildings have seen so much. The walls and beams probably hold thousands of stories. I walk through the massive doors, out of the wind. The wooden support beams have been gnawed to toothpicks in several spots. The place still smells like animals. Horses, cows, goats. I don't know. I don't know about these kinds of things. I climb a rickety old ladder up to some kind of loft. This space belongs to somebody. At least it did once. I feel like I'm trespassing and I probably am. There are stacks of books all around. The classics, mostly. A plaid wool blanket lies folded in the corner. I stand on the top rung of the ladder, not wanting to disrupt the little city of books. The air changes. I'm not alone. I can feel it. "Get out." Her voice.
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I spin around, nearly losing my balance. I laugh at myself. For looking for my dead mother in a dirty old barn. For finding Bella instead. She's glaring at me with those eyes. "I said, get out." I'm staring. Again. Nobody has ever despised me more than this girl. This girl who doesn't even know me. I climb down slowly, watching her. Looking for some indication that she doesn't mean it. Back home, I never would have bothered with a girl like Bella. I can't take my eyes off of her. Even in her anger, she's perfect. She doesn't know that she is beautiful. Maybe that's the difference. Her words tell me I'm not welcome here. Her eyes tell me that this barn belongs to her, maybe not the deed but certainly the soul. Her eyes carry fire and pain and hope. Although I don't think she knows about the hope. But it's there. I can see it. "I'm sorry. I didn't know this place was yours." I try not to sound petulant. "You're borderline stalking me now." Perfect. "That's ridiculous, I'm not stalking you." I can't even convince myself. "Waiting for me at my locker, creeping around in my barn. It's not ridiculous. It's true. What are you doing here, Edward?" "I don't know." "Not good enough." Her eyes are so dark, they're almost black. "I was looking for my mother." I close my eyes the second the words leave my mouth. Now she's going to think I'm crazy. Because stalker wasn't enough. But she doesn't say anything. I open my eyes slowly to find her watching me. Almost curious. "Did you find her?" For a moment, I'm not sure if she's mocking me, but her eyes are pleading for an answer. "For a second, I thought so."
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She fidgets with her hair. It's a tangled mess of snarls from the wind, the strands folded over each other like tree roots that haven't been given enough room to grow properly. I want to reach out and touch it. She'd definitely smack me. She is staring at my feet. Probably wishing they would leave. Not just my feet. All of me. "What would you do if you found her?" Her face is blank. Her eyes hollow. "I don't know." I expect her to push me further, but she doesn't. Silence. The awkward kind. "I should go." She doesn't respond. She watches my feet make their way to the barn doors. "Edward?" Her voice can be so fragile. She's forceful yet delicate. Angry yet ambivalent. "How did she die?" Everyone in this whole town seems to already know the story of my life. But she isn't everyone in this town and I'm grateful. "Lung cancer." The words linger in the air. "Did she smoke?" And now I feel like I'm answering a medical questionnaire. "Um, when she was a teenager." "Did you get to say goodbye?" "She didn't believe in that and neither do I." Bella raises an eyebrow at me. I should shut up but instead I explain further, "She didn't believe in goodbyes. She said that everyone important in your life leaves an impression in your heart and they stay with you forever." I sound like a girl. The corner of her mouth itches to smile as she asks, "Are you sure you're seventeen?" And now she's teasing me. A smile. On both of our faces. We sit cross-legged on the exposed dirt. She asks the questions. I don't get any answers but she gets plenty.
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My mom. My father's broken heart. Alice. How she was. How she is now. Baseball. How I don't play anymore. UCLA. Early admission. Medical School. "You have your whole life planned out already?" Her eyes. "What's wrong with that?" A plan is all I have. "Life doesn't work that way. You never know what's going to happen." "I know what I want." I want you. As the dark settles around us, she suddenly stands up. "I need to get home." I can feel a sudden panic rising in my chest. "I'll walk you." She looks at me like I've just offered to drown a puppy. "No. You won't." "Why do you insist on making everything so difficult?" "I can't do this with you." "Do what? Be a human being?" I regret the words immediately. Maybe even before I say them. Now she looks at me like I've actually drowned her puppy. "Yeah, that's what I thought." "Bella, I'm sorry." All I do is apologize to this girl. But it's too late. And then the dark night swallows her up. The walk home is long and eerie. I would be worried about finding my way back if I could take my mind off Bella. Those eyes. You don't let a girl walk home alone in the dark. I don't care that this isn't the city. The woods hold all kinds of dangers, dangers that I know nothing about. But I lost. And I let her go. I won't do it again. I tell myself that I am only concerned for her safety. I can see my house in the distance. It doesn't belong here. It is mostly dark except
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for the light coming from Alice's room. The wind picks up as I stand in the grassy field, watching. Imagining how different it would be if mom were here too. The stars are unreal. I've never seen so many. They almost look painted on. The cold is numbing, but I want to stay here, on the outside looking in, for just a while longer. I sit on the porch, looking up at the sky until I can barely stay awake. The warm air inside the house burns my face. The floors echo every footstep. I leave the lights off. Somehow the dark makes it seem less empty. I find my dad in his study. The room without windows. His escape. I can't blame him because I envy him. "Hey dad, I'm heading up to bed. Good night." He won't ask me where I've been or what I've been doing. He won't ask me how my day was. I understand. He will ask me about Alice. Only Alice. "Edward, have you spoken with your sister today?" The same question. Every day. "Of course. She's doing fine." He nods and goes back to his paperwork. Endless paperwork. "Edward?" "Yeah, dad?" "Goodnight, son." I board my flight and I force myself to remember that this weekend isn't about what happened between Bella and I. My little sister is getting married. My mom would be so proud of her. I'm proud of her. For living her life. For picking herself up. For letting Jasper love her.
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For loving him back.

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Sticks and Bones


Bella I hate massages. The idea of them. I don't like strangers touching me. But I haven't been touched in years. With the exception of the brush of the checker's hand at the grocery store when he hands me my change, or on the subway when we are packed in like sardines, I haven't been touched, really touched, since Edward. We have a spa appointment. Alice has been buzzing since I arrived at the hotel. Her first question, in the long list of many, was why I've been neglecting my nails. She was also entirely too curious about my "skincare regiment." I humored her. The hands on my back are all wrong. I am supposed to be relaxed, but if I close my eyes as tight as they go, I can almost pretend. Almost. But I don't deserve to pretend. I did this. The massage is over before it began. And I don't know how I'm going to face him. I spend the rehearsal dinner pretending like I'm not staking out the front door to the restaurant, watching for his arrival. I'm irritated and relieved that he isn't here. Carlisle sits across from me and I'm waiting for it. He never speaks directly to me about Edward and I never ask. He usually waits until he knows I'm within earshot. I'm grateful. A family friend sits to his left and when I hear Edward's name mentioned, my eyes fly to them. Carlisle looks me strait in the face when he speaks. "He's not going to make it. Apparently he got caught up at work and missed his flight. He should be getting in late tonight." There is a sympathetic smile and I'm immediately embarrassed.
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I take a deep breath, a long swallow of wine, and the rest of the night passes me by. We have a ridiculously large suite at the St. Francis. Just the girls. We are full and happy from the copious amounts of wine, lying on our backs in our little black dresses on the huge California King in Alice's room. We laugh about how Jasper proposed to Alice. How he carried the ring around in his pocket for weeks, waiting for just the right moment, only to have it fall out at the grocery store. How he realized it almost immediately because he checked his pocket compulsively. How he crawled around on his hands and knees between the customers in the checkout line, frantically searching for the little box. How he rushed home, stormed the living room and asked Alice to marry him while holding four bags of groceries. How she said yes without question. How she said yes. Rosalie and Alice make calls to their boys before we turn in for the night. I stare at the ceiling until I can't fight sleep any longer and have vivid dreams of what was. Of what could have been if things were different. If I had been different. There is a phone ringing. The sound slices through the room and it takes me a minute to get my bearings. We're in the hotel. The sun is just starting to peak in. It is far too early. I'm not ready for the day to start, for several reasons. I want to go back. I hear crying from the other room. I'm up. Alice is crying and trying to talk, but it's impossible to understand her through the sobs. "Alice, take a deep breath. " Rosalie strokes her hair and is the picture of calm. I have no idea what is going on. I don't want to say anything, in fear I will start hyperventilating along with Alice. "He he he said he said he isn't coming!" There is a fresh torrent of tears. And I feel simultaneously devastated and relieved. And guilty for making this about me.
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"Who isn't coming? Alice, who was that?" I can sense the slightest bit of panic in Rose's voice, but she hides it well. "Alice, who was on the phone?" "The caterer! There will be no food at my wedding. You can't have a wedding without foooood!" She covers her face with her hands, and I feel stupid for thinking that anything would keep Edward from being at Alice's wedding. Even me. "What do you mean the caterer isn't coming? Give me his number." Rosalie grabs the phone and angrily presses each one of the buttons. This is why Rosalie is the Maid of Honor. She has a heated exchange with the caterer's assistant, who claims the man is on his way to the hospital with heart palpitations induced by Alice's incessant demands. She's on the phone again. "The caterer just called and cancelled. I don't care, just get up here! She's freaking out. You're the only one who can calm her down when she's like this." Moments later there is a knock at the door. I do the first useful thing of the morning and get up to answer it. He's standing there in his pajamas, disheveled and full of sleep. Not Jasper. Edward. And it's as if the ground has dropped out from under me. My insides feel as if they are about to combust. He brushes past me without a word or even a glance. Nothing. If it's possible to look through someone, he has accomplished it. I don't know what I was expecting. I stand frozen, holding the door open. For a brief moment I wonder if it's possible that he's erased me from his memory. He's at Alice's side. He looks different. Older. He looks the same. He looks like my Edward. He's not. I'm being selfish for wanting his attention. He's here for Alice. It's been years. He probably let go of me a long time ago. And yet somehow, I almost
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expected him to take one look at me and realize that it's not over. That it will never be over. Even after all of these years, his voice is like home. "Alice, listen to me. Look at me. Nobody comes to a wedding for the food. They come to see two people whom they love share their vows. And really, all you need for a wedding is the bride, the groom and a justice of the peace. The food, the cake, the flowers, even the guests, they're all just decoration." "Alice, you have everything you need. We will figure something out for the food. I promise. This is the first day of the rest of your life, do you really want to spend it crying?" She shakes her head. As he wipes the tears from her face, there's a smile. I'm both in awe and ridiculously jealous. It's amazing how his words can calm her. How they do calm her. The ceremony is outdoors, on the grass, overlooking the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. The sky is miraculously clear. Alice has her perfect day. With my arm tucked in Emmett's, I don't trip. All faces turn to Alice as Carlisle walks her down the aisle. There are tears in his eyes. All different kinds of tears at the same time. Alice never takes her eyes off Jasper. Her face is only a smile. The guests trickle out of the parking lot, making the short drive to the Palace of Fine Arts for the reception. The photographer's assistant is arranging us on the stairs. And by arranging, I mean strong-arming. She grabs me by the elbow, dragging me to the other side of the group and shoves me in front of Edward. "Hey, you two on the right, you're going to need to smile." Right. I can't wait for this to be over. And then there is a hand on the small of my back and suddenly I want to stay here forever. One hand and I'm no longer cold, or empty or lost. One hand and it's as if he's the only thing tying me to the earth, preventing me from floating away. I want to lean in to him. I want to do a lot more than that. But Alice may not appreciate me groping Edward against his will in her wedding photos. So I enjoy the moment before it's over. I smile and I mean it.
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I thought I could remember the feeling of his hands on me, but this is better. This is better than any memory. The photographer is finished and pleased with himself. I refuse to be the one to move from this moment. But he moves. And it's over. He turns around and walks straight for Alice's car. We haven't spoken in years. Maybe I was stupid to think we would ever speak again. We have two cars, but only one set of keys. Six people in Alice's Audi. Jasper driving. Emmett in the front seat. Edward climbs in the back. Rosalie gives me the death stare. "Bella, if you think I'm sitting bitch, you've got another thing coming." Edward stares out the window as I slide in next to him. Rosalie follows after me. The right side of my body pressed up against his feels like fire. Alice is getting ready to throw herself over our laps in all of her wedding dress glory, when the fire disappears. He is out the other door and shouting back to us without turning around. "I'll see you guys there. I need some fresh air." Emmett chases after Edward and suddenly we have more than enough room in the car. After circling for parking for the third time, I'm starting to think that walking was the better plan. Jasper drops Rosalie and I off, and we make our way to the rotunda. They don't let you reserve the rotunda but Alice had her heart set on the reception being under it. She reserved the grass and had Emmett waiting when the furniture was delivered this morning. She thought she was being clever. The guests are huddled next to the four space heaters and those that don't fit are shivering in groups against the walls. The women are using their hands to keep their dresses from being blown up around their shoulders, much to Emmett's dismay. It turns out the rotunda is a virtual wind tunnel. The beautiful four-foot, orchid centerpieces are crashing down all around us. The ones that Rosalie spent a total of three months helping Alice decide on. There is broken glass everywhere. The cake is covered in dirt, from the wind. Alice is going to lose her shit. Rosalie and I stand there helplessly, mouths gaping. It is starting to look like the
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aftermath of an earthquake. Not today. "Alright everyone, my sister is on her way." Edward. "Let's see what we can do to make this the wedding reception she wanted. There is a grassy spot over to my left that seems pretty protected from the wind. We're going to go ahead and move the tables over that way. Start grabbing chairs, flower arrangements, place settings whatever you can carry!" And just like that everyone is in motion. Elderly women, children, even a few random people from the park are carrying something. How does he do that? Alice and Jasper arrive just in time to see us carrying the last of the tables to our new location. Rosalie and I both freeze. Alice assesses the scene before her. She is grinning from ear to ear. I wonder what she sees. And then she is laughing. Jasper watches her with the most heart-wrenching, adoring look. He loves her more than he ever thought possible. Clearly, there is no longer anything that could take the joy away from Alice on her wedding day. Nothing. The caterer cancelling was the best thing that could have happened. A little perspective. Edward. Dinner is hours late. Some people get steak, some chicken, some fish. Three different restaurants willing to cater at the last minute. Nobody complains about the food. The wind and the furniture moving have bonded us all. There are speeches and toasts, and mentions of Esme Cullen. Alice's eyes go glassy as her guests speak with reverence of her mother. Edward kisses Alice's temple and assures her that she is here with them still. Always. The sun has set. The band is drowned out by an impromptu 80's dance party on the other side of the rotunda. Alice drags me by the arm. I would be kicking and screaming, but this is her wedding day and it's not about me. Luckily there is just a sea of people jumping up and down. I can do that. Bottles of liquor are passed among the crowd. Strangers cheer for the bride and groom. We are all drunk and happy. Even me. I spot his smile from across the crowd. That smile. Oh, that smile that used to make me melt and still does. I thought maybe that part might have changed, but it hasn't, and in this moment I realize that it probably never will. He doesn't see me watching him. There is a hand on my ass. It is all wrong. "Hey there, you pretty little thing."
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I spin around. "Don't touch me." His crooked teeth in my face. "Hey I was just trying to make a new friend. No harm in that." The words fall out of his mouth and I can taste the alcohol on his breath. "Yeah, well, keep your hands off of me." He grabs my arm as I try to make my way over to Alice and Rosalie. "She said not to touch her! Let her go, you little fuck." Edward's voice. Edward's angry, possessive, protective voice. It makes my heart stop. The little fuck releases my arm, but makes no effort to move away. "What is she, your wife or something? I didn't see a ring." There is no response, only punches, punches that knock the little fuck to the ground. Edward is on top of him, wailing on his face. The little fuck gets Edward square in the jaw. The crowd gathers as Emmett peals Edward off of the little fuck. My first instinct is to go to him, to touch his face and kiss his bleeding lip. Rosalie is glaring at me. I deserve it. Edward shrugs Emmett off of him and makes a hasty exit. I move to follow him but Rosalie has me by the arm. "Don't you even dare." I don't. Carlisle shakes his head and it's like we're teenagers again. He catches my eye for a second and his expression softens. "I'll go check on him." I watch them from where I stand. It's like living on the outside of a snow globe. I can see everything, but I'm not allowed to touch. "Come on, Bella, I think it's time to get out of here." Rosalie's voice has lost it's edge. She sounds resigned. I don't like it. We take a cab back to the hotel. I close the door between our rooms. I tell myself that I'm giving Rose and Emmett privacy, but really I just don't want them to see me fall apart. They've seen enough. I curl up on the bed and I'm eighteen again. Alice, Edward and I walk to the corner market for lunch. Half the school is here
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too. Mike brushes past me as I reach for my sandwich from the deli counter and I swear he intentionally gropes my boob. "Hey, Swan." All of his facial expressions are some variation of a smirk. Jessica is staring at me like I'm trying to steal her man. She's funny. And if looks could kill. Edward's eyes are something else. We walk out front to eat. "That chick is batshit crazy." Mike and his cronies. "You know she was in the car for two days with her dead mom before they found her?" I freeze in the doorway and hold my breath. "Still, I wouldn't hesitate to stick my dick in that piece of ass." Mike. Alice reaches for Edward's arm. "Edward, just ignore him, please." All I hear is, "Shut the fuck up, Newton." Mike spins around. The definitive smirk. "What's it to you?" He motions to me, "I bet she's kinky in bed." Edward tenses for one second. I can feel it in the air. I can see it in his shoulders and his eyes and his fists. He flies at Mike. His fist in Mike's face. Once. Twice. Three times. Blood. Lots of blood. Blood on concrete. There is a blinding pressure building behind my eyes as my vision starts to blur and I have to get out of here. I start running. I can hear Alice calling after me but I can't stop. I run until my legs are jelly. The pain in my lungs is a welcomed distraction. I run past the house, straight to my barn. I sit on the splintered wood of the loft, my feet dangling over the edge, with my face in my hands trying to figure out what happened.
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Time passes as it always does when I try to forget. Alice is standing tentatively in the doorway. "Bella?" "Hey." She takes that as an invitation to come in. She pauses at the bottom of the ladder. "May I come up?" I pull my legs up and scoot back. That's the only response she is going to be getting. And apparently that's enough for her. Must be a Cullen trait. She pokes her head over the last wrung of the ladder. "Are you okay?" "I'm not the one who was in a fist fight." She hands me a folded piece of paper. I open it up and it's his handwriting. I'm sorry. Please don't be mad at me. "He means it." "Where is he?" "He thought you wouldn't want to see him. He thinks he's ruined your relationship. Edward can be so dramatic." "Relationship?" "Your friendship. He thinks he's ruined your friendship." She rolls her eyes at me. "Besides, his face is kind of messed up." I cringe at the thought. "I don't understand why he would do that for me. I don't understand why he does any of it." "Isn't it obvious?" Is it? I've quit trying to make sense of Edward Cullen. "No."
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Alice knits her brow together like she doesn't believe me. Something about her makes me want to tell her everything. But wanting something and actually doing it are two very different things. So I settle for telling her something that's true. "Half the time I feel like he's trying to save me from something and the rest of the time like he's trying to keep me." She laughs, but I'm not trying to be funny. "Edward is simple and complicated." "Okay." "You know, I've always looked up to him. I idolized him when we were kids. Even though he's only three months older, he'll always be my big brother. My big brother who cried when he released the lightening bugs." "Lightening bugs?" "He's going to kill me for telling you this story. Edward and I used to spend the summers with our grandparents in Maryland. The lightening bugs would come out at dusk. We'd go out in the street with mason jars and catch as many as we could. My grandma would yell at us for using her sewing scissors to poke holes in the lids." She giggles and I wonder what it would have been like to live in their childhood. "This one time, Edward must have caught hundreds. Literally hundreds. They lit up the whole jar. He set it by his bed that night. We shared a room. I remember watching him, watching his face. He was fascinated by those little things. He told me he was going to keep them forever. The jar turned from yellow to green and eventually to pitch black. I can remember the look of horror on his face as the fireflies sunk to the bottom of the jar, their tiny wings hitting the glass." I can easily picture Edward as a little boy. He still has that face. "After the jar went completely black, he jumped from his bed, ran to the window, and opened it up. The little bugs lit up again and flew into the night sky. He was smiling so wide as a tear ran down his cheek." I can't imagine Edward crying. Ever. "I remember asking him how he could be happy and sad at the same time. You know what he said?"
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"No. What?" "He told me it was because he wanted two different things but couldn't have both. I didn't understand what he meant then, but I always remembered those words. Edward has always been an old soul." "How old were you?" "Probably about nine." About nine. "The next morning, by grandma found all the mason jars in the basement shattered into a million pieces. She was none to pleased with him. But that's Edward. He is ruled by his heart. While he's practical to a fault, he's also ridiculously impulsive. And he has a constant need to defend and protect. He would never hurt you. You know that, right?" "Yeah, I know." "He just cares about you, that's all." I know she's right. I don't know what to do with that. "Will you tell him I'm sorry too?" "What are you sorry for?" "For being the way I am." She looks at me with the oddest expression. "Bella, don't ever apologize for who you are." She smiles and it's almost like we're friends. I run my fingertips over the rough wood floor as Alice climbs down the ladder. She calls out to me as she leaves, "Good night, Bella." Good night, Alice. I watch the sun set from my little window in my barn. There is something hauntingly beautiful about watching the night descend. I hear him before I see him. "Can I walk you home?"
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I don't say no. His face is swollen and bruised and pain. I hardly recognize him but the eyes are the same. Seeing him this way makes me realize I don't know him. And I want to. I want to know him and it's strange to want anything. "Edward" "I'm fine. I promise. I've had worse." His words make my stomach turn. We walk side by side. This is the kind of change that's too foreign to trust. Winter is here and the trees are only sticks and bones. His fingers ghost past mine as we walk. And I am the one who wants two different things at the same time. Still in my silver dress, curled up in a ball like a stray cat, I let the tears fall. I let my mascara mark up the ridiculously expensive pillowcases. I knew I still missed him. I didn't realize how much. There is a knock, so quiet at first I'm not sure if I'm imagining it. Then louder. I tiptoe to the door and peak through the peephole. Edward. I can hear my heart in my ears. "Bella?" Seconds. Maybe minutes. The first word he has spoken directly to me since the day I ruined everything. I wrestle awkwardly with the lock for what seems like forever as my heart threatens to beat out of my chest. Finally, I throw the door open. He takes a step back. My eyes go to his swollen lip.
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He's still the most beautiful man I've ever seen. His eyes scan between the floor and the end of the hallway, as if he's contemplating making a run for it. "Edward, I" He silences me with one look. Standing there in my crumpled dress and splotchy, tear-stained face, I wonder how I've survived so many years without him. "I just wanted to apologize for tonight. I lost control. I should have let you take care of yourself. I'm sorry for doing that. You're not you're not mine to protect. Anymore." "Edward" I take a step toward him. He moves back. "Bella, don't. Please." Rosalie said he was happy but this isn't happy. This is tortured and pain. I did this. "Edward, I just" "I said, don't!" His voice cracks. He won't let me fix this. I squeeze my eyes shut. When I open them he's staring. His eyes stay and for a moment he looks at me like he used to. "I should have said yes, okay? I should have said yes." The tears burn my cheeks. I can see him searching for the lie. Maybe he thinks he's found it. Maybe he knows there is no lie in my words. In my eyes. "I shouldn't have proposed." The dark gets darker. He turns, and just like that, he's gone. I'm standing in the hallway. Alone. For a second, I wonder if he was ever here at all.

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Dreams and Empty Space


Edward "I should have said yes." Everything goes cloudy. Bella's face crinkles as the tears fall freely and the words tumble out. The words that I always wanted to hear but told myself I never would. I want to believe her but I don't know how. My fingers twitch to wipe her tears away, but my mind knows that she doesn't want it. Even in a rumpled dress, sniffles and crying, she is still beautiful. More beautiful than I remembered. And even after all this time, she still doesn't know it. "I shouldn't have proposed." The words feel wrong, but it's the best apology I can give. I want to tell her that I'm sorry. I'm sorry for trying to force her to love me, but the words won't come. I turn my back on her and if I don't leave now, everything will unravel. Everything. All I know is that I have to go. I find myself in the stairwell, surrounded by cold concrete. My back against the wall, I sink to the ground. It wasn't supposed to go like this. This wasn't my plan. I had gone over it in my head a thousand times on the plane. What I would say to her when I saw her. The words, the expression, the tone. And yet, I said nothing. I did nothing. I couldn't speak to her. Couldn't lie to her. Couldn't tell her about my life or ask about hers. Couldn't pretend like I knew nothing of her career as a book editor. The fact that I was proud of her success. And even though Alice reassured me, promised me that she was coming alone, that she was single, part of me didn't believe her. I kept waiting for some sign that
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she had someone in her life. I was a hypocrite. I knew this. I didn't care. And then when I saw that little fuck smiling at her, for a split second I thought maybe they knew each other. Jealousy erupted in every vein in my body. But when he grabbed her, the jealousy was immediately replaced with rage. I exploded. Acting on instinct alone. Protect her. Always. With my fists. It was stupid. So stupid. So, I went over it again. The apology. What I should say to her. Again with the words, the expression, the tone. But there she was, standing before me and I was immediately lost. I never could have imagined being the one to run from her. Not then. On days like today, when I let myself remember, it feels like someone else's life. I close my eyes and I'm back at Forks High. I watch her walk right past me. Bella. She doesn't acknowledge me. At all. I'm almost comforted by her predictability. She is locked in her own head, walking through these halls as if nobody else exists. I have the urge to follow her. I don't. "Hey, sexy." Rosalie is under the impression that I belong to her. I look past her to catch one last glimpse of Bella but she's gone. I'm losing my mind. "Rosalie, I told you not to call me that. People are going to start to think we're fucking." She looks up at me through her lashes and she's clearly been practicing in front of a mirror. "Maybe we should be." She flashes a coy smile as she twirls a strand of hair around her pointer finger. I look at Rosalie, really look at her. Perfect everything. This girl belongs in porn. And she knows it.
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What is my problem? But I know what my problem is. Rosalie runs her hand up my chest, and my skin crawls. I keep scanning for Bella over her shoulder. And then I see her, deer in headlights, staring back at me. My eyes meet hers for only a second, but it's long enough. She looks away, rosy cheeks and frowning, and ducks into her next class. Rosalie clears her throat and I hate her. I've never had the desire to hit a girl before. "I hear Mike Newton is waiting for you to get on your knees." I almost regret saying it. But this girl doesn't respond to subtlety. She gives me a shove and her face is utter shock. "Go, fuck yourself, Edward." Sometimes being a prick is the only way. My eyes flash open and the memory is gone just like that. I wish I could go back and do it all again. Do it better. But I can't, so I do the only thing that I know how to do. I step off the plane at LAX and back into the life I worked so hard to construct. I take a cab home. I unlock the door, the familiar click of the dead bolt mocking me. I step hesitantly into my dark house. I take a long shower, standing motionless under the water. Eyes closed. I know better. Some things can't be washed away. I towel dry my hair and stare at myself in the mirror. My busted lip. My hair sticking up every which way. I look like a younger version of myself and it's terrifying. I slip on a pair of boxers and slide silently into bed, thoughts swarming in my head. A warm arm wraps around my waist.
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Her voice thick with sleep, "Did you have a nice time with your family?" "Yeah." "I missed you." I pull her closer to me and plant a kiss on her forehead, wincing at the pain in my lip. I'll have to explain it to her tomorrow. Some of it, anyway. She'll forgive me. She always forgives me. "Goodnight Tanya." She settles into my side and I watch her drift peacefully back into sleep. I didn't invite her to the wedding. I pretend not to know why. She's met Alice a handful of times. She's never met my father. I tell myself that it's because even I rarely see them. Maybe I don't want them to get attached to her. But there is a sparkly ring in a little box in my dresser drawer that says otherwise. I watch Tanya's eyes flutter under her lids and it occurs to me that I've never wondered what kinds of things she dreams about. Does she wonder about my dreams? Truth be told, I'd most certainly lie if faced with the question. My dreams always bring me back to that place, to that time in my life where only one person mattered. The dark of night breaks my tenuous control over my memories. I can feel sleep chasing me and for the first time in a long time, I don't fight it. The loft in the barn is rickety and probably dangerous, but Bella loves it here. Today I'm not even pretending to do my homework. I'm propped up on my elbow, just watching her read. She's been reading the same page for the last ten minutes. She knows I'm watching her and I'm making her self-conscious. She's laying on her back and the way her hair is draped around her, all shiny brown and long waves, makes me so hopelessly frustrated. And it's in this moment that I realize that I would do anything for this girl.
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A small smile sneaks up on her face and she closes the book with a huff. But she's not mad. Not at me, anyway. "Edward, why do you do that?" "Do what?" She covers her eyes with her arm, elbow up, as if not being able to see me changes everything. Makes everything easier. Now that I've lost her eyes, I watch her mouth. "Why do you watch me like that?" "Like what?" "Like, I don't know, like that." I don't know what to tell her that won't freak her out. Because I'd rather watch you then read a book. Because I could watch you forever. Because you're beautiful. When I don't answer right away she peaks out from under her arm and the relief in her eyes makes it seem as if she was afraid I had disappeared. And in those rare moments when she actually looks at me, it's almost painful. She's looking for something and if I knew what it was, I would give it to her. Her eyes are gone before I have a chance to figure it out. She pulls her book up in front of her face, blocking my view. The wind whistles through the slits in the barn walls and she shivers. "You could put that blanket to good use, you know." She slides the book down her face until only her eyes are peaking out. Serious. And I would do anything to be able to wrap my arms around her right now. "I'm not cold." I laugh at her and then her eyes start to crinkle. I reach out and pull the book
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from her face and she's smiling. And then she's laughing and it's the only thing that matters. "Okay, I'm freezing my ass off." "Alright, up." "What?" "Get up." She eyes me wearily but she stands. We're finally to the point where not everything has to be a fight. I pick up the blanket and start to wrap it around her before she has a chance to protest. "Edward, what are you doing?" "I'm making you into a burrito." Another laugh. By the time I'm finished, she looks like a little plaid mummy, standing in the middle of the loft. She tries to sit and immediately stumbles, all giggles and shrieks. I catch her before she falls and she meets my eyes for a second before she looks away, still smiles. I prop her up against her pillow and I don't want to let go of her. Ever. She clears her throat. "Since I no longer have arms, I need someone to read to me." She looks around expectantly. When I pick Of Mice and Men up from it's resting spot, I get that smile. So I read, out loud. She tops me after a couple of sentences.
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"You have to do the voices." "The what?" "Lennie and George! They don't sound the same. You have to do the voices." I look over the page and of course it's all dialogue. I am not doing the voices. Except I will and I do. Stumbling over the words, trying not to die of embarrassment, I read page after page. Bella is in hysterics for most of it. And I realize that today is the first time that I've really heard her laugh like that. Like she means it. After her giggling subsides, I still feel a little ridiculous, reading to her like a children's librarian. When I look up, there is still a smile, but in her eyes this time. "Go on. Steinbeck suits you." I don't know what that means, but I nod and get back to it. Twenty minutes later, I glance up from the page and she's asleep. She looks so innocent with her guard down. Like a younger Bella. I reach my hand out to her face, hovering there. I drop it back down to my side before I do something stupid. I close the book and I just want to watch her forever. For the longest time, she's completely still, like a doll, but eventually she's fidgeting and mumbling and tangling herself up in the blanket. She's just about the cutest thing I've ever seen. Soon there is nothing but the sound of the rain hitting the roof, drowning out the world. I lie down next to her. Close, but not touching. I whisper into her, "Please." And I don't know what I'm asking for. Maybe everything. I let my eyes close for just a minute. I can feel her all around me even though she
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isn't touching me. I want to stay here always. I listen to the rain until there's nothing left. "Edward." My eyes flash open. To meet pitch black. I'm momentarily confused until I realize that I must have fallen asleep. And Bella is touching me. Her face in my chest. I go to back away on instinct, but I can't move. She has my shirt balled up in her tiny little fist. I whisper into her hair, "Bella?" She doesn't answer except to pull me closer. As my eyes adjust to the night, I can see her dreaming face. Dreams or nightmares, I don't know. I kiss her hair and wrap myself around her and just breathe. I wake with a start, in a cold sweat, disoriented. Deep breath. Dreaming about waking up always disturbs me. It seems so real that when I do wake up, I don't trust it. The room is still dark and Tanya has rolled to the far side of the bed. I stare at the empty space between us, feeling an inexplicable loss. Tanya is real and she's here. I tell myself over and over again. Everything suddenly seems all wrong. These sheets and this bed and this room and this house and this city and this life. I focus on the dark ceiling and run my hands through my hair. I need to get a grip before it all slips away. I will myself not to remember my dreams in the morning.

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A/N: Just checking in. I'm not a huge fan of author's notes, so I'll keep it short. I know it's all looking pretty bleak right now but if you'll bear with me, the story will pick up. Okay, not immediately, but I promise it will! There is a lot of back story that explains how these two got to where they are. This is my first fic and I'd love to get some feedback. Thanks for reading and extra thanks to those of you who have taken the time to review :)

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Car Alarms and Screech Owls


Bella We're back to being nearly three thousand miles away from each other and the tears have dried up. I feel strangely vindicated, thinking about those words that he said to me. The regret. Because I knew it would come. I always knew. There is a sense of relief the moment I arrive at my building. A comfortable familiarity returning, now that I'm back in New York. The night doorman shuffles quickly to the door as I struggle with my luggage. "Good evening Ms. Swan." "Please, just Bella." "Good evening, Ms. Bella. Nice trip?" I don't know what to say, so I smile and pass him by. "Oh, Ms. Bella?" I squeeze my eyes shut and take a deep breath before I turn to face him. "Yes?" "I'm afraid there's a screech owl, built her nest outside your window. Making all kinds of racket. Your neighbors have been complaining about it all weekend. I hope it doesn't cause you too much bother." Fuck my life. I nod, determined not to panic. Pass the mailboxes. Go up the stairs. Round the corner. I take the elevator up to the top floor and navigate the maze of hallways to my apartment.
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As the sun falls behind the trees, I make my way to my barn. I've been going every day. I tell myself that it has nothing to do with Edward but I'm a terrible liar. Even when we don't talk, the company is nice. His company. The way he looks at me. Like I'm real. I walk through the open doors expecting him to be waiting for me, but the barn is silent and still. I feel a sudden pang of disappointment, but it's brushed away as quickly as it came. I've been coming here for years, long before Edward. I don't need him. I climb up to my loft and light the lantern. This place is dirty and falling apart. And I smile because it's mine. I drag my fingers over the books in the nearest pile. I've read them all. I close my eyes, choosing one at random. To Kill a Mockingbird. I wipe the dust from the spine and curl up in my spot by the window. I love the smell of old books. Maybe it's not the smell so much as the mystery of who else flipped through these same pages, read these same words. I try to read before my mind has a chance to get away from itself. But sometimes someone else's words are not enough. I can't focus. Why isn't he here? Maybe he's had enough. Before I've sufficiently convinced myself that I don't care, I hear his voice. "Bellaaaaa?" He sounds almost giddy. My heart jumps. I can't help but smile, but I don't answer. I don't move from my spot on my blanket. I can see his hair peeking over the ledge, then his eyes, then his smile. His smile with his perfect teeth. "We're going owling." His eyes are thrilled with this plan. "We're going what? I don't kill birds." I hide behind my book. "We're not going to kill anything. It's like bird watching, except with owls." "Last time, I checked, owls were birds." I look at him like he's a moron. Only because he's not.
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"Stop trying to make me feel stupid. We're going owling." "Alright, City Boy, how exactly does one go owling?" "It's simple. We walk into the woods with nothing but a flashlight and our parkas and look for owls." Oh, dear lord. "Clearly, this is a well thought out plan. Unfortunately, I don't have my parka. Maybe next time." His smile grows impossibly wider as he tosses a huge purple jacket over the loft railing. It falls limp at my feet. "Edward, you don't know the first thing about finding an owl in the forest. You're going to get us lost. Our search and rescue will be all over the news. Charlie will" "Bella, haven't you ever done anything dangerous in your entire life?" A laugh escapes my mouth before I can stop it. His grin isn't going anywhere. "Are we still talking about owling? Wow, City Boy, you sure are a wild child." "Okay, so we've established that it's not dangerous. Let's go." He jumps from where he's standing on the ladder. "Don't forget the parka. It's cold." Arguing with him at this point is more trouble than it's worth. I pull the photo of my mother from my pocket to use as a bookmark. I can't help but stare at her face. "Bella?" "I'll be right down." "Here, you can even wear my gloves." He tosses one up. Then the other. I reluctantly close my book with my mother inside it and set it on top of the nearest pile. I throw on the jacket and scoot to the edge of the loft, my legs hanging over. "Don't say I never did anything for you." "I wouldn't dream of it." He winks at me. He fucking winks at me. We make our way through several pastures to the edge of the woods. "So, Edward, what inspired this beauty idea?" He shrugs, "I've always wanted to go owling."
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"You are so bizarre, you know that?" "Why is that weird?" "Because it's something that old people do. It's right between Bingo night and knitting. Bingo, owling, knitting." His laugh lights up his entire face. "I guess I'm an old man at heart. I had this book when I was little about this kid that goes owling with his dad. I always wanted to try it." Suddenly it doesn't sound so lame. I don't tell him this. "So, what are the rules?" "You have to be patient. And silent. I'm pretty sure those are the only rules." His smirk. I make an active decision not to look at his face. But my feet are only interesting for so long. As we walk through the woods I chance a few peaks. It's alarming, and yet somehow comforting, that he's always watching me. We walk for what seems like hours into the dark forest. Only the sound of the leaves under our feet. I can't feel my face. I'm about ready to call it a failed owling mission. "Edw" his hand flies to cover my mouth and he begs me with his eyes to be quiet. We both freeze. There is the faintest sound in the distance. An owl. Edward's eyes are incredibly wide. He's kind of precious like this. His hand is gone, but only for a second. He takes my gloved hand in his, like it's nothing. I stare at his fingers wrapped around mine as we walk slowly in the direction of the sound. Only silence. And now that he's no longer watching me, I can't help but watch him. My eyes travel from his fingers to his face. He looks like a little boy. And it's like I've never seen him before this moment. Nothing but the moon on his face. The trees casting shadows along his jaw. His mouth slightly open, in awe.
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My heart in my chest. He stops suddenly and turns on the flashlight. His other hand remains in mine. I follow the path of the light as it illuminates the tree in front of us. Time stops. There is a huge, honest-to-goodness, real life owl staring back at us. Piercing eyes. Patterned feathers. A wildness that is electrifying. It is staring directly at me. I feel impossibly small. And then without warning, it swoops down over our heads and it's gone. The flashlight falls to the ground with a thud. We both squeal like schoolgirls. I haven't felt this alive in years. I don't want to think about what that says about me. With the need for quiet gone, the silence settles uncomfortably around us. My hand still in his. His eyes on me. My eyes on his feet. He pulls me closer, forcing me to face him, but I won't look at his eyes. I don't know how to do this. With his free hand, he brushes my hair from my face. It's cold enough that I can see my breath. I can feel his breath on my face. My heart is having issue with all of it. He pulls a tiny wisp of a feather from my hair. We both chuckle. Before I can stop myself, I'm looking into his eyes. I regret it immediately. Even in the dark, those eyes say too much. More than I can handle. I feel like I might drown at any moment. And then I realize that we're closer. I don't know if it was him or if it was me. All I know is that we are. I haven't let myself feel anything in ten years. Nothing. It's too much. And I have to ruin it. "I'm freezing cold. I can't feel my face." A whisper. He keeps his eyes on mine. Like he's looking for secrets. He pulls the hood of my jacket over me. The back of his hand brushes against my cheek. Shivers and goose
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bumps. And my face is not cold compared to that hand. He traces my face with his fingertips, leaving a trail of fire behind. Across my brow. Down my cheek. Along my jaw. Over my lips. Like a blind man. "Edward?" His hands stay. His mouth hovers over mine and cold no longer exists. Everything else slowly falls away. The heat of his breath burns my face. There is a part of my mind that is panicked and there is another part, a louder part, that is desperate, screaming for him to kiss me. For a moment, I'm worried that I spoke the words out loud, but it no longer matters as he closes the gap and lightly, so very, very lightly kisses the corner of my mouth. So gently, I'm not sure if I'm imagining it. I stand motionless, afraid to move, afraid to breathe, and then his lips are my lips. Soft and barely there. My arms hang limp at my sides. I feel impossibly alive, yet paralyzed. Small kisses that go to my toes. Slow. Soft. Silent. He kisses me like I'm fragile. Like I've been glued back together too many times. It's maddening. I want him to kiss me like I'm bullet proof. For a second, I feel like I am. And I'm kissing him. I'm kissing him back. He tastes like Christmas. Sweet and spicy. Soft and scratchy. He pulls at my bottom lip with his lips and a strange sound escapes my mouth. I would be embarrassed but it seems I no longer have a capacity for such things. My hands. They no longer belong to me. And I suddenly hate these gloves. And now his mouth is fire. And everything. My heart in my chest, like a freight train.
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It's too much, and I don't know how to feel this without feeling the rest of it. I break away but I'm too late. I'm too late and now the rest of it is here too. The day everything changed. Car alarms and screaming. Sirens. The air is too thick to breath. The screaming is better than the silence in the front seat. The smell of blood mixed with concrete. I am nine years old. I am the Cowardly Lion. I close my eyes tight, as tight as they go. Maybe when I open them, I won't still be trapped here. I wait for minutes, hours, maybe days. Even with my eyes closed, I know that there is no sun. Only black. Loud banging noises. And then the light comes with the voices. They don't sound like regular voices. They sound like they are coming from a cave or maybe underwater. I don't think I'm underwater. More silence. But I don't want the silence any more. I can't bear it. I can feel the panic rising, poised to boil over. I watch myself crawl over her and pound the horn. Again. Again. Again. More screaming. The good kind this time. Shouts and Panic. If there could be good panic, this would be it. There are lights and arms. There are so many arms, but no faces. Power tools. And arms, pulling. And I am free. And cold. And surrounded. And alone. But I'm not in the car. Not even close. The forest floor. "Bella." He says my name like it's a goodbye. Edward. The only hands on my face are mine. "Bella, I'm sorry." There is almost panic in his voice. In his voice. "Edward, please don't." "Please don't what?" And I can't look at his face anymore.
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"I can't do this with you." "Bella, don't tell me you didn't feel that." "I felt nothing." He's looking for the lie, but I won't let him see my eyes. I'm a terrible liar. I'm in front of my apartment, key in hand, staring at my locked door, no concept of how long I've been standing here. I fidget with the lock, suddenly desperate to get inside. The door shut, locked, dead bolted, I go immediately to the living room windows and close the blinds. As if that will help anything. I pull my phone from my pocket and stare at the screen. Countless emails. Voicemails. Even more missed calls. I will do what I've done for years, the one thing that I'm good at. I will wear the mask. I will play the part. I will smile and laugh. I'm independent. I'm strong. I'm happy. I pretend. I make good money. I let the other money sit. I ignore it. I don't want it. I throw myself into my work so that there isn't a spare moment to think about him. I go in early and stay late. I sit in my office and ignore the irony of my job. I pick apart someone else's words for a living. I fix their mistakes. I tell them when they aren't giving me enough. I'm a fraud, a hypocrite. But they listen to me. They buy it. Maybe one day I will become so good at pretending that even I will believe the lie.

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Storms and Photographs


Edward I turn the small box over in my hand, running my thumb over the velvet. I open it and try to imagine her saying yes. Tanya. I only see Bella's face. And it's a no. The box closes with a snap. I toss it back into the drawer and slam it shut. Standing in the doorway to the kitchen, I watch her make breakfast. She doesn't see me. Her blonde hair hangs down her back in long waves. She hums a song I don't recognize while she flits around the kitchen. I try to remember all of the reasons I bought that ring. She's smart. She's generous. She's pretty. And she loves me. As I've done yesterday, the day before that, and every day since I met her, I try to convince myself that it's enough. She turns and catches me staring. A smile that slowly fades as she assesses my mood. "Edward, what's wrong?" "Nothing." I'm a liar. I spend the next few days, weeks, months trying to go back to the way things were but sometimes there is no going back. It's a Friday. I rush home from work ready to be chastised for making us late for our reservation. I open the front door, expecting to see Tanya waiting for me, raised eyebrows and pursed lips. The house is too silent to be trusted. "Tanya?" There's no answer. I walk hurriedly into the bedroom and my stomach
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turns sour. She's wearing an ice blue cocktail dress, showing just enough of her perfectly tanned and toned skin, and every strand of her hair is immaculately curled. Her bright blue eyes are as wide as ever, staring at the little velvet box that sits in the palm of her hand. She turns it over, much the same way I've done a thousand times. "Tanya" I don't know what to say. I should know. She peaks up at me through her lashes, her eyes filled with hopes for the future. "Is this for me?" "Yes," is all that comes out. It's true but it's not everything. The day I bought that ring for Tanya, I spent the whole time pushing Bella's face from my mind. Her face. Her touch. Her laugh. Her smell. Her blush. Her toes. It felt like a betrayal and it still does, only to the wrong woman. Tanya deserves more than a man who's thinking of another woman's toes when buying her engagement ring. I thought I just needed time. Time is supposed to heal all wounds. But time hasn't been nearly enough. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ruin it." Her eyes are pleading. I want to tell her that she didn't ruin anything. It's been ruined since before it began. She sets the box down and motions toward it. "I didn't look." I want to tell her that it doesn't matter. "Tanya" "No, it's okay, Edward. I'll wait until you're ready to ask me. I'll wait as long as you need." She means it. I'm a bastard. Then I realize that I wanted her to find the ring. I needed her to find that ring, all so that I could tell her that I can't ever give it to her. This is the kind of man I've become.
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"Time isn't what I need." The hope on her face gives way to confusion. "Tell me what you need, Edward, and I'll give it to you." I feel it in the pit of my stomach. "You can't." The tears well up in her eyes. "Is this about her?" "Who?" It's an accusation, even though she is the one who should be accusing me. "Bella." Hearing her name on Tanya's lips is a shock to my system. For a second, I can see Bella's tear stained face staring back at me, and then she's gone. We don't talk about Bella. I shake my head. "What makes you think that this has anything to do with Bella?" "Bella doesn't matter, Edward." A stake to the heart. "I didn't ask you if she mattered." I can feel it unraveling. I fight the urge to defend her against the woman that I'm supposed to love. "I asked you what made you think this was about Bella." Tanya's hands go up in the air, exasperated. "I found your photographs, alright?" "What?" But I know exactly what she means. "The ones you keep in that old book. You don't have a single possession that you care about except for that stupid book. I didn't even read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, Edward. I had to see why you were so attached to it. For the record, I still don't get it. I know it's a metaphor and everything but mockingbirds are obnoxious." All I have left of her.
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There is a wicked storm raging outside. Alice is in the kitchen, which means my dad isn't home. She is stirring the contents of a huge pot and it's the most amazing smell on the planet. "Please tell me that's dinner." She smiles at me and it's disarming to see mom in her face. "Italian Wedding Soup." Something they used to make together. I sit by the window and watch the storm as she cooks. The wind whips against the house, rattling it's bones. The rain pounds against the ground, as the driveway becomes a river. A chill runs through me and I can't help but wonder what Bella is doing in this moment. She hasn't been to the barn in days. As far as I can tell, anyway. Not since the night I kissed her in the woods. The blanket remains in the loft. I've memorized the folds. Every book in the same spot. I still go, just in case. I don't want to keep her away from something that she loves. But it's my only chance to talk to her. Alone. Without the prying eyes and ears at school. The barn was the one place where she would talk to me. "Hey, Al, I'll be back in an hour. I have to go check on something." "You're going out in this?" She looks at me like I'm crazy, but I don't blame her because I am. "You used to love the rain. Remember when we'd run around in our underwear in the pouring rain?" "Yeah, I remember. But that is not rain." She points to the window with a look of utter disgust. And she's right. I walk out the front door without a coat. There is no use in attempting to stay dry. In the half hour it takes me to get to the barn, I can think of nothing but her face. Her eyes. How they say everything and nothing at all. The way her nose turns pink when she's cold. Her lips. How soft they are. The way she kissed me back.
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As I walk through the open barn doors, I tell myself that she won't be here but a small part of me still expects to find her curled up with a book. While it's a relief to be out of the pelting rain, the mud under my feet is thicker than anything and it's seeping into my shoes before I can do anything about it. They're ruined. I kick them off at the bottom of the ladder and peel off my nasty socks. I climb up in my bare feet, holding on to a sliver of hope that she'll be up in the loft. She's not. The scene in front of me is horrifying. Everything is sopping wet. Everything. The blanket. The books. A hole in the roof. And the water continues to pour in. I feel like I might throw up. They're just books. Just books. But I know that they're so much more than that. To her. Somehow I feel responsible for all of it. I take the top book off of the nearest pile and make my way down the ladder. I forgo the socks and slip on my ruined shoes. I run all the way home. Alice is packaging up the soup as I throw open the front door. I have to shout to be heard over the storm. "Alice, I need your help. Get your jacket. Let's go." "What happened?" "Bella's barn. It's flooding. Everything is ruined. Please, just come with me." "Wait, you're actually allowing me to go with you to the sacred barn?" "Damn it, Alice, are you going to help me or not?" "Alright, alright. Just let me get my boots and my coat." I set the book on the stairs. I grab the two camping backpacks from the hall closet. The ones that have never been used. My dad went out and purchased everything my mom ever talked about in Forks. I throw around a bunch of junk in the garage until I uncover the wheelbarrow. Also, never been used. The walk back is longer with the wheelbarrow in tow. The wheelbarrow and Alice.
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The rain is relentless. We stop several times to dump out the water. I thought it was quaint that the barn wasn't accessible by car. I no longer have an appreciation for quaint. Alice doesn't say much on the walk over and I'm grateful. She crinkles up her nose as we arrive. "This is it?" "Yeah." "It's not much to look at, is it?" I wonder what she sees. In the time I've been gone, the storm has reached new levels of destruction. The water is now pouring down from the loft. A waterfall. Even more mud. We fill the backpacks with as many books as we can carry. The rest go in the wheelbarrow with the blanket. I imagine Bella bringing them here one at a time, slowly adding to her collection. The little window in the loft rattles in protest to the wind. An eeriness settles around the space, now that it's empty. As we stand in the doorway to the barn, holding on to our last semblance of protection before we start our way back, I eye the wheelbarrow wearily, piled high with Bella's books. Alice pulls her coat off without so much as a word and drapes it over the books and we head home. She doesn't complain about the weight of her backpack, even though I know it must be killing her. Because that's what you do for the people you love. When they need you, you help them. When they ask you for something, you do it. She knows that better than anyone. At least she does now. An hour later we're home. Shivering. Filthy. Cranky and tired. Alice's lips are blue. "You should go take a hot shower." Dad would kill me if he saw her like that. "Alright. I can help you when I've warmed up. What about you?" "I'm just going to start pulling the books out."
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"I hope she's worth it, Edward. I hope she's worth it." She's not saying it to be mean. I'd be worried too. "At least change your clothes, Edward. You look like a drowned rat." I strip down in my room and put on some dry sweats and a hoodie. I turn the heat up as high as it goes. My mom always insisted on leaving the thermostat at 64 in the winter. Which meant it was always freezing. I can almost hear her lecturing me about the electricity bill. The fact that I can remember the intonations of her voice makes me smile. The books are ruined. I know this. But it doesn't stop me from trying to save them. The books. Something else. I lay out a tarp in the den and start fanning them out. At least if they dry properly they won't start to disintegrate or mold. Their pages will be forever crinkled, but that seems insignificant at this point. Alice and I spend the next hour draping the books over makeshift clotheslines across the den. "Are you going to call her?" "She won't talk to me." "Edward, I don't know why you're doing this to yourself." As if I had a choice. "I know. Why don't you say it one more time?" "I just don't understand why you are torturing yourself like this." "You mean like you're torturing yourself, Alice?" "That's not fair." She's right. She walks out. The rain has finally stopped, but it still looks like a warzone outside. Branches and leaves littered everywhere, covering up every bit of civilization. I startle myself as I walk past the hall mirror. I look like death. I stare at my reflection for a moment, just long enough to assure myself that I'm very much alive. On my way up to my room, I pick up the book I left on the stairs. To Kill a
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Mockingbird. As I unstick the pages, a small photograph falls out. It's faded and tattered but I recognize her instantly. My mom. She's laughing with another girl, who I can only assume is Renee. She looks exactly like Bella. I want to keep it. A piece of my mom and a piece of Bella. I take a long shower, knowing that it will only make everything slightly better. A knock on the bathroom door. "What?" "Someone is here to see you." I open the door in a towel to find Alice's smirk, which means it can only be Rosalie. Again. And just when I thought today couldn't get any worse. "Can't you get rid of her?" "Well, I could. But I thought you might want to talk to Bella." "What? Bella's here? At the front door?" "In the flesh." She's smiling. Really smiling. "Well, did you invite her in?" "No, I slammed the door in her face and told her to get off our porch." Please let this be her sarcastic voice. "Alice." "Edward." "Alice." "Oh, good God , Edward, she's in the living room." "Well go keep her company while I get dressed!" By the way she looks at me, it's clear that she doesn't appreciate my tone. "Please."
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She gives me a reluctant smile and turns from my room to make her way down stairs. As I throw on some jeans and a t-shirt, my mind comes up with every possible scenario for why she's here. Maybe she decided not to fight it anymore. She's here to kiss me senseless. Maybe she went to the barn and saw what happened. She's here to thank me. Or she's here to yell at me some more and tell me to get the fuck out of her life. Again. That sounds about right. I grab To Kill a Mockingbird and race down the hall. I practically trip down the stairs. I need to get a grip. Or get laid. Preferably both. She's sitting in the armchair talking to Alice, who to her credit actually seems to be making an effort. Bella doesn't look mad. That's something. I want to eavesdrop on their conversation, but her eyes suddenly meet mine and I've been caught. "Hi." Her voice is shy. And perfect. I wave at her. Like a loser. Alice spins around to face me. "I'll just be in the kitchen. Nice to see you, Bella." Bella gives her a small smile and Alice scampers off, leaving us alone. "Bella, I'm sorry." The words fall out of my mouth. I'm so used to saying them. It just seems like the thing to say. She holds up the purple jacket. "I wanted to return this." "Oh." I immediately feel foolish. "What are you sorry for?" Her eyes go to the book in my hand and she's confused. "I thought maybe you went to the barn and you were pissed that I messed with your stuff." "What?" "I was just trying to help." Usually, she won't look at me. But not today. Her eyes widen as I recount the scene at the barn.
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She follows me to the den and covers her mouth with the back of her hand when she sees them. Her books. It's silent for a long time. I feel the need to touch her. I know I shouldn't. Her voice is soft as she whispers, "Edward, I can't believe you did this." I'm not sure what she's thinking. "Nobody's ever I mean, I can't believe you went out in that storm and trudged all my books back here. Especially after everything I said to you." Her voice catches in her throat. "I know how much they mean to you." The floor is suddenly very interesting. I tap the hardwood with my foot. "Edward?" "Yeah?" She looks so beautiful in this moment. Doe eyes and parted lips. "Thank you." I nod. I can feel it in the tips of my ears. She walks around the room, leafing through her books. I fight the urge to apologize for taking the photograph. I don't say anything. She spins around and walks toward me. "I know I said we couldn't be friends." She bites the inside of her cheek. "Maybe I was wrong." I don't hide my smile. I keep my hands in my pockets. It's all I can do to keep myself from touching her. I speak slowly, emphasizing every word, demanding her to listen. "Tanya, this isn't about Bella." "Then what is it about?" "It's about you and I." "Well alright then, what's wrong?"
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I know I have to say the words aloud, but they refuse to come out in anything more than a whisper. "I can't marry you Tanya." She takes a sharp breath in and starts moving towards me, muttering to herself, "Well that's alright, we don't need to get married. It's just a piece of paper. We don't need that. It doesn't mean anything." I wonder if she can hear the desperation in her voice. "No." "No?" The tears are angry now. "It's not fine, Tanya. It shouldn't be fine." I take a deep breath. I sit down on the bed, our bed, and run my hands over my face. I look up at her standing there in front me, begging me to love her the way that she loves me. The way that she wants to love me. My voice is barely there. "Tanya, what do you want?" She doesn't hesitate. "I want you." "That's not what I'm asking. What do you want?" She eyes me wearily. "I don't know what you mean." I take her hand in mine. "Do you remember before we started dating and we hung out on the balcony at that house party?" "Of course I remember. That's the night I fell in love with you." The idea of me, maybe. "Tanya, you told me about all your dreams for the future. How you were going to get married after finishing school. How you've had your whole wedding planned since you were a little girl. How you wanted to have a handful of children by the time you were thirty so that you'd have the energy to keep up with them." She nods. "The only reason you remember all that, Edward, is because you wanted the same things! Marriage, children. You wanted all of it too."
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"You're right." She pulls her hand from mine. Her eyes flicker. "Was she at Alice's wedding?" I try to look away. "Who?" I know I'm not being fair to her. She glares at me and the fierceness in her eyes is something else. "Don't you dare, Edward." "Yes, she was there, alright?" "What did she do to you?" "What?" "What did she do to you to make you like this? You were fine before you left LA." Her face is painted with disgust. "I wasn't fine, Tanya. I haven't been fine in a long time." "She really fucked you up, you know that?" I shake my head. "Tanya" "Did you hook up with her, Edward?" "Tanya, this isn't about Bella!" She puts her hands on her hips. "I deserve to know." For a second, I contemplate lying to her, but I'm not that kind of liar. "No, Tanya. It wasn't like that. Besides, you know I would never do that to you." "Do I? Don't act all noble now, Edward. You've spent years with me and all the while you were in love with another woman." "Tanya"
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"I'm the one who has been here with you. Where has she been? Huh, Edward? Where has she been?" "I told you, Tanya, this isn't about Bella." "Then what is it about? Enlighten me." She deserves the truth. After all this time of giving her the bare minimum, she deserves at least the truth. I have to say the words. "It's about the fact that I will never love you enough." She freezes. "You mean you'll never love me the way that you love her?" She knows. And she almost looks relieved. "What if I said I didn't care? What if I said it doesn't matter?" What? "It should matter! You should want more than that, Tanya. You deserve more." "Where is Bella now?" "I don't know." "She doesn't even want you, Edward." "I know." "So, what, you're doing to me what she did to you? Are you trying to make yourself feel better, Edward?" "I'm trying to do the right thing." She points a finger at me and the venom in her voice oozes out in fast spurts. "If your mother was alive, she'd be so disappointed in you, Edward. She's probably rolling over in her grave. You're a despicable excuse for a human being." And I know it's over. She throws the ring box across the room and the sound of it hitting the wall makes
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it final. "You said all of those things to me, Edward. You said I was beautiful. You said you loved me. You said you would give me anything I wanted!" "I lied." The words leave my mouth before I can stop them. Before I can hear their impact. She takes a step back and we're strangers. "Tanya, you deserve someone who loves you as much as you love him. You deserve someone who can give you everything you've ever wished for." She glares at me with pity and hate. "Thanks for wasting years of my life." "I'm sorry." It's not enough but I don't know what else to say. And then she's gone. Her sisters come for her things and I live in an empty house.

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Prayers and Bits of Dust


Bella Friday. The day that the rest of the city, probably the rest of the world, has been longing for since Monday. But Fridays mean two days without work. Two days where I'm left to my own devices. The night janitor is on to me. "Go home, Bella. It will all still be here on Monday." A lot can happen in the span of two days. I'm tempted to argue with him, but I don't. The subway station has a distinguishable buzz. In the three minutes that it takes my train to arrive, I have a hundred and one thoughts of how to get myself through the weekend. Most of them involve picking up a phone, jumping on a plane. Fridays are filled with poor judgment. I choose to stand on the subway, unless the train is nearly empty. It's not that I don't want to sit next to anyone, but I want to be the one to decide who that person will be. If I choose a seat with no one around it, it's a wildcard. I never know who might sit down next to me as the train fills up. If I sit next to someone who is acceptable, safe, when there are plenty of empty seats available, then I'm a creeper. So I stand. I like it when the subway is loud because it drowns out the noise in my head. Today, even though it's a Friday, is not a noisy day in the subway. I need a distraction before the other noises become deafening. I look at people's shoes. You can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. The shoes to my left are shiny and pretentious. They are boring and predictable and I see them every day on this train. For a split second, I contemplate stomping on them and pretending it is an accident. The shoes across from me are mismatched. They are almost the same, but not quite. They remind me of when I was six and I would wear two different colored Keds. I thought I was fashionable. I thought I was making a statement. But these shoes do not belong to somebody who is making a statement. They belong to
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somebody who left home in the dark, or in a rush, or maybe in a panic. And now the shoes are whimpering. Today, I look at the shoes' face. I look at the face and I can't look away. I watch her chin quiver. I watch the tears threatening to spill over. I watch her deliberately avert her eyes. She doesn't want to know if anyone is witnessing her falling apart. I wouldn't want to know either. A single tear slides down her cheek. I watch a tiny little hand wipe it away. A little hand that belongs to a different face and a different pair of little shoes. I watch her hold the little face and the little shoes closer. I envy her. And I hate myself for it immediately. I have everything that I have let myself want. But it's not enough. It's not nearly enough. I look down at my own shoes and beg them to do something. Anything. And I have never felt more alone in my life. I get off at the next stop, determined to walk the rest of the way home. I focus on the cracks in the concrete. I know I've walked by this church before but I've never even spared it a glance. I don't know why today is different, but it is. I walk up the stone steps and through the massive wooden door that has been left propped open. I light a candle and make a wish. A prayer, a wish, it's all the same. The seasons all blend together in Forks. Spring is usually nothing but rain, but not today. The sky is the kind of blue that doesn't look real, not a speck of cloud in sight. When Edward said he wanted to patch the roof of the barn and replace the damaged wood in the loft, I dismissed him. But he insistent, so I relented and
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decided to add it to the list of things that Edward Cullen has done for me. He even managed to convince one of the park rangers to open up the fire road for the day so that we could haul the supplies out here. We drive out in my truck and as we pass the trailhead, I can't help but shake my head. "What?" Of course he saw that. "I want to know how you do that." "Do what?" "You have this way of getting everything you want." He smiles and then his cheeks flush. "Not everything." I pretend not to know what that means. We unload everything from the truck. Tools, lumber, ladders. Without Edward, I wouldn't even know where to start. But of course he knows what he's doing. I have yet to find anything he isn't good at. He does a good job of pretending that I'm helping, but after working for hours, there is less and less for me to do. Mostly I'm just watching him sweat. His white T-shirt, now smeared with Forks dirt, is sticking to him all over. He catches me staring more than once. But he doesn't look smug. He's sitting up in the rafters on one of the crossbeams. He wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand as he calls down to me to pass him a box of nails for the nail gun. I'm not even a quarter of the way up the ladder when my foot slips. Before I know
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it, I'm in the dirt. "Shit. Shit, Bella. Shit." I'm standing and dusting myself off, the pain far less than the embarrassment, when he's somehow at my side. "Are you hurt? Are you okay?" "I'm fine." "Are you sure? Did you hit your head?" "No. I landed firmly on my ass." "Are you sure you're okay?" "Edward, how many ways can I say it?" "I'm sorry, it's just, you scared me." We stare at each other for a moment before I squat down to pick up the scattered nails. He's at my side immediately, helping me gather them. His fingertips brush against mine as we return the nails to their box. On purpose or on accident, I don't know. I turn towards him. Fast and awkward. "You hungry?" Little boy smile and twinkling eyes. "Always. What did you bring me?" "Don't get too excited. I just brought sandwiches and some snacks." "I love sandwiches and snacks." That word hangs in the air. "You want to sit outside? Who knows when we'll get another sunny day like this." He's all smiles as we walk out, side by side. I unpack our lunch, almost nervous. Plates, napkins, water.
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I can sense him watching me intently. "What?" "Nothing." He takes a bite of his sandwich and groans, "So good." Another bite. I laugh. "You look like a chipmunk." He ignores me, devouring his lunch as if he hasn't eaten in days. "Doesn't your dad feed you?" "We eat a lot of pizza and Chinese food." Mouth full, "Aren't you going to eat yours?" Oh. He lies down on his back, one hand on his stomach, the other playing with my shoe laces as I try to eat my sandwich. My stomach is all hummingbirds and I can't tell if it's because I want it or I don't. "Edward, we're friends, right?" His fingers hold the end of my shoelace, motionless. He glances up at my face. "Yeah, we're friends." His hand drops down to the ground in defeat. "So, what's next? I feel like I'm running out of ways to help." He shakes his head. "I brought you something." My nose scrunches up. He pulls something from his bag and holds it out to me, wrapped in shiny paper with a bow. "It's not my birthday."
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He sets it down in the space between us, hands raking through his hair. "I know. It was Alice's idea." That somehow makes it safer and more confusing. I untie the ribbon and let it fall to the ground. I pick at the paper carefully, opening it without tearing it. It's a book. An old one. Before I can even see the cover, I know this. "It was my mother's." "Edward" "She loved books too. We have boxes and boxes of books in the basement. Well books and journals. She also loved to write. I know you like Steinbeck, and I just thought" I run my fingers over the letters. The Grapes of Wrath. "Edward, it's great." "Yeah?" "Yeah. Thank you." I open up the dust jacket and I'm met with that familiar musty book smell. And then my hands still. "Edward, this is a first edition. I can't take this." "She would have wanted you to have it." I don't know what that means. "Besides, she wrote all over it, so I'm sure it's not worth anything." I spend the rest of the afternoon reading. But it's not Steinbeck's words that I'm focused on. I know those words. I've read them before. Esme Cullen's words are what get me. She read this book many times. Pencil and pen scrawled throughout the whole thing. It's like talking to a ghost. I'm squinting at the words, and I have no concept of how long ago the sun disappeared behind the trees. I can sense Edward's eyes on me, even though I'm
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sure I didn't hear him approaching. When I look up, he's sitting in the dirt, arms wrapped around his knees. Not impatient. Content. "You ready to head home, Bella?" "Can we just." "Can we just, what?" "Can we just stay here a while?" He doesn't answer. And then he's walking towards me, sitting, laying down on his back, next to me, looking up into the sky. "Edward?" "Yeah?" "Thank you. For all of it." He doesn't respond. Only a smile facing the sliver of a moon. We stay like that, side by side, saying nothing, until the night is black. He nudges me with his elbow. "There are eighty-eight constellations." "That many? I know one." He chuckles. "Which one?" "The Big Dipper." "The Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major. Some people call it Big Bear." I reach my arm up pointing at the sky, tracing the stars, trying to find it. He scoots over closer to me so that we are shoulder to shoulder. Not touching. His arm reaches up towards the night and for a brief moment it looks as if he might actually be able to grab a handful of stars. "Right there, see there is his torso and his head." When I shake my head, he takes his hand in mine. Like it's the most natural thing in the world. He starts tracing the
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outline. My hand and his. I can't focus on the words or the stars. All I can see, all I can feel is his hand. His hand that swallows mine up. "Do you see it now?" The words are stuck in my throat. "Bella?" I turn to face him. "Show me again." He nods. Silently, he guides my hand from star to star. When he's finished, he starts again, from the beginning. Don't ever stop. And then I'm smiling. "That's not a bear." He laughs. A little nervous. "What do you mean it's not a bear?" "Bears don't have long tails. I'm starting to think you are making all of this up." He feigns offence. "But really, Edward, how do you know all this?" He shrugs. "Books." Apparently we read different kinds of books. He drops our hands down to the ground and a second later his fingers are gone. I feel the loss in my bones. Empty and hollow. The sound of his voice is almost as good. "My mom always said that Forks was the best place for shooting stars. They aren't really stars you know." "Then what are they?" "Bits of dust falling into the earth's atmosphere and burning up." Bits of dust.
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We lay on our backs for hours, mostly in silence, just looking up into the night's sky. The crickets and bullfrogs fill the quiet. I feel the need to tell him. "I've never seen one." "You've never seen what?" "A shooting star." "Someday." Yeah, someday. This is when I decide that Edward Cullen is two different people. He is the guy who can patch a roof and he is also the guy who can spout off facts about astronomy. He is the guy who beat the crap out of Mike Newton and he also is the guy who goes owling. Then it happens. And we're there to see it happen. One heart beat and it's gone. A bit of dust burning up. We turn to face each other at the same moment. My face all smiles, his serious as he whispers, "Make a wish." Sometimes, even after all this time, I wake up and for a brief moment, I think I'm in Edward's bed. Those kinds of mornings make it nearly impossible to open my eyes and face the day. It's a Sunday. The day I usually sleep in. The day I get through so that I can get back to the structure of my week. I take a long early morning walk and I pretend like I don't know where I'm going. I sit in a pew at the back. I have no rational reason to be here but I can't bring myself to leave. I look at the faces all around me. These faces that all share something that I don't have. If only it was that easy for me to believe in something. I don't feel alone here. It's ridiculous that being in the company of strangers gives me any sort of comfort,
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but it does. A felt-lined basket is passed around and people empty their pockets of their change. I have a dollar bill and three pennies that I'm not sure I want to part with but I do. Even after the mass is over I sit and just wait for something. A woman sits down next to me. It doesn't feel right, to call her a woman, but that's what she is. "What has you so forlorn?" She looks at me with stranger eyes that somehow see me clearly. I shake my head and look away. "You're welcome to stay as long as you like." She moves to stand and I'm overwhelmed by a sudden urgency to keep her here. I speak without thinking. "I've made a terrible mistake and I was too stubborn to admit it. And now it's too late." I'm talking to a nun. She pauses and sets her hand on mine. Her cool, wrinkly skin takes the edge off. "Everyone makes mistakes, dear. It's how you handle your mistakes that determines the content of your character. It's never too late." She has faith in things that I don't. When the sun no longer filters in through the stained glass, I stand to leave. A stack of papers sits on an old mahogany table in the back. They are nearly swept away by the wind as I push the heavy wooden door open. I slap my hand on top of the pile as a reflex. I glance at the words and the photos for only a second, but that is all it takes. There are little faces staring back at me and one word that I do believe in. Orphan. I fold one of the flyers up into a tiny little square and slip it into my back pocket. I walk to the park and find an empty bench. I drag my fingertips over the rough wood, trying to ground myself. I pull the paper out and unfold it slowly. I read every word. And then I read it again.
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There is something in me that needs to do this. There is something else that is afraid. I have a desperate urge to pick up the phone and call Edward. I stare at my phone, waiting for the impulse to pass. When it doesn't, I call Alice instead. She will be straight with me. She'll tell me I'm crazy. The silence on the other end of the line when I tell her, confirms every nay saying thought I've had. "Alice?" "I'm here." "It was a stupid idea. I know." "No, Bella, I think it sounds perfect."

A/N: To the handful of you who have been leaving reviews, thank you for your kind words. They motivate me to keep going. I'm not above bribery, but I have nothing to offer you. Well, except for the next chapter. To SmittenKittenXO, who has reviewed every last emo chapter, you're my favorite.

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Sunsets and Blueberry Pancakes


Edward I see things every day that would make most people sick. And yet, it's the trauma of my own life that weighs me down. When people ask me why I chose to specialize in pediatric trauma, I don't know what to tell them. The majority of my patients are children who live in poverty. Infants born to teenage mothers. Skull fractures. Burn victims. Near drownings. Car accidents. Lots and lots of car accidents. I know why I chose this, but I don't explain it to people who ask. There is no time for self-pity or wallowing in the ER. But as I leave to go home, my personal life is waiting for me when the automatic doors slide open. I sit in traffic. I make a quick stop on my way home for something that will dull the edges. Paper bag in hand, I unlock the front door. I hate this house. I've always hated this house. But now, I hate it impossibly more. The walls are stripped bare. The cupboards empty. I have a bed. I have a couch. I have a pile of dirty dishes and a trash can full of empty takeout containers. I have two six-packs of cheap beer. I had two six-packs. I sit on the floor, beer in hand, leafing through her book. I pull the photos out one at a time. I read the inscriptions on the back. I wish I was the only one who had ever read them. Bella's words echo in my mind. I should have said yes. I should have said yes.
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I should have said yes. Whatever she thinks she should have said is not the same as what she did say. Should means nothing. Besides, she shouldn't have said yes. Saying yes would have been the same as what I almost did. Saying yes would have been the same as proposing to Tanya. She didn't say she wanted me. She certainly didn't say she loved me. I throw the stack of pictures before I realize what I'm doing. But they refuse to leave, fluttering to the ground all around me. My fist collides with the doorjamb as I walk into my bedroom. Once. Twice. What if she meant it? For the last month, I've spent my afternoons after school, sitting by mom's bedside and watching her sleep. Alice is off doing what she does and my dad is at the hospital. I push the door of her room open slowly and peak my head around. I walk quietly to my chair, careful not to wake her. I pray that today is a good day. A lucid day. The morphine masks the pain, but it also steals her mind. Her complexion is eerily gray and her skin hangs off her bones. She has a notebook open in her lap, her fingers still curled around the pen. I know I shouldn't look, but I do. Her handwriting is sloppy now, but the words are strong.

If I could go back and live it one more time I would try to be present every moment of every day. I would not look forward or back, I would simply be.

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I would appreciate the sound of the rain and the feel of the sun on my skin. I would watch with rapt attention every last time that one of my children said, "watch me!" I would go skinny dipping in the ocean. I would have every meal at the kitchen table, surrounded by my family. I would visit faraway places. I would buy the overpriced boots in the window. I would watch the sun set every evening. I would remember that guilt serves no useful purpose in life. I would take my family out of this city that swallows you up and move us to the country to live as we were meant to live. I wouldn't let best friends fade into nothing. I would teach my daughter to never compromise, even if that is what we are expected to do as women. I would teach her to always trust her intuition. I would teach my son the importance of finding a girl to love, the girl, and I would make him promise not to let her go once he found her. I would teach my husband to live without me. I wouldn't let the years pass as if there was always going to be one more.

This is when it hits me. One of these days, I'm going to peak my head around that door and she will be gone. I read her words again and again. When I finally look up from the page, she's awake. Watching me. "Hey, handsome." Her voice is quiet and scratchy.

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"Hey, mom." "You weren't supposed to see that quite yet." "Mom" "But since you have, you'll have to promise me." I swallow the lump in my throat. "I know it all seems silly now, but promise me once you find her, you won't let her go." She slips her hand in mine and gives it a squeeze. Twice. "And Edward Anthony Cullen, I don't mean the kind of girls you've brought home thus far." "Mom!" "Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about. Find someone who cares about the things that actually matter, Edward. Find someone you can't live without. Find someone who will be a good mother." I wrinkle up my forehead. "I know it isn't quite fair to expect you to care about these things just yet, but I won't get the chance to say it later, so you might as well hear it now." "Mom, stop talking like you've got one foot in the grave." "I'm dying, Edward. The sooner you all accept it, the better. But don't worry. I'm not afraid." I don't know how she can speak of it so lightly. "Now, promise me." I would promise her anything right now. "Alright, I promise." "Good. Hey, what do you say we make some blueberry pancakes?"
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"Mom, it's almost time for dinner. Besides, I don't know how to make pancakes." "Of course you don't. You have an overbearing mother who's always done everything for you. And I'll have you know, that pancakes for dinner are my favorite." She starts to pull the covers back and I cover her hands with mine. "You should stay in bed. You're supposed to be resting." "Edward, I'm already dying. What's the worst that could happen?" She has a point. She sits on a kitchen chair, propped up like a doll, as she gives me step-by-step instructions on how to make blueberry pancakes. We don't have any fresh blueberries, so we have to settle for adding frozen ones. When I burn the first batch, she only smiles. The second batch is better. "The trick is extra butter on the griddle. That way the edges get all nice and crispy. I should add that to my list I would never leave out the butter." When her face is too tired for a smile, she carries it in her eyes. This is the way I want to remember her. I devour my pancakes before she's finished her second bite. She doesn't take a third. In the pit of my stomach, I know that her time is almost gone. I help her up and she takes my arm as we walk back to her room. I tuck her in and she closes her eyes without meaning to. "Tell me, son, what should we do tomorrow?" "Maybe you should just rest tomorrow." Her eyes shoot open and she looks at me sternly. "Edward, dying is not the same as being dead." "Alright. Tomorrow, we should watch the sunset."
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Her eyes fill up. "I'd like that." There is a steady thumping noise and it takes me a minute to realize that it's more than my hangover. Thud. Thud. Thud. I don't get up. I pull the blankets up over me. She'll use her key. I can feel her disapproving gaze before I hear her. "Good God, Edward." "Go away. It's my day off." "Your day off from where, a brewery?" She opens the curtains with a huff. "Alice, why are you here?" "Because I know you. The only time you don't return phone calls is when you're an absolute mess." "You can't just get on a plane when I don't return your calls." "It's been two weeks!" I don't respond. "Edward, what happened?" "What do you mean what happened?" "I haven't seen you like this since well you know." "I'm not talking about this with you."
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"Fine." She leaves the room and my foggy brain thinks she's gone. Until I hear the sound of running water and then my blankets are suddenly being pulled from me. I hang on to them for dear life. "Get up. Get in the shower. I'll make you some breakfast." I speak into my pillow. "I don't have any food." "Edward, I swear to God, you either get up and get in that shower or I will strip the blankets from this bed. And I know for damn sure that you're not wearing anything under there." I want to wring her neck. I pull myself from the bed, wrapped in my sheet and walk towards the sound of the shower, eyes barely open. The water pounds against my skin, like a thousand needles. It's not until I grab the shampoo bottle that I remember my hand. I flex my fingers a few times against the cold tile wall and I'm relieved that the pain is minimal. At least compared to the throbbing in my temple. I stay in the shower longer than I should. I'm prolonging the inevitable. I throw on some clothes, clean or dirty, I don't know. I walk to the kitchen, ready as I'll ever be to face my sister. She has a cup of coffee waiting for me and I like her a little bit more. "I was beginning to think you had drowned in there." "A little louder, Alice." She challenges me with her eyes. "So I take it that Tanya finally left you." I grind my teeth. "Yeah, something like that." "I was wondering how long that would take." "What is that supposed to mean?"
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"Oh, come on, Edward. You may have fooled everyone else but you never fooled me." I press the palms of my hands into my eyes. "But that's not what this is about, is it, Edward?" She's always been the one person that could see through my bullshit. It makes me want to scream. I keep my eyes covered. "I don't know how to do any of this without her." Hearing the words out loud, from my own mouth, is confusing. "Without who?" "Oh, you know God damn well who." "Then say it." "Bella. Without, Bella alright!" She shakes her head. "Well maybe if you weren't so ridiculously stubborn!" "Just tell me what to do, Alice. Tell me what to do." "Have you ever thought of just picking up the phone and calling her? You know, like a normal person would do." Every fucking day. "I can't do that." "Fine, then don't. Hang on to your pride. I hope it's good company." "I want my house key back." She stares me down. "I'm going to go pick up some food. I'll be back in half an hour. Pull yourself together. And these beer bottles better be picked up by the time I get back." She grabs her purse and turns to face me, one hand on the doorknob. "She's doing something with her life, Edward. You have to do the same."
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"I have a medical degree. That's not doing something with my life?" She looks me dead in the face. "No, it's not." The door slams behind her. I pick up the empty beer bottles. I'm not afraid of her. But this place is a fucking mess. I gather the pictures that are scattered across the carpet and tuck them back into her book. I strip the sheets from the bed and shove them into the washing machine. Alice is back before I have time to formulate an apology. She looks at me with resigned eyes. "Edward, I'm sorry. I just love you is all." "I know." We spend the day on the couch, watching old 80's movies. I tell her about Tanya even though she doesn't ask. I tell her all of it, even the parts I'm ashamed of. Her eyes go wide when I mention the ring. And I know that she's relieved to hear that it was a ring I purchased. Not mom's ring. I drive her to the airport and I promise not to ignore her calls. She gives me a squeeze and I watch her disappear through the automatic doors. I wait in my car until airport security ushers me along. As if I'm a terrorist. My mind races as I pull away. I take the loop back around three times before I park my car in the long-term lot. I make a phone call to the hospital and then I get on a plane. As the plane takes off, I watch the sunset from my seat by the window.

A/N: Esme's writing was inspired by "If I Had My Life to Live Over" by Erma
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Bombeck. If you've never read it, it's a gem. I had someone ask me if these two are ever going to smile again. Fair question. All I can say is thank you for your patience. It's slow going, I know. In case you haven't figured it out, I love beautifully broken people. The next chapter is pretty much finished. You ready for it?

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Carrots and Makeshift Shields


Bella I make my annual trip back to Forks every May. Every Mother's Day. Once a year, and that's it. Each year I pull up to the house to find it in a further state of disrepair and each year I tell myself that I will fix it up. Hire someone to paint it. Have the gutters cleaned out. The roof patched. I can afford it. It should have been done ages ago. And then for a fleeting moment, I contemplate selling it. But I can't sell Charlie's house. My house. He would have wanted me to live in it, rather than leave it here to rot. But I know I can't do that either. I unlock the door and it smells the same as it always has. Maybe a little musty, but it smells like Charlie. Like fishing trips and lasagna and stale beer. I uncover the couch in the living room, dust flying and then settling again. I spend the first hour cleaning the kitchen, wiping every last surface, making believe that someone actually lives here. I go to the corner market and pick up groceries for a stew. I chop everything precisely, paying special attention to the carrots. I make enough for a small army, filling the crock-pot nearly to the brim. I go to the cemetery. Carlisle will be there. I don't call to tell him I'm coming home. He knows. He'll be there. I don't bring flowers. I keep the visit short. I talk to Charlie's headstone as if it were alive. "I made beef stew. Your favorite." I wait awkwardly, almost expecting a response. "So, Alice and Jasper finally got married last summer." I take a deep breath.
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"I know you'd really like Jasper. He kind of reminds me of you, actually. He's a man of few words, but when he speaks, you know it's important." I miss that voice. "Edward was there too. But it didn't go so well." I shrug. "We kind of got in a fight. Well, he got in a fight because of me. And then and then he said some things." I tell myself not to cry. "But enough about that." I tap the headstone with an open palm like I'm patting Charlie on the shoulder. "I know I said I'd visit more, but I've been really busy with work. It's hard to get away. I'm actually taking a little time off for a while. But I wanted you to know that I'm okay. Alright, I I'm going to go see mom now." I make the short walk to my mother's grave and trace the letters and that date with my pinky finger. I don't know what to say to her, so I say nothing. I just sit with her and wait for the sound of footsteps. But when I hear them, I know something isn't right. I turn to see two sets of legs. And I know those feet. Carlisle and Edward. He's not supposed to be here. I'm glad that I can't see the look of shock on my own face. Edward stands back a ways, slightly behind his father. He's either hiding from me or he doesn't see me sitting here in the dirt. "Shall we follow you to your house for dinner?" Carlisle speaks as if this has all been arranged and it has. It's tradition. But Edward has never been here. He doesn't come here. I look for something in Carlisle's face but there is nothing, so I play along. "The stew should be ready at seven." Edward's eyes fly to me and then to his father, first baffled and then angry. "You knew she was going to be here?"
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"Please, son. Have some respect." I don't know what to say, what to do, who to be. I realize that I'm fidgeting with my hair and biting the inside of my cheek and it's ridiculous that his mere presence can still do this to me. You. Left. Him. "We'd love to come for dinner." Edward. I look up, startled by the rhythm of his voice and the meaning of the words and I have to look at his face. At his eyes. There is instant understanding. It's a Sunday. It was his idea. To spend the day together, his family and mine, celebrating our mothers. His first Mother's day without her and he's smiling. Smiling at me. I've finally discovered something that Edward doesn't do well. Cook. He's completely lost within the confines of a kitchen. He stands with his back to me, his shoulders square. I can see the muscles of his back through his t-shirt. It's impossible not to laugh. Impossible. He's muttering something under his breath. "Edward, what are you doing?" "I'm just assessing the knives. A knife is a knife. Why do you have so many?" He still doesn't turn around. "I just need a bread knife and a chef's knife. On the left." My voice sounds so strange. Happy, maybe. "Bella, that means nothing to me." He turns slowly and Edward Cullen is blushing. It's just about the most adorable thing I have ever seen. "Alright, my friend, take a seat. Prepare to learn a thing or two." He hoists himself up onto my kitchen counter, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I prattle on about the importance of using the appropriate knife as he watches me,
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nodding in agreement and absolutely mocking me. He pops pieces of carrot in his mouth faster than I can chop them, despite my best efforts to swat his hand away with my knife. The boy has no fear. "You keep this up, and we will have nothing for dinner." I try my best to sound irritated. "Either that, or you will be losing a finger. Consider yourself warned." He throws a carrot at me. "What are you, five?" He throws another. I pretend that it hit me in the eye. Sucker. And now it's war, complete with lids as makeshift shields. We scamper around the kitchen like squirrels. And I will surely be finding carrot bits for days. He's out of ammunition and I have a handful of carrots. His hands are in the air, begging for mercy. Unfortunately for him, I don't play fair. Full scale attack. The kind of laughter that makes you pee your pants. We lay flat on our backs on the kitchen floor in hysterics. This is what it's like to live in a TV sitcom. And I have never laughed so much in my life. I have never laughed like this and meant it. The doorbell rings, bringing us both back to reality. He jumps to his feet and offers me his hand. I stare at it. It's just a hand, Bella. Take it. Friends offer each other a hand. Friends do that. He doesn't take his eyes off of me. The doorbell rings a second time. Jesus fucking Christ. I reach my hand up, and the smile is back as he practically lifts me off of the ground. He doesn't let go as we walk to the front door. And it's nice. My heart is racing, but his hand around mine is nice. Change. The kind that happens slowly, every moment of every day. I swing open the door, and my heart stops. Everything stops. There are uniforms and matching shoes and faces that look like they have lost a friend. They have. They have lost a friend. There are mouths moving.
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There are expensive words like brain aneurism. And then there are words that I cannot hear. I pull my hand away from Edward as if that's the one thing that can stop what's happening. But it doesn't stop anything. I am falling. I want to fall into the floorboards and stay there forever. Edward's arms are around me. He won't let me fall. Why won't he let me fall? In this moment, that is all I want. To disappear. Change. The kind that blows you away in an instant. And I let go of the life I thought I lived in. I don't cry. There is no time. There is nothing. But this is different than the last time. I can see the sun setting. I will be able to see it set and rise again. Nobody is looking for me. I will not be rescued this time. Charlie is gone. Charlie is dead. Say it. He's dead. I was right. I am an orphan. No. I'm not. I'm not a child anymore. There is no name for what I am. The officers are gone and Edward is on the phone. He is talking but there is no sound. I can't bear to look at his face. His face looks the way I should feel. All I want in this moment is to feel. Alice. I'm sitting on the couch and I can't figure out how she got here so quickly. The sun has set. Maybe it has been a while. I don't know. There is no way to know.
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She is stroking my hair and I want to tell her to stop. "Bella, please come stay with us tonight." I hear her but I don't answer. I want to tell her to fuck off. I'm fine. I'll be fine. I don't need her. "Okay." Okay. I walk calmly and purposefully up the stairs to my room. I close the door behind me and stand with my back against it, looking around at this room that used to be so strange but became mine. My home. I pack some pajamas and a set of clothes for tomorrow. A toothbrush. My pillow. Edward is waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs and the look on his face makes me want to smack him. He reaches his hand out for me as I approach the bottom step. His fingertips brush against mine for a second. One second before I can yank my hand away. I'm fighting with the keys to my truck. The truck Charlie bought for me. I can't even get the fucking key to open the fucking door. "Bella, what are you doing?" His hand is on my shoulder. I shrug it off. "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm driving to your house." "Bella, please. Just let me drive you. Or Alice, Alice can drive you." Desperation. "Edward, I'm fine." "You're not fine. Bella, please. Please." I can't ignore the agony in his voice. I drop my keys to the gravel and walk around to the passenger side, waiting to be let in. I don't look at him. I listen for the sound of the key in the lock, the driver's door opening and the click of the lock on my side. I slide in, placing my bag between us. The drive to the Cullen's house is silent and I'm glad because there is nothing to say. The engine is off. We are sitting in the driveway. I don't know how long we've been here. I don't know what Edward is waiting for. I grab my bag and walk up the front steps quickly, through the foyer and straight up to the guest bedroom with the flowered bedspread.
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I take a long, hot shower that burns my skin. I brush my hair, brush my teeth, floss, put on my pajamas and fluff my pillow on the bed. I always wanted to be a robot. Except, I imagined being more like Vicki the robot, from Small Wonder. I am not that kind of robot. There is a soft knock at the door. "Bella, may I come in?" Carlisle. I don't answer. Maybe he'll think I'm asleep. He knocks louder. "Come in." Go away. He opens the door slowly, peaking his head around. He's afraid of what he might find. But it's just me, standing by the bed, perfectly composed. He walks toward me cautiously. As if he's worried I might bite. He reaches out to put a hand on my shoulder but thinks better of it. "I just want you to know that we are here for you, Bella. Your father was a good man. He loved you more than anything." It burns. He doesn't know shit. "I know." "I'm sorry that there was nothing that I could do. Life is unfair when it comes to those we love." I let my eyes see him. And he isn't talking about my father. I look away before my own eyes betray me. We stand in silence for a moment before he asks, "Is there anything you need?" I laugh in my head. Maybe out loud. "I'm just going to go to sleep. I'll see you tomorrow." He looks at me with those same Edward eyes. I turn my back to him and wait for the soft click of the door as he closes it behind him. I lock it. I put my shoes on. They are insurance against falling asleep. I shouldn't sleep. I don't know why. It's the only thing I can hold on to right now. I can't sleep with shoes on. I lay on top of the covers, listening to this monstrosity of a house. Footsteps in front of my door. A knock. "Bella?" Edward's voice. His fucking pained voice. A turn of the locked doorknob. Footsteps that grow faint. Silence.
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I stare at the ceiling until my alarm goes off in the morning. The house is still. I'm dressed for school. I think. I'm half way out the front door. "Bella, where are you going?" Edward's voice is sleep and despair. "I'm going to school. It's Monday. We have school." "Bella, I hardly think that" He is shaking his head and rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands. His hair is more ridiculous than usual. "Edward, don't." He doesn't. And so I drive to school. I'm early. I sit in the parking lot, watching the rain slide down my windshield, waiting for the cars to trickle in. And then Edward is tapping on my window. There is too much pain in that face. "Can I walk you to class?" His eyes beg me not to say no. But I can't go to class. "Will you take me back to your house?" He doesn't hesitate or even answer. He opens the driver-side door and slides in as I move over, but still pressed against him. I can feel my heart in my chest. I can feel my heart. I can feel it. And I have to get out of here. Now. He isn't driving fast enough. "Please, Edward." He places his hand over mine and it is the only thing keeping me here. "I don't know what to do for you." I can hear the panic in his voice. Don't panic. Damn it. Don't fucking panic. "Get me out of this car." And then I'm no longer here. My mother is driving. I'm next to her. I'm small, but I don't feel small. I am pouting because she wouldn't let me buy the Trapper Keeper with the white
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cat on it at the drug store. She said it was junk. She never lets me have anything I want. Ever. "I hate you." I wish you were dead. I mean it. She is quiet for a long time. "Do you want to hear about someday?" Yes. I pretend like I didn't hear her. I know she'll tell it anyway. "Someday, you and I are going to live in New York City. We'll have an apartment on the top floor of a tall, tall building and we'll have a huge closet just for shoes. And" "You forgot the part about the doorman." The doorman is my favorite. "Oh yes, our building will have a smiley doorman that greets us everyday and calls you Ms. Bella." I turn to face her. She's confusing. Her voice is happy but her smile and her eyes are sad. "Someday, Bella." "Someday." I can't wait for someday. "I love you, baby girl." And then the road is rolling. It's like a roller coaster but there are no tracks. She stops the car but it's too late. The roof of the car is crashing down on us and everything is black. There is too much sound and then there are only car sounds. And then there is only silence. I reach over to feel her face and it is wet and still. It is bending in ways that it shouldn't. She is dead. I know this. And I wanted this. But I didn't mean it. I didn't mean any of it. "You didn't mean what?" My truck. Edward is touching my face. I don't deserve it. "Bella, I wish there was something I could say to make this easier." There are tears in his voice. In his voice.
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"Make what easier, exactly, Edward?" "All of it." And he means it. I open the door and practically fall out of the truck. I can sense him following me into the house and up the stairs but he doesn't say anything. If he does, I don't hear him. I'm sitting on the edge of the bed, the one with all of the little fucking flowers, and I'm fighting with my shoes and then his hands are there, on mine, calming them. Okay. Okay. He unties my shoe and takes it off so gently, as if he's afraid of breaking me, as if I'm so fragile that I may shatter into a million pieces at any moment. First one, then the other. There is something on my chest. Something invisible and heavy. And my heart is beating. I can feel it. I feel it coming, but I know better. I don't know how to cry. I don't know how. Some people are beautiful when they cry. Their cheeks flush ever so slightly and their eyes shine as the tears roll delicately down their cheeks. My mother was beautiful when she cried. I think I almost remember that. I only saw Charlie cry once. He was not beautiful then. He was sloppy and scrunched and completely raw. I can feel Edward's hands on either side of my face, his thumbs at the corners of my eyes, rubbing back and forth. And I'm startled by what he's doing, not because I don't expect this from him, but because he is wiping away tears. My tears. One deep breath, and I can't keep the tears anymore. I can't keep them. My face is fire and my breaths are short and I can't keep them. I'm holding onto Edward's arms begging the tears to keep coming. This is what it feels like to cry. This is what it feels like to feel. His hands don't leave my face as he pulls me into his chest. He holds me there as I sob. I'm wiping my snot all over his shirt. Still, he holds me. I'm squeezing him so tightly it must be painful. Still, he holds me. He is laying me down on the bed, tucking me in, wiping wet hair from my face. I am not one of those people who is beautiful when she cries. My eyes are begging him not to leave me. He knows. He lays next to me, on top of
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the covers, his face only inches from mine. His eyes never leave me. And it's okay to feel. Years worth of tears until there is nothing left but sleep. Two days pass in a blur of nothing. The house is dark and still. This house, this town. I'm alone. I can almost see the stars behind the fog. The stars I used to wish upon before I knew any better. I wish I had told Charlie I loved him. I wish my mother had lived long enough for us to have our someday. I wish I could say what I mean and mean what I say. I wish I had Dorothy shoes. I wish I hadn't lost myself. I wish I could let Edward in. I take a deep breath, pinching my eyes shut. Life is short. Life is short. Life is short. Don't make it small. My eyes burn and my lungs hurt and everything hurts. I pull the covers back quickly and jump from the bed like I used to do when I was a little girl. I walk down the hallway as if it is covered in hot coals, until I reach his room and I'm a statue, my closed fist resting silently on his door. I knock gently. There is barely any sound. I'm trying without trying. It's not enough. As I extend my arm back, ready to give a real knock, the kind that will surely waken the entire house, his door swings open. He's standing there in ratty old green scrubs. "Hey." I should have thought this out better. I should have thought this out, period. "Bella, what's wrong?" Everything. Nothing. "Everything. Nothing." And I'm crying again. It feels amazing. He pulls me against him. He smells like sleep and worry and Edward. He smells
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like Edward. I pull away, but just to look at him. I want to see his face, not his feet. His eyes. And they are everything. "I know you probably don't want to hear it, Bella, but you're beautiful when you cry, you know that?" And in this moment I almost believe him. His eyes are searching mine and I let them. I don't look away. For once, I don't look away. This is trying. This is all I have. I'm pushing him back, pushing him into his room and he lets me. He's confused, but he lets me. He sits on the edge of his bed. His eyes still searching. Always searching. I don't have any answers for him. I'm standing between his legs, my hands interlaced with his. Breathing feels all right. This feels all right. No. It feels right. This feels right. I lower my face to his, brushing my nose against his cheek. I can feel his breath on my face. He won't kiss me. "Edward?" "Hmm?" "Can I stay?" He doesn't answer with words. He is pulling me onto the bed with him. He's touching my face, always touching my face, tracing every part of it, as if he's trying to memorize it before I disappear. I don't want to disappear. My eyes close on their own accord as he continues to brush away the tears that won't stop. My feet seek out his feet, stealing their warmth. He reaches an arm around my waist and pulls me closer. Not close enough. If I could crawl inside of him, I would. His thumb rubs circles on the small of my back. I wake up some time later, with my face nuzzled into his chest. He pulls me into him as I stir. His lips in my hair. Don't ever let go. I run around the house frantically trying to do something. I don't know. Make
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the house presentable. It's ridiculous. There is only so much that can be done to a house that nobody lives in. There is a knock at the front door and I freeze. Here we go. I open the door with a smile. Carlisle and Edward stand side by side on my doorstep, like two little boys. Edward is wearing different clothes and his hair looks like he made an effort to tame it. My heart stutters in my chest. "I brought wine." He holds the bottle out to me. I take it with a gracious, "thank you." I motion for them to come in and they hang their coats on the hook next to Charlie's fishing vest. Carlisle gives me a genuine smile. "Bella, it smells delicious, as always." He excuses himself to take a call on his cell phone in the living room. Edward offers to help me set the table. Since the beginning of time, there has never been anything more awkward than the two of us right now in this kitchen. We don't speak. When Carlisle appears in the doorway, we both stare at him expectantly, waiting for him to save us. "I'm afraid I have to go into work. I'm so sorry, Bella." "Dad" Edward's voice is sharp and disbelieving. Carlisle turns to Edward, who is glaring at him, and squeezes his shoulder. "Bring me home some leftovers, son." "Bella, would you mind giving an Edward a ride home after dinner?" "Oh. I mean, sure. I mean, of course." I sound like a bumbling fool. "You are welcome to stay at the house too, you know." I nod, but don't respond. He knows I won't. He gives me a quick hug goodbye and he's out the front door.
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Edward and I stand in the quiet kitchen, both processing Carlisle's obvious ambush. I leave Edward where he's standing and go to the sink. I stand there for minutes, hands tented in front of my mouth. "Look, Bella, I can go." No. I glance over my shoulder and he's right behind me. I don't know how long he's been standing there watching me try not to panic. "No, please. I have all this food." With a nod, he sits. And we eat the meal that we were supposed to have so long ago. He offers me some wine and I take a small glass. I feel the need to stay clear headed. "So, Bella, you do this every year?" Why does this feel like a blind date? "Yeah, it's kind of tradition. I don't know" There is silence until he lifts his glass. "A toast. To our mothers. And to Charlie." I raise my glass to meet his and our eyes lock for a moment, until he looks away. Until he looks away. For the most part, we eat in silence. After he's polished off a second helping, I move the food around on my plate as he gives countless accolades on my cooking. I want him to leave and I want him to stay forever. "So, when are you heading back to New York?" Do I lie to him? No. No more lies.
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"Well, I'm actually going on a little trip." He doesn't respond right away and when I look up from my plate, he almost looks angry. "On vacation?" "Not exactly." "Then what, exactly?" "I'm doing some volunteer work." "You can't do volunteer work in New York?" "That's not the point." "Well, how long will you be gone?" "A month." "Does Alice know about this?" "Yeah, she knows. She encouraged me to do it." Back and forth. Back and forth. "Where are you going?" I know he won't like it. "You know what? It's none of my business." He shakes his head. "Edward, this is important." He takes a deep breath in and I start to wonder if he's ever going to exhale. But when he does, there is a simultaneous warmth and coldness in his face. He finishes his glass of wine and pours himself another. I watch him as he finishes off the bottle. Dishes washed and put away until this time next year, we find ourselves in the
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living room. Either this is goodnight or I ask him to stay a while. But I'm not that brave. Instead, I ask him if he's ready for me to drive him home. He immediately reaches for his coat. He stares at Charlie's fishing vest, a moment too long, before he opens the front door. The drive to the Cullen's is short, the conversation somehow lighter, now that we're out of that house. Or maybe now that Edward is plied with wine. We talk about Charlie. We talk about Esme. We don't talk about my mother. As we pull up into the driveway, Edward turns to me with a smile. "Remember that time Charlie took me fishing but really he wanted to get me alone so he could find out exactly what my intentions were with his daughter?" "Of course I remember. I was mortified." "I don't think I'd even kissed you yet." He chuckles. My face turns hot. "Bella?" "Yeah?" "He loved you so much." The tears prick immediately and I turn away from him before he can see. "Hey. Hey, I'm sorry. Don't cry." I wipe the traitor tears as quickly as they came. "Look at me. Please." I don't want to but I do it. His eyes are always two things at once. Terrifying and comforting. Sure and Afraid. He reaches his hand out to my face. Slow motion. I lean into it without meaning
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to. Fierce and gentle. Warm and strong and Edward. He closes his eyes for a moment and when he opens them, they are frantic. "Bella, what are we doing?" I shake my head and there are no words. He's waiting for something and when I don't give it to him, I can see it in every last inch of him. I watch his lips as he speaks. "Will you do something for me?" Anything. "Call me when you get back and tell me about it?" I nod, speechless. He drops his hand down to his side. "I should go." And he does. It's only when he's walking away from me that I realize I never asked him why he's here. I sit in the driveway long after he's inside the house. Door closed. Lights out.

A/N: This was kind of a big week for Pocket Change. To all of you who have been leaving reviews, I am beyond flattered by your lovely, kind words.

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To all of you that have been pimping out my little story, you're amazing. There are no words to adequately express my appreciation. While I was excited to see so many new readers, I was a little nervous about the timing, being that this was the chapter that was coming next. Of all chapters. I know you are invested in these characters. I am too. I know you want to see them happy. I do too. Thank you for trusting me. Next chapter should be up by Wednesday :)

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Gravel and Lead Feet


Edward I stand motionless in the dark. My heart in my ears, my hands on the door. Eventually, I hear tires on gravel and I loosen my death grip on the doorknob, no longer at war with myself. No longer any threat of throwing the door open, pulling her from her car and begging her on my hands and knees to stay. She has a life that doesn't include me. I have a life that means nothing without her. I pull my phone from my pocket. She picks up on the fourth ring. "Hellooo?" "Where is Bella going?" "What?" "Where. Is. She. Going?" "What the hell, Edward? I was sleeping!" "You should have told me." "Should have told you about the girl that you haven't been with in how many years ?" "Cut the crap, Alice." "You, cut the crap. You want to know so badly, ask her yourself." "I can't." There is an agitated sigh on the other end of the line. "You have to stop this, Edward. She doesn't need your permission to leave the country. She doesn't belong
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to you." "She's leaving the country? By herself?" "Edward, I'm hanging up now. Good night." Damn it! I throw my phone before I can think better of it. I hear the tell-tale crack, but I don't care if it's broken. She doesn't belong to you. I can't breathe. I walk straight through the house and out the back door. I sit on the cold stone steps. I gave her the third degree over something she claims is important. I can't recall ever hearing her say anything is important. I made her cry. I held her face in my hand. She said she'd call me when she got back. She said she'd tell me about it. But words are cheap. I've spent all this time trying to let her go and with the promise of one phone call, I'm hers again. It's this place. This town. I hear the door open and close behind me and I wonder if he's been here the whole time. He sits down next to me without a word. 'The next time you try something like that, Dad, I swear to God" "Please, Edward. Enough with the dramatics. We both know that you didn't want
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me there." I glare at him even though he is right. "I still can't believe you've been having dinner with her every year. For years now! And you never told me." "You never asked." "Maybe for once, you could be in my corner, instead of hers." Before the words even leave my mouth, I know that's not really what I want. "It's not a contest, son. Besides, she needs me more than you do." I don't know if that's true. The entire town showed up for Charlie's funeral. Bella seemed surprised. Maybe she didn't see him clearly. Charlie was a man that meant something to this town. Everyone wanted the chance to say goodbye. His colleagues shared several decades' worth of stories from fishing trips, hunting expeditions, and tailgating parties. And everyone spoke about how Charlie Swan loved his daughter more than anything. Watching Bella fall to pieces, watching her try to pick herself up only to see her crumble again. I've never felt so helpless, and yet I think I am the one who needs her. She's stronger than she knows. I am paralyzed by the fear of losing her. She is beautiful even in her grief. She said she never cried before that day. She never cried, she never screamed or blamed or let herself feel any of it. The shock, the pain, the anger. They're all supposed to happen. They're stages of the grieving process. I googled it. She sleeps in my bed ever night and I tell myself that if I hold on tight, it will be enough. Chinese takeout in one hand, I knock tentatively on my dad's office door. The lights are dimmed, which is usually a sign that he should be avoided. "Come in." The door creaks open and I stand at the edge of the room waiting for him to finish
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what he's doing. He's hunched over his desk, working with only the light from his small desk lamp. I can't help but see Ebenezer Scrooge working by candlelight on Christmas Eve. He clears his throat. "Is there something that you need, Edward?" "Here's your change." He continues scribbling without responding. I reach my hand out to set the change on the end table by the door. "Edward, I'd feel more comfortable if Bella slept in the guest room. Or with Alice. In fact, maybe it's time she goes back to her own house. She's a legal adult." He doesn't even look up from his paperwork as he says it. I feel his words in my gut, like a sucker punch. And I'm tired of being the dutiful son that abides by his every wish. He can go to hell. "She can sleep where she wants to sleep." And now I have his full attention. His eyes are fighting for composure. He points a finger at me. "Don't you take that tone with me. This is my house and I'm still your father." "Oh, well that is certainly nice to hear." I'm feeling brave. "What is that supposed to mean?" Narrowed eyes and tight lips. "It means you haven't acted like my father since mom died. It means you have more than one child! It means you need to stop walking around like a ghost!" I throw the fistful of change across the room. The bills flutter silently through the air. The coins hit the wall with a smack and fall unceremoniously to the ground. He is up from his desk and across the room in seconds. His hands are at my throat as he pushes me up against the wall. I gasp for breath. I can see the pulsing vein in his forehead and I almost hope he hits me. Just do it, you bastard. Something flickers in his eyes. A flash. The realization of what he's doing. He drops his hands in horror, staring at them while he backs away from me like I'm holding a gun to his head. I take labored breaths, dropping myself to the hardwood. "Edward" he shakes his head in disbelief. Grief grips his voice. And I don't care. "Edward, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I don't know how to be a father without her. She always knew what to say. She always knew and now now I have nothing."
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His rage is now my rage. "You have nothing?" He holds his hands in front of his face. The tears barely contained. "No disrespect dad, but you have me. But I won't be here forever. I won't do it. I won't let you take her away from me." "Edward, I only meant" "No, you listen! You either find a way to live without mom or you really will have nothing. Bella will sleep where she wants to sleep." I wait for the retaliation but it doesn't come. He nods. Eyes closed, like he can't bear to look at me. The doorbell rings. He doesn't even acknowledge it. I sneer at him, "Don't worry, I'll get it." I open the front door to find Rosalie standing there. Never hit a girl. Never hit a girl. Never hit a girl. "Hey, Edward." I stare at her without seeing her. I can't even find the composure to say hello. "Alice is expecting me." I sigh and step aside so that she can walk past me before I slam the door. She doesn't make a crack about me being a prick or an asshole or tell me to go fuck myself. She just gives me an uncharacteristically subdued smile and makes her way through the dark. I follow close behind her, unwilling to give her free reign of the house. As we reach the stairs Rosalie freezes. Bella. She' sitting on the steps, staring into nothing. Rosalie looks uncomfortable for the first time in her entire life. She sets her perfectly manicured hand on Bella's shoulder. "I'm sorry about your dad." Bella looks up at her and actually smiles. "Thank you." She stands and climbs the stairs without looking at me. I wonder how much she heard. She walks straight to her room, the one she doesn't sleep in, and closes the door behind her. I lead Rosalie to Alice's room. "So, how is she doing?"
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"Like you care." "Oh, because I'm Rosalie Hale I can't have a heart? Is that it?" She looks genuinely offended. "I didn't mean" "I care, okay? I care." "Okay." I wanted Alice to make an effort. I wanted her to make a friend. I know she only chose Rosalie to spite me in the beginning, but she seems to actually like her now. I can't begin to understand why, but I take it for what it is. She's trying. Sometimes that has to be enough. After Rosalie has been safely delivered to Alice, I knock on Bella's door. I know she won't answer. I push the door open slowly, unsure if I'm ready for what is behind it. She's stuffing her clothes into her duffle bag and I panic. I'm across the room and my hands are covering her hands, begging them to stop. She turns to face me. "Edward, your dad is right. It's time for me to go back to my own house. My own life. I don't live here. I'm not a part of this family." She says it like it's something to be a part of. "Bella, please. Please don't go." "What am I going to do, stay here until we go off to college?" I don't even want to think about going away to school right now. "Yes, that's exactly what you should do." She shakes her head and closes her eyes. I reach my hand around her waist and she tenses. She sleeps in my bed at night, but this she can't handle. I feel her start to shake before I hear the sobs. She turns into me, burying her face. And I've never felt pain like this. Seeing her pain is worse than watching my dad become a shadow or watching Alice lose her way or even watching my mom slowly fade into nothing. And it's as if my dad's hands are still around my throat. I can remember the quiver in my mom's voice as she held my hand. "You just
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know. When you find it, promise me you won't let it go." I promised. I love her. I love her. And I promised not to let her go. I run my hand down her back and hold her closer. I brush the hair from her face and tuck it behind her ear, whispering into her, "Bella, what's wrong?" "I just miss them." Her words startle me even though they shouldn't. She's grieving them both. "Bella, I understand. I know what it's like to lose a parent." She abruptly stops crying and goes rigid in my arms. She balls her little fists up against my chest and beats them against me. "You know what it's like? You know what it's like? You spent every waking moment with your mom before she died, Edward. You had a lifetime of conversations with her. You don't have a fucking clue what it's like! So do me a favor and stop pretending like you understand. Just stop." I take a step back. She spins around, back to the bed, and all of her sadness has given way to anger. All of it directed at me. She stuffs the rest of her things into her bag and walks right past me. I stand in the empty room in disbelief. Damn it! The thought of her sleeping in that empty house makes me sick. At the time, watching my mom die seemed like the ultimate form of torture. But Bella is right. It made all the difference. My mom wasn't afraid to die. She was ready. It was the most difficult part and the best part. When I cried like a little girl, she told me, "Edward, I do not wish to live forever. I only wish to leave behind something that I am proud of. There is nothing in this life that I could ever be more proud of than my children." As she smiled at me and squeezed my hand, I knew that she had already let go. There was a sense of peace in her eyes that can only come
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from acceptance. Acceptance that she wasn't long for this world. I walk down the stairs to the kitchen, fighting for composure when all I really want to do is punch a hole through the wall with each step. I nearly trip over her bag on the bottom stair. She didn't leave. She's not gone. I can see a flicker of light from the den and the sounds of whispered conversations lilting in and out over the sounds of the TV. I sit in the dark and listen. Even though I can't see Bella, I can hear her and the sound of her voice lets me breathe again. "Alice, why don't you speak to your father?" I hold my breath. "Because because there's nothing to say. I just can't forgive him for what he did." "What exactly did he do?" "You know, I don't even remember it all anymore." But I remember it. They were both in denial. My father and Alice. They couldn't believe that she was dying. My father understood in the clinical sense of course, but that meant very little. He went to work every day, came home after dinner every night. Alice was the same. She kept herself busy. Impossibly busy. I begged her, pleaded with her, even tried bribing her to find the time to sit by mom's bedside. But she wouldn't do it. So then when it happened, when she was really gone, Alice couldn't cope. She wouldn't leave her room. She wouldn't talk to anyone. She wouldn't eat. She was a skeleton. My dad had no choice but to have her hospitalized on an involuntary psychiatric hold. She hasn't spoken one word to him since. There is a choked sob. "He let her he let her die." I feel it in my chest. It takes everything I have to leave them be.
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"He's a doctor. He's the best. He saves people. But he just let her die." The floor creaks behind me. I turn to see my dad standing in the dark. His eyes meet mine and it's an apology. An apology for so many things. He takes a seat on the step beside me and we listen together. "He's not a bad man, Alice." "I know." "And he's still here." "And you're going home to an empty house. Bella I'm so sorry. I guess I don't know what to say to him now. It's been so long." "Maybe it doesn't matter what you say." Rosalie's voice. She's been so quiet I forgot she was even here. It's not like Rosalie to keep her trap shut. My dad puts a hand on my shoulder and whispers to me, "She can stay as long as she likes, Edward." I leave him sitting in the dark and climb the stairs to my even darker room. I crawl into bed with my clothes on, burying my face in her pillow. I won't let her go. I can't. But right now I'm too tired for all of it. My dad's right. If my mom were here she'd know exactly what to say. She'd know how to make everything better. I cover my face with my pillow, the one that smells like Bella. I hit the mattress with my fist. "I don't know what to do, mom. I can't lose her." I can see my mom's face, the way it looked before she was sick. I imagine her telling me that I won't lose Bella, that I could never lose her. That it would be impossible to lose her. I hear the soft click of the door and then the bed shifts. I pull the pillow off of my face to see her sitting there at the edge of the bed. Bella. Beautiful.
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"Hi." Even in the dark her eyes are everything. "Hi." I lift the covers up. She curls herself into me without even a hesitation. "Edward, I'm sorry." She pulls at my shirt with her little hands. "Bella, please don't go." There's nothing else to say. She stays. I walk up the stairs with lead feet. I push the door open to my old room and stare at the bed. I pull the blankets off and wrap them up into a messy ball around my pillow. I carry them outside into the night. A once familiar walk that's no longer mine. Even the hundred-year-old trees are different. When I finally see it in the distance, I stop. I stand in the open field until the inevitable rain starts and I'm forced to make a run for it. Through the barn doors, up the ladder. Some things stay the same. I curl up on the floor by the little window. This is when I know where my home is. And I decide. Just because I can't have all of it doesn't mean I can't have some of it. I will tell my dad that I will take the job. I will tell him that I'm sure.
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Even though I'm not sure of anything anymore. I will be her friend. Even if that means seeing her only once a year. I will eat beef stew every Mother's Day. I won't ask her for more than she can give me. She doesn't belong to me. Maybe she never did.

A/N: Next chapter by Friday. Thanks for hanging in there and for all of your support :)

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Tangled Legs and Back Pockets


Bella I lay on the couch, under a knit blanket. Rain on the roof. Eyes closed. But sleep doesn't want me. The sounds of this house are no longer familiar. Charlie's house, my house, has become a stranger. But I'm not afraid. These are not the kinds of things I am afraid of. Eventually the rain tires itself out and the clouds break apart. Just in time for the sun to rise. I get dressed and take a walk. The walk I used to take nearly every day. The walk I now take once a year. Just enough light to see where I'm going, the night still hangs in the air. I feel as if I might be the only living thing who is awake. It's moments like these, I wish I could go back. Rewind. I take my time getting there. Once a year isn't enough. Your father would have wanted you to live in the house. Carlisle didn't get the chance to tell me this year, but I know it's true. He would have wanted a lot of things. By the time I see my barn, the sun is up, only a few leftover clouds in the sky. The stubborn ones. With each year that passes, I wonder if this will be the year that someone else has found this place and made it theirs. I walk tentatively towards the open doors. Muddy footprints leading in. A pair of abandoned shoes at the bottom of the ladder. And I'm suddenly in a hurry. I take the rungs two at a time. And then I see him.
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Edward. Fast asleep. Wrapped up in a quilt in the corner. I know that quilt. The quilt from his bed. And it's as if I really have traveled back in time. I sit on the ledge of the loft, heart pounding, and I watch him. Watch his face. Asleep, like this, he is the same Edward that read to me all of those years ago. He is my Edward. I fight the desperate urge to curl up next to him and pretend that we are who we used to be. There is a fleeting moment when I feel brave. Maybe I could whisper it. He wouldn't even hear me. No. Courage gone. I'm in his bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark. He pokes me in the ribs with his elbow. "Why are you way over there?" "I'm right next to you." He reaches his hand out, brushing his fingertips against my arm. "Come here." I turn into him without protest. Tangled legs. Warm. I can feel the relief in every inch of my skin. And I don't want to sleep in my own bed ever again. Eyes closed. His lips on my forehead. "Goodnight, Bella."
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I want all of it. But I'm afraid. Goodnight, Edward. That place between dreams and consciousness where everything is different, yet the same, and it's impossible to tell what's real. "Bella." I'm running through the fog but I can't see anything or anyone and it's as if I'm the last person on earth. "Bella." I tell myself to wake up. And then I'm surrounded by faceless people. All strangers. I'm pushing through them, searching for anyone I might recognize. But there is nobody. "Bella." That voice. Wake up. Wake up. I open my eyes with a jolt. "It was just a dream." My hands pull at his shirt, grabbing fistfuls of the material and I can't get close enough. I can't hold on tight enough. He holds me against him until my breathing evens out. Even after. Some dreams aren't real. Here in the dark, in this bed, there is nothing between us, nothing that is too prickly or personal or raw. But the sun brings reality with it. The reality of awkward conversations and college and families that don't belong to me. With my head tucked under his chin, I watch his chest rise and fall. I can feel his breath on my face. I watch him for minutes. Hours. Long after he's asleep. Trying to figure him out. Trying to figure myself out. Before long, the sun is up, threatening to ruin everything.
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I close my eyes tight, as if that will change anything. As if it were that easy. I can feel him stirring beside me but I'm not ready to open my eyes. "Bella?" The corner of my mouth turns up in a smile at the sound of his voice. "Bella, I know you're awake." "I'm sleeping." "You don't speak that clearly when you're sleeping." I need to start sleeping in my own room. Fuck that. This is better. I open one eye, glowering at him, but he only smiles back. "It's time to get up, pirate." A giggle escapes my throat. "Grrr. Arrg." He belly laughs and brushes the hair from my face. I pull the covers over my head and burrow into his side. Both arms around me, he holds me tight against him. This is definitely better. "We promised Alice we'd go to the county fair with her today, remember?" We. I scrunch my face up. "Your sister has a bizarre fascination with carnival people." Another laugh. I pull away from him, like I do every morning, and make my way to my room to take a shower in my bathroom.
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We pick Rosalie up on the way. Edward and Rose have a ten-minute argument about Edward's "no gum in the Volvo" rule. As we walk through the gates, I can't help but watch the way Rosalie carries herself. Like she's never had a care in the world. Like she knows she's beautiful. Like nothing could ever stop her from getting what she wants. I wonder what it is like to be her. Rosalie has her heart set on taking one of those old fashioned photographs. I'm pretty sure she just wants to dress up like a hooker from the Wild West. I'm counting on Edward to veto this idea. But Alice is giving him the puppy dog eyes. "Come on, it will be fun. Plus, you owe me, big brother." The clothes aren't real clothes. They have these little ties in the back like hospital gowns. Really slutty hospital gowns. Rosalie is prancing around the girls' dressing room half naked. I probably would be too if I looked like that. "Bella, put it on! You're doing this." "Maybe I should wear one of the guy's costumes, then it will be even." "Forget it. Put it on." I groan as I hold up the red bodice with no back. "I'll meet you guys out there. Just give me a second." I do my best to tie the strings by myself and walk quickly past the mirror before I can catch a glimpse of my reflection and back out. I peek through the curtain. The photographer has Alice and Rosalie on either side of Edward. He's sitting on a stool, all disheveled, and ruggedly handsome. Alice and Rose poke each other with their fake guns and giggle over their trampy little get-ups. I'm pretty sure I see a flash of Rosalie's boob. I take a deep breath and sneak through the curtain, hoping to slip in next to them unnoticed. But his eyes are on me instantly. And I feel it everywhere. Alice and Rose continue faux-flirting with each other as I walk towards them. The photographer takes me by the hand and motions toward Edward, "sit."
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"Sit where?" But I know what she's going to say. "On his lap." Edward closes his eyes for a moment and his face is completely blank. There is no way this is as embarrassing for him as it is for me. I perch myself on the edge of his knees. "You look like you're afraid he might bite you. Get a little closer." This photographer is not my friend. As I scoot myself back, Edward's hand appears on my bare back and I freeze. I stay facing forward as he whispers into my ear, "That's enough." Goosebumps everywhere. The photographer physically crosses my legs for me. "You don't want to give the camera a show, my dear." Rosalie whistles. She fucking whistles. "Alright now, have a little fun with it." She takes several shots. I still want to crawl into a hole and die. Edward doesn't say a word the entire time. As I go to stand, I feel the bodice start to loosen. I Grab at my chest to keep it up. Rosalie laughs. "Help her out with that, would you, Edward?" Rose and Alice disappear behind the dressing room curtain in a fit of hysterics. I can feel his fingers fiddling with the ties. Chills up my spine. I look over my shoulder but he won't look at me. His eyes are focused on the strings like he's performing surgery. "Alright, all done." As I stand up, I can feel him quickly stand behind me, but when I turn to face him, his back is to me. He's arranging some of the props. For no reason. And I've embarrassed him. "Edward?" "Yeah?" He doesn't turn around. "Thanks." "No problem."
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I stand there staring at his back, wanting nothing more than for him to look at me. He doesn't. "Come back in an hour. We'll print up the best one for you." I leave Edward standing there and head for the dressing room. I get dressed quickly. I've never been so grateful to be in my own clothes. Rosalie motions for me to follow her out. "We should probably meet Edward out front. He might need a minute." A minute for what? Alice and Rose share a knowing look and run laughing from the little building. We wait for Edward, lemonades in hand, sitting on the ledge of the footbridge overlooking the creek. Rosalie slurps her drink and has the full attention of every guy who walks by. "So, you're totally fucking him, right?" I turn towards Alice just in time to see her spray her lemonade everywhere. "Rosalie Hale! Shut. Up." "What? He's not my brother." Alice covers both of her ears and starts humming obnoxiously. Rosalie looks at me expectantly, "Well?" My first instinct is to tell her to fuck off but I think girls are supposed to talk about these kinds of things with each other. "Umm, no. We're not fucking." "You're telling me that you sleep in the same bed with Edward Cullen every night and you haven't fucked him?" "No, it's not like that." "Well then tell me what it's like." "We're friends." "Who sleep in the same bed." Disbelieving.
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"I know how it sounds, but it's not like that, Rose." "Bella, it's exactly like that. I have eyes. I see the way he looks at you." "He doesn't look at me." Alice starts laughing. Not listening, my ass. "Okay, okay he looks at me." "Thank you. Oh, and Bella? I've seen the way you look at him too. You're not fooling anyone." Her words leave my stomach in knots. Edward comes sauntering towards us, avoiding all of our eyes. I remember when his gaze made me uncomfortable, but now the absence of it leaves me wanting something I can't name. I don't know when it changed. All I fucking want is for him to look at me. We walk through the crowd as the carnies shout at us from their booths, each one more obscene than the one before him. I can feel Edward's fingers ghost past mine with each swing of his arm and I want to grab his hand. I'm tired of always being my own biggest obstacle. So I do it. I reach out and grab his hand. Not tentatively. I grab his hand like it belongs to me. And he finally looks at me. Looks at me like he doesn't believe me. I give his hand a squeeze. And now he believes me. The kind of smile that says he's been waiting for that. And then we have the same smile. We walk hand in hand, with matching stupid grins. Rosalie and Alice have disappeared into the crowd. On purpose or on accident, I don't know. He nudges me with his shoulder. "What's it going to be, Bella?" "I don't know, City Boy, you ever played carnival games before?" He feigns offense at my question, mouth gaping. "You pick the game. We won't go home without a prize."
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Home. They have that game where you try to throw a ping-pong ball into the little fish bowls to win a live goldfish. Two balls for a dollar. And I want one of those fish. One of the live ones, not one of the belly-up, cloudy bowl fish. I lead him over to the booth and he pulls out a dollar from his back pocket. Thirteen dollars later and we have no fish. It would probably be easier if I let go of his hand, but I don't want to. So I don't. "I'd just kill it anyway. Really Edward, it's fine." Before he can hand the carnie another dollar, I pull him away, back into the crowd. He tucks me into his side and leads me through the sea of people, stopping triumphantly in front of one of those little black and white photo booths. He's got to be fucking kidding. What is with this family and pictures? "More pictures?" He leans into me. "Come on, just you and I." I can't say no. We're sitting side by side and I reach out to press the big red button, but he grabs my hand. "We don't know what we're going to do yet." "What do you mean?" "For the pictures. What's our plan?" He's serious. "Edward, we don't need a plan. We push the button and make faces at the camera." He looks at me like this is the most ridiculous thing I've ever said to him. The corner of his mouth turns up in a confused smile. I'm suddenly aware of how close we are. And I want to kiss him. No. I want him to kiss me. He's reading the directions aloud trying to determine exactly how many seconds
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we have between each photo. I reach out and press the button. He stops mid-sentence, turning to face me, mouth gaping, as the automated photo-booth-voice starts the countdown. "What" And I finally have his eyes. They are surprise and fear and hope and pride and longing and something else. I close my eyes before I let myself see it. I'm afraid he won't kiss me. Not after the last time. The only time. I hear his sharp intake of breath. Three. Two. One. Flash. Eyes closed, I know exactly where he is. I know every inch of that face. Kiss me. Do it. Three. Two. One. Flash. And his lips find my lips. I don't move. I can't move. Soft and aching. Three. Two. One. Flash. And then I'm kissing him back. Slowly, so slowly. My hands move up his chest, to the nape of his neck, to his hair. They seem to know where to go. He whispers into me, "Bella." And then his arms wrap around me, swallowing me up. And I can't do slow anymore. I can't do it. I can feel his tongue against my lips and it's not enough. And then my tongue is his tongue. I can't breathe. I can't hear. It doesn't matter. I don't need any of those things. Elbows and knees in a space that's not meant for kissing. But I don't care because I am nowhere but right here in this moment.
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Heart beating. But there are no more countdowns or flashbulbs or heartbreaks or tragedies. There is only Edward. Forehead to forehead. "Hi." "Hi." The sound of someone clearing his throat on the other side of the photo booth curtain. He gives me a quick kiss. On the lips. He pulls me from the little booth and we ignore the pointed stares. He grabs the strip of photos from the dispenser. His other hand in his hair. Pink cheeks. I'm too embarrassed to look. He slips them into his back pocket without a word. Back into the crowd. We stay until closing, wandering around, my hand in his. Alice and Rose are waiting for us at the gate. Alice smiling, Rose staring. Not at our faces, only at our hands. She doesn't say anything. Neither of them do. Back at the car, fingers linger as we let go. I sit in the back with Rosalie. I can sense her staring the whole way to her house. But every time I face her, she looks away. Her face is made of stone. I watch Edward in his rearview mirror. He catches me more than once. I can only smile. Carlisle's car is in the driveway when we pull up. Every light in the entire house appears to be on. It's making Edward nervous. I can see it on his face, plain as day. Front door open. "Dad?" "In here, son." The three of us walk to the kitchen to find him trying to make room for two pizza boxes in the fridge. "I thought I'd bring home dinner, but it looks like
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you all went out." Edward's face is confused. "Oh. Sorry, we didn't know you would be home." "Well it's there when you want it." Silent nods. "Goodnight kids." He glances at Alice, standing behind Edward and I, before he turns away from us all. Her voice is quiet but sure. "Goodnight." Alice. She's up the stairs before there is any chance of a response. Carlisle stands motionless next to the refrigerator. And now he has a stupid grin too. Edward and I walk up the stairs side by side. I go to my room to get changed for bed and I'm suddenly nervous. The good kind. I want those hands and those lips. I hear the water running as I walk down the hallway, so I go into his room without knocking. I slide silently between the sheets. Eventually, the water goes quiet and I wait for the sound of the bathroom door. Heart beating. He climbs in bed without saying anything. Not touching me. And tonight I'm the one to poke him in the ribs. "Why are you way over there?" He rolls towards me before the words are even finished. Hands and lips. I leave him there in the barn, sleeping. Peaceful. I take each rung of the ladder slowly, so as not to make a sound. The walk back to the house is too short.
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I take a shower. Make sure I haven't forgotten anything. I take one last look around the living room, duffle bag in hand, before I say goodbye to this house and this town. Until next year. Door locked, I don't look back. I drive myself to the airport, return the rental car and there is too much time. Too much time to sit and think and worry about what I'm doing. I get an iced coffee and a chocolate croissant. A last indulgence. I shove the change into my back pocket with my passport. I call Alice. She tells me I can do this. I board the plane. I can do this. There is a part of me that is excited, proud even. There is another part that is afraid. But I'm tired of always letting the afraid part win. I can do this. I've never changed a diaper or burped a baby. I've never taken care of anything. I had one houseplant in college. It was a gift. I killed it in two weeks. But these children have nothing. In a country that has nothing. I can do this.

A/N: So, Pocket Change is up for fic of the week over at the Lemonade Stand, which is all kinds of flattering. A couple of my favorite fics are in there too. If you feel so inclined to vote, go to teh . lemonadestand . com Voting is only open through tomorrow. To Jaime Arkin, thank you for the lovely banner. What a surprise. I'll post it in my profile as soon as I figure out how to do that.
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Next chapter is being kind of a bear, so no promises on when I'll update. Good news is, the following chapter is nearly finished so you should be getting them back to back.

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Spilt Milk and Christmas Cards


Edward I wake with a start. Disoriented. Hot and sweating. The sun already high in the sky. I take one quick look around before I'm down the ladder and out the door. I stand in front of the barn, my shoes in one hand, trying to make out the path that led to Bella's house. The one that used to be there. And my mind must be playing tricks, because for a moment I can see it. I look away before it disappears. In the beginning, there was one well-beaten path to the barn. The grass and weeds had long surrendered to Bella's feet before we moved here. And then there were two paths. One from her house. One from mine. Later, the first path faded and there was only one path again, a wider one, just wide enough for two people to walk side by side. And now, there are no paths at all. The night hid the change on the walk over. Here in the sunlight, it is clear as ever. This place is truly abandoned. I feel foolish, making the walk home in the daylight, pillow and blankets in hand. I'm a grown man, a doctor, doing little boy things. When I get back to the house, dad is at the kitchen table. He sips his coffee, eyes filled with questions. I don't feel like answering them. I tell him without looking at him. "I decided to take the job." "Just like that?" He wants a conversation. I drop my bedding at the foot of the stairs and pour my own cup of coffee. I sit across from him and look him straight in the face.
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"Edward, I can't help but see this as a step down for you in your career." "Same could have been said for you, dad. You regret it?" He smiles and shakes his head. "No. That is not one of my regrets, son. I just think that for your specialization that being in a metropolitan area makes the most sense for you." "I've already decided." "Fair enough. We'll see you in three months then." "Three months." I want to ask him when she's leaving. If she's left already. A tap to my shoulder, and he's left the room. I've been ignoring the fact that the summer is almost gone. We all have. Denial is a powerful thing. We wake up late, having stayed up half the night like we always do. Talking. Not talking. Warm body pressed up against mine, she's tracing down my chest with her little fingers. I want to wake up this way for the rest of my life. Her hands start to go lower and I cover them. "Don't tease me." Eyes open, she's scowling at me. I kiss it away. "Morning, Bella." She plants a kiss on my lips, and I roll her onto her back. Giggles and tangled blankets. There will be no more talking.
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Shirts still on the floor from the night before. Her hands. One tangled up in my hair. One tracing the waistband of my boxers. I kiss along her jaw. Down her neck and she shivers. Lower. Across her collarbone. Lower. Above her heart. Lower. I look up at her eyes, mouth hovering. Begging me. Nails in my scalp. Lips to puckered skin. Soft and mine. "Edward." Quiet and throaty whispers. And then panic. Eyes to the door. Alice. "Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god!" I cover her half naked body with my own, holding her as close to me as I can, as if that will somehow turn back time. "Alice, get out of here!" "Don't you have a lock?" "Don't you knock? Get out!"" A slam of the door. Up on my forearms, careful not to crush her. Forehead to forehead. "Did that just happen?" Wide eyes. "At least it wasn't your dad." "Don't even joke about that."
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She gives me a quick kiss and then she's ducking under my arm, pulling the sheet from the bed, covering herself up. I try to hold on to her, but she slips away from me. "I'm taking a shower." She showers in my bathroom now. This makes me inexplicably happy. I sit up in bed. "You need any help in there?" She points her finger at me. Playful. "No." I fall back towards the pillows. I'll have to thank my sister for ruining a perfectly good case of morning wood. I go downstairs for a bowl of cereal in my boxers, not bothering to put on a shirt. Dad is at the kitchen table, coffee in hand. He's watching my every move. As if cereal was suddenly fascinating. "What?" "Please tell Bella I'd like to speak with her." "Speak with her about what?" "About things." And now I'm uneasy. "Oh, and Edward?" "What?" "Sooner, rather than later." When I go back upstairs she's just out of the shower, wrapped in a towel. Wet hair dripping down her back. Maybe sooner can mean tomorrow. But she can see it on my face. "What's wrong?" "Nothing, my dad just wants to talk to you about something."
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Her eyes go wide. "About what?" "I don't know. He's being all cryptic." I pull her up against me, fistfuls of towel. Lips on hot lips. She pulls the towel back up when it starts to slip. I try to pull it down, running my fingers against the edges. Kisses and words. "Bella, I don't like this towel." Her hand in my face, pushing me away. "Which is fine, because I'm getting dressed." I watch her walk from the room, water still dripping down her back. I wait for her outside the guest room. We walk down to his office side by side. And now he looks nervous. Carlisle Cullen hasn't been nervous about anything a day in his life. "Oh, umm, take a seat, Bella. Edward, close the door on your way out." I challenge him with my eyes but he wins. "Oh and Edward? Put some clothes on." I pace the length of my room a thousand times. She finally walks in, raised eyebrows, mouth open. She sits down on the edge of the bed. And then stands. Only to sit again. "Bella, just tell me. It can be any worse than the thoughts going through my mind." "This is so embarrassing." I sit down next to her, fingertips under her chin. "Tell me?" "Edward, I just got the sex talk from your dad! I went in there and he started pulling all kinds of things out of his bag, laying them out on his desk. All of my birth control options." "He did not."
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"He did!" And then she's laughing. We're both laughing. "Oh my god. What did you say?" "I tried to tell him that we weren't exactly doing that. Exactly. Yet" "Please tell me you did not say 'yet'." She covers her face with her hands. "He got all flustered and awkward and can we just please never speak of this ever again?" I pull her hands off her face and she doesn't fight me. And she is more beautiful than she was yesterday. "We can still talk about sex though, right?" She swats at my arm. "Edward!" "Well? Can we?" She sighs and she's trying not to smile. "As long as your dad is nowhere to be found!" I kiss the tip of her nose. "You want to get out of here?" She nods. She doesn't ask where we're going. It's understood. We go the store first. Graham crackers. Hershey's chocolate. Marshmallows. Back at the house, she packs up food in the kitchen and I go out to the garage. I have the wheelbarrow loaded up with firewood and she eyes me wearily. "Edward Cullen, you are going to burn down all of Forks." "I promise you, I won't. Besides, haven't you ever done anything dangerous in your entire life?" She laughs. "Oh, I see where this is going." I grab her by the waist, pulling her towards me, wrapping her up in my arms. Lips
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in her hair. She holds on to me even tighter, as if that were possible. Plaid blanket in the grass, we find ourselves watching the clouds. Well, I'm watching Bella watch the clouds. And there is nowhere else I'd rather be. Her hair draped around her. Nutmeg and cinnamon. I watch the shadows dance all over her face. I wish I could have a glimpse of what was going on behind those eyes. "What do you see?" She doesn't look at me. "Spilt milk." And then it tumbles out. "Bella, I love you." And I mean it. I don't expect her to say it back. That almost makes it better. And now she's looking at me, eyes wide. "What?" I trace her lips with my fingertips. "I love you." "Edward" "I don't need you to say it. I just need you to hear it." She doesn't respond. "We should probably be getting back." "Bella" And now she looks as if she's trying desperately not to cry. "Bella, what's wrong?" "Just don't say that to me, okay?" "No." "No?"
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"I love you, Bella. And I'm going to say it." "Can you just drop it? Please." "Why?" "Edward, we have one week left before you leave for school. Before I leave. Can we just enjoy it instead of ruining it?" "Fine." And now I'm watching the clouds. And now I'm the one who's trying not to cry. "Don't do that." "Don't do what?" "Pout." I sit up and she pulls me back down. Folding herself into me. Holding me tight. My face in her hair. And I've never felt so far away from her. Will she miss me? Or will she forget me? I kiss her face and she won't look at me. She's on her feet, pulling up the plaid blanket. She turns away from me, towards the barn and I can't breathe. I grab at her, like she's falling off a cliff, and pull her towards me, enveloping her mouth in mine. Frantic. She gives me what I want, hands around my neck. Tongue pushing and pulling until I really can't breathe. And then she's gone. Blanket scooped up, running to the barn. I watch her from where I'm standing until I can't see her anymore. I give her space. I arrange a bunch of large rocks on an open patch of dirt and build a fire pit. Firewood ready.
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I walk to the barn, up the ladder and she's there with a book like I knew she'd be. One of my mom's books. I lay down next to her without a word. She scoots over, head on my chest and keeps reading. We don't talk about those words. I and love and you. We watch the sunset. We sit side by side in front of the fire, sipping hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps. I don't burn the forest down. She however, keeps lighting her marshmallow on fire. "You're holding it too close." "I'm holding it just right. Your fire is an overachiever." She smiles at me and I can feel it in my toes. And other places. "Here, I'll make you one." I hold my hand out and she passes me her skewer with the latest casualty. I scrape the charred mess into the fire. "I make the perfect s'more." "Of course you do." She rolls her eyes at me, but there's a smile. I have a method. A marshmallow toasting method. You have to avoid the flames completely. The glowing orange embers are the only place to properly toast a marshmallow. "Do tell, City Boy, where did you learn to roast a marshmallow?" "My mom." "She took you camping?" "Well, no." I debate whether or not to tell her that I've never actually roasted a marshmallow. That I've only been given detailed instructions. And may have taken notes.
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"My mom told me how to make the perfect s'more." I leave my eyes on the marshmallow as I rotate it evenly above the glowing embers. My face is suddenly uncomfortably warm. I can't tell if it's the fire or the schnapps or Bella. I can feel her eyes on me. I glance at her quickly and she wants to ask me more but she doesn't. I look away while I still can. I set the chocolate on a graham cracker by the edge of the fire, giving it a chance to melt before assembling the perfect s'more. My mom swore by it. I believe her exact words were, "It will change your life forever." I pass the finished s'more to Bella. I watch her take the first bite. And she moans. Nobody can be that sexy and not know it. I watch her, marshmallow all over her face, until the last crumb is gone. And it's almost like I'm waiting for it. For my life to change forever. "You were right. Best fucking s'more of my life." I pull her close to me and kiss the marshmallow off. Her head under my chin, we sit in comfortable silence and watch the fire slowly burn itself out. She starts to say something but stops herself. She starts and stops again, sitting up straight. "Do Do you remember your last conversation?" "With who?" She picks at a loose string on her pants as she mumbles, "Your mom." "Oh, yeah, of course." "What did you talk about?" You. "Life. Everything." "What about you? What was your last conversation with your mom?" She stares blankly into the smoky fire pit. "I don't remember."
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For years, after everything had fallen apart with Bella, I blamed my mom. It was so easy to blame her. To blame someone who wasn't there to defend herself. Part of me blames her still. The day before mom died, Renee and Bella were all she could talk about. I couldn't make sense of everything she said me. I still can't. I asked my dad about it several times, but he always dismissed me. Didn't want to talk about it. I told myself it was the morphine. She didn't know the half of what she was saying. It made her speak nonsense. She wasn't in her right mind. She was my best friend. How could I let her go? How could she do that to me? How could I do that to her? How could I hate her for it? Her own flesh and blood. How could I, Edward, how could I? No child should grow up without a mother. I shouldn't have let her grow up without a mother. You can make sure she's alright. You go find her, Edward. You can find her. You have to find her. She never told me what I was supposed to do next. I wanted to find her. I needed to find her. I never expected to love her. It became all that mattered. It made everything else unimportant. Irrelevant. Insignificant.
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I go down to the basement. Looking for something. I don't know what. I pull out boxes upon boxes of her journals. I can't find the right years. There are too many. Shoeboxes of photographs. Alice and I as babies. Old Christmas cards. Hairstyles that should be outlawed. An envelope wrapped up tight with pink ribbon. A name scrawled across the front. Isabella Marie I open it up slowly. It's nothing but a stack of baby pictures. And there is no doubting this is Bella. I'd know those eyes anywhere. I leaf through them, not questioning why they're here. I'm too distracted by her tiny little perfect face. I hold one picture in both hands, inches from my eyes. It's Halloween and she's dressed as a pumpkin. She's barely old enough to hold her head up. This is what our babies would look like. Like getting the wind knocked out of me. I go from picture to picture, laying them all out on the floor. Pink and more pink. And then there is a picture that I don't understand. I look at the words printed at the bottom and then the picture. Back to the words. Then the picture. Again and again. I take the steps two at a time. Heart pounding. Mind racing. I push his office door open with a smack. His eyes fly to me. Across the room, picture in his face.
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"Dad, what the hell is this?" "Edward" "Do not bullshit me! What is this?" There are tears from a man who doesn't cry.

A/N: Next chapter up by Wednesday :)

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Wet Skin and Dark Circles


Bella I sit on the plane home. Alone. I push the tears down over and over again. All kinds of tears. I can feel the exhaustion in every inch of my being. But it's overshadowed by something else. Something happy. When I close my eyes I can see their little faces. One of them. All of them. Big brown eyes. The kind you can drown in. Little chocolate arms reaching straight up towards the ceiling when I walk by. White metal cribs and brightly colored sheets. Every day left me with something I wanted to tell Edward. Something that I would put away, store for that conversation that I told him we would have. Every day, I thought about that phone call. Every day. I know that I've left pieces of myself behind. Good pieces. But I also left parts of me that I don't want back. The part that aches for things that I tell myself I can never have and sabotages anything good that lands in my lap. The part that is a coward. The part that doesn't love anything. The air on the plane turns stale as we sit on the tarmac at JFK. The other passengers are antsy, crowding the aisle. I look from face to face and they are all filled with the same expression. It takes me a minute to place it. And then it seems embarrassingly obvious. Anticipation to be home. I'm nearly certain that my face doesn't know how to be like theirs. I sit in my seat. I look at my shoes. I'm the same person who got on a plane and left home a month ago. I know this. I'm sure of it. But I'm not the same at all. I'm sure of this too. Being back here, I can feel it creeping in. That urgency to keep everything static. To be the girl who belongs to no one.
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I don't want to get off this plane. I'm afraid of stepping foot in my apartment and going back to my life. I told myself that this trip was for them. For those little strangers. But I needed them as much as they needed me. Maybe more. I sit in my seat by the window until the plane is empty and quiet. My mind starting to come up with excuses for why I shouldn't call him. Why I won't call him. How I can't possibly explain it to him. "Can I help you with something, Miss?" I stare at her plastered smile. "No." Carry-on over my shoulder, I walk down the empty aisle. I pick up speed as I walk through the corridor. When I reach the gate I break into a sprint. Heart pounding. I run past the people saying goodbye, past the people reuniting with their loved ones. I navigate this maze of an airport straight to the ticket counter. By the time I reach the front of the line, I'm no longer panting, but the urgency is still there. "I need a ticket to Los Angeles. Today." The attendant looks me up and down as I throw my credit card on the counter. I make a phone call for an address. The sound of Carlisle's voice gives my courage. Five hours later I'm on a plane. Six hours later I'm in a car. One hour later I'm at a house. I look at the scribbled address again and again, just to make sure I'm at the right house. I'm stalling. I know this. I watch the rain splatter on my windshield, turning the outside world into a distorted mess of colors. It's like looking through a demented kaleidoscope. I keep my eyes fixed on his front door, afraid he's going to walk out of it at any moment, or worse. I can't bear the thought of someone else walking into that house. Someone who isn't me. I concentrate on my breathing. I can do this. I've already lost him. I lost him because there was too much that went unsaid. We're already broken. There is nothing else left. I walk from the rental car, the rain soaking through my clothes and into my bones
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in seconds. I stand on his doormat, sopping wet, praying that he's home. My finger hovers over the doorbell, as the rain continues to come down in sheets. I knock instead. A real knock. Minutes pass. The kind of minutes that feel like days. And it is only now that I remember my luggage, abandoned in New York. The door swings open and he's rubbing the sleep from his eyes. In the middle of the afternoon. He looks older than he did a month ago. He's staring at me like I'm not real. Every coherent thought is suddenly gone from my mind. "Hi." Wide eyes, from my shoes up to my face. "Hi." And suddenly, everything I wanted to tell him about my trip is no longer relevant. "I was nine." "What?" "I was nine years old." He shakes his head. "Bella, I don't" "We were living in California at the time. I told my mom that I hated her because she wouldn't buy me some stupid binder with a cat on it. I don't even like cats!" "Bella, what are you doing?" He doesn't run his hands through his hair. They are plastered to his sides like wet paper. All the while, I can feel my heart in my chest, gaining momentum. "It wasn't a car accident." "What?" "I said it wasn't a car accident!" His eyes widen and I start to look away but I can't do this halfway. I have to let
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him see it all or it's not enough. It will never be enough unless I let him have everything. I hold his eyes. "Bella?" The way my name falls out of his mouth catches me off guard and I almost forget why I'm here. "Bella, I'm not going to" "You don't get to decide, Edward!" "Bella!" The gruffness in his voice startles me. "What?" I look up at him like a scolded child. "I'm not going to let you stand out here in the pouring rain and do this!" He steps aside and motions for me to come in. Oh. I peak wearily into his house. If I go inside, this will all be real. As he watches me standing there, frozen on his doorstep, his expression shifts. I've seen that look. It says, 'that's what I thought.' He expects me to run away. I don't blame him. I step tentatively over the threshold, into the life I said I didn't want. I stand there, teeth chattering, appraising his living room. The walls are bare, the furniture simple and sparse. I'm startled by the fact that this could be anyone's home. There are no traces of Edward anywhere. If he wasn't standing here before me, I'd think I was in the wrong house. And then I realize what I'm doing. I'm not looking for Edward in this house. I'm looking for traces of me. And there aren't any. He turns around and walks abruptly from the room. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to follow him. So I stay put, standing in my puddle of rainwater. He returns almost immediately, holding a pile of clothes. "You're going to make yourself sick, Bella." He holds the stack out to me. "I'll be fine." "Bella, your lips are turning blue." He looks at me sternly and I feel like a child again. I take the clothes from him, my fingers awkwardly avoiding his hands. I follow him to the bathroom.
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"Take a hot shower." I don't argue. I stand under the spray of the water, letting it bite my skin, until I've thawed out. I wash away days' worth of travel. I wash my hair with his shampoo, a brand I don't recognize. Being here, in this place that holds no trace of my Edward, I feel foolish and desperate and stupid. Fucking stupid. It's the middle of the night and my mind refuses to sleep. I try to lay still. I try not to wake him, but that never seems to matter. Raspy voice. "Bella, you awake?" "Yeah." "You alright?" I wrap myself around him, legs intertwined, ear to his heart. "Edward, do you ever wonder about your birth parents?" "No." "Never?" "Never." I don't believe him and he can hear it in my voice. He places a soft kiss in my hair. "Bella, I know who raised me. I know who my parents are. That's all that matters." I want to ask him if he ever feels the desperate urge to seek them out. If he ever feels like there is a gaping hole in his chest and knowing might be the one thing that fills it up, makes him whole again. I ask a different question instead. "Why did you take that picture?" "Take what picture?"
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"The picture of my mother." His body goes absolutely still. "Because it's your mother and my mother." "What?" "In the picture. Your mother and my mother." But how could it? Mind swimming. "They were friends?" "Best friends." "She never told me anything about a best friend about her life before me. Your mom she told you about Renee?" He nods into me. "Bella, I just want to be with you. I just want to be with you and for the next couple days not have to live with the ghosts of our mothers. Can we just have that?" I didn't mean to upset him. Head tucked under his chin. Eyes closed. "Yeah. We can have that." I tell myself to let it go. To leave it alone. To go to sleep. For once, my mind listens. I wake in the morning to the sound of water running, the empty place beside me in bed still warm. And I hate waking up alone. I miss him already even though we still have a couple of days together. I slide out of bed, mind still foggy with sleep, before I lose my courage. Into the bathroom. Door locked behind me. I strip down, clothes on the floor. Mirrors fogged up and damp air.
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I slide the shower door open and he jumps. Alarmed. Confused. Surprised. Wanting. "Bella, what are you doing?" "What does it look like I'm doing?" Eyes travel down. He stands motionless as I step over the tub and into the shower. And I should be self-conscious. Embarrassed. Standing here naked in front of him with nothing to hide behind. But the way he looks at me. Like I'm the only thing he's ever wanted. Like I'm beautiful. Like I'm alive. Like he's mine. I can see with my own eyes that he wants me. The way his body wants me. But he doesn't move. Until I'm inches from him and then he's on me. Pushing me up against the wall. Hands everywhere. Lips everywhere. Tongue everywhere. The heat of the water and the chill of the tile. "Bella, I love you so much." Words lighting my skin on fire. Feet slipping on wet porcelain. The water too hot to breathe. Carrying me out of the shower. Carrying me to the bed, water still running. Wet bodies on sheets. Hovering over me. Hands raking up my body. Steam filtering into the bedroom. I'm already melting. His lips run along my jaw. My hands desperate in his hair. I pull his mouth to mine, demanding. Tongues wanting. Frenzied.
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He rolls us on to our sides, hands wandering. He cups my breasts in both hands. Those hands. Like I might die if he stops touching me. I can feel him against me and it seems impossible that he could be aching the way I am. His hand on my hip. I no longer have control of my own body. Trying to get closer. His hand lower. My mouth gaping. His hand between my thighs. Too gentle. Not enough. Hips acting on their own accord. Fingers inside of me. Drowning. Fingers and thumb moving. Faster. Until I'm falling apart at the seems. His mouth swallowing my scream. Like a whole city burning to the ground. Fingers sliding out of me. Empty. My body like jelly. Trying to find the words. "Edward, I want you." His whole body stills. Eyes searching. "I thought we were waiting." "I don't want to." Head nodding.
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"Bella" "Edward, please." And then he's hovering over me. Eyes dark. Arms rigid. "Please." Slight pressure. Not enough. Fingers digging into his back side. Pushing him forward. Sliding into me. This is happening. Slowly. Too slowly. And then one fluid motion. Bodies connected. Hips against hips. Not moving. My whole life in this moment. "You okay?" Breathless. I can only nod. Slowly rocking. Lips slow and gentle. Hips faster. "Bella"
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Forehead to forehead. Wet skin to wet skin. His hips matching my heartbeats. Shallow groans. His or mine. This is what it feels like to be alive. "Bella" I can only answer by matching his rhythm. Eyes holding mine. Never letting go. Filling me up on e last time. And then motionless. Collapse. The full weight of his body. Slow kisses. "Bella" No words. The sting as he slides out of me. Pulling me closer with his arms. Tucking me into him. Breathing slowly evening itself out. Lips to my forehead. Whispered words I can't hear. All wrapped up in each other. Sleep pulling me under. Seconds, minutes, hours. The sound of his voice bringing me back. "Bella, move to LA with me."
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What? Whispers against my skin. "Come to LA with me." "Edward, we've talked about this." "I know. But I don't understand." "Edward, we have the rest of our lives." "You think about that?" "Think about what?" "Spending the rest of your life with me?" I kiss the words away. A knock. "Are you okay in there?" I look down at my shriveled fingertips before turning off the water. "I'll be right out." I dress quickly, pulling on Edward's sweats, rolling the waistband over several times, pulling the drawstring tight. I hold up the shirt. Forks High School class of '99. The mirror is fogged up and I'm glad because I don't want to see the fear in my reflection. I open the bathroom door to find him leaning against the wall waiting for me, and for the second time today I momentarily forget why I'm here. He's quiet as I follow him down the hall. We sit on his couch and I'm no longer brave. "When did you get home?" "Right now." He only stares, face completely blank, for minutes.
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"Bella, I still want to hear it. If you still want to tell it." And that's all it takes. Deep breath. "It was October 17th. Sometimes I close my eyes and all I can see is that date. Like it's burned into my soul. We were driving when the earthquake hit." "What?" His face looks inexplicably devastated. "We were driving on the lower deck of the old Cypress Structure." His forehead knits together and it's a relief to still be able to read his face. "It was a raised multi-lane freeway in Oakland that led to the Bay Bridge." He nods and I feel too far away from him. "Bella why didn't you ever tell me?" "I'm telling you now." He shakes his head. I say it again. "I'm telling you now." "Okay." "It collapsed entirely. The whole thing just came down like a house of cards. My mother, she she was killed instantly, her head completely smashed. I only survived because I was small. The car was flattened, trapped between huge slabs of concrete. The rescue effort was extensive. Retrieving the survivors, and the bodies, was challenging." My voice starts to quiver and betray me. "Bella" "Forty two people died there that day. Forty two people died, and I didn't." "Bella" "I was in the car for two days, covered in broken glass, in and out of consciousness. They said I was in a coma when they found me, but I remember it. I remember everything." Do. Not. Cry.
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"I remember the air being too thick to breathe and I remember the screaming and the sounds of metal against concrete. I remember the smell of the blood. But most of all I remember the silence. When the jackhammers would stop. That's when I thought I was going to die there." He reaches his hand out and I hold my breath. His fingers hesitate and I don't blame them. I try to remember holding his hand. I try to remember his hands on my face. I try to remember his lips on my skin. I close my eyes and just breathe. And when I open them, his fingers are dancing over my hand like he's playing the piano. A song I don't know. Our eyes meet and he closes the gap, tracing the side of my hand. Ever so lightly. Afraid. And yet it feels like the most intimate moment that we've ever shared, his hand tracing mine. It's enough. "You know what she said when I told her I hated her? She told me she loved me. That was the last thing she said to me before everything went black." His eyes finally understand. I tell him all of it. How Charlie didn't know anything about me until that earthquake. How I didn't know anything about him. How he hadn't heard from my mother since she sent divorce papers. How he sat by my bedside until I woke up. How I opened my eyes to a stranger. How I lost everything I knew and gained everything I didn't know I wanted in that one instant. We sit facing each other, cross-legged on the couch and I'm reminded of our first encounter in the barn, except everything is backwards. It feels like a lifetime ago. His eyes are tired. Dark circles that I never noticed before. "Bella, why are you here?" It's a simple question but not the one I'm expecting. I want to tell him that I don't know, but that would be a lie and I've already given him enough of those for one lifetime.
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"Because I made a mistake." He searches my eyes and he's afraid to believe me. "Did you mean it?" He could be asking about so many things. And apparently he can still read me too. "What you said, after Alice's wedding." I've made a habit of saying things I don't mean. It's a fair question. But it stings. "I meant it. I should have said yes." He picks at the seem of the couch cushion and I've lost his eyes. "Then why didn't you?" It's the question I've asked my self again and again. My entire life, I've protected only one person. There was no noble, misplaced notion that I was protecting him. No. I have always only protected myself. "I was afraid. Afraid of losing you." "That doesn't make any sense, Bella." "I know." We don't talk about that day. We don't talk about the ones leading up to it. He stares at nothing for a long time and I would do anything to know what he's thinking. I trace the angles of his jaw with my eyes. Angles that show no sign of the boy he once was, only the man he has become. My voice is barely a whisper. "What about you, did you mean it? You said you regretted it." He doesn't answer right away. He opens his mouth only to close it again. A deep breath. "Yes." Every bit of hope that I was holding on to is instantly shredded. "Bella, I was afraid too." "Of what?" "Losing you."
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The tears streak immediately. "Bella" I sniffle through them, "What?" "Please don't cry." He takes my hand in his and there is nothing but that hand. "Then tell me something good." Silence. Because it's not his job, it's mine. "Edward" My voice is ugly, coming out through strangled sobs. "I I love you. I've always loved you." He looks as if I've stabbed him. And this is what it's like to say it and not hear it back. "Bella" This is what it's like. "I don't need you to say it back. I just need you to hear it." His words spoken so long ago are now my words, but it doesn't make them any less true. My hand in his, we sit in silence until the sun is gone and we are left in a dark room. He tells me about medical school, his residency, how he bought this house. How he met a girl. How he wanted to love her. I hate her. With every word, every explanation, I feel him slipping farther and farther away. I don't know how that's even possible. There was supposed to be no further to fall. I can feel my defenses going up, my walls slowly taking shape. He keeps glancing at the clock on the wall and it's making me nervous. "You have somewhere you need to be?" "My shift starts in an hour."
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Oh. "I can go." He shakes his head. "Bella, a plan is all I've ever had." I jerk my hand away. "Well, I'm sorry if I'm not part of your fucking life plan anymore!" "Bella, you don't." I jump up from the couch, adrenaline pumping through my veins. "No! You listen, Edward!" And suddenly he's standing too. He grabs my wrist, startling the fight out of me. I slowly look up until our eyes meet. Fire. "Damn it, Bella, you are my plan! You will always be my fucking plan!" It takes a minute for the words to register, for the part of me gearing for an argument to stand down. I will always be his fucking plan. I say the words over and over again in my mind. His hand still grips my wrist, almost to the point of pain. He looks down at it, as if he's read my mind, and releases me. There is an apology in his eyes where there shouldn't be. "What do you want, Bella?" His words are desperate. I want one thing and so many things. "I want all of it." He shakes his head in disbelief. "Edward, I want you." "That's not enough." "You're wrong." "Bella" "I I want blueberry pancakes for dinner."
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He closes his eyes. Bottom lip between his teeth. "I'm not wrong. I want that feeling that I have only ever had when your hands are on me. I want to come home to a house that belongs to us. I want every last bit of it." He grabs both of my arms with such force that I jump. I hope his hands leave their mark. At least then I'll have something to prove that this is real. My face is hot and prickly from the tears. Eyes open. "I tried not to love you, Bella. I tried." He gives me a tiny shake. If it was anyone else I'd be afraid. In my face. "I tried not to love you." He hides his face in my hair. "I tried not to love you." I try to remember what it was like to kiss him. Eyes closed. I try to remember. Forehead to forehead. I don't need the memory. I can feel his hot breath as he says it. "I tried not to love you." His lips hover there, unmoving. And then he's kissing me. Lips against lips. Like hot lava. Every ounce of pain and anxiety and fear leaves my body. And I'm kissing him back, kissing him like I've come back from the grave. His hands release me. Not all the way. Those hands. They slide up my arms, across my collar bone, up to my chin. Either side of my face. Those hands. More tears. The kind that can't believe it. I kiss his scratchy face. "Bella?" I kiss the words away. "What?" More kisses. "Can I kiss you?" I smile into him. "I think you're already doing that." "I guess I am." Matching stupid grins. My hands find their way to his hair and he groans. And that's all it takes for me to be climbing his body. He gives me a lift. Hands slide down lower, holding me against him. We're giggling in the middle of his living room, his hands on my ass, my legs wrapped around his waist. Like a couple of teenagers.
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"Bella, is this real?" "Yeah, Edward, it's real." "We still have a lot to talk about." Kisses. "I thought that's what we were doing." I tug on his hair until he moans into my mouth, inviting my tongue in, and it's never felt like this. Like the whole world could come crashing down and it wouldn't matter. Fast and desperate. My mind telling me to slow down, to cherish this moment. We're both left panting. And it's not memories of what once was, because this is better. This is more. I kiss the little wrinkles that he has now at the corners of his eyes. "I love you, Bella." Breathless. "Stop bothering me. I'm busy." He chuckles. I kiss along his jaw, relishing in the sound of that laugh. "Edward?" "Yeah?" "I love you." Hummingbird heart beats. "I love you, I love you, I love you." He pulls away slightly, and I try to hold him closer. My whole life is spinning. He wants my eyes. Even in the dark I can see everything he wants to say to me. But some things have to be said out loud. "Bella, I'm afraid." I'm afraid too. "Afraid of what?" Afraid of me? "What if you only love the memory? What if I'm not the guy you remember?" "You are." "I don't think I am."
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"Then I want to know you." "It will break me if you shut me out again." "I know." A nod. "I trust you." The words are heavy. But my mind doesn't have to worry and analyze and do what it does because he's kissing me again. Lost and found. There is a ridiculously obnoxious beeping noise. "I have to go to work." And our little bubble is popped, just like that. He has a whole life here and it's not something I can learn about in one conversation. It's not something I'm a part of yet. But I want it. "Bella, don't look at me like that." "Like what?" "Like it's goodbye." "No more goodbyes, Edward." He plants a lingering kiss on my forehead. The corner of my eye. My cheek. The tip of my nose. My lips. "Don't go. If I asked you to stay here while I'm at work, would you?" He looks at the ground. I force his face towards me with my hands. "Edward, I drove here straight from the airport. I didn't really plan past my little speech on your front porch." His smile. "Then stay. Sleep. I'll be back in the morning." The fear in his eyes matches the fear in his voice. "As long as you stop looking at me like that." He shakes the look away. "You'll be here when I get back?" "Where else am I going to go?" More kisses. I love yous. I don't know which ones I like the sound of more, his or
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mine. "You're going to be late." Kisses. "I don't care." Kisses. "Yes, you do." I try to slide down his body. To stand on my own two feet. But he holds me tighter. He carries me to his room. He lays me down gently on the bed, not because I'm fragile, but because he loves me. He fucking loves me. I pull him closer, fisting his shirt in my hands. Every touch is not nearly enough. I want the weight of his body. I want his hands everywhere. I want his bare skin. I want him inside of me. "Bella, don't leave." Kisses and words all tangled up together. "Okay." "Okay?" "I said, okay." He smiles into me. "Edward?" "Yeah?" "I never understood. I never understood how you could love me." He looks wounded. "I never understood why you wouldn't letme love you." "I was I'm still" He kisses my face. "I never saw you that way." "Then how did you see me?" "I guess I always saw the Bella that wasn't there yet." I let the words sink in.
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"I'll see you in the morning." He kisses one eye. Then the other. The stranger who answered the front door hours ago has vanished entirely. I watch my Edward walk from the room and I finally feel like I might be the Bella that he always saw. The one who isn't too afraid to take a chance. The one who isn't afraid to be happy. I lie in his bed smiling, so giddy I could scream. I sink into the blankets, the last twenty-four hours, the last month, the last ten years, my whole fucking life catching up with me. For the first time in as long as I can remember, my mind is filled with thoughts of what will be instead of what could have been. I and love and you.

A/N: Okay? Still lots of questions. We'll get there! Thank you for trusting me with this story. The Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area on October 19, 1989 at 5:04 p.m. It killed more than 60 people, injured thousands and left thousands upon thousands homeless. By including the earthquake as part of this story, my intention was not to make light of such tragedies. While the characters are obviously not real and were not the victims of that day, the circumstances are very real. Many people lost loved ones in the Cypress Structure collapse. As anyone who has lived through a major earthquake can tell you, it is something that you carry around with you forever.

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Nightlights and BandAids


Edward That photo has defined the last month of my life. That photo and the promise of a phone call. With everything that has happened, everything that I know now, all I could focus on was the prospect of one phone call from Bella. The one she said she would make. The one that I knew she wouldn't make. The one that I would have to make instead. I told myself that I would give it a week. Would she be able to hear it in my voice? Would she know what I was hiding from her? But there was no phone call. There was only Bella, sopping wet, on my doorstep. And I can only hope that the sight of Bella in the rain will be the moment that will define my life from here on out. The words that spilled out of her mouth left me paralyzed. All of them. The horror of that day. And the other words. The ones about love. Like being split open from the inside. I stayed quiet. Until I couldn't bear it any longer. Until there was no choice but to believe her. My hands on her, making sure she was real. I held her in my arms. I kissed her. And for a little while, there was nothing else but the two of us.
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I left her there. In my house. In my bed. I sit in my car, engine running, head on the steering wheel. Contemplating if I can call in sick. I know I can't. Not after a two day trip to Forks turned into a week. Not when I have a mere two months left here. I don't want to admit what I'm really afraid of. Being away from her now is one thing, but the real fear is that she won't be there when I get back home in the morning. But if this is going to work, if we are going to have any chance at all, I can't spend my life keeping tabs on her. I can't be waiting for her to leave me. She'll be there when I get back. I told her I trusted her. She'll be there when I get back. I put the car in reverse and back out of my parking spot. I spend the drive to work thinking of only the good parts. Convincing myself that she is really here. I think of her eyes. How they haven't changed one bit. How I hope they never will. I think of her lips. How they feel exactly the same as they used to. I think of her strength. How she persevered. How I wasn't there to protect her. I push the thought away. Only the good parts. She loves me. She said it. Out loud. She wants blueberry pancakes for dinner. And with those words, how I almost believe that I am to her what she is to me. That it's possible. I walk through the automatic doors to the hospital and for the first time in my career, I can't drop my personal life. I can't drop it and I don't want to.
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Professionalism be damned. Her face at the forefront of my mind. I can only smile. "Well, good evening, Dr. Cullen. Just a heads up, we're having one of those nights." Those are the kinds of nights I usually like. The ones that are all consuming. Where there isn't a spare moment to think. The ones where I do my job to the best of my abilities. The reason I went to medical school. The reason I became a doctor. The reason I work with children. Like I can still somehow protect her. The kind of night where I save a child's life. I can hear irate shouting from the waiting room. A man's voice. Security will take care of him soon enough. I've barely changed into my scrubs when I'm being called in to consult on a car accident victim. A little girl. I've seen thousands of car accident victims. Thousands. My heart beat is steady. My hands sure. My mind calm. She's not even a girl yet. She's just a baby. And she's screaming for her life. She's covered in blood, head to toe. Blood doesn't bother me. She's screeching and swatting at anyone within arms length. The screaming is a good sign. It means she's alive. Find the source of the bleeding. That's always the first objective. I place my hands on her tiny little shoulders and she calms. Enough for the nurses to start wiping the blood away. And then it becomes clear. That it isn't her own blood. That it belongs to a mother who has just taken her last breath on the operating table a few rooms over. I feel my stomach lurch.
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Tonight is the night I lose my composure. I've seen children die of gunshot wounds. I've seen Shaken Baby Syndrome. But tonight is the night I can't handle it. I barely make it to the trashcan. But there is nothing to expel except bile. I sink to the ground, face in my hands. And I know that this is not about the little girl in this room. The little girl who has just lost her mother. "Get out of here, Cullen. You're no use to us in the shape you're in." He's right. I splash water on my face in the bathroom. I look like shit. I've slept two hours in the last 24. Who am I kidding. I've barely slept for a month and it shows. It's the middle of the night but I need a drink of water, so I walk down the hallway to the bathroom in the dark. I hear muffled voices from my parents' room so I stand and listen. They don't fight, but they've been fighting for days. They get quiet whenever Alice and I are around. Alice says something bad happened but I don't know what it is. The TV is on. It's been on for days. But they won't let us watch it. "I can't do this again, Esme. Once was more than I could take and you know that!" I can only hear her crying and it makes me want to cry too. My dad's voice is the loud one. Shouting and refusing to listen. And it makes me want to shout too. It makes me want to shout at him for making mom cry. "How would it be any different than what she did? How would it be any better?"
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I don't know who he is talking about. But I know that he hates this she. I can hear it. "Esme, you made your choice." His voice isn't sure and I don't understand because his voice is always so sure. And then I can hear her. "It was the wrong choice, Carlisle! I made the wrong choice!" "How can you say that now? What about your son, Esme?" "I don't care." "You don't mean that." But it sounds like she does mean it. I try to listen for her answer but her voice is too quiet. There is a sob and I wonder what it is that I've done to make her so upset. I forget to listen and then my dad is standing before me, eyes lined with red. "Edward, go back to bed." I turn around quickly, back down the hall, quiet as a mouse, without a drink of water. I close the door to my room and crawl into bed trying to figure it out. I try to listen from my room but I can't hear anything. I squint up at my ceiling, looking for the stars that I know are there, but the room has been dark for too long and they don't light up anymore. I'm still thirsty. But that is only an excuse to get back out of bed. I sneak from my room and everything is quiet. I tiptoe into Alice's room. She sleeps with the door open and a nightlight. I put my face right up to hers. "Alice?"
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She doesn't budge. "Alice, wake up." She rubs her eyes and sticks her hand in my face. She scoots over and I lay down next to her. "You have a bad dream, Edward?" "Yeah." "You can stay but you should get a nightlight." Eight years old is too old for a nightlight. The drive home is too long and too short. I tell myself that she will be there. She will be there. I open the front door slowly, without a sound. The house is dark and quiet. I walk slowly to the bedroom, counting my steps in my head. Hiding my fear behind numbers. I push the door open. And I almost forget how to stand because there she is. Sleeping. Blankets strewn about. Hair wild. I walk over to the side of the bed slowly, not wanting to wake her. At the same time, wanting to shake her awake, kiss her all over her face with the words. "You stayed." I run my hand over her face without touching her. I watch her. Peaceful. Breathing. Do I crawl into bed next to her? Do I sleep on the couch? Sun almost up, I leave her there and go to my office. I pull To Kill a Mockingbird
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from my locked desk drawer. I take the pictures out one by one. The little strip of black and white photos from the county fair. The ones that tell the story of our second kiss. That felt like our first. Falling for the girl without a plan. And then I pull the photo from the bottom of the stack. Like ripping of a Band-Aid. She would be devastated. She will be devastated. When I stopped screaming at my dad long enough to listen, to really listen, his words left me broken and crying. Left both of us crying on the floor of his office. And for the first time in my entire life I felt like maybe I understood him. Maybe I knew him. He started at the beginning. With their first date. How my mom told him that she wanted a whole pile of kids and if he didn't want the same, then he should walk away right then and there. How he wondered how many other poor souls she had scared away with that same line. How he didn't walk away. How he was hers from that day forward. How he wanted to give her everything. How they got married after being together for only a month. How his parents were furious. Threatened to stop paying for school. Threatened to liquidate his trust fund. Threatened to disown him. How they fell in love with her too. How everybody who knew her couldn't help but love her. Some of it, he couldn't tell me with his own words. Her journals, the ones that he had locked up in his office safe, told the rest. The hard parts. I couldn't be angry with him for keeping it from me. It was too painful. Too much to relive. Together, we agreed not to tell Bella. What would the point be in telling her? There is only so much one person can take. We decided. But that was before. Before she laid herself bare. Laid her heart on the floor. How can I expect her to be honest with me when I'm hiding something like this from her? I can't. It wouldn't be fair to her. The only thing that secrets are good for is to tear people down. It was one secret that led to a second secret. Two secrets. Secrets that would be devastating on their own. Together, they are enough to break a person. Even
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someone as strong as she is. Neither one is my secret to tell. I can't bear the thought of her finding out the way I did. I look at the photo in my hands one last time. My parents. Impossibly young. Staring adoringly at the beautiful baby girl in their arms. The way they look at her. That is what love looks like. And the words. Merry Christmas Peace On Earth From our family to yours Love, The Cullens Carlisle, Esme and Isabella December, 1980 I take a breath. I stack the photos back up. Book open. The words on the printed page right there. "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what." Bella's own handwriting scribbled next to the author's words in the margin: If only I could find that kind of courage She's always had it. It's always been there. If only she could see it. I close the book up. I tuck it away. I lock it up tight, pictures inside.
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I go back to the girl who is asleep in my bed. The woman that I will love for the rest of my life. So tired, I can't keep my eyes open. I peel the covers back slowly, sliding in next to her. I want to wrap her up in my arms and hold her against me. I want to make her mine. I don't even know if I can touch her. I don't know what the rules are. I don't know what's allowed. I don't know who we are anymore. Now. I don't know who we are now. Why are you way over there? I want to scream it. And then she's rolling over, facing me, mumbling, tangling herself up, grabbing at me with her little hands. Fast asleep. "Edward." Mine. For now.

A/N: I'm going back to work soon, so as much as I'd like to keep updating a couple of times a week, it's just not in the cards. I'm hoping to update weekly from here on out. I'll keep you posted :)

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Lightning and Burnt Paper


Bella Sometimes I have dreams where I am brave. Where I say what I mean and take what I want. Where I say the words out loud. But then I wake up and I'm not the girl from the dream. Waking up feels like being buried alive. Eyes closed. I can still feel the heat of his body next to me. And then I can feel the thud of my own heart in my chest because it's not a dream this time. It's not a dream. And I don't have to desperately cling to the details. It's not going to slip away, and fade into that place where dreams live during the day. Eyes open. Quick and sharp, like lightening. And there he is. Asleep. On his side, facing me. Hair going awry. My hand resting on his chest, I move my fingertips ever so slightly, feeling the fabric of his T-shirt, just to make sure that we're both real. I wonder how long he's been here. Beside me. Asleep. In this bed. I can feel the smile spread across my face, quickly followed by the panic. The panic of not knowing what comes next. Last night, everything seemed so clear. This would be the beginning. This would be our second chance to do it right. But what can be ruined once, can be ruined twice. I tell myself to stop. To take a breath. And I just watch him. I'm not ready for him to wake up. I don't know how to face him in the light of day. I slip quietly from the bed and into the bathroom. My wet clothes still in a pile on the floor. Proof that yesterday really happened. Getting on a plane. Standing in the
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rain. Giving everything away. I stare at myself in the mirror, in his clothes. I thought maybe I'd look different. Like I'd be able to see it in my own face. Like telling him about that day would set me free. I slip back through his room without a sound and poke around this stranger house looking for his washer and dryer. I start a load with the only set of clothes I have here. I go through his kitchen cabinets, looking for something to make for breakfast. I feel a little forward doing it. Kitchen cabinets are private places. They're like shoes. Kitchen cabinets and shoes are windows to a person's soul. I spin around quickly at the sound of a throat being cleared. And he's standing there, leaning in the doorway. Eyebrows raised. "Hi." "Hi." And then he's smiling. Walking towards me. The way only Edward Cullen can walk. Making sleepy look sexy. One hand tucking my hair behind my ear. One gesture that lets me believe that we can do this. Other hand around my waist, pulling me into him. His face in my hair. "Bella, is this okay?" I can only nod into his chest. We just stand there in his kitchen, all of the cabinets empty and wide open, wrapped around each other. Words in my ear. "I'm so glad you're here." I can hear it in his voice. The relief. And I know that he thought I might disappear. That he thinks it still. That I won't be able to convince him with words. That the only way to convince him will be to stay. "We should spend tonight at the barn." My answer is a smile. "Are you trying to seduce me, Edward Cullen?"
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"I think you already took care of that, Isabella Swan." Grabby hands and soft lips. Our last night before Edward leaves for UCLA. Sleeping bags and watching the stars. But Mother Nature has other plans. By the time the sun sets, the sky has opened up and the rain is relentless. We huddle together in the loft, light of the lantern long gone. No frantic peeling off of clothing. No more grabby hands or desperate words. There is only kissing. Kissing until my lips are numb. Until our eyes are closed. Until he's asleep. I place one last kiss on his lips before I slip out of my sleeping bag and tiptoe in my bare feet to the little window. Water sliding down the glass. I climb down the ladder, through the door, into the wet, stormy night. I stand there, the rain whipping against my face, looking up into the sky, searching for the stars that are behind the dark clouds. The ones that I know are there even though I can't see them. And I scream. As loud as I can. Thunder mocking me. Drowning me out. I fall down to the mud beneath my feet. Rain in my face. Waiting for it. To get struck by lightning. To get swept away. I don't even hear him until he's right in my face. "Bella, what are you doing?" He has to shout it. "I'm going to go to New York." "What?" "I said I'm going to New York." And then I'm being scooped up. Scooped up in his arms and dragged back to the barn. Suddenly freezing now that I'm out of the rain. His hands on my face. Water dripping down his forehead.
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"What are you talking about?" "I'm going to New York." "To do what?" "To live." "People don't just move to New York." "People do it every day." "Bella" "I was born there, you know." "No, I didn't know." Head shaking back and forth. Eyes closed. "What about school?" "I'm sure they have community colleges in New York City." "Bella, I didn't even know you were thinking about that. When did you even start thinking about that?" "Since right now. Since forever." "Bella, you're scaring me." "That makes two of us." And then the wet and cold are too much and I'm shaking. My whole body is shaking. And he's slinging me over his shoulder, climbing back up the ladder. Peeling the wet clothes from my body. Peeling the wet clothes from his own body. Wrapping himself around me. Tucking us into his sleeping bag. Holding me tight until the tears are gone. Until the cold is gone. Until the shaking is gone. Until my eyes are closed and my mind is turned off. We spend the afternoon side by side, on his couch, a blanket draped over our laps.
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He plays with my fingers, resting on his knee. "Tell me about it." "Tell you about what?" "Your trip." I wish I had the right words. "Did you even get any sleep at all, Edward?" "I don't care about sleep right now. Tell me about it." "Alright. When I first got there, I felt so out of my element. I felt like such a poser. What did I know about taking care of children and babies?" "I'm sure you did fine. I'm sure you did more than fine." He keeps his hand on mine and places a soft kiss on my cheek. I forgot about soft kisses on cheeks. "They weren't afraid of anything. They weren't afraid of the dark. They weren't afraid of the light. Nothing. They were happy. They were happy for no reason. Well, except for one." "Tell me." "She was a tiny little thing. About five months old, I think, but she was so tiny. Some of them weren't even orphans, you know. Some of them had parents out there who just couldn't take care of them. They were just too poor to feed one more mouth. But this one, she was an orphan." He nods. "They told me that her mother had died in childbirth, along with her twin. There was nothing physically wrong with her. That's what they told me. She didn't care to eat. She just didn't seem to have the will to live." "Failure to thrive." "What?" "It's called failure to thrive."
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"Oh." "I'm sorry, keep telling it, please." "Sometimes I would just sit and rock her and read to her. I would just talk to her. I would tell her about things." Tell her about you. "You love her." It's a shock to hear him say it. "I guess I do." I rest my head on his shoulder and I can do this. Looking up at him. "Your turn. Tell me about the last month." His eyes go wide, like I've caught him in a lie. "Let's talk about something else." "Edward, don't hide from me." He takes a deep breath and I wonder if I should take the words back. "Bella, I have to tell you something and I don't know how to do it." And the panic returns. This is where everything is going to crumble. "Just spit it out, Edward. My mind has already decided in the last 10 seconds that you're married, dying and have a baby on the way. Just say it." "What?" "Just say it, Edward." "I'm not ready for this conversation." For the first time, I see myself when I look at him. I see what I imagine myself to look like. Like fear. "Just say it." "For the record, I am none of those things. I have none of those things. No babies or wives. Or fatal diseases, for that matter." "Please tell me." I know I'm not playing fair by saying please. "Our mothers were more than old friends, okay?"
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They were what? "What do you mean more than friends?" A look of confusion and then understanding. "Eww, no! Bella, gross!" And then I'm laughing, hand over my mouth. "Thank God." But he's not laughing with me. He looks like he's about to lose his lunch. "I just mean, they grew up together. They were practically sisters. They were inseparable from the time they were small." I don't know how to feel about this. I don't know what this has to do with anything. "How do you know all of this, Edward?" He squeezes his eyes shut. "I just think it's better if you hear it from her instead of me." Hear it from who? "Okay" He stands abruptly, disappearing from the room. Reappearing with a leather-bound book in his hand. He holds it tight. Too tight. He sits across from me, his back up against the opposite end of the couch. I turn to face him. Feet to feet. Instead of handing it over, he opens it up on his knees and pulls out a folded piece of paper. "She wrote this for you." He holds it out to me and there is something inside of me that knows. Something that tells me to run. To run as fast as I can. I can see it on his face and hear it in his voice and feel it in my bones. I take the paper. The one with my name scrawled on the outside in a handwriting that I'd recognize anywhere. A handwriting that is all over the books that I've read again and again. A handwriting that I've come to love.
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She knew my name. It's the only thought I can muster. I used to pretend that every word Esme Cullen ever wrote in the margins of her books was written directly to me. All of her words and questions about war and love and life and hate and loss and longing. That they were all there specifically for me to read. And when I wrote my own words next to hers, it was like we were having a conversation. And now, here it is, in my hand, something that she did write to me. I don't know why or how but I can feel it. This little square of folded paper is going to change my life forever. I unfold it with a smile. She wrote this for me. I blink at the words, reading the first line again and again.

September 15, 1980 Dear Isabella, Sometimes I think about the story of my life and how it's more than one story. My life consists of several stories, each one wrapped up in someone else's story. The story of Renee and I went something like this: From the time we were small, she was the wild one and I was the practical one. Except for the times when I found the courage to be wild right along with her or she had enough sense to know when to be practical. When we were five, I lied through my teeth to the store clerk after she got caught stealing a candy bar from the corner market. When we were eight, I climbed up on the roof with her so that she could jump into the neighbor's pool. When we were ten, she gave Billy Black a black eye for stealing my book from me and calling me four-eyes. When we were eleven, I guarded the door so she could get into her mother's makeup. And then I helped her clean up the mess after she accidentally smeared it
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all over the carpet. When we were thirteen, I kissed Harry Clearwater because she told me too. She said she couldn't be the only one growing up. She taught me about curse words. We bought our first bras together. I cried on her shoulder when Harry Clearwater dumped me. We talked about going off to college together. We talked about travelling the world together. When we were seventeen Charlie Swan walked into her life. He was quiet and sensible. He was handsome and gentle. He was the opposite of what she thought she wanted but he was exactly what she needed. He loved her from the start. She loved him right back. I tried my very best not to be resentful that he had replaced me and now she really was growing up without me. She was my best friend and I only wanted good things for her. I went off to college on the east coast all on my own and she became Mrs. Charlie Swan. We would talk on the phone and she even came out to visit me once. I told her that she better not start having babies just yet. That we were supposed to do that together. She laughed in my face and said that babies weren't in her future. I told her she was foolish, of course. That I would come back home to Forks after college, find some young man willing to give me a house full of babies and we would raise our babies together, like sisters. I never did return home. We went on living our lives. We drifted apart, as friends do. And that was all right because we had a good little story. The second story of my life began soon there after when I met Carlisle Cullen. He was the sort of man that I used to dream about meeting some day. He was studying to be a doctor. He came from a long line of money and he had the prettiest face that I'd ever seen up close. But none of that mattered, really. What mattered was that I loved him. And by some miracle, he loved me too. We slow danced in the living room without any music. We stayed up all night talking about everything and nothing at all. We bickered about politics and pizza toppings. He always let me win the arguments about pizza. We eloped and decided to start a family right away. It turns out that the family part wasn't as easy as the rest of it. My whole life I knew that sometimes things don't go the way you want or the way you expect, but this was the first time that I truly wanted something that I couldn't have.
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I received a phone call from Renee one muggy day in July. I hadn't heard from her in years. She called to tell me that she was down in Arizona. That married life just wasn't for her. She was going to take her time getting to New York but when she got here, she would be ready to travel the world. I told her she was crazy. I told her to go home to her husband. She told me I was crazy in return. She asked me if I had a house full of babies yet and I told her no, although it wasn't for lack of trying. Time passed and there were no more phone calls. I had no way to get into contact with her and I just figured maybe one day I'd get a phone call from Paris or Madrid. It was still just Carlisle and I and by this point we had decided to adopt. We didn't want to wait any longer and if God wasn't going to bless us with a child naturally, then there was a child out there that was meant for us. I didn't know yet that the child was going to be you, but I loved you already. When Renee did come to New York, nine months pregnant, she told me that she wanted me to be your mother. She was choosing Carlisle and I as your parents. She said it was always supposed to be this way. She said she loved you too much to keep you. She said it was about time she was the practical one. I think I cried for days. I hope you know how loved you are and how loved you have been from the very start. You are the greatest gift that anyone has ever given me. By the time you read this, if I'm ever brave enough to show it to you, the story of our life together will already be written. I can't wait to find out about that part. The story of my life with you. Love Always, Your mother

I hold the paper in both hands and tell myself not to read it a second time. Hot tears on my face. I look up at his eyes and they are so afraid. I should have a million questions but I can't find them. I fold the paper up, hands shaking. I follow the creases that were already there,
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pinching each one between my pointer finger and my thumb. I hold the little square out in front of me, begging him without words to take it. To take it back and tuck it into that book of secrets. "Bella?" I can't answer. I drop the folded up paper at our feet and run for the bathroom. Face in the toilet. Heart in my head. Stomach on the floor. Hand on my back. "Get out of here, Edward." "No." "I said get out!" "I said, no!" The taste of bile mixed with salty tears. Whoever said it was sweet to have someone hold your hair back while you puke, didn't know shit. I shrug him off but he stays. Hands and words trying to comfort me until there is nothing left in my stomach. I sink to the cold tile floor, trying to numb it all. "Your mother loved you, Bella." I want to punch his words. "Which one?" "Both of them." "That's a lie." "No, it's the truth."
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"I'd rather be stabbed in the back by the truth than comforted with a lie." I spit the words at him. "Then I'll say it again. Your mother loved you." "My mother never loved anything a day in her life. She gave me away on a whim and then what? Snatched me in the middle of the night? Politely asked for me back? My mother was a selfish coward." "You can make her the villain in all of this. You can hate her. I wanted to hate her. But I can't. Because she is part of you. And without her I would have nothing." I scream his words away. "And Esme just let her? She just let her take me? Carlisle just let her? Just like that? Let her scoop me back up like I was a forgotten toy? Did they leave me out on the front porch so she could pick me up at her convenience? Or did they leave the door unlocked and tell her she could come by any time? Did they pack up my things in garbage bags and set them out on the curb?" "Stop it, Bella. Just, stop it!" "You stop it! How long, Edward? How long was I a Cullen?" He closes his eyes and shakes his head. "Six months." Six months. Six fucking months. Six months is a lifetime. It took me a day to fall in love with a bunch of little strangers. A day, for the girl who's never let herself love anything. Six months is a fucking lifetime. He pulls at his hair, frustrated and frantic. "Should I have kept it from you? Should I have pretended that I didn't know? Would that have been better?" "I don't know, Edward, you tell me. You tell me how I'm supposed to take this. Tell me the right way to handle this. You tell me what my reaction is supposed to be and I'll do that. You're so fucking perfect, you tell me what I'm supposed to feel." He stares at me, mouth gaping. "You can be so blind. So, so blind. Maybe some day you'll see me clearly. See yourself clearly." I'm tired of hearing about someday. I turn away from him. "Bella, you want to hear something true?"
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"Yeah, Edward, for once in my fucking life, I want to hear something true!" He pulls me towards him, forcing me to face him on the floor of the bathroom. "I'll tell you something true." His voice goes quiet. Hands on my face. "You are loveable, Bella. And it's not your face. And it's not your mind. And it's not your heart. And it's not your body. It's just you. It's just you, Bella. You are loveable." "Don't tell me what you think I want to hear." "Bella, if I know you at all, that's the last thing you want to hear." And I wonder when it happened or if it's always been this way. How long he's known me better than I could ever know myself. "Alice told me that you didn't belong to me. And as much as I didn't want to hear it, it was true. But guess what? You may not belong to me, but I belong to you. Always have. I've been yours from the start." I have to look away. "You can pick fear, or you can pick love, Bella. Fear or love. But you can't have both. I've made my choice. I'm deciding, right here in this moment. I pick you. You said you wanted all of it. That means all of the crap and the pain and the flaws too. You can't just have the good parts. You said all of it. Well this isn't even the half of it. Let me know when you've made your choice." There is no venom in his voice. But the words bite at my skin all the same. He walks from the room. He leaves me there. In his house. In his bathroom. On the floor. The jangling of car keys. The sound of the front door closing behind him. And yesterday falls like burnt paper through my fingertips.

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Hands and Front Steps


Edward I stand on my front step. On my little slab of concrete. At a complete loss for what to do now. Where to go. I stare at the house across the street. The one that looks exactly like mine. Their front door swings opens, as if on cue, and out walk my neighbors. A man who's name I don't know, followed by his very pregnant wife. I close my eyes to things I don't want to see. My lungs burn. Like boiling water. Fuck. Car keys in hand. I clench my fist around them, letting the jagged metal dig into my palm. And then I throw them. As far as I can. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I walked away from her. I walked away. From her. Because she needs to be the one to do it. She needs to be the one to pick herself up. As much as I know it's true, I don't want it to be true. I want to drag her from the bathroom and force her to stand. But it's never worked before. Not in the more than two years we were together. She needs to be the one. If she doesn't, if she lets this consume her, then I will be the one who needs to be peeled off the floor. I know what I'm doing. Making excuses. Excuses for walking out on her. Because I can't bear to see her pain and anger and grief. Because maybe it's easier to be with her when she doesn't let herself feel. I sit. On the front step. Of the house that I hate. For what seems like forever. Twenty minutes. Forty-five. An hour. Until the door opens behind me and time stops. I don't turn to look at her. I can't. I scoot over without a word and give her space to walk right past me, even though all I really want to do is grab her and hold on tight. I hold my breath instead. My
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mind is drowning, wondering if I've given her enough. And then she sits. And I can almost breathe. Bare feet. I stare at her toes. Those toes. Her hand on my elbow. Feather light. Sending chills up my spine. Her fingers trace the underside of my arm, slowly but not teasing, until she finds my hand. Fingers intertwined. Tears threatening, I stare at our hands. Deep breath. She looks up at me and I can't ignore her eyes. Asking. Not afraid. Just making a choice. She squeezes my hand twice. Courage doesn't need to be loud. We sit on my front step, her hand in mine. Without any words. Without any words trying to cut us open or stitch us back up. When she finally speaks, her voice is hoarse, but steady. "What did you call it again? Failure to something." "Failure to thrive?" "Failure to thrive." She says the words with force. "I don't want to be that." I want to kiss her all over her face. For right now, a hand is enough. "Bella, it's a lot to take in." Her head rests on my shoulder. "I don't want to be like her. I don't want to be a selfish coward." "You are anything but a selfish coward." She exhales. In relief or agreement or protest. She holds my hand tight. "I always felt guilty. Guilty for secretly caring more about Esme than I ever did my own mother. Caring more for someone I'd never even met." She shakes her head.
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I slip my hand out from under hers and wrap my arm around her. She immediately melts into my side. "She loved you too, Bella." She doesn't fight me on this one. Her arms snake around me. And she sobs. I don't tell her not to cry. I don't try to take it away. I just sit. Next to her. On the front step. Until the sun has set. Until she cries herself out. Because love can be like courage. Quiet. "Bella, I shouldn't have walked out like that." "No, you were right to." "If I can't handle you at your worst, then I don't deserve you at your best." She crinkles her face up. "Are you quoting Marilyn Monroe?" "I'm pretty sure I'm not." "I'm pretty sure you are." Her chin reaches up to my shoulder, and I kiss her forehead. We can do this. "Edward?" "Yeah?" "We both know that was far from my worst." We both know. I take her chin between my finger and my thumb. "Hey, you want to go get some dinner?" There is almost a smile. "Are you asking me out on a date, Edward Cullen?" "I think I am." She looks down at her clothes. "Maybe we should just get take-out." "Bella, if I have to eat take out one more day, I'm going to lose it." "I'll cook." Words that make my stomach growl.
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We go to the grocery store. In her rental car. Because my keys are somewhere in the bushes. My ego refuses to search for them with a flashlight. She tosses food in the cart, somehow knowing where to find everything she needs in a store she's never been to. In a store where I usually wander around aimlessly. Hand in hand. Hand on the small of her back. Hand around her waist. Hand anywhere. Grocery shopping with Bella. Something so simple and normal and perfect. She has a little studio apartment in the Village. She gets defensive when I ask how she can afford it. I stopped asking. I still can't believe that New York is her home. My city, the only home I ever knew, is now her home. And so far away. LA has been my plan for so long. So long that I can't remember it not being the plan. College and Med School. It was a good plan that now seems like a stupid plan. I've been in school with a bunch of pre-Med assholes for a month. Thanksgiving was too long to wait. I sit on the step outside her building, nervous and excited, hoping she likes surprises. Irritated that I don't know if she does. With every person that walks by, I'm progressively more anxious. Until she's walking up the sidewalk, grocery bag in one hand. Hair in her face. I can remember the first time I ever saw her. Impossibly beautiful, frowning at a book. There is no book to frown at this time. But her face looks like it did then. The way it only looks when she thinks nobody is watching her. Heavy. She sees my shoes first. The frown disappears as her eyes travel up to my face. I'm on my feet. Groceries on the sidewalk. Smiles and shrieks. She's jumping into my arms. I'm scooping her up. Kisses all over my face. "Edward, what are you doing here?" Soft lips swallowing up any answers. She slides down my body, face in my chest.
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"I was in the neighborhood. I thought I'd stop by and say hi." She swats at me. Crinkled forehead. I kiss it away. "Hi." "Hi." She squeezes me tight, her fingers digging into my skin. Painful but welcomed. We stand like that, motionless on the sidewalk, as countless strangers pass us by. "I missed you too, Bella." I say the words into her hair. Easier than saying them to her face and not hearing them back. She eventually lets go of me. Letting me see her face again. Mask firmly in place. The mask I want to believe is real. We walk into her building, hand in hand, groceries tucked under my arm. "So what are you making me for dinner?" "Who said anything about dinner?" I kiss her nose. Her eyes flutter closed. "How long are you here?" "Until tomorrow." Pouty lips. Stay. She opens the door to her apartment and I can see it on her face. The pride. She puts the groceries away in her little kitchen. My hands never leave her. Refrigerator closed, I pull her towards me. Lips in her hair. On her forehead. Over each eye. Capturing her mouth. Remembering her skin. Hand over her heart. Pushing up against her. Greedy. Her hands on my chest. Lifting her up on to the counter. Wanting. Her hands in my hair. Pulling her legs around my waist. Desperate. Her hands grabbing at my shirt. "Bella, I miss you. I love you so much."
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Her body goes still and then she slides off the counter. "Do you like Beef Stroganoff?" What? "Umm, yeah. I like Beef Stroganoff." I like you more. She starts our dinner in her Barbie and Ken kitchen. The silence settles uncomfortably around us. I look around her studio. It looks lived in. It looks like Bella. Stacks of books all around. There is no table. "Where are we going to eat?" "On my bed." "Bella, you can't eat in bed." "Oh, really?" Eyebrows challenging me even though I can't see her face. "No. That's gross." I wrap my arm around her waist, chin over her shoulder, facing the stovetop. Her pointer finger on the tip of my nose. "Take it back." "No." "Edward, it is not gross." "Beds are not for food." I kiss along her neck. Soft, sweet skin. She is not good at pretending to be mad at me. "Bella, don't smile." She ducks under my arm and runs to her bed, wooden spoon in hand. Standing there in the middle of her bed, she licks the spoon. "Don't get any closer. I'm eating in bed." I want to throw that damn spoon and pin her to that bed. I swat at her feet. She starts to jump. In the middle of the bed. Like a four-year-old. Arms flailing in circles. "Let me guess, this isn't allowed either." I shake my head, trying not to laugh. "Didn't your mother ever tell you that you can break your neck jumping on a bed?"
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She stops abruptly and climbs downs from the bed. Eyes vacant. Or determined. "Bella..." And then her lips are on mine. Changing the subject. And I let them. Dinner forgotten. Clothes falling to the floor. Naked but hiding. Pinning her to the bed like I wanted. Our lips sloppy and frenzied. The small room too hot from the heat of the stove. Her hands slide down my body, guiding me to her. I'm inside of her in one swift motion. Still frantic. Both of us trying to hold on to something we can't articulate. Both of us begging. My needy hands roam over her body as my desperate lips suck along her throat. The noises that escape her mouth are almost as good as the words she won't say. I try to slow down, not wanting this to ever be over. But she won't let me. I have no choice but to meet the rhythm of her hips. Her back arching up as she seeks more. I can feel her. About to fall apart. Any semblance of slowing down is long gone. She doesn't say my name as her body falls to pieces around me. The sounds she makes are lighting my skin on fire. Pushing me over. No, not pushing. Jumping over the edge right after her. Collapsing on top of her. A sleek sheen of sweat covers both of our bodies. Our breathing still desperate, she holds me tight, even tighter than on the sidewalk. I love you. Beef Stroganoff burning on the stove. Her eyes still red and puffy, she wears the day on her face, but being in the kitchen somehow makes her lighter. She makes Beef Stroganoff, the mouth-watering smell wafting through my entire house. It's as if people actually live
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here. I pull two bowls from the cabinet, rinsing the dust off in the sink. She fills each one to the brim. Bowls in hand, I walk to the bedroom. When I turn around, she is leaning in the doorway. She eyes me wearily. "You're really going to let me eat in your bed?" "I really am." We sit up in my bed, surrounded by pillows because Bella likes to eat in bed. And there are some things that I am going to have to get over. I savor every bite. "So, so good. I haven't had a home cooked meal since, well since Mother's Day." I look up at her, mentally cringing at my own words. But her face is a shy smile. Blushing and looking away from me. We eat without feeling the need to fill the silence. It's a good conversation. I take our bowls to the sink, loading everything into the dishwasher. The one I haven't used in a while. I usually eat straight out of the take-out containers. I don't have enough forks to use a dishwasher. Lights out in the kitchen, I find Bella freshly showered, wearing one of my T-shirts, curled up in my down comforter, mom's journal in her lap. I'm not sure if she wants to be alone. I watch her silently from the doorway. She doesn't look up. "Edward, why are you way over there?" And then I'm across the room, crawling into the bed with her. She lifts the covers up and there is a flash of her bare legs. "Do you want me to read it out loud?" "Only if you want to." She looks up at me for the first time. Maybe it's not the cooking that made her lighter. "I want to." She settles herself next to me, curling her legs around me and it's a good thing I'm fully clothed or there would be no reading. She wraps her fingers around the edge of the journal and reads the words out
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loud. September 29, 1980 The real change is in my husband. He doesn't know that I know, but that baby girl has him wrapped around her little finger already. Before he leaves for work every morning, he sits with her in the nursery, rocking her and telling her stories. Sometimes I listen from the doorway. This morning he started talking about quitting his job. Of all things! He says he's tired of being away from her. Part of me is thrilled that he loves her as much as I do, but the other part of me doesn't want to share. I love that time I get with her during the day, just her and I, even when she's sleeping. Sometimes she sleeps with both of her arms up over her head. I think we must have a hundred pictures of her like that. I still can't believe she's ours. I just know that it's going to go by so fast. I don't want to look back and wonder where her childhood went. She closes the leather-bound book up and hides her face in my chest. "Edward, how long have you known?" "Since the day after Mother's day." "You found the letter?" "No. A Christmas card." "Oh. A Christmas card." She says it like it's the first time she's ever heard those words. Christmas card. My fingertips run up and down her back, remembering every inch of her. Her head on my chest. Eyes closed. "I took a job in Forks." The words tumble out of nowhere. I planned on waiting for the right moment to tell her. I planned on asking her what she wanted. Plans have a way of falling down. She sits up. "You took a job in Forks." Not a question. "Yeah." Face to face. "You want to live in Forks." Closer.
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"Bella, I" Her mouth hovers in front of mine. "Bella, don't do that." Don't stop. She whispers into my mouth, "Don't do what?" "That thing where you change the subject by distracting me." Kiss me. "I'm not changing the subject." Barely a whisper. "I'm just saying yes." Saying yes. Eyes brave and terrified. All in. My chest heaving. Hands on either side of her face. Both of us searching. Breathing the same air. Closing the gap. Lips ghosting over each other because words are superfluous. Hands on each other's faces. Settling in to the pillows. Not trying to hold each other up. Not pretending that everything will be fine or easy. Warm lips on warm lips. Like it's our first kiss. Slow. Everything. Hands stay put. Remembering the soft skin of her face. Eyes closed for hours. Nothing but soft kisses. She whispers into me, "I'm still afraid but I choose you."

A/N: Thanks for your patience with this update. It took longer than I wanted it to. To those of you who have been pimping my little story left and right, I'm forever appreciative of your support. As always, I love hearing from you :)

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Bella and Edward


There was a bit of confusion last chapter. Just a reminder that the middle section is young B and E.

Bella We stand in the airport, just outside of the security checkpoint, people buzzing all around us. LAX is a beehive. His arms wrapped around me, I burry my face in his chest, breathing him in. "Two weeks." He says the words into my hair. "Two weeks." It's not a question or an answer. He squeezes me tight. There are no goodbyes, only, "see you soon. I love you." He pulls my face to his, kissing my eyes. His lips linger. One arm still wrapped around me, his fingertip on the tip of my nose. I look up into his eyes and I tell myself that two weeks is nothing. But it's impossible to think when he looks at me like that. Green, like moonlight under the ocean. Like he can't bear to let me go. Because you never know what could happen between here and there. Our whole lives turned upside down by acts of God or acts of man. More times than anyone should have to bear. "Bella, you're going to miss your flight." He holds me tighter. Fingertips locked around each other as he takes a step back. As far as arms can stretch.
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One split second of his skin being gone. And I'm grabbing at him. "I want a real goodbye." "Who said anything about goodbye?" It's not heavy, it's teasing. His lips finding my lips. The kind of kissing that's inappropriate for airports. Saying things that words can't say. I tell myself not to cry. I'm being ridiculous. We're being ridiculous. Of all of the things to cry over, this is not one of them. "One more kiss." One more. "Edward, I should go." "Take me with you." "Edward, we've talked about this." "One more kiss." One more. I stand in line, bare feet, shoes in hand, my carry-on being x-rayed for tweezers that could be used as a weapon or oversized shampoo bottles that could hold the makings of a bomb. Do not cry. I don't turn around to look for him or I will never get on the plane. I stand in line. His freezer is stocked with homemade dinners. He'll be fine. I'll be fine. I get on the plane. I'm one of the last to board. Seat belt fastened, I watch the man next to me as his leg bounces up and down. He pops a xanax and apologizes for any impending freak-outs. If he only knew. I've never been afraid to fly. I'm glad that I'm the one getting on a plane and Edward's feet are planted firmly on the ground. The plane ride is shorter than I remember, thanks to the words in my lap. I've read them all cover to cover, but since the rest of the story is back in Forks, I read them again. The parts that stick to me.
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October 13, 1980 One month old today! She's beautiful and perfect. She has her mother's nose. Sometimes I swear I can see glimpses of myself and Carlisle in her little face too. I know that's silly, that it doesn't work that way, but she's our daughter and maybe she'll look like us too. Her arms and legs are still gangly. Her hair sits in soft curls when she's fresh out of the bath. Her eyes are dark and serious. She likes it when her dad sings Beatles songs, only Beatles songs. She loves the hair dryer. Sometimes it's the only sound that will get her to sleep. I thought perhaps Renee would call. I had been making a list in my head all day of the things that I would tell her. I thought she would want to know how her daughter, my daughter, is doing. She hasn't called. I can't help but worry about her. I don't even know where she is. It's the same kind of worry I felt on the day that Isabella was born. She didn't want to hold her. She didn't even want to look at her. She told me to take her. What could I do but scoop her right up? In that moment, I was not a good friend. I was only a mother.

I close my eyes for a minute and I try not to hate her. My mother. Renee. Because I know that the hate isn't fair. My plane lands at JFK, but it's different from the last time. Because this time I know that the city won't be my home for much longer. This time, it's about packing up, moving out, moving on. Letting go. Being more than someone else's someday dream. "You need to talk to someone. A professional." I glare at him, the hurt evident on my face, I'm sure. "Like I've never done that before? Did me a world of good." Edward looks confused or annoyed. "I didn't know. How was I supposed to know?" I shake my head, refusing to look at him. "I talk to you."
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"No, Bella, you don't." I stomp away from him, slamming the door to his dorm room behind me. I prove him right. I go for a walk. Trying to empty my mind. By the time I get back, I know I'm going to miss my flight. He's waiting for me, with my bag in his hand. We pull up to LAX and he cuts the engine. And we sit. "I'm sorry, Bella. I don't want you to leave like this." I wonder how long it will take before he's tired of apologizing. "I don't want to leave like this either." "Stay." "No." We sit like that, in the passenger-loading zone, pulling at each other with words, for nearly half an hour. I kiss him. The kind of kiss that begs him not to give up on me. Eventually, I get on a plane. I sit in my seat and I can remember being nine years old and sitting at the top of the stairs, next to the squeaky spot. Sitting so still and quiet that Charlie doesn't know I'm there, listening. Listening to him talk to my grief counselor on the phone. Charlie wanted me to be okay. He was easy to fool. Sometimes Edward is easy to fool too. Other times, he sees things in me that even I can't see.
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Two weeks pass in a blur of nothing. Emptying my apartment, emptying my office. Trying to convince myself that I'm not crazy for walking away from my job. Walking away when I have no idea what I'm going to do next. Trying to explain the allure of a little country town nobody has ever heard of. I wear myself ragged so that sleeping alone is easier. Falling asleep with the phone to my ear on the nights he's not at work. Just to listen to the sound of his breathing. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I see a different face. The face of a little baby girl who I rocked to sleep for a month. I wonder who rocks her to sleep now. I wonder if her little life is standing still or if it's spinning the way mine is. I try to imagine what Edward will say when I tell him that I want to go back there. I stare at my empty closet. The one that used to be filled with expensive shoes I never wore. Expensive shoes that have been dropped off at the Goodwill. I'm keeping my apartment. Because maybe we'll want to spend time here. Because New York City will always be a part of me. Because it will always be a part of both of us. Because I don't know what I'm doing. Standing in the hall, locking the dead bolt gives me a renewed sense of courage. I walk out of my building feeling nervous and brave. Ready to live my life without a doorman. I get back on a plane. I get back on a plane to LA to do it all again. To pack everything up. And in the time we've been apart, nothing tragic happened. Nothing fell to pieces. Nothing shattered. Nothing crashed and burned. His smile when he sees me at the airport leaves me breathless. His strong arms lifting me off the ground. "Longest two weeks of my life." I missed the feeling of his lips in my hair. Packing boxes tossed aside, we spend half a day making-out on his couch, like a couple of teenagers. His hand up my shirt. Like we're getting a second chance to do it the normal way. But we're not teenagers.
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Eventually he pulls away. Leaving me frustrated. And wanting to scream. There are still sweet kisses as we box up his belongings, his life. His arms snaking around me when I'm knee deep in packing tape. His lips kissing along my neck as I label the boxes. And yet I can't help but feel that he's keeping me at arms length. We have more boxes than we need. We sit cross-legged in the middle of a fort of empty boxes. His fingertips trace the skin of my bare knee. "I think my dad is nervous that you're upset with him." I haven't spoken to Carlisle since the day I called him for an address. Because I don't know what to say. Because he probably doesn't either. "I'm not." "But it would be okay if you are." Sometimes Edward still looks at me like he's afraid of me. "I'm not." He stares me down. Saying goodbye to Edward's house is strangely more difficult for me than it is for him. 'For Sale' sign in the front yard, he doesn't even look back. I linger on his front step, remembering what it was like to stand here in the rain. I hold on to that feeling. Fear and courage. Sometimes they are the same. I stand there in my sundress, letting the hot sun soak into my skin. He turns around when he realizes I'm not following. His little smile and tired eyes walking back towards me. He kisses my forehead. But I want his lips. I try to get used to the way it feels to get what I want. What I really want. Innocent pecks turn into inappropriate groping. I pull away, accusing him with my eyes. "Why do you taste like chocolate?" That smile. "The chocolate chips were supposed to be for the car ride." "I got hungry. Maybe you should feed me more."
- 205 -

I swat at him and he grabs my arm, pulling me to the car. We take the scenic route, the long way, up the coast. By dusk we're on the Golden Gate Bridge, surrounded by fog, the LA heat long gone. My heart in my chest. I ignore it. I'm not afraid of bridges. "Your sister is going to kill us when she finds out we drove through San Francisco and didn't tell her." As much as I love Alice, I'm not ready to see her. For Edward and I to be put on display. Because we're still figuring everything out. And it's difficult enough without having to decide how to act in front of the rest of the world. He nudges me with his elbow. "Don't worry, I'll protect you from Alice." He winks at me. He fucking winks at me. His eyes crinkle up as he drives. And I want to jump him, right here in the car. Rosalie's voice from a decade ago echoes in my mind. You're totally fucking him, right? No, we're not fucking. You're telling me that you sleep in the same bed with Edward Cullen every night and you haven't fucked him? Fuck you, Rosalie. Fuck you. I know the exact date of the last time Edward and I had sex. It's the same date that Edward proposed to me all of those years ago and the same date that I said no. I refuse to do the math. We've always done everything backwards. And here we are again. Driving to Washington, all of our belongings shipped ahead of us. Turning our whole lives upside down and we don't even know who we are to each other. We love each other. Are we friends who love each other? Are we friends who sleep in the same bed? Are we friends who make out on the couch?
- 206 -

His voice interrupts my downward spiral. "What are you thinking about?" I hate that question. It's an unfair question. Thoughts are private. Questions like that turn honest people into liars. I turn in my seat, eyes trained on his profile, "sex." "Oh." He keeps his eyes on the road, his expression giving away nothing. "What exactly about sex?" "How we aren't having any." "Oh." "Edward are we friends?" I watch his face fall. I watch it fall and he doesn't answer. Fuck. He exits the freeway in a little town in Marin county and pulls into the parking lot of a hotel. "I thought we were going to try and drive until midnight." "Yeah, well I'm tired of driving." Okay. He's out of the car, our bags in his hands. I step out of the car slowly, shivering in the cool night air. Regretting the sundress. I practically have to run to catch up with him. We get a room in the quaint, ridiculously overpriced hotel. Edward stands too straight. His posture perfect, shoulders rigid, as he pays for the room. He won't look at me. He swipes the key card three times before I take it from him. Before I pry it from his fingers and open the door to our room. He motions for me to go in, his eyes on the floor. I want to ask him what his fucking problem is. The door slams, startling me. And I'm being lifted off the ground. My legs wrap around him on instinct.
- 207 -

His lips crashing into mine. Relentless. Unyielding. I match him with everything I have. He's pushing me up against the wall. Crushing me. This is not making-out on the couch. Hot, wet lips against my throat. The thin fabric of my dress balled up in his fists. I can feel him right there. My frantic fingers fumbling with his jeans. Trying to get them down. Just enough. The first breath he's taken since we got here. I meet his eyes, wild and feral. I can only nod. And time speeds back up. He pulls at the straps of my dress, exposing my bare breasts. Still shivering, but not from the cold. Hands teasing as our tongues tangle up. The possibility of him not wanting me this way suddenly ridiculous. Impossible. My dress around my middle. Panties gone. One slight shift of my hips against him, and it's enough for him to start to slip inside. This is when time stops, when frantic becomes deliberate. As he slowly fills me, almost painful and there is nothing else. Nothing. Until he's filled me completely and slow is gone. Until I'm biting my lip with such force that it might bleed. Until he's sucking it into his mouth. Until I'm breathing his name. Until I'm falling to pieces. Until we're the same. Until we're sliding to the ground. Sometimes falling to pieces, shattering, crashing and burning isn't tragic. Sometimes it's everything. Forehead to forehead, between labored breaths, "No, Bella, we're not friends." I can only nod in agreement. We're in a heap of sweat, tangled up in each other, still nearly clothed. His hands holding me so tightly. Until our breathing is quiet. Until we are brave enough to let go for a second.
- 208 -

The rest of our clothes fall to the floor as we climb into the bed, wrapping our bodies around each other. He whispers into me, "Are you okay?" I can only kiss him. "Bella, that wasn't exactly how I planned our first night together to go." "Edward?" "Yeah?" "Some things don't need to be planned." He kisses my face, pulling the blankets up over our shoulders. He kisses my lips until I can't keep my eyes open. "I love you, Edward." The words are jumbled. "I know." My feet seek out his feet and I hold on as long as I can, until there's no stopping it. Until sleep pulls me under. Sleep and dreams and hopes for the future and Edward all mixed together. I wake to the feeling of his fingers tracing the bare skin of my hip. My eyes still closed. The best way to wake up. Even if it is the middle of the night. I roll onto my side to face him, kisses on my eyelids. My hands wander, down his chest, over his stomach, his skin hot from sleep. Until I can feel him in my hands. And I might die if I don't have him right now. I might not be the only one. Wrapping my legs around him. And he's inside of me. My eyes still closed. Gentle and barely moving. Whispered words that I can't hear. But I understand. Because they are my words too. Making me feel.
- 209 -

Like waves against the shore. Moving together, rocking as languid hands wander. Until I'm almost there. My body remembering his. Claiming it. Mine. And then I'm swallowing his noises. His garbled words. Breathing the same air. And we're nowhere but here. And I wonder if we can stay here in this bed, in this sleepy town forever, forgetting about the rest of it. Soft kisses on my eyelids until I open my eyes. Eyelashes and lips. The night all around us. "Hi." "Hi." "Bella, let's go home." Home. By the time we're showered and dressed, the sun is rising. We drive the rest of the way with an urgency to get there. His hand wrapped around mine. His thumb tracing small circles over my skin. And it takes all I have to keep my mind clear. I'm waiting for it. For the other shoe to drop. Because this is too good. This can't possibly be our lives. I push the thoughts away. I shove them down. Because maybe it could be our lives. Maybe it is. Long after night fall, we stand on the Cullen porch, hand in hand. For the first time ever, we stand on the porch. Like relatives arriving for Christmas dinner. Except it's August. And we used to live here. He squeezes my hand twice. Morse code. We should have just gone inside instead of making a spectacle, but the front door is locked. The door has never been locked. But there is no time to panic over stupid little things like locked front doors that never used to need a key, because the door
- 210 -

swings open. Carlisle stands there with a nervous smile. He is not the man that I have known for ten years. He is the man in that journal. He is the man who used to be my father. He stands before us, eyes deep and unsure. I wonder how long we can all stand there without any words. Until I'm hugging him. Quick and awkward. I'm glad I can't see his face anymore. I try to step back, mumbling apologies, but he doesn't let me go. He doesn't let me go and it's okay. My hand still in Edward's. "She's not going anywhere, dad." And Carlisle releases me. He's staring and it's as if it's the first time he's seen me in nearly thirty years. The feeling is mutual. He picks up my small bag and starts up the stairs. We follow silently. He pauses in the dark hallway, in front of the guest room. The one with the flowered bed spread. He looks back and forth between Edward and I. "I'll just leave this here. You two freshen up. I'll put on some coffee. I'll meet you in the kitchen." He disappears down the stairs. I turn to Edward, eyebrows raised, "Well that was awkward. I thought you said you told him about us." "I did. I did tell him." He pulls me into his arms, kissing the space between my eyes. "What exactly did you tell him?" "I don't know. Exactly." "Edward" "What? What was I supposed to tell him?" "You were supposed to tell him what we are." He leans down, attempting to meet my eyes. "Which is what, exactly? Who are we?" "We're we're Bella and Edward." "Bella?"
- 211 -

"Yeah?" "I think he already knows that." I sigh into him as he wraps me up in is arms. Half an hour later, we sit at the kitchen table, coffee cups and awkward stares. "I'm sure you have a lot of questions. I'm sure both of you do. I'm afraid I don't have the answers to everything, but I'll try my best to tell you what you want to know." And then we sit there. In silence. Because I don't even know where to start. Edward squeezes my hand. Maybe tonight can be about the easier questions. I clear my throat. "What did you think the first time you saw me in your house?" He watches me, trying to remember or trying to decide what to say. "I thought I thought how your eyes were the same. Your eyes. Eyes don't change." I can feel my bottom lip start to tremble. "Did you move us to this town because of mom or because of Bella?" There is a subtle bite in Edward's voice. It's enough to keep me from crying. Carlisle looks down at the table. "To be honest, I don't know. I knew I had to be here. I knew that we should have moved here sooner, when your mother was still alive. I knew that she wanted to be buried here and I knew that I had to be where she was. I knew Bella was here. But that was all I knew." We go back and forth like this for hours. Bits and pieces. Until my head hurts. And my heart hurts. Until I'm more confused than I was before. Carlisle disappears into his office and returns with a cardboard file box. "I think this is all of them from that time. You have her journal from the few months after you were born. I checked the dates on these. I can't bring myself to read them. I can't bring myself to get rid of them." He sets the box on the table in front of me. "They're yours if you want them." I nod and peak under the lid. Into the box of words.
- 212 -

"If you two don't mind, I need to get some sleep. I have an early shift tomorrow." Another nod. "I'm glad you're here." And he's gone from the kitchen before there is any chance to say goodnight. My lungs sting. Edward picks up the heavy box and I follow him from the kitchen. We turn the lights off as we walk through the house. Until we're in his old room. He sets the box down and falls into the bed, kicking his shoes off on the floor. Exhausted. I stand there, staring at the box. "Bella." "I just want to read a little bit." He blinks. "Okay." I brush my teeth. I almost expect to see my teenage self, looking back at me in his bathroom mirror. He's sleeping soundly by the time I crawl into bed. I hold one of her journals in my lap, running my fingers over the cover. The first page has the month that Edward was born scribbled on it. The handwriting is tired. I curl up next to him and I read.

June 29, 1981 Carlisle doesn't have quiet conversations in the nursery when he thinks I'm not listening. He doesn't rock him. He doesn't hold him. He goes to work. He only goes to work. I can see what he is doing. I can see it so clearly. He says that I knew what I was getting myself into when I married a doctor. He refuses to talk about it. He deflects the conversation. Sometimes I look at him and I wonder what happened to the man that I married, even though I know very well what happened. I was there. I haven't told him yet. I don't know how to tell him. I used to believe that wanting something I would never have was the worst kind of torture. Now I know that getting what I've always wanted and realizing that it's not enough is far worse.
- 213 -

I read the words again. The words that paint a picture of a broken man. The loss of a child defined him. A death without a funeral. It is difficult to wrap my head around the fact that the child was me. A warm hand rests on my stomach. "Go to sleep, Bella." I close the words up, snuggling into his side. But the image of their life is still there when I close my eyes. Edward didn't grow up in the kind of childhood that I had always assumed. Not even close. "Edward, who are we?" His voice hoarse with sleep, "We're Bella and Edward."

A/N: To you teachers out there who go back to work this week, this update is for you. To those of you who have been asking, it's looking like about 30 chapters for this little story. Thanks for reading :)

- 214 -

Smiles and Rosy Cheeks


Smiles and Rosy Cheeks

Edward

There is nothing darker than night in the country. Black and quiet and haunting. I'm momentarily disoriented, the familiar walls of my old room out of place in this new life. Bella sound asleep by my side. I'm still in my clothes. I peel them off, tossing them in a heap to the floor. My body aching from two days of driving. And other things. She stirs but doesn't wake up as I settle back in to the bed, one of mom's journals wedged between us. I turn on the bedside lamp and study her face. Her parted lips and flushed cheeks. The way her hair falls over her. It takes all I have to leave her be. To let her sleep. Is it supposed to be like this? So all consuming? I can't help but wonder what we're doing. Why couldn't we just date like normal people? Because we lived nearly three thousand miles away from each other. Because we've been apart for too long to do anything slow. Because I don't want to date her. Because. The journal sits there, taunting me until I take the bait. I open it to a page at random.

- 215 -

July 1, 1981 His hair sticks straight up, especially when it's freshly washed. Everyone comments on his name, how old fashioned it is. When Elizabeth held him for the first time, I could see in her eyes how much she loved him. Babies having babies. She was a mother in that moment and she had more maturity and wisdom than her fifteen years. When I asked her if she was sure, again, she told me, "I want more for him than I can give him." I only hope that we can give him enough. I only hope that we can be the parents she imagined we would be. I wasn't sure if there was enough love in my heart. In the months leading up to his birth it felt like I'd been bled dry. The instant I held him, I knew that I was a goner. His eyes had a depth to them, even just hours after he was born. He's an old soul and while he can never replace our loss, he's my son and I love him. I refuse to live in fear that Elizabeth will change her mind. I hold on to hope that one day Renee and Isabella will be a part of all of our lives.

Her name was Elizabeth. Her name is Elizabeth. She is real. For the first time. She was a child herself. I never wanted to know any of it. I don't know why. I just never wanted to know. I close it up. Because I don't want it. Because I know who my mother is. Her name is Esme. Her name was Esme. I place a soft kiss on Bella's temple. She smells like Bella. She turns into me. "Edward?" My need for her is instant. And terrifying. How quickly she has become everything again. "Her name was Elizabeth." I press the words into her forehead. Her hand rests on the side of my face. "Do you want to talk about it?" "No."

- 216 -

I reach over and turn off the light. She brings her face to mine, her nose brushing against my cheek. "Love you." She loves me. Soft kisses in her hair until her breathing is slow against my neck. I hold her tight in my arms and remind myself that she's not going anywhere. That she moved across the country for this. For us. Maybe our life together doesn't have to be marred by our parents. By Mother Nature. By terrorists. Maybe we can be Bella and Edward. I watch her sleep. She looks so peaceful and innocent. Like she's never had a care in the world. I try not to think about it but sometimes I can't help but imagine what it was like for her to be trapped in that car. Alone. For days. As much as I wish I could have protected her, saved her from all of the tragedies in her life, she wouldn't be Bella without them. I love this Bella. The one who persevered. I watch her. For hours. Waiting for her to open her eyes. Until I'm startled by the smell of Dove soap and the steam from the open bathroom door. The quilt from the bed hanging off me. My eyes peel open, all sandpaper, to find Bella in nothing but a towel, walking from the bathroom. "Come here." My voice is as scratchy as my eyes. I pull her down to the bed, fistfuls of white towel. Smiles and rosy cheeks. Her body covering mine. Her tangled mess of wet hair over one shoulder. "Morning, sunshine." She kisses my lips. Once. Twice. "God, you're beautiful." She shakes her head but the smile stays. I thumb the edge of the towel along her thigh. She swats my hand. "Bella, I don't like this towel." "Oh?"
- 217 -

I slowly pull it away and she lets me. Until the towel joins the heap of clothes on the floor. The sight of her in the daylight, naked above me. Fuck me. Marry me. I kiss the hot skin along her collar bone. She laughs as her hand runs over my one exposed hip. "Do you make a habit of getting naked in the middle of the night?" I don't want words, I just want her. Want or need. All I know is that I'm desperate. And then the words. "Edward, I'm not on the pill." Oh. "Oh." Oh. "Edward?" Oh. She runs her thumbs over my eyebrows. We're both quiet for a long time. It's not like it's the first time we've done something stupid. "Edward, say something." "What do you want me to say?" "Anything." But I can't think of a single thing to say that won't sound terrible. That won't sound like I'm her doctor instead of her Edward. So I change the subject. "What do you want to do today?" I ignore the fact that we're both naked. She searches my eyes. "I think I'll go to Charlie's today. Uncover the furniture."
- 218 -

"Do you want me to come with you?" "If you want." "Bella." "What?" "I'm asking what you want." She whispers the words. "Maybe I don't know what I want." I don't think we're talking about furniture. We stay like that. Staring. Both of us waiting for the other one to leave the bed. My hand rests on her bare stomach. I don't know how it got there. She's not pregnant. She can't be pregnant. What if she's pregnant? We're not even remotely ready for that. She places her hand over mine. I shake my head. Wanting nothing more than to bury myself inside of her this instant. Because I'm insane. Her fingers intertwine with mine. "I should have said something at the hotel." It wouldn't have stopped me. "I should have asked." It wouldn't have stopped me. I don't know how long we stay there in that bed. I don't even know which one of us is the first to make a move to get up. She goes to Charlie's. I go to the store to buy condoms. And a bunch of other crap because this is Forks and even though I'm a grown man, I still need the security of a full grocery cart when buying condoms in this town. I can already hear the rumors of the new doctor buying nothing but condoms on his first trip to the market.
- 219 -

The next week and a half passes quickly. Sleeping in late. Pretending like we're sneaking around like teenagers. She likes sex in the morning. When I wake her up with my hands and my lips. If only we could stay in bed forever. Boxes everywhere and my impending first day at the hospital looming. Reality. It's not strange to see her and dad talking, having deep conversations. It's just different. I've tried to give her space. When all I want to do is hover. Smother her. She sits with dad in his office for hours at a time. Sometimes I'm there. Sometimes I'm not. I worry that this journey into the past will ultimately tear us down. She knows things that I don't. I can see it in her face. I want to ask her. I want to demand it. Tell me everything. Tell me everything you know. I'm a hypocrite. I know things too. One thing. But I also know I shouldn't back her into a corner. We don't talk about the possibility of her being pregnant. But it's there. On her face and mine. She's upstairs showering. I can hear the water running through the bones of this old house. I sit at the kitchen table. "What exactly is your plan, son?" I thought I was alone. And for the first time in my entire life I don't want to talk about my plan. Because maybe I don't have one. "I don't know. Bella's birthday is coming up. I was thinking" "I don't mean for next week, son. What's your plan for the future?" "Are you asking how long we plan on staying in your house? Because we can go."
- 220 -

"Edward, must everything be so dramatic, so black and white with you? I just want to make sure you're being realistic here." "Spit it out, dad." He tents his hands in front of his face, which always makes me nervous. "Even a child who is adopted at birth experiences a loss." His eyes bore into mine, and when I don't respond he keeps going. "For Bella to be taken from the only parents she knew. Infant attachment is at the heart of healthy child development and lays the foundation for adult relationships, Edward. Bella's ability to express emotion, maintain a relationship" His words burn my skin. "You don't need to school me on infant attachment, dad." "All I'm saying is that maybe" "Save it." "Edward" "I get it, okay? I get it!" "I'm trying to protect you, son. I'm trying to protect both of you." "We can take care of ourselves." I'm not sure that I'm right. He puts on a pot of coffee and I don't move from the table. He turns to face me too quickly. The words falling from his mouth. "I am sorry, Edward." "It's fine, I just don't need you reminding me of things I already know." "That's not what I meant." I look up at him, waiting for it. "Your mother was the one who had her heart set on children. I loved her so much that I wanted what she wanted. It wasn't until Isabella was born and I fell in love with her, my daughter, that I had any concept of what it meant to be a parent."
- 221 -

"We don't have to do this, dad." "We do." He takes a seat and I'm tempted to stand. "I'm sorry for a lot of things, Edward. I'm afraid I wasn't the father you deserved. I didn't do right be you or your sister." I don't recognize him. "It's a wonder that Alice managed to be a functioning member of society with the way that I spoiled her. Your mother always fought me on it but I never listened." He shakes his head, eyes far away, lost in a memory. "Guilt serves no useful purpose in life, and yet it can be so persuasive." "Dad" "But you, Edward. You deserved far more than I was capable of giving you. For that I am sorry, son. I hope one day you can forgive me. I know that you will be a better father than I was." She's not pregnant. She can't be pregnant. Did she say something to him? There is no way she said something to him. There is no way. The sound of the front door closing startles us both. The house is silent.

-PC-

We've made it two years. Two whole years on opposite coasts. Phone to my ear, I'm already smiling just anticipating the sound of her voice. "Yesssss, Edward?" "Hi." "Hi." "What are you doing?"
- 222 -

"Same thing I was doing twenty minutes ago." "Bella." "Edward." "Can't a guy just miss his girlfriend?" "That depends." "On what?" "Do you miss me or my bed?" "Both" Her response is only a sigh but I can hear the smile. "Maybe I'll fly out for your birthday." "Edward, we've talked about this. We had the whole summer. I have school. We can't all be on the quarter system." "Bella?" "Yeah?" "I love you." "I know." One day she'll say it. One day. And if she doesn't? Some things are bigger than words. I set the phone on my nightstand and stare at the ceiling. Fall quarter doesn't start until the end of September. I don't even know why I'm here. When all I want is to be back in her bed. Back in that naked apartment. I rub one out in the shower. Because even the sound of her voice makes me hard.

-PC- 223 -

She's making a stew. She's chopping the carrots. All business. Eyes serious. I kiss the side of her face and she blushes. I hope soft kisses will make her blush forever. I snatch a handful of carrots from the cutting board. She's trying not to smile. "Edward, what are you doing?" I toss a piece of carrot in my mouth. "Nothing. Eating some carrots." I think I'm being sly until she gets me in the eye. Before I can even establish a game plan. Giggles and shrieks as she tries to run. But I'm scooping her up. Carrots on the floor. Scooping her into my arms. Kisses all over her face. Smiling and laughing. Until her face turns serious again. Until I put her down. Still staring. "I'm not pregnant." Oh. This is a good thing. This is supposed to be a good thing. But it feels hollow. "Did you hear what I said?" "Yeah." "Say something." "If you want me to say that I'm glad, it would be a lie." She's looks like she's about to cry but she doesn't. "You want to get out of here?" "What about dinner?" "Forget dinner." I follow her out the front door. She reaches for my hand. A small gesture that seems so natural. A small gesture that never existed before.
- 224 -

We don't look for the path that used to be there. We don't try to stomp the grass back down. We don't pretend. We follow our feet. We make a new path. And there it sits. Our barn. When we were across the country from each other. When everything in our lives was falling down. When we were strangers. The barn that belonged to us sat here, getting older. Because it had long surrendered. Maybe surrendering isn't about failing. Maybe surrendering isn't only for cowards. We lay on a tattered plaid blanket in the dry grass, wrapped up in each other, faces towards the stars. "Edward, I know about Charlie." The words are calm and deliberate. "You know?" "I've known for a long time." I don't know whether to feel relieved that she already knows or betrayed that she never told me. "How long?" I can see it in her eyes. The reluctance. "Since since that time we don't talk about. Since my birthday. Since..." Her words are halting. The pieces suddenly fitting together in a way that they never did before. "I've had time to come to terms with it. I decided a long time ago that it doesn't matter. I know who raised me." Maybe we're the same. Night in the country. Eyes open in the dark.
- 225 -

My lips ghost over hers as she whispers, "Ask me again some day?" Marry me.

-PC-

A/N: It's looking like every 2 weeks is my rough update schedule. As you've probably gathered by now I don't have a beta. Apologies for any and all errors. See you in two weeks :)

- 226 -

Boxes and Garbage Bags


Boxes and Garbage Bags

Bella

Ten years is too long for anything to remain stagnant. It looks like Charlie still lives here. In this once charming house that's been nothing but neglected. The walls still filled with broken promises and someday dreams. I also see the man who loved his daughter. He is everywhere and nowhere. Edward stands behind me in the small living room. Now that I've told him, I feel like I can do this. The difference between saying the words in my head and saying them out loud. To the one person who matters. His hands slide from my hips around my stomach. Lips at my ear. "Are you sure you want to do this?" Goose bumps. Not from the words. But because he's Edward and he's here and maybe he's mine. "I'm sure." Boxes and garbage bags. It's overwhelming, packing up someone else's entire life. I'm avoiding the room at the top of the stairs. At the beginning of their marriage, it was the room that was intended for a baby's room. It became the room where Charlie made fishing flies and stored his tackle boxes. For ten years. And then I became his daughter, and it was my room. For ten years. I tell myself that the living room is a safer place to start. We pack up the sparse room quietly. Edward watches me with sideways glances, making sure this is really what I want to do. But I'm sure. Charlie would have wanted me, he would have wanted us, to live in it, rather than leaving it like this. Like a museum dedicated to an unfulfilling life.
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There is a white porcelain fish on the coffee table. A paper weight. It's a trout. I think. It's been here on this very table since the first day I stepped foot in this house, nearly twenty years ago. I hold it in both hands, the weight of it grounding me. I want to keep it. For no reason at all, I want the stupid porcelain fish. I carry it to the kitchen to rinse the dust off in the sink. The cool water runs over my wrists, slowing my pulse. And then it's alive, slick, wriggling from my hands. Falling to the bottom of the sink. Shattering. I don't reach out to try to salvage it. My hands are motionless. Frozen. My chest is collapsing in on itself before my mind has a chance to catch up. Sobs racking through me. My hands like claws. The water still running. Strong arms wrap me up. "You're okay." And I am. "Was that important?" I sniffle into his white T-shirt. "No." I know who raised me. And yet here I am, crying over something I only decided I wanted two minutes ago. We pick up the pieces, placing them in a garbage bag. I look at my hands. I wipe at my eyes with my shirtsleeves. He kisses my forehead and holds me tight. Almost too tight. Never tight enough. We go back to the living room. His voice is quiet. "What do you think about the furniture?" I stare at the muted plaid barcalounger and the couch I've slept on every Mother's Day for years. "I think it might be time for some updating." An almost smile on my own face. Splotchy cheeks and puffy eyes. His face is serious. And worried. "Edward, why are you looking at me like that?" "Because I know you." "I'm fine. I promise you, I'm fine."
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"Alright." But he's not sure if he believes me. "I wonder how much of this stuff has been here since my mom lived here." I can see it on his face. The distaste whenever I mention her. He always goes quiet but his eyes give him away. Reading about her in those journals, it's easy to hate her. I don't blame him for being angry with her. I'm angry with her too. So, so angry. But I don't think I believe in villains. He makes himself busy, turning away from me. Probably not wanting me to see the way that he feels about her. This time I'm the one to slide my hands around his waist, my cheek resting on his back. We spend the next three days emptying out the house. The bedrooms left with only simple furniture, walls stripped bare. There are some things that stay. Charlie's fishing vest is moved from the hook by the door to the closet. A few framed photographs will go back up. My favorite mixing bowls in the kitchen. But the rest of it is gone. And it's okay. This is moving on. Tomorrow's date looms. And I feel selfish. Shallow. Guilty. Because it was so much bigger than the two of us. The master bedroom is finished. Emptied out. Painted. Sheets on the bed. A bandana covering my hair, we paint the little bedroom upstairs. The baby's room that never was. The fishing workshop. My old room. I glance at my watch. Alice's plane should have already landed. Carlisle is picking her up from the airport. She said that she missed this place. She missed her family. She missed me. That Jasper had a gig out of town and it was the perfect time for her to get away. But I can't help but think that her timing is convenient. Edward and I have talked about so much. But we haven't talked about that. The words I said to him echo in my mind sometimes. I wonder if they echo in his too. But being in this room, I feel light. Like none of that matters. History doesn't have
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to live in this house. The room is yellow. Like butter. He paints two whole walls while I try to finish off the corner of the white ceiling. Raised eyebrows, he's smug with his progress. "It's not a race, Edward." "Of course it is. And I'm winning." He has that smile. All twinkly eyes and teeth. Those perfect fucking teeth. Except there's a crooked one on the bottom that somehow always escaped my notice before. I climb down from my step stool. Hands on my hips, I inspect his handiwork. Looking for holidays. "Ha! Right there!" Pointing at nothing but pale yellow. "Where?" His face inches from the wall. I run my roller of white paint over his perfect yellow wall. And now I have the smile. Paint roller dropped to the plastic-covered ground. Making a run for it. But he's fast. And I'm glad. Pouncing on me. Pinning me to the crinkly plastic. Nose to nose. Chests heaving. Cheeky grins. "It's a good thing I love you." "Good thing." He kisses the tip of my nose. The way he looks at me. Soaking up my face. Like I'm his reason. For everything. Ask me. Right now. With paint in your hair. Ask me. "We better get back to the house. We'll be late to dinner." He kisses my pout. Rubs up against me. Making me gasp. Just to be clear. That he wants me just as much as I want him. We meet Alice and Carlisle at the restaurant. I'm nervous. Even though she is my
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best friend. She squeezes me tight when she sees me. Looking me up and down. "You look good, Bella." Like she needed to see with her own eyes. Edward and I side by side. Maybe I was ridiculous for expecting this to be awkward. Carlisle seems happy too. Having all of us in one place. Throughout dinner, I catch Alice watching me. Watching us. Like she knows we'll make it. And the way she smiles makes me smile too. Alice rides with Carlisle back to the house. Their relationship is so easy now. The way it's supposed to be. Carlisle was the one to tell her about me. He said he wanted to be the one to tell her. We've talked on the phone a few times since, but she hasn't pried for details. "I always wanted a sister." Like it's no big deal. Alice heads upstairs to get settled in to her old room. She's staying the week. We sit on the bench seat at the kitchen table, bellies full, exhausted from the day of painting. My fingers trace circles against the back of Edward's neck and I'm ready to head upstairs. Carlisle clears his throat, eyes on Edward. "I'd appreciate if you didn't share your mother's journals with your sister. There are things in there that weren't meant for her eyes." Edward's entire body goes rigid. "None of those words were meant for any of our eyes." "Listen, Edward, your sister doesn't need to know" "I will never understand why you think she is so fragile. She's a grown woman and I certainly wouldn't cross her in a dark alley." "Just the same, I think it would be best if Alice" "You think it would be best? You think it would be best?" My hand on his chest, I try to calm him, but he doesn't want to be calmed. The tension, the anticipation, of the next few days pulling him taut. His voice is acid. "You and Mom always gave us the censored version of
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everything. And maybe that was for the best, but we're not children any more. We all deserve the truth. Reading those journals is like a twisted game. You're right here. You're alive. Tell us yourself." Our eyes all turn at the same instant to see Alice standing in the doorway. She's staring at Carlisle. He is only calm. "Alice, maybe you should call it a night. It's been a long day." Edward's voice is booming. "Do not leave." His hands clench into fists on the table. And she listens. "I can't do this anymore. Too many fucking secrets! We're getting it over with right now. All of it." His voice filled with bite. No longer recognizable as my Edward. The one with paint in his hair. Alice turns to him. "Maybe I don't want to know all of it, Edward. You ever think of that?" "You don't have a choice! You are part of this family!" Carlisle pinches the bridge of his nose. Eyes closed. "We don't have to do it like this. If your mother was here." "Fuck you, Dad." I stand up from the table, my heart racing. Not wanting this. This way. I'm in the den before I realize I've even left the room. We're all in the den. Carlisle stands in the doorway. His eyes are cold. Like Edward's. Alice takes the arm chair. She sits up straight. Glaring at Edward. I slump into the cushions of the couch. I reach for Edward's hand as he paces in front of me but he either doesn't see it, or he doesn't want it. His feet pace back and forth on the hardwood. Back and forth, back and forth. Hands raking through his hair. "At the beginning. Start at the fucking beginning." "I don't know what you want to know, Edward."
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"I want to know all of it! The truth, the lies. All of it." Carlisle holds his hands in his lap. He's holding his own hand. I stare at those hands. But then I look at the eyes again. They're not cold. They're afraid. His voice is shaky. "We tried for years to conceive. Your mother was heartbroken. It became all she could think about. She was obsessive. We were having sex constantly..." Alice is mortified. "Oh my God, Dad! That's not what he meant by all of it." Edward throws himself down on the far end of the couch like a child. Miles away from me. "Renee showed up in New York a while after we had decided to adopt. She made her intentions clear from the start. She wanted us to adopt her baby. She didn't know what she was having, a boy or girl. They didn't do sonograms back then unless there was a concern." "Can we make this less of a history lesson on prenatal care and more of" And I can't stay quiet any longer. "Edward, that's enough." His eyes fly to mine for a second, betrayed, before they focus on the wall. "Isabella was born a week after Renee arrived. Renee never waivered. She said she was sure." His voice cracks. "Esme was so worried about her friend. But the worry didn't last long because soon she had an infant to care for." He looks me straight in the face. "Renee left town two days after your birth and we didn't hear from her again until Christmas." The image of the Christmas card flashes before me. "She showed up out of nowhere and I will always remember the look on Esme's face. She looked as if she had just been given the greatest gift. I knew better. I kept my mouth shut because I didn't want to make my wife choose between her best friend and her husband. She stayed for two weeks. Esme showed her how to feed you, how to bathe you, how to make you laugh. She had the biggest heart of anyone I've ever met. It was what made me fall in love with her. She could also be so very nave. "I came home from work one evening to hear them shouting. And I knew that my worst nightmare had come true. Renee wanted you back. I gave her a piece of my
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mind. I called her names that no woman should ever be called. I told her to get out of my house. "I didn't waste a second. I called around all night, pulling favors, until we had the best lawyer." We all sit lifelessly in our spots, listening to his version of events. Like we're watching a made for TV movie. I want to ask him if she ever told them why. What changed her mind. Where she was all that time I belonged to a real family. But I don't think there is any answer that would be enough. When Carlisle speaks, I feel like I'm the only other person in the room. His words are for me. "Esme spent the night bawling, rocking you in her arms. She was torn from the start. She saw you as her daughter. She also saw you as Renee's daughter. Not some stranger who had given her child up for adoption, but her childhood friend. She loved your mother. I hated her. To me, you were only ours." His words are a tight fist around my heart. Squeezing. She was my mother. And I don't want him to hate her. "It was going to be a long-drawn-out fight. One that I didn't know if we would even win. But I was prepared to fight. I was prepared to steamroll her. To attack her character. The fact that she didn't even know who your..." His voice trails off and he looks embarrassed. "You can say it." "She didn't even know who your father was." I stare straight ahead. I know who raised me. "I was forcing Esme to choose. To choose between her best friend and her husband. She cried and she cried. She loved you. She loved you more than anything. But she loved your mother too. She chose Renee. We fought about it for months. But she chose Renee and ultimately I had to support her. It was either that or lose her too. "And then you were just gone. No address, no phone number. Nothing. The first month we both acted as if you were coming back. I guess we were holding on to hope that she would change her mind again. We were numb. Eventually it all became too much. We took down pictures. We took down the nursery. It was too big of a reminder. It was easier to pretend that we never had you at all."
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I can feel the tears streaming down my cheeks. About to fall apart again. And I'm no longer alone on this side of the couch. Edward is folding me into his side. Fingers tangled up in mine. I don't fall though. Because I want to be here for this. "I threw myself into my work. It was the only way I knew to cope." His eyes are far away. "The nurses loved to gossip. They weren't doing it at our expense. I don't think. Everyone knew about Dr. Cullen and his poor wife, whose baby had been snatched back. Everyone at the hospital gave me the knowing head nod and the tight lipped smile. As if they understood. "A young pregnant girl named Elizabeth heard the gossip too. It was what brought Edward to us." Edward's entire body goes motionless. "She contacted us. She was just a child. But she had parental consent and she was sure. She said she was sure. Somehow Esme trusted her. I don't know how she could trust anyone at that point. When your best friend betrays you, how do you trust a stranger?" If I had been a Cullen, Edward would have been someone else entirely. So how could I hate her? Because this is the life I want. The one I have right now. The one with Edward. She's the reason that I have it. And yet I want to hate her. Not for what she did to me. For what she did to Esme. For what she did to Carlisle. Carlisle's eyes go between Edward and me. "I wasn't ready. I know that now. I was still grieving. I was afraid to get attached." He turns to Alice and she fidgets in her seat. "Your mother was more than four months pregnant with you before I knew. She was afraid to tell me. I was too blind to notice the signs." Alice sits doe-eyed on the couch. She doesn't say a word. "You were born at 27 weeks. I was at the hospital. Your mother went into preterm labor. I was supposed to be home for dinner that night. It was nearly midnight when she arrived in an ambulance." His hands fidget and shake. The guilt. "That's when everything really fell to pieces." He turns to Alice, "We didn't think you were going to make it. Neither of us did. You were so small and delicate. Too
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small." She's still small. But she's anything but delicate. "Your mother had a three month old at home to take care of. So I spent my days in the hospital, overseeing your care. And hiding from my wife. Saving you became my sole focus. Almost as if that single act would redeem me." Alice stands, approaching her father slowly. Unclasping his hands and taking one in her own. Squeezing it. Twice. Edward's lips at my ear. "Bella, let's go." He whispers it. "Where are we going?" "Home."

-PC-

It's almost my birthday. Alice seems to think turning twenty-one is a big deal. Looking around my apartment, I wonder if it will ever feel like home. Two years should have been enough time. But here I am, sitting on my bed, still waiting for it. Trying to study. Anticipating the next phone call. Because even when I say, "Stop calling me every five minutes," I don't mean it. I'm pretty sure Edward is flying out for my birthday, even though I told him not to. Maybe Alice too. Having Edward here for the summer was everything. Saying goodbye was terrifying. The thought of what I would do if I ever really had to live without him. It doesn't make sense. We live on opposite coasts. We've been living without for years. But none of that is real. He's there. At arm's length. But he's there. He said he has a present for me. Something that is impossible to wrap. "Take it back," I told him. "It's not the kind of thing that I can take back."
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I told him I didn't want a puppy or a pony or anything alive. He went quiet. Making me wonder. Legs tucked under me, the phone rings and I smile. "Hi." "Hi." "Did you send back my puppy yet?" "I told you, it's not a puppy." "So when can I expect this gift? My birthday is in a week you know." "Oh, I'm well aware of when your birthday is." "Well?" "It's not something that can be mailed."

-PC-

The car ride from the Cullens' to Charlie's is silent, his hand squeezing mine tight. He only drives. Until we're at the house. Our house. I don't ask him what happened back there. What was going through his mind. Because I know that it's only possible to tread water for so long. That he likes to pretend everything is fine until he can't pretend anymore. The door is unlocked. Paint buckets littered through out the living room. We climb the stairs. This isn't quite how I imagined our first night in this house. I strip down, pulling on one of his old threadbare T-shirts he's been wearing to paint in. The sheets are cool against my bare legs. The light peaking out from the bathroom door.

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He slides under the comforter in his boxers, immediately seeking me out with those hands, pulling my body to his. "So we live here now?" He kisses me. Desperate. His mouth claiming mine. Looking for reassurance. Because of today. Because of tomorrow. Because maybe tomorrow's date sticks to him even more than it sticks to me. He knows me. But maybe I know him too. I say the words before I lose them. "Edward do you want babies?" He stares. I stare back. He sits up against the old wood headboard. Thinking it over or trying to figure out how to change the subject. He stares at my mouth. And then my eyes. "I want your babies." "Yeah?" "Yeah." The kind of smile that slays me. Crawling into his lap. Straddling him. Hands on his face. I suck on his bottom lip. Tasting him. Relishing the feeling of his hands on my body. Regretting the T-shirt. Ready to get lost in him. But my mouth won't shut up. "What about a little baby girl who needs parents?" "Bella." "What?" His breathing already heavy. "Can we talk about this later?" "No." His head leaning back against the headboard. "Then say it." I don't want to say it. But sometimes you have to ask for things that you want. Hands around his neck, running along his hairline. "I want her, Edward. I want her to have more than that place. That life. I want her to have you."
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He says my name against my lips. "Bella. Bella. Bella." There is more than one way for a heart to break. Don't break my heart. Please. Please. Please. "I don't know if I'm ready to share you." Forehead to forehead. The air hot. Slowly teasing his lips against mine. Both of us refusing to close our tired eyes. Begging each other for so many things. Wanting him. Not because I think being without him will ruin me. Because he doesn't define me. He doesn't make me whole. He can't. I know that. But I still want every piece of him. I want to be there always. When he needs me. When I need him. His fingers slide under the hem of my shirt. His shirt. I lift my arms, letting go of him just long enough for him to pull it up over my head and toss it aside. My hands back to his neck. Teasing the soft skin. His hands run up my thighs, over my hips, finding purchase on my ribcage. Thumbs and fingers halting. His lips travel slowly down, leaving a trail of fire, while his hands stay motionless. Lips against puckered skin, taking my nipple in his mouth. Hands and lips together. Those hands and those lips. And my hips are alive against him. Instant need. I thumb the waistband of his boxers. "Off." There is no hesitation, no gentle teasing. Hovering over him on my knees as the boxers disappear. I lower myself slowly as he guides himself to me. Gasping. My hands splayed up against the headboard. His hands digging into my backside. Slowly kneading. And there is no need for quiet. In our own house. Our slow moans echoing through the nearly empty room, in time with each other. His eyes never leave mine. He can see everything. He can have all of me. I'm his. I want to scream it. I might.
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Slowing down when I'm close. Because I want this forever. The flutters. The anticipation. Kneeling at the edge. "Bella." Whispered words. Like leaves in the wind. Until I'm falling. Until I'm taking him with me. Thankful that neither of us is made of porcelain. Back to the way it began. Soft lips against soft lips. "Edward, please say that was a yes."

-PC-

A/N: Hi :) To the amazing Susan, you are all kinds of awesome for being my beta.

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Skylines and Diamond Rings


Skylines and Diamond Rings

Edward

I wake up alone. I try not to read anything into it. Today is just a day. But it's not. Not to me. Not to Bella. Not to this entire country. It will never be just a day again. Not in our lifetimes. Questions about babies float around in my mind. I wonder if we could do it. If I could do it. Be a father. If I would flail about. If I would become my own father. If I could ever love that little baby from the orphanage the way that Bella already loves her. If we would get our hearts broken. My father's words from last night echo in this barren room. But last night's revelations are pushed down by the weight of today's date. While it seems like Bella and I were apart for an eternity, it doesn't feel possible that it has been eight whole years since that fateful day. Eight years. I'm grateful that we don't have cable yet. Or even a television. We don't need to spend the day that way. But I want to know. I want to know what it was like for her. I want to tell her what it was like for me. Driving cross-country without sleeping. Not being able to get a hold of her. Panicking. Imagining the worst. Not knowing. It's early. The sun is barely up. My open palm slides against the cool sheets to her side of the bed. I pull her pillow up to my face. Memories of last night. The taste of her skin. The sounds she makes when she's about to come undone. Making me wish that she was still here beside me. Below me. Above me. But she's not. The room is starkly empty in the light of day. Walls still bare. Closet
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empty. Lying still, I can hear her downstairs as she rifles through the kitchen cabinets of this tiny house. Our tiny house. I can't help but smile even though I'm not sure that this is a day for smiling. I pull on my boxers and my shirt from yesterday and make my way down the creaky staircase. Her back is to me, in nothing but my old T-shirt. I watch her and her silky smooth legs, from the doorway to the kitchen. I try to figure out what this day means to her. I try to accept the fact that I may never know. I wasn't there. She turns around. Startled, but smiling. She stands there, holding a spatula up high, as if in victory. I'm walking towards her. My hands plant themselves firmly on her hips, and my lips find their way to her forehead. "What are you making me for breakfast?" She pulls away slightly to look at me. "Blueberry pancakes." The words are stuck in my throat. Choking me. Marry me. Bella. Marry me. She looks up at me through her lashes. "We need blueberries." Kiss. "And milk." Kiss. "And eggs." Kiss. "And flour." Kiss. It feels good to smile with her. The world is inexplicably brighter. My fingers toy with the hem of her shirt. And with a sigh, her entire body sags into mine, relying on me to hold her upright. She says the words into my chest. "I love you." And I'll never get tired of hearing it. A little louder, "I loved you then, too." And I know. "Bella?" I wait for her eyes. "I know."
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She nods. Eyes glistening, lips parted, she wants to say something. She doesn't. I hold her there in our kitchen. Swaying back and forth. Until eventually she pulls away, busying herself in the cabinets once again. I get dressed as she tinkers in the kitchen. I kiss her before I leave. Really kiss her. Not because we have something to prove. But because I want to. Because I want her. I will always want her. I swing by Dad's house to pick up some clothes on the way to the market. And something else. I creep up the stairs quietly. This house is suddenly ridiculously huge. I make it to my old room without seeing Alice or my father. I quickly stuff whatever clothes are nearby into a shapeless duffle bag. I find what I'm looking for and slide it safely into my pocket. I turn to find Alice standing in the doorway. Fresh out of bed. Face puffy. She leans her head against the doorframe. "Edward, I'm sorry." "What exactly are you sorry for?" I want to know. "Edward, don't do this." "Don't do what?" "That thing you do." "Enlighten me." "Don't be a prick." I scoff at her. I brush past her. I'm down the stairs and out the door. I want her to suffer. For no reason at all. We're the same. I know how it feels to not want to know all of it. I'm glad that I didn't have to face my father. Because maybe I understand. And I don't want to. I understand why he is the way he is. The way he was. When we were small. Because I know what it feels like to lose Bella. In a different way. But it's enough to understand. I go to the market. I can't help but glance over the newspaper headlines. Every
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last one of them is paying tribute. Every year. It was a long time before I could even say the date out loud. I leave the newspapers in their stands. I wait in line with my basket of ingredients for blueberry pancakes. Wanting nothing more than to get out of here and get back home to Bella. "Well, well, well. Where have you been hiding?" Her voice startles me but it doesn't grate on my nerves like it used to. It's almost comforting to see her. Today, of all days. "Hey, Rose." "Alice said you were home. I was going to call, but. So, you're here for good?" "Yeah, we're here for good." I'm waiting for the sneer but it doesn't come. She watches me without saying a word. Pensive. She pats my arm. "I hope you know what you're doing, Edward." It's not condescending. For once. I think Rose might always think of me as the Edward who came back from New York. When I was a disaster. When Alice asked her to babysit me in LA. And if I'm being honest, I'm not sure what I would have done without her. Because I was ready to drop out of school. To give it all up. She was the one to force me out of bed each morning with her incessant calling until I would answer the phone. She was the one who made sure I ate. She was the one who convinced me not to throw everything away. She hated Bella. She wasn't shy about telling me. And it was okay. Because maybe I hated Bella too. At least I wanted to hate her. I tried. Somewhere along the line, probably about the time I realized that Rosalie wasn't trying to seduce me, we became friends. I relied on her for so much.
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She was the one who introduced me to Tanya. She wanted me to be happy. I tried. That was before she met Emmett. Before she understood. Before she had any concept of what it was like to love someone. The gruff voice of the checker brings me back. "Next in line." Rose and I make promises to meet up for dinner before Alice flies back to San Francisco. Everyone. The first time we will all be together since Alice's wedding, over a year ago. She doesn't say anything about today. I leave her there by the newspapers and carry my bag of breakfast to the car. I sit in the parking lot, engine running, remembering a different drive.

-PC-

My cell phone is dead. "Mother fucking, useless piece of shit!" I want to throw it out of the car window. I throw it in the glove box instead. I'll wait until I need to fill up on gas to try calling again. I don't want to waste any more fucking time. I can't keep stopping. Putting money in a pay phone. When I could be getting there. I smack the dash with an open palm. Again. Again. Until my hand burns. Until my eyes burn. Fear and anger. I want to turn the radio off. I've heard enough. But I can't bring myself to do it. The images from the TV screen play over and over again in my mind. Like a movie. A horror movie. I sat there watching the TV for hours. Calling Bella's phone for hours. Not being able to get through. The uncertainty clawing at my insides, until I couldn't sit there any longer.
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Until I had to get in my car and drive. I'm taking her back with me. And if she refuses, I'm leaving UCLA. She can't stay in New York. Alone. I won't let her. I can't. She's fine. I'm sure she's fine. She has to be fine. My heart pounds in my ears. My skin on fire. My breathing short. The coffee turns sour in my stomach. I pull over on the deserted highway. Car still running, I open the door just in time to empty my stomach in the dirt. I pull Mom's ring from my pocket. I clench my fist around it. Until it's painful. Desperately needing the sound of Bella's voice. The touch of her skin. The heat of her mouth. I tuck the ring away and I drive. Pulling into the gas station, I immediately scan for a pay phone. I hold my breath as I dial her number. The cold, metal buttons are harsh and mocking. I slam the receiver down. Fuck! I call home. It barely rings once. "Hello?" "Dad?" "Edward, she's fine." "You talked to her?" "Yes, Edward, she's alright." "Where is she?" "In her apartment. The mayor is encouraging everyone to stay put. Only people south of Canal Street were evacuated yesterday."
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"Dad, I have to go." "Edward, wait" But I can't wait. I drop the phone. I have to get to her. The next two days pass in a blur of road signs and energy drinks. I listen to the radio. I listen to it unfold for days. Time goes by so slowly. And then I'm in New York and I'm not quite sure how I even got here. It's her birthday. I've talked to her twice. She's fine. She said she's fine. But her voice. One day, one moment, can change everything. The skyline. Priorities. Our future. I'm at her apartment and I'm beating down the door. And then she's there in front of me and she's clinging to me. And I'm grabbing. I'm grabbing at her. Until we're in her bed. Naked and grabbing. And I'm taking. And it's fast and rough. And it's fucking. And it feels like I'm chasing something that's not real, but I can't stop. What should be relief, release, ecstasy, is only desperation, grief and fear. It's over. I'm apologizing. And she's crying. And maybe I'm crying too. We lie there silently in her bed. The sun filters in through the window, and I focus on the bits of dust floating through the air, as if they could save us. A twinkling flash of light catches my eye on the floor. The diamond ring is lying on the hardwood next to my jeans. I turn to face her, hoping that she doesn't see it. But her eyes are fixed on that ring. "What is that? Why do you have that?" "It's a ring." Because that's the only kind of truth I have right now. Her eyes are dead. Her voice is dead. "Why is it here?"
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"Because I want you to" "Edward, don't." "Don't what?" "Don't do this." "Don't do what?" "This." "Bella, marry me." "What?" "Marry me. Let me love you. Forever." She shakes her head. Her eyes pool with tears. "No." "Bella" "I said no!" I flinch. The power of her words. Definite and sure. The rejection burns. The anger is easier. I shut my eyes and open my mouth. "Then I want to hear you say it. I want to hear you say that you don't love me. Because I know you do." I feel her roll away from me. And I think I've won. It's the most hollow of victories. It's not a victory at all when she speaks. Her voice is vacant and steady. "I don't love you. I never have." It's choking and drowning and being burned alive. My eyes flash open. "You're lying. Look at me when you say it. Your eyes are the only honest part of you." She turns to face me. Venom and bite. "I don't love you."
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She's out of the bed, walking naked to the bathroom. I stare at the ring. On the floor.

-PC-

I sit in our driveway with the engine off and the world is standing still. I pull the ring from my pocket. I roll it between my thumb and my pointer finger. Ask me again someday. I imagine sliding it on her finger. I imagine her hand. Her face. I wonder if it's bad luck to propose with a ring she's already refused. I don't care. Because this is the ring she'd want. Today doesn't need to be that day. It doesn't need to be her birthday. Her birthday. My mind is swimming. I have two days. And I decide. I make a phone call to Alice. By some grace of God, she answers. I apologize. I ask for her help. This is how it goes with us. I hang up the phone, hands in my hair. I'm suddenly nervous that Bella may have seen me sitting out here. In the driveway. I just need a minute. To remember it. Because it's been so long since I've let myself remember any of it. The way the whole country banded together. The way Bella and I fell apart. I slide the ring back into my pocket. I beg it to stay there. The house is quiet when I open the front door. I drop the duffle bag filled with our clothes at the bottom of the stairs and bring the groceries to the kitchen. The kitchen has exploded in the time I've been gone. There are pots and pans all over the floor. Every cabinet door, every drawer is open. She told me once that
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kitchen cabinets are windows into a person's soul. I hope she's right. I can hear the water from the shower upstairs. And maybe I need another shower. The noisy pipes go quiet by the time I've reached the top of the stairs. I kick off my shoes and I sit on our bed. The room is drowning in mid-morning sun. She leans up against the doorjamb in her towel. I wonder how much of our lives are spent standing in doorways. I wonder if we can ban towels in this house. Before I can comment, the offending fabric is on the floor. I sit on the bed, smiling wide, at the sight of her naked in front of me. She walks towards me slowly, all awkward and shy and sexy as hell. I took her virginity ten years ago and she still blushes when I stare at her breasts. I love the way her skin looks when she's fresh out of the shower. All rosy and vibrant and alive. She stands in front of me. Only naked. Her hands run through my hair. Her thumbs rub out the worry lines on my forehead that have been there all morning. My own hands try not to be greedy. She tilts her head to the side. "You said that my eyes were the only honest part of me. Do you still believe that?" My skin is covered in needles. "No, Bella, they're not the only honest part." "What do you see? What do you see when you look at me?" I wish I could tell her. I wish there were words. I pull her face slowly to me. Everything in slow motion. "I see you. I see joy and fear and hope and sorrow and love and determination." I hold her there, in the palms of my hands. Until we're both falling to the bed. She's the one who's naked and yet I've never felt so exposed.
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She unbuttons my shirt, taking care with each button. The feel of her hands against my bare chest is something I will remember forever. When we're old and gray. I can imagine it. In this house. I roll her onto her back. I start to kick my pants off and then I remember my pocket. I stand at the foot of the bed, taking them off slowly. This will not end with a diamond ring on the floor. I feel for the ring through the outside of my pocket, my eyes trained on hers the whole time. Her chest is heaving. I fold the pants up, ring inside. Because I'm not proposing when she's naked. Before long, I don't care about rings or forever. I am only here in this moment. I kiss her toes. Her perfect toes. Those toes. I kiss every inch of her skin. Until she's panting. Until she forgets what day it is. Until I'm buried inside of her. "Look at me." The way the heel of her foot rests along my spine. This is honest. I can see it in her face. It's not desperation, at the foot of the bed. Until it is. Until I'm thinking and speaking in one word sentences as she's convulsing below me. Until I follow her. Until I'm collapsing on top of her. Cloudy minds in a sunlit room. My fingers run lazy trails over her rib cage as my lips seek out her lips and my hips test her hips. Ready to go again. Maybe we can spend the rest of the day in this bed. My stomach is growling in protest. Betraying me. Making her giggle and leading us down to the kitchen.
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The afternoon is spent with blueberry pancakes. In the kitchen with Bella. She's laughing and shaking her head as I take another pancake from the plate. "What?" "You know that this won't be the last time I ever feed you, right?" And then teasing is suddenly serious. Neither of us wants to think about the last time for anything. I can feel it creeping in. I want to ask her about that day, but I don't want to have to ask her. I want her to tell me willingly. She washes the dishes. I dry. We don't have a dishwasher. Eight years ago I would have thought a kitchen without a dishwasher was ridiculous. I imagined us in a brand new house. I wanted to give her everything. I wanted to prove to her that she was worth it. Standing here in our kitchen without a dishwasher, not needing to prove anything to anyone, we're Bella and Edward. She rinses the soap off of a plate until it's sparkling. The water runs off the edges. I hold the dishtowel in my hands. They say patience is a virtue. Instead of handing it to me, she lets it drop back into the soapy dishwater. "I barely remember anything from that day." "Bella" "I barely remember anything." I don't ask her to tell me. The words trickle out of her all on their own. She holds her dripping hands out in front of her and I'm drying them. Slowly. Carefully. Because getting what I want is sometimes painful. "It's all mixed up. My memories of that day and the earthquake. They're all tangled up in my mind. I can remember the disbelief. And then the confusion. And then the panic, because what if you were on a plane, Edward? I could hear your
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voice. Maybe I'll fly out for your birthday. I could hear your voice and I remember thinking that you were on a plane. And then the smell. And the ash. And it was all too familiar. And then I was back in that car with her. Trapped and smashed." She thought I was on a plane. "And then you were there. And you were different. And your eyes were wild. And the way" Her voice trails off but her eyes stay. "Bella, I know the rest." Because I don't know if I can hear about the way I fucked her. It wasn't romantic. It wasn't about desire or love or even lust. It was desperate, selfish fucking. "And my city was bleeding. And the entire country was bleeding. And Charlie wasn't mine anymore. And I felt like I couldn't possibly lose anything else. And you drove across the country. And you were down on one knee. And you were asking for forever." And she let me go. To ensure that she would never lose me. It makes no sense and perfect sense. The grief surges through me. I feel it in waves. The grief for the thousands of people who lost their lives. For the loved ones they left behind. For the unborn children who would never meet their fathers. My own grief. For losing Bella. For reasons that had everything and nothing to do with that day. I take her hand and lead her to the living room. We sit on our couch and we talk it all out. For the first time. We don't tiptoe around any of it. Until the sun has set. Wrapped up in each other, covered by a familiar plaid blanket, we don't hide. "I know we aren't ready to be parents, I was just thinking" "You were just thinking, what?" "What if we're never ready? What if we're never ready and we spend our lives waiting for that moment and it never comes? What if she spends her whole life in that place? What if she spends her whole life without a family? What if we're just
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what she needs, but she doesn't get to have us because we were too afraid?" I have nothing to say to that. "Tell me about her?" Her whole face lights up. From a question. "Alright. What do you want to know?" "Anything." "Her eyes are deep and dark." Like yours, I want to say. I'm a goner. "And she was so little. But it's been months since then. I'm sure she's changed. I'm sure she's grown. They say she's eating more. She's growing." I don't ask her who they is, because I know she's been in contact. Her lips purse together, eyes wandering. Trying to imagine her. "Bella, we don't know anything about international adoptions. About what the regulations are there. It could take years." She doesn't want to hear that. She keeps going. "She has these impossibly long fingers." I chuckle. "Like E.T.?" "No!" She's scowling and I kiss it away. And then she's giggling and I want that forever. She pushes me onto my back and snuggles into my chest. I pull the blanket up, covering us. Her fingers run along the edge of my pocket "She holds her hands out all dainty like." She shows me with her own hand, stretching her fingers out in front of my face. I can't help but kiss each one of her fingertips. Her knuckles. She's suddenly quiet. So serious. But she looks at me like she's just found the answer. To everything she's ever wanted to know. And this is the moment. This is the moment when I want to ask her. But I'm not sure I can even speak.
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I fold my fingers around her other hand. The left one. I pull it out from under the blanket. I freeze. She holds her hand up, still clasped around mine, in front of her face. In awe. I can't breathe. "Bella, what's that?" I know what it is. "It's a ring." And I'm sure she can feel my heartbeat through my chest. Or is it hers? There is no way to know. Eyes wide and staring, my words are a whisper. "How did it get there?" She swallows. "I put it there." And it's my mother's ring. She's wearing my mother's ring. And I only stare. And stare. My cheeks hurt. The best kind of hurt. "I was going to ask you, you little thief." She's squealing and wiggling her little body. Like a fish out of water. Her face buried in my neck. Kissing me. Laughing and kissing me. And then I'm laughing too. Because she stole it from my pocket. And then she's scrunching up her face again, nose to nose. "Well, ask me!" When I open my mouth to say the words she's kissing me. It's a yes. I think my face is wet. "Bella, grow old with me?" She nods. Again and again and again. I don't need the word but when I hear it, my whole body is shaking.
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"Yes." When we think of that date, September the eleventh, it will conjure up new memories. These memories. Memories of the day we decided. Together. Forever.

-PC-

A/N: I know that September 11th is a sensitive topic and my intention is not to make light of what happened on that day, to real people and real families. Susan, thank you for being awesome and talking me down. See you in a couple of weeks :)

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Echos and Twinkling Lights


Echos and Twinkling Lights

Bella

I can't sleep. I don't want sleep. Ever again. I want to lie here next to him, with my hand on his chest, staring at the ring on my finger. Watching the way the diamond catches the moonlight. Esme's diamond. Here in this bed, I'm overwhelmed by a sense of something greater. Something more. Like being in that church. Feeling like maybe there is a God. Like there could be one and I would believe. The room is lit in silver. Maybe Edward and I can be like the moon. Changing but constant. I know he's awake. Perfectly still but awake. The pads of my fingers rest against his bare skin. I can feel his beating heart under my palm. Alive and happy and everything. There is a smile plastered on my face and it feels like it's carved in stone. Being happy. Like nothing could steal it away. "You want to marry me." He whispers the words into my eyelashes. The truth of what he's saying doesn't drown me or even attempt to pull me under. I'm floating on the surface. Amazed that something so sure can be buoyant and light. I find his lips. "You want to marry me too." He has my smile. I can feel it. I can hear it, here in the night. His elbow nudges my ribs. "You want to have my babies." He's teasing. But sometimes teasing can be true. His hand traces circles over my stomach until I'm giggling and belly laughing. Because he's right and it's true and this is our life. Our life together.
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He's laughing along with me. Until we're in a fit of hysterics. In the middle of the night. Naked. In our bed. In our house. With a ring on my finger. We don't sleep. We spend the night covered in whispered words. And it's as if there was never anything to be afraid of. Echos and silence. Until the moon is gonenot really gone but hidingand the sun is peaking in through the trees. Before the room is fully lit up, Edward's cell phone rings from the bedside table. And it's our first reminder of the outside world since I snatched a ring from his pocket and he asked a question and I said yes. He glances at the screen and jumps from the bed. "Hey, Alice." His hair is wild and sex. He leaves the room. And I'm left with nothing but the smell of Edward. I pull the sheet up around me, nestling into the warm spot beside me on our bed. My eyelids are heavy. I cover my face with his pillow, holding it close. And I wonder if it will ever stop feeling like this. Like a lilting dream. Like someone else's life. Like more than I could possibly deserve. But it's not a dream. And it's not someone else's life. And maybe, just maybe, it's not more than I deserve. My heart is fluttering in my chest. Because I know that all I want is this house and this bed and this man. And a little girl. One I don't know if I can have. Maybe she's not meant for us. Or maybe we're not meant for her. But part of me knows that she is ours. When I pull the pillow from my face, he's standing there. Phone in hand. Smiling at me all crooked and blinding. "You're smiling." "So are you." My hand goes instinctively to my lips, tracing over the taut skin. Just to be sure.
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He only smiles and stares. "Come here." He crawls in next to me, rolling on top of me, cocooning us with the sheet. Caging me with his body. Propped up on his arms with his hands in my hair, there are a million things I want to say to him. I settle on those three words. "I love you." His smile grows impossibly wider. All sparkling teeth, stubble and rugged jawline. He knows that it's true. "Edward, did you tell Alice?" "Did I tell her that you love me?" "Edward." "What? I'm pretty sure she already knows." "I'm serious! Did you tell her?" "I want to hear you say it." He's impossible and I love it. I love him. "Did you tell her that we're engaged?" The word almost doesn't seem like enough. Because we are so much more than everything that word could ever mean. "No. I thought we should tell her together. Alice. Dad." "Alright." It hits me in this moment that I don't have anyone to tell. Anyone who is mine. Anyone who will be so happy or proud. Charlie would have been happy. Maybe he is. Edward's thumbs rub at the corners of my eyes. "What are you thinking about?" I wonder when that question stopped irritating me. "I'm thinking about Charlie." He doesn't know what to say. He kisses my eyes. Closing them up. Maybe he doesn't want to see what's there. His kisses are slow and deliberate. I have to ask him before I'm breathless. "What was Alice calling about?" There is silence. My eyes pop open, looking for the reason. He doesn't look at me
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when he speaks. "Alice wants to do dinner for your birthday tomorrow night." "Define do dinner." "Just dinner at Dad's." "Just the four of us?" "Umm, she said something about inviting Rose and Emmett." My whole body stiffens under him and I know he can feel it. He runs his nose along the side of mine. He's trying to distract me. And I let him. The day alternates between napping and Edward. We don't leave the house. We eat in bed. The day is endless cycles of forgotten plates of food and minimal clothes falling back to the floor. His phone rings more often than I'd like. He whispers apologies and always takes the call out of our room. He's out on the front porch, pacing back and forth, his phone pressed firmly to his ear. I watch him from the window, hoping and praying that these phone calls have nothing to do with my birthday. I take a hot shower, relishing in the steady sound of the water and the ache in my arms and legs. I leave my ring on. Because I can't bear the thought of taking it off. If even for a few minutes. Standing in front of the foggy mirror, I stare at my hand. Until the mirror is no longer foggy. I expect to look different. Maybe I do. Because my face looks like mine but brighter, and my eyes look borrowed. I think I'd like to keep them. And not just for a little while. The house is quiet as I leave the warmth of the bathroom. I go to the window in the little room, but he's no longer on the porch. No longer pacing. There is a note on my pillow. My heart thuds even though that was a different time, and it's not that kind of note. B - I had to run out for a bit. Be back soon. Love you. - E
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-PC-

I sit against the bathroom door. Ignoring the knocking. Ignoring the begging words and the angry words and the quiet, crying ones too. I try to push the sight of that ring from my mind. That glistening ring on the floor. It's not difficult to do. There are other images that are eager to replace it. Images of airplanes and falling buildings. Images of my mother. Smashed and still. I don't push these images away. I let them fester and distract. I bite down on my lower lip, relishing in the piercing pain. I wonder what it will take to convince him. I can't breathe. I move away from the door and bury my face in my knees. And for once I want to be anywhere but here. But it doesn't work that way. I can taste the copper infiltrating my mouth. It's not bitter enough. I turn the shower on until the small room is filled with steam so thick that it is choking. I stand under the water for too long but not nearly long enough. As the water runs cold and I am forced to turn it off, there is a muted thud against the bathroom door. I imagine him sliding to the ground. I try not to imagine his face. Because it's too much. I want to throw the door open. I won't and I don't. He can't be mine. I can't keep him. I tell myself again and again, blocking out the endless words that are being said through the closed door. Until my apartment door slamming shut is the only sound echoing in my mind. But an echo is supposed to slowly fade into nothing, and this doesn't fade. The bathroom door creaks as I open it. My apartment is empty and quiet. There is a note on my pillow. A piece of notebook paper with more words scribbled on it. I don't want to read them. I make dinner. Like it's any other night. Like the last few hours, the last two days
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didn't happen. Like it's not my birthday. I lie in my bed, dark and hollow, with a piece of notebook paper clenched in my fist. Bella, I can't force you to love me. I won't do it anymore. I wish you knew what it was like to want nothing else but us. I wish that being thankful that you are safe was enough. I wish I didn't love you and hate you at the same time. Happy Birthday. Edward I lie there, unable to feel the significance of his words. The finality. Because I don't know who I am without him. I lost two people in the span of a day. I have nothing. And it's numbing. I turn the television on and I'm quickly reminded that there are bigger tragedies in the world. In this country. In this city. But all I can see is this empty apartment. The one I made this way.

-PC-

He is only a smile and warm arms as we lie in bed. He tucks a stray strand of hair behind my ear. "Happy birthday." "Come with me to see Charlie today?" He doesn't even look at me sideways. "Of course." The cemetery seems like an odd place to be on my birthday. But I want to tell Charlie first. Before we tell Alice and Carlisle. It's important to me. To give him that. So we stand at Charlie's grave. And it's not sad. We stand hand in hand while the trees hold on to their leaves. We tell him our news with smiles on our faces. And it's almost as if he's really
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here. Hugging me tight, taking Edward's hand in his, telling him to take good care of his daughter. That's what he'd say. Because I am his daughter, even if I'm not his blood. Edward pauses as we turn away from Charlie's headstone. Before I can tell him that I don't want to visit my mother's grave, not today, he's leading me in the opposite direction. Of course. And now my voice is caught in my throat. "Mom, you remember Bella." His arms hold me close in front of him, wrapping me up like a present. His lips find the top of my head. Take good care of each other, she'd say. And I'd promise her. We'd both promise her. He holds my hand out because he is proud of the ring on my finger. The tears spill over. This is what happy tears feel like. "Please don't cry." I turn in his arms and tuck myself into him. Marvelling at how I can love someone I have no memory of. "She's so proud of you, Bella." My first mother. I'll take good care of your son, I want to tell her. I promise. We walk hand in hand from the cemetery as the first leaves begin to fall silently and peacefully to the ground. The rest of the day passes quietly without fanfare until it's almost time for dinner. I spend entirely too long trying to decide what shoes to wear. Rosalie doesn't matter. But that's a lie because she's always mattered. And she matters to Edward.
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"You ready?" No. He's standing in the doorway, all Edward and perfectly ready. Except he keeps wringing his hands together. If I didn't know better, I'd say he's nervous too. I throw my shoes into the closet and search for a different pair. "Bella, it's just dinner." "I know. I just don't have any shoes." He looks pointedly at the pile of shoes I've been throwing around. And I want to go barefoot. I haven't seen Rose since Alice's wedding. Since she told me to stay away from Edward. Like she had some claim over him. I know she was only trying to protect him. From me. She has this uncanny ability to make me feel small. She is the last person I want to spend my birthday with. We are supposed to get there early so we can tell Alice and Carlisle about our engagement before Rosalie and Emmett arrive. "Can't we just stay here?" With his shirt fisted in my hands, I pull him towards our bed. For a moment, as his hands wander, I think maybe we can. But he's holding up a pair of ugly shoes and shaking his head at me. "Bella, it's just dinner. Birthdays are supposed to be fun." I sit on the edge of the bed, and he kneels down to put the ugly shoes on my feet. He kisses my pout until I'm no longer pouting. Until he's pulling me from the room and down the stairs. The clouds have moved in and the first sprinkles are darkening the street. The front door to the Cullens' is unlocked when we arrive. I know because I jiggle the handle. We stand on the porch with tangled arms. I can feel the changing seasons in the air. The seamless fade from summer to fall. I try to picture our life
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here together, and I can only hope that it will be that graceful. Alice is tapping on the kitchen window. She smiles tentatively and waves before disappearing from sight. Seconds later the front door is flung open, and she's dragging us into the house. "Happy birthday, Bella." She's strung tight, yet attempting to be subdued. I appreciate the effort. Edward stands glued to my side. As if he's shielding me from his sister. From my best friend. She's not the one I'm worried about. "Thanks, Alice." "Listen, about the other night... I'm sorry." She looks back and forth between Edward and me. He reaches his hand out to her, as a peace offering. I know they've talked and there is no need, but the gesture is thoughtful and Edward. Alice reaches for me, taking my own hand in hers. It's not until I hear her sharp intake of breath that my pulse begins to race. But when she's holding my hand up to her face and smiling wide, I'm smiling too. She throws herself around both of us and even though this isn't how we were going to tell her, it feels right. And then she and I are jumping up and down even though I'm not the kind of girl who jumps up and down. She wants to know how he asked me. She wants every detail. But I think I want to keep that part ours. As if on cue, Carlisle walks through the front door, our catered dinner in hand, to find the three of us in the foyer. Alice grilling me. Edward laughing by my side. He looks back and forth between Edward and me. Looking for an answer to unspoken questions. "Happy birthday, Bella." He looks tired but happy. "Dad, we have some news."
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"Should I be sitting down?" We follow him into the kitchen, standing silently behind him as he unpacks the food into the oven. And I no longer care about Rosalie because all I can worry about is the possibility that Carlisle may not be excited about this at all. That he may not approve. He might think it's too soon. That we're not ready for such a big step. He motions for us to follow him into the den and it's only when he is settled comfortably in an armchair that his eyes meet mine. Edward blurts out the words like he's been holding them tight. "Bella and I are getting married." We both stare at Carlisle's face as he lets out a long exhale. He's smiling and laughing, muttering silent words to himself. "I thought you were going to tell me that you two were pregnant." Edward and I look at each other for a moment too long and when I look back to Carlisle, his face has gone serious again. "You're not pregnant, are you?" "No. No, we're not pregnant." He's laughing again. "Good, because I'm not old enough to be a grandfather just yet." Edward and I fill the room with nervous laughter. Carlisle gives us genuine words of congratulations. He stands from his chair and hugs us both. "Why don't the two of you see what Alice needs help with. I'll be out in a minute." We leave him in the den as he slides back into his chair, lost to his thoughts. I catch a glimpse of his hand as it fidgets with the ring on his own finger. The table is set. Tasteful and simple. With fresh linens and candlesticks. Alice is grinning ear to ear and I'm proud of her for holding herself back. For giving me the birthday I want instead of the one she wants.
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"Well, let me see it again!" "Alice, you've seen it a thousand times." "Not on your hand, I haven't." Her words are quiet. I close the space between us, and I want to cry. For no reason at all. She holds my hand, the left one, in both of hers. And I think we both might be crying. "Why are you crying?" "I don't know." She brushes the tears from her cheeks, holding tight to my hand. To that ring. "Alice, is it okay? I mean, is it okay that he gave it to me? If you wanted to keep it..." "No. No, it's more than okay, Bella." "It's yours." The doorbell rings and I wish the sound of it didn't make me feel sick. Edward squeezes my hand before going to answer it. I watch him greet Rose and Emmett with such ease. I watch her smile at him. "You look happy, Edward." Her words aren't meant for me, but I hear them. She almost looks softer. I wonder what could have possibly made her that way. Or if she's been that way for a while and I just never noticed. But I think it may have to do with the man standing next to her. Her eyes settle on mine as she walks in my direction. My eyes go immediately to her shoes even though I tell them not to. "Happy birthday, Bella." She holds out a bottle of wine and a smile that says she almost means it.
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I know the instant she sees the ring. Her eyes fly to mine. Accusing. Accusing me of what, I don't know. "It seems congratulations are in order." I blush and shrug, wishing that I hadn't done either. Wishing that I was standing up tall and proud, smiling wide. Emmett throws his arms around me, lifting me off of the ground and I wonder how someone like him can love someone like her. After setting me down, he's mock-punching Edward in the shoulder and it's impossible not to laugh. And Rosalie stands up straight and tall with her hand clenched around that bottle of birthday wine. Not staring at Edward. But staring at me. "Congratulations." And I'm not sure. Maybe she means it. Dinner is served. Alice apologizes for not doing the cooking herself. But it's fine. This is fine. I can barely taste the food. We talk about everyone's summer. Rosalie clears her throat. "Didn't you take a trip a few months back, Bella? Some orphanage or something?" "I did. It changed my life." It sounds trite but it's true and that's all she's getting. It's too important to share. It's mine. Alice subtly changes the subject as she refills our wine glasses. Edward keeps his hand on my thigh throughout dinner. My own hand can't help but find his and stay there. Before the cake is brought out, I excuse myself from the table to use the bathroom, or maybe I just need a minute alone. I climb the stairs, out of habit, the bathroom up in Edward's room hardly being the closest one. I run my fingertips over the memories. I reluctantly walk out to get back to the party. And I jump. Rosalie is standing in the hall, leaning against the wall, arms folded across her chest. Not waiting for the bathroom.
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I'm not afraid of her. At least I don't want to be. I want to be nine years old and I want to tell her to go fuck herself. The way she looks at me, like I am a childa dangerous one at thatmakes my blood boil. She just stands there. Motionless. Like I'm supposed to read her mind. Are you fucking? Yes we are, if you want to call it that. When I laugh at my own inner dialogue, she speaks. "I hope this isn't a game to you, Bella." "A game?" "You know, the one where he chases you and you give him hardly anything, but it's enough for him to follow blindly because he loves you." I want to scream at her. How dare you! Except maybe that's how it was. Maybe she's right. "I love him too." She looks surprised or maybe she just doesn't believe me. "Took you long enough." She's right. It did. But I will not apologize to this girl, this woman, for things that have nothing to do with her. "I don't understand you, Rose." She scoffs at me, the color in her cheeks a perfect pink. "I don't understand you either." It's the most honest conversation we've ever had. We let those words sink in. I'm not sure if there is anything else to say. But I want to understand. At least what he means to her. Her stoic mask is starting to crack. I'm not sure I can handle watching Rosalie Hale crumble.
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"I saw the way he looked at you. From the very beginning. And all I wanted was to have somebody look at me that way. You didn't even know what you had." And it's that simple. The way he looked at me. "You've hated me all of these years because of they way he looked at me?" "I never hated you." The hell she didn't. "I have eyes too, Rose. I see the way you look at me." Her face softens, for just a moment. "I never hated you." We stare at each other in that hallway. Trying to make sense of one another. "I'm glad that you were a friend to him all of those years ago, Rose. I'm glad that he wasn't alone." "If you hurt him, Bella, I will..." And I've reached my limit. "Don't you dare threaten me. Ever again." I leave her there in the hallway. I feel tall and strong and brave. No longer afraid of Rosalie Hale. No longer giving a fuck what she thinks of me. Or my relationship with Edward. Because all that matters is him and me. We're Bella and Edward. We'll always be Bella and Edward. Moments later, Rosalie makes her reappearance in the dining room. Her face is flawless. Her expression is flawless. And I see the way Emmett looks at her. I wonder if she knows. There is cake and singing and thoughtful birthday gifts. And Edward holds me close to him. Or maybe it's me. Maybe I'm the one holding him close. And birthdays aren't so bad. We go home before the sun is down, full and exhausted. I kick my shoes off in the kitchen as I place the leftover cake in the fridge. I leave the kitchen to find Edward by the front door, standing up tall, shoulders
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square. Like he's picking me up for a date. "Take a walk with me." And his smile. I would go anywhere with him. I think he knows. He holds out my coat, waiting for me to slip my arms in. He has a pair of my tennis shoes and a small duffel bag. We take a walk. The trees are heavy with today's rain. Leaves sagging and dripping. We take our time, pausing among the overgrown grass to watch the sun go down. His hands on my hips, he lifts me up onto an old, forgotten tree stump. Nose to nose. Lips to lips. Holding his face between my hands as I cherish his mouth. With his hot breath against my face, the chill of the mid-September evening is suddenly apparent. But the goosebumps aren't September. They are all Edward. A kiss is a kiss is a kiss. But it's not. And when my heart races it's like I'm eighteen. And I want to scream and take what's mine and never look back. That's when I know I'm not eighteen. Even though he still tastes like Christmas. Even though he will always be sweet and spicy and scratchy. We're not who we were. We're something else entirely. But the feeling is the same. Like being turned inside out. "You ready for your birthday present?" I don't want birthday presents. I want more of those lips and those hands. But when I open my eyes he's right there. Excited and waiting. Lifting me off of the tree stump and tucking me into his side. Moving us along as the night settles all around us. He's watching me. And maybe I'm watching him too. When I eventually look up to the sky, the clouds have broken apart and nearly disappeared. Stars painted on the sky. He slows his pace. He covers my eyes with his hands. Those ice cold hands that set my skin on fire. "What are you doing?"
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"It's a surprise." His voice is quiet. I don't like it. Or maybe I do, but I don't want to. We walk the rest of the way without talking. Around the bend. Up the path. I try to slow my heart beats but there is no slowing anything right now. I know when we're standing in front of the barn. I can feel this place in my bones. I could walk here in my sleep. He stands quietly behind me, his hands still covering my eyes, his hot breath on my neck. He doesn't speak. He doesn't move. I play with the ring on my finger. A loud humming sound drowns out the crickets. It's not natural. It shouldn't be here. And then his hands are gone, but I'm afraid to open my eyes. I can see the light through my eyelids, orange and swirling, where there should only be black. "Happy birthday, Bella." My eyes flash open to find twinkling white lights hanging from the open doorway to the barn. His face is serious, so serious, as his eyes search mine. "What's this?" "It's yours." "What?" "It's yours. It's been yours for years." I don't know what to say. There is nothing I could say that would ever be enough. "Tell me what you're thinking. Please." "No."
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He shakes his head and looks down at his feet. Hands in his hair. Not even pretending. I did that. And I was stupid to think that a ring on my finger would change the way one simple word can stomp on him. Both of my hands frame his face. "Ours. Edward, it's ours." He peaks up at me. And he's a little boy at Christmas. "Yeah?" "Yeah." And then he's tracing my face with his fingers. "When did you do this?" "Alice helped. She did it all. But the barn has been yours for years. Well, since your birthday." And of course I know which birthday. That birthday. My gift that couldn't be mailed. He follows me up the ladder to the loft, holding onto me. And I freeze. I want to cry. For the hundredth time today, I want to cry. "Is it too much?" It will never be too much. "No." There is a bed. A white, fluffy bed. With pillows upon pillows. And twinkling lights hanging from the rafters. So many lights. Like stars in the sky. And I'm up the ladder, dragging him up with me. Throwing myself at him. Stepping out of my clothes and peeling him from his. "Wait, Bella, there's more." There can't be more than this. He's standing here, naked before me. Naked and happy and mine.
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"Let's do what we need to do, Bella." He can't possibly be talking about what I think he's talking about. "She deserves a family, Bella." And she does. And we deserve her too. "You mean that?" He nods. "Every child deserves a home. She deserves to be loved." We barely make it to the edge of the fluffy bed before he's filling me. And it's perfect and rough. Until I'm past the point of no return. Lit on fire, as I cling to him. Our sounds drown out the humming of the generator. This is when I know that there must be something greater. This is when I know for sure, and there is no doubt, or even a shadow of one. I'm not sure if it is God, or the universe, or the simple truth that Edward and I together are perfectly imperfect. A single soul. That's what I believe in. As he pulls the blankets back, I remember being afraid to know him. Afraid to kiss him. Afraid to lose him. It's liberating to have nothing left to be afraid of. I'm trembling. He peppers kisses over my flushed skin. I will never stop falling in love with him. Who he is and the way he sees the world. I've seen his best and his worst and when I tell him I love him, I'm not trying to hold him to me or keep him mine. Yet, as we lie here in this place that's ours, I can't help but think it. Mine.

-PC-

A/N: To Susan, thanks for being my beta and teaching me fancy things.
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To Kim, thanks for being my cheerleader. To my lurkers, you guys have some awesome names. BeautifullyDemented, Beaverslap, blah yer mum, deathofadiscodancer, DolphinsAreJustGaySharks, ImNotAddicted, MagentaMongoose, MoreRandomThanYouWouldBelieve, WhatObsession, wordsarepapertigers. Seriously, cool fucking pen names. To everyone, thanks for being so patient and for your tremendous support. As always, I love hearing from you. See you in a couple of weeks.

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Trash Cans and Paper Memories


Trash Cans and Paper Memories

Edward

Here in our barn, I watch her heavy eyelids and her lazy smile until her words are incoherent. Until she's asleep. I slide out from the warmth of the down comforter, pulling on my pants as I go. Trying not to make a sound, I climb down the ladder. I turn off the generator and watch the lights go black. The clouds have reconvened as they always do. Night in the country. The last time I slept in this place I was on the floor. I was alone. I had decided to be her friend. As if we could ever be friends. I had dreams of what we once were but never what we could be. Because that dream was too dangerous to entertain. And now, all I can do is smile like a fool. We're here in this place and soon she will be my wife. Husband and wife, mother and father. So many titles that I had convinced myself we would never have. All titles that mean so much more than the letters that come after my name. I watch the rumbling clouds break open. A shiver runs through me, shaking me to the core. And I don't know what I'm doing standing here in the dirt. In the cool night air. When she is up there. Sleeping and messy hair and Bella. Back in the comfort of the loft, I shrug off my pants and crawl back under the covers with her. My new job starts the day after tomorrow. I should sleep. Instead, I watch her. She fidgets in her dreams. Maybe one day it will be annoying, but right now it's perfect. She's perfect. The corner of her mouth turns up in a half smile. And then she's pouting. In her sleep. I want to kiss it away.
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I whisper along her collar bone. "My beautiful girl." I brush my lips over the skin in the hollow of her neck. Once. Twice. Three times. Until there is no stopping. And my hands are trying not to be too greedy. My too cold hands against the warmest skin. She doesn't open her eyes as she rolls towards me. As she pulls my face to hers. In the middle of the night. Lights out. Rain on the roof. Her hands and her mouth are just as greedy as mine. I need her so much that it's terrifying. And not terrifying at all. The way the back of her head fits perfectly cradled in my palm. The way my other hand molds to her breast. The way her own endless fingertips run along my face. The way she takes me in her hand and guides me to her. I'm inside of her. And everything is warm and Bella. Here in the dark there is only black and white and endless shades of grey. It's slow and sleepy fucking. In our barn. Below me, she's quiet and melting as my hands trace every bit of her. Until her jaw goes slack in a silent scream. And now she is the one torturing me. Taking control. Slow. Rolling on top of me. And I let her. Her eyes finally open. Barely. Black and white and grey. The relentless sound of water beating on the roof. Steady. Just for us. Having her like this, as she rolls her hips in time with the rhythm of the rain is like being buried alive and watching it happen. Letting it happen. Surrendering. The best kind of torture. As I lose myself in her, I can understand why people chase storms. The perfect destruction. I don't care if we wake up the entire forest. Because we are no longer quiet. And I think I might be proposing again. As she fills the vast space with four letter words. And fuck, maybe I do too. This is what it feels like to be gone. Gone in love. I have never felt this alive. I can't imagine ever accepting the idea that we could never have this. That I would never see her like this, blissed out and wrapped around me. As our breathing slows
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and her mouth nips at my skin. Still inside of her, forehead to forehead, she asks me if I'm sure. About the adoption. Again and again. I tell her yes. Again and again. And maybe she just likes hearing the word. We sleep on and off most of the night. With a lopsided smile, she claims we need to practice for the sleep deprivation that will accompany parenthood. I don't tell her that sleep deprivation has been my life for the last ten years. Because I am willing to practice with her forever. The next day is lazy. In this bed. In the grass. Running from the rain. We make the walk back home, and this is what it must feel like to be seventeen and in love and incapable of giving a shit about anything else but the person next to you. Because we're untouchable. Invincible. This is our forever. And when we're home it feels like the beginning of our life together as adults. But part of me will always be seventeen. She kisses me goodbye on the porch. Tiptoes and a brown bag lunch. She's in nothing but her bathrobe. I gather the material in my fist, and she shudders. I look down at her bare feet on the cool weathered wood, and I want to tell her to go back inside. But I don't because I could get used to front porch goodbyes. The morning air rosies her cheeks. God, she's beautiful. I start my new job and it's pediatrics, but it's not LA. It's not downtown or the city or pediatric trauma or trying to save something I thought I could save. Although I walked away willingly, I thought I'd miss that place. It had become my entire life. But priorities shift. My new life is this town and simple and Bella. I go to work every day and it's just a job. I go to work and Bella deals with the roofer and the plumber and the painter. This house, this life, is important to her. It's important to me too. It's the kind of house that my mom would have raised us in if it had been entirely up to her. If she had known just how fleeting her own life would be. I love the idea that this town will belong to our children. It will be theirs. Their hometown.
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Alice extends her stay. She wants to help with the wedding. And Bella is more than happy to let her, because she has other things on her mind. Her only stipulation is that the ceremony be outside, so we're getting married right away, before winter sets in. Everyone is going to think it's a shotgun wedding. And maybe in some ways it is. Because hopefully we'll be bringing home a baby girl. Bella has thrown herself into the adoption process. It's completely overwhelming. Everything that needs to be done. Medical testing, fingerprinting, background checks. Home visits, interviews, letters of reference. It's a full time job. One that Bella has embraced, but I can tell that she is exhausted at the end of the day. I was naive to think it would involve some paperwork, a pile of money and a couple of plane tickets. Apparently, it doesn't work that way. I take my lunch break. I pull that book from my bag. To Kill a Mockingbird. I used to go weeks, months without opening it. Because when I did, I would become obsessive. I would leaf through the pages for hours. I would lay out the photos tucked inside. I would stay up half the night studying her face. It was as if I needed some tangible proof that she was real. That it had all happened. And now I find myself obsessing again. Only this time around I know she's real and not only did it all happen, but she's still here. Her face and her lips and her toes are all here. And when she's next to me in our bed, or across from me at our kitchen table, or tucked into my side on our couch, our life together seems so definite. Ours. But we're not invincible and I'm not seventeen. When I'm away from her, when I'm here at work, the panic creeps in to my veins slowly and quietly. I want to give her everything she has ever wished for and I hope and I pray that she doesn't wake up one day and decide that it's not enough. I open the book up. I blink twice. I close it, turning it over in my hand. I check the cover. As if it could be someone else's copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, filled with someone else's photos. Right. I open it again hesitantly. Bella's words and my mother's words and the author's words. It's a photo I've never seen. She's small. So, so small. She's staring directly at me. I wasn't there. I didn't take the picture. I know all this, but she's looking at me. Like she's right here in front of me. Her dark hair sits in tight curls against her head. Her wide eyes are as serious as can be. Her pouty lips, pursed and sullen. She is reaching one arm up, a blurred hand in the face of the camera.
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It's just a photo. A piece of paper. But my skin is prickling. And my pulse is racing. And I thought only one person could do that to me. It is only now that I notice Bella in the photo too. Bella's pale arm sits in stark contrast to the dark skin of the baby's tiny, perfect face. She already feels like our daughter. Bella holds her close. I look back and forth between their faces. Running my thumb over them both. My hand halts as I stare at Bella. She looks different. This photo was taken a mere five months ago but this is not the woman who kisses me goodbye on the porch and nudges me awake before my alarm goes off in the morning. Maybe it's the hollowness in her cheeks that no longer exists. Change can be so slow that it's impossible to tell that anything is different or better until it's staring you in the face. The Bella who showed up on my doorstep in the pouring rain is not the same Bella with a ring on her finger. But she is. People don't change. But maybe people change every day. I close the book up, glancing at my watch. I make a phone call. And then another. And another. Until my heart is in my shoes. But I don't accept what these people keep telling me. I refuse. I shouldn't be keeping things from her, but I can't help but want to protect her from the truth. Hours later I get in my car and I drive home. I call Bella on the way. She answers on the fourth ring, out of breath and sexy as hell. I can't help but smile, wide and honest, at the sound of her voice. "Hi." "Hi." "Are you on your way home?" "Yeah."
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There is silence on the other end of the line and I can picture her face. The way her brow knits together. "Everything okay, Bella?" "It's just been a long day." The house smells like bread in the oven. I find her in the kitchen, covered in flour. She's smiling and fidgeting as she turns to kiss me. I kick my shoes off. And I watch her. She turns around with her flour hands in the air. "I know you said no matter what, but did you mean it? Did you really mean it? Did you mean no matter what?" I don't know where the panic in her voice is coming from. There is worried excitement all over her face and maybe she knows what I know. Or maybe she's simply become that good at reading me. Her voice goes quiet. "Edward, if you're having second thoughts, now would be the time to say something." There are candles on the kitchen table. And Sinatra playing in the background. I refuse to take this from her. The happiness. "Bella, I've never been more sure." I leave her there in the kitchen and walk with heavy feet up the creaky stairs. The ones that are no longer endearing. Each mocking creak threatening to push me over the edge.

-PC-

Sometimes I can pretend that nothing has changed. I'm in LA and she's in New York. Except when I pick up my phone to call her, I can't. 'No' is not an ambiguous word. She doesn't love me. I petition the dean to take more classes than the unit limit will allow. I finish my
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undergrad degree a year early. Alice asks me what I'm trying to prove. I start med school and I wonder what I'm doing. I wonder how this part of the plan is still mine when the rest of it is gone. The first pediatric trauma unit was established at the Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn in 1962. Injury is the number one cause of death in children over the age of one year. From 1972-1992, the leading cause of death for children between the ages of one and nineteen was motor vehicle accidents. These are the kinds of facts that run on loop in my head. These are the kinds of things I focus on. Dates and statistics. They are distractions. The best kind. Bella didn't die in that car accident when she was nine. The one that she refuses to talk about. She's not that kind of statistic. But she's gone all the same. All I have left of her is a book about the loss of innocence, moral integrity and racial inequality. That's what I have. A book by Harper Lee. And a pile of paper memories. I decided to be a doctor at an age when I had no business deciding anything. I was a child who wanted to be like his father. But I'm not in school for him. Not anymore. I'm doing it for her. I would never say it out loud. I would never admit it to anyone. I sit in the library. In a brown leather chair. And I stare. Into nothing. Because without her all of this is meaningless.

-PC-

I end up in the little room. The one that is now a baby's room. I should have told her before she got the room together. I should have said something. At first she didn't want to buy a crib, to decorate for a child who isn't ours yet. But it's one of the requirements to be approved. The room has to be ready. She sits in here sometimes, in the rocking chair in the corner, with a smile that makes everything seem possible. I stand in front of the window. I don't know why I'm here. But I do know. Of course I know.
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I've always been thorough. My entire life, I've always had a plan. I've watched the plan slip away. I've watched it crumble. I've watched my plan, my life, become so much more than I ever thought it could be. We're getting married in a week. In one week she will be my wife. I should have looked into all of the details before agreeing to adopt. I should have protected her from the heartache. I hear her footsteps, but I don't turn around. She wraps her arms around me, pressing the side of her face into my back. I exhale. I pull her around until she's facing me. I search her face for courage. Her eyes are wide and anxious. "What is it?" I want to tell her that it's nothing. I want to fix it. I refuse to let this be the end. "Edward, what's wrong?" "Nothing." "Don't lie to me." It stings. "Is it the photo? Was it too much? If you've changed your mind, you have to tell me." "No, Bella. I haven't changed my mind." I close my eyes but it doesn't help. I can still see her face. "I made a few phone calls today. It appears that their adoption laws are pretty clear on some issues." When she doesn't respond, I open my eyes. She is shaking her head. Her eyes already swimming with tears. I can't help but see the girl who couldn't cry. "Bella, we have to be married and one of us has to be at least thirty five." She stands in front of me. Just Bella. She doesn't want to believe me. Her chin quivers and it breaks me. Her voice is shaking. "She'll be six years old by then." "We'll fight it, Bella. Money talks. Especially to a country like that. I don't care what their laws say."
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She lets go of me abruptly and falls into the chair in the corner of the room. She tucks her knees up and holds them tight against her. I talk and I talk, promising her things that I have no business promising. As if I can will it all to be true. "No." "What?" "We're not buying a child, Edward. No." "That's not what I'm saying!" "My answer is no. She's not going to become our daughter that way. Not like that." She looks up at me with absolute conviction in her eyes. "Not after everything you and I have been through. No." I stand here. Like an idiot. She is the one to move. She is the one to pick herself up out of that chair. I think she is closing the space between us, but she's not. She's brushing past me. She's trying to get away from me. I reach for her. I refuse to let her walk away. I hold her to me. Tight and unyielding. She pushes against my chest. Let me go, let me go, let me go. But I won't. I can't. But when she says it out loud, I release her. I close my eyes before I'm forced to watch her walk from the room. My throat is thick. I try to swallow it down but it's not going anywhere. I'm angry at her for five seconds, but she's right. I'm my father. I'm trying to throw money around like a jackass. I leave the dark room, the one filled with baby furniture, closing the door quietly on my way out. I stand there at the top of the stairs. And I refuse to believe that it could be over that quickly. I refuse to believe that her little face, her life, isn't meant for us. I brush my teeth. I floss. Dental floss dangling from my fingertips, I stare at the trash can. And I stare.
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I am so blind. So unbelievably blind. I throw the door to the bathroom open. She's not in our room. She's not sitting behind that closed door of the little room. I take the stairs slowly, relentless creaking with each step. And when I see her, I see her. I can't take my eyes off of her. She's on the couch curled up with the plaid blanket. And I stare. She holds my gaze. Her cheeks are splotchy. Her eyes are rimmed with tears. And they are begging me. I stand in the middle of the room like a fool. Until I'm not in the middle of the room anymore. Until I'm on the couch with her. And I'm pulling the blanket away. Staring. She nods. Her eyes are pained. I hold my hand out, trying to hold it steady but it is only shaking. I brush the fabric away, pressing my palm to her bare skin. My lungs are burning. My hand stays, pressed against her warm stomach. "Edward, say something." But I can't speak. The tears streak down her cheeks. Fast and delicate. I force the words out. "Bella, why are you crying?" "Because I want too many things. I want this." She covers my hand with both of hers. "But I still want her."

-PC-

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A/N: *sigh* To Susan, thanks for being patient with my fondness for extra spaces. And thanks for trash cans. You're awesome. To Grabadietcoke, thanks for sharing your story with me. You are an invaluable resource. To Kim, thanks for loving this chapter. I forgive you for freaking Nic out about it. I know the last chapter had a winding down quality to it and many of you thought it was the end, but we still have a handful of chapters to go. We're nearly to the part that inspired this whole story. I hope all of my US readers had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I am thankful for all of you beautiful readers and your lovely words. See you in a couple of weeks :)

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Wispy Clouds and Heartbeats


Wispy Clouds and Heartbeats

Bella

I'm up with the sun. My mind won't settle. Like a flock of birds flying in sharp circles. I'm lost in yesterday. Expecting a phone call with all of the test results required for the adoption process. Receiving a very different phone call. Standing in the middle of the kitchen while those words ring in my ears. You're pregnant. The disbelief. The panic brought on by the prospect of raising two babies. The excitement. Listening to Edward in the little room. Thirty five. Getting the wind knocked out of me. Losing her because of a number. Watching Edward fall apart. The guilt. For having a happy secret on a night filled with heartache. His face. His eyes. His hands. Making love on the couch. Wearing one of Edward's T-shirts, I leave him in our bed. I tiptoe across the hall in bare feet. I feel like something has been stolen from us. Not something. Someone. And even what we've been given can't change that. I sit in the little room. In the rocking chair. I shake my head because I still can't believe it's true. That she has to stay in that crib in that country in that life because of an arbitrary law. That there is a different little life growing inside of me. The room is motionless. And it is supposed to belong to her. It belonged to her the moment we painted the walls. I close my eyes and try to imagine a different face. A face that is Edward. And maybe a little bit me. But I can't see it. And my mind can't understand. I've been on the pill for months. The door creaks open. Just a crack. Just wide enough for Edward's face to peak in.
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All messy hair and sleepy eyes. He doesn't ask me what I'm doing in here. He knows. I don't know what I did to deserve this man. And I don't know how to feel two different things. There are too many things I don't know. When I look up, he's standing in front of me, holding his hand out, palm up. I give him a look but he doesn't budge. His hand wrapped around my fingers, he leads me from the chair to the center of the room. "What are you doing?" "I'm practicing dancing with my wife at our wedding." My heart is in my throat. His hand on the small of my back, my face tucked into his chest, we barely move. Here in the little room. Swaying back and forth without any music. His hand travels slowly around my side until he's covering my stomach. "For the record, I want this, but that doesn't mean I'm giving up." His lips at my ear. "Hope." That word makes my heart sputter. He kisses my hair and maybe our story starts right now. Maybe there is no such thing as wanting too much. She is meant for us. I can feel it. Dancing in the little room. He holds me close as his lips press soft kisses on my face. Scratchy and warm. "How long have you suspected?" "I didn't. I didn't suspect." His mouth curls up. "You decided to take two pregnancy tests on a whim?" I narrow my eyes at him. He captures my lips. And if it weren't for this man and this promise inside of me, I might just float away. I whisper the words. "My blood work came back yesterday."
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"Oh." "But I had to see it with my own eyes." "You had more confidence in a twenty dollar, two-pack pregnancy test that came out of a box, than lab results?" "Maybe." He shakes his head at me, smiling and teasing. We don't spend the entire morning in the little room. We go about our day. It's light and heavy and everything in the middle. I have an appointment for an intake exam this afternoon. We have an appointment. An appointment that should take weeks to get, but this is Forks and Edward is persuasive. He holds my hand in the waiting room. Part of me is still convinced that they're going to tell me I'm not pregnant. I'm on the pill. I tell the doctor three times. I'm on the pill. She only nods. "Let's take a look, shall we?" Edward is quiet. So very, very quiet. People say having a baby eliminates any and all modesty. I guess that starts now. Because this is not how I thought they did ultrasounds. I watch Edward's face. He is impossible to read. And then I can't watch his face anymore. That sound. That heartbeat that doesn't belong to me. But it does. Belong to me. It belongs to both of us. I remind myself to breathe. There are fuzzy lines and static shapes but that sound is only a beating heart.
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My fingers wrap instinctively around Edward's hand. And I have fallen in love. With a sound. Heartbeats. My eyes scan back and forth between that screen and Edward's face. He's not a doctor in this moment. He's only Edward. Little boy and grown man. The way he blinks at the screen. Wide eyed and serious. The way the corner of his mouth curls up. Like he's just been given the greatest gift. The doctor takes some measurements. Edward asks question after question, and they are speaking a foreign language that only doctors speak. They talk and they talk, but all I can hear is that beating heart. Steady and alive. And it is only Edward's face that brings me back. His smug face. As I try to register what the doctor is saying. Fourteen weeks. Three and a half months along. Images of being pressed against a hotel room wall flicker behind my eyes. No, Bella, we're not friends. And maybe I'm a little smug too. But then my mind starts going into overdrive. Doing that thing it does. I've been on birth control for months. The doctor assures me again and again. She says there is very little evidence that the exposure to the hormones is harmful to the baby. Our baby. That is the only word I hear. The drive home is quiet. There aren't enough words to articulate the way I feel. I know he wants this. We both know. And the timing is wrong. But this is not wrong. This could never be wrong. In a matter of days, he'll be my husband. My forever. And this little soul inside of me will be our everything. We drive past the cemetery, and I try to stop myself from thinking about my mother.
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But she's there. I can picture her smiling face. And it's the first time she's not broken and smashed. And I hate her. I have never hated her more. Edward's hand finds mine and squeezes it twice. I turn to face him as he gives me nervous glances, doing his best to keep his eyes on the road. "How could she?" And he doesn't ask me to finish my thought because he knows that I'm talking about so many things. Hand on my stomach. How could she. We walk hand in hand up the narrow front steps. He doesn't let go and we're back in the little room. I look around, trying once again to see everything with new eyes. The antique dresser drawers. The crib. The rocking chair. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror. And I blink. I turn to the side. I wonder if people will be able to tell. His lips up to my ear, "There is nothing there, Bella." But he's wrong. So, so wrong. Because there is something there. There's a baby. I nip at his chin. "Don't call our baby nothing." And his hands. He kisses along my neck. "I didn't mean it that way and you know it." And his kisses say the words. Marry me. And when I pull his lips to mine it is a yes. Again and again and again. A week seems so soon and too far away. Too impossible. For a day I used to dream about. For a life I thought I had lost forever.

-PC-

- 291 -

Days and weeks and months and years. I watch this city pick itself up. I watch grace and courage. I have neither. I live in the city that never sleeps, and most days I would do anything not to leave my apartment. On the worst days, the days when I see no reason to get out of bed, I play a game of pretend. It's called My Wedding Day. And maybe I'm crazy now. I better get up soon, or I won't have nearly enough time to get ready. My mother will want to fuss over me for hours. I better get up. It's my wedding day. I take a long shower. I shave my legs. I blow-dry my hair, and when I'm finished there is some life in my cheeks. A rosiness that is only there because of one person. I splurge on a cab uptown. It's my wedding day. I stand in the park, eyes closed, and relish the feeling of the sun on my face. Behind my eyelids I can see Charlie. He pokes at his own eyes. He's pretending too. Acting like there is something in there and those aren't real tears. My arm wrapped in his, he gives me a squeeze. "I love you, Bells." I smile at his silly tears. "I love you too." I say it back. Of course, I say it back. Because in this game of pretend, I'm not afraid of stupid things like words. It's my wedding day. My heart pounds in my ears as we walk. I want to see him first. I want to see the look on Edward's face when he sees me in my wedding dress. The sun catches in his hair. He's tried to tame it but it never cooperates. Not even on a day like today. It makes me smile wider and love him impossibly more. The second Edward sees me, my eyes open wide but there are only happy strangers. In the park. Going about their day. I look down at my stupid fucking shoes and I've reached that point where I'm too tired to pretend.
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It's not my wedding day. And I don't love. My mother is not here. There is no Charlie or Edward. There is only the hot sun burning my skin.

-PC-

We're on the porch. Protected from the rain. The rain that Alice swears is going to clear up by tomorrow. As if weather people are known for being reliable. Edward wraps both arms around me, holding me to him. We listen to the pitter-patter of the rain. "You sure you're going to be okay?" "I'm sure. I'm no different than I was a week ago." Except that's not true and we both know it. "This is stupid." "Edward." "What? We live together. Besides, you're already knocked up." He says the words with pride and a wicked grin. "I'll see you tomorrow. Go spend some time with your dad." He holds me tighter. His hands slide into my back pockets. And maybe this is stupid. He doesn't let go. And those hands haven't let go in a week. Hand on the small of my back. Hand in my hair. Hand on my hip. Hands, hands, hands. The front door opens and I'm waiting for Alice to clear her throat. But she's not going for subtle. "You get her for the rest of your life. Now, go." The rest of our lives. I let go first. Because he'll stay if I ask him to. It's one night. And we agreed. He holds my face in his hands. Fingertips tracing over every inch of skin. His lips
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hover and it's the forest and owling. Marble eyes and frozen hands. Sweet and spicy and Christmas. And my heart still races. And I still want him to kiss me as if I've never been kissed before. I might die if he doesn't. And I don't care if people think it's too fast. The wedding. The instant family. Because it's been ten years since he kissed me in that forest and he still makes my heart race and turns my limbs to jelly. And ten years is long enough to know that this is real. And so I close the space. I find his teasing mouth. Soft lips against soft lips. And there are words, and he is sucking on my lip, until his tongue is in my mouth. A slow and aching kiss that is only fire. And I'm about to climb his body. Until Alice has had enough. "Good God, you two." We both chuckle. Forehead to forehead he whispers, "I'll see you at our barn." And I can feel his smile on my face. With one last kiss, he's gone. I watch him run through the rain to his car. Alice pulls me reluctantly back into the house. She wants to give me a facial. Of all things. And I let her because she's doing the only thing she knows how to do. In our pajamas, faces covered in mud, she asks about the adoption. And so I tell her everything. Because she's Alice and she's asking. "You seem so calm about it all." And maybe I am calm. "I just feel like everything is going to be fine. Everything that is supposed to happen will happen." "But I don't see how." And maybe I don't know how. But it's liberating not to be the cynic. For once. Our faces rinsed clean, Alice and I lie here in the dark. Not speaking or sleeping. This is the first night that Edward hasn't slept by my side since I went to New York and packed up my life. "My mother told me never to get married." I blurt the words out of nowhere.
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Alice is quiet for a beat too long. "Are you having cold feet?" "No." No. "Are you lying?" "I want..." So many things. "I want what the wedding means." It's the actual wedding that scares me. "I want him, Alice. I want this life." "I don't doubt that, Bella. I've never doubted that. Tomorrow will be yours. I promise." I believe her. "Even if we get rained out?" "Bella, you do remember my wedding, right?" I can only laugh. "Yeah, I remember." "Everything will be fine." I pull the blankets up to my chin and close my eyes. "And for what it's worth, Bella, I don't trust your mother's opinion on anything." I wish I could be that flippant. I wish I could let her go and leave her buried. Eyes open, I realize Alice is still talking. "She wrote something for you. Well, for both of you." "What? Who?" "Mom." She doesn't use the word my. And I'm grateful that she is so willing to share. I'm not sure I would be as selfless if our roles were reversed. She's up from the bed, rifling through her overnight bag. She pulls out an envelope. Her posture is stiff. She's not sure if she should give it to me. But she does. She hands it to me in the dark. I hold it up close to my eyes but the writing looks wrong. "Dad said they were the last things she wrote before she died."
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I stare at the dying handwriting. "I was going to give it to you tomorrow before the ceremony. But now seems like the right time. Maybe what she thinks about your wedding is more important than what your mother would think." I hold the soft paper to my face, and I just breathe. There are two smaller envelopes inside the larger one. His and Hers. This much I can see in the moonlight. I run my fingers over the sealed edges of my envelope. And there was a time when I would have been begging for a paper cut. I slide the two envelopes back inside the larger one and tuck it under my pillow. "It was a year after my wedding before I had the nerve to open mine." "Alice." "Sometimes I wish she hadn't left so much of herself behind." I'm glad it's dark in here because I'm sure my face is twisted and ugly. I'm almost angry at her for saying it, thinking it. Because I've devoured every last word that Esme Cullen has left behind. And I don't understand why Alice wouldn't want that. But maybe we're the same, Alice and I. Maybe there is more than one way to be haunted by your mother. I sleep on and off all night, thinking about the way my own life shaped Alice's life. Wondering what it would have been like to grow up as sisters. The life that wasn't meant for us. And it's somehow comforting. Even though it shouldn't be. Because I wasn't meant to be a Cullen all of those years ago. I am meant to be one now. Tomorrow. And our family, our children, whoever they may be, will be meant for Edward and me. I need to have faith in something and maybe I'm choosing fate. We're up early and I'm eerily calm. I can do this. Walk down the aisle. Wear the dress. The shoes. The rain is gone.
- 296 -

I can do this. We need to be at the barn by noon. Alice has a schedule. We don't spend the whole day with nails and hair and makeup. It's minimal. It's simple. And the entire time it almost feels like it's someone else's day. Like I'm just a spectator to the whole thing. It's not our barn anymore, but it is. An elaborate network of white tents sits along the perimeter. Alice and I sit in our own white tent and I try to imagine what Edward is doing right now. If he's nervous. And then I'm no longer calm. It's too hot and too cold in here. Inside these pretend walls. This is when I decide that not seeing the groom before the wedding is a stupid fucking tradition. I want him here. I can't breathe. I don't even have the dress on yet, and I can't breathe. I sit in my robe, holding that cream colored envelope with rounded edges and fragile letters scrawled across it. To my son and his bride Everything is going foggy. On a sunny, perfect day. I pull the two envelopes out. His and Hers. Part of me is screaming not to do this now. But my stupid hands don't listen. I hold his envelope out to Alice. "Will you take this to him?" She eyes me wearily, but she takes it from my clammy hands and nods, slipping out of the tent without a word. I run my fingertips over the lettering of my envelope, and if I believed in something after this life, I'd swear Esme was here next to me. My hands won't be still. The paper is brittle. Too fragile and perfect in my
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fingertips. I blink at the words. This letter is different than the one she wrote to me as a baby. As my mother. It is different than the countless notes she wrote in the margins of her books. So very different than the pages and pages of journal entries that she wrote only for herself. I have read all of those words but this is different. This letter is for the woman she is entrusting with her son. With his heart. I feel like a thief. Or a liar. Or something worse. Because she wrote this for someone else. Someone she thought she would never get the chance to meet. But I am none of those things. I can see it in the way he looks at me. The writing is shaky. Or maybe it's my hands. I try to hold the fragile words steady. And I read. To the future Mrs. Cullen, I may not have been given the chance to meet you, but I'm so grateful my son has found you. He's always known what he wanted. If I had to guess, I'd say that hasn't changed. I'm afraid he's also a little spoiled. I'm sorry about that. I'd like to blame my husband for it, but I'm probably the one who's responsible. When you have children, you'll see how difficult it is to say no to them. I won't pretend to know the secrets of a happy marriage. My husband and I fought more than we agreed, but if I had the chance to do it over again, I'd choose him. Every time. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: do not compromise. Remember that you are on the same side. Live so that when your children think of courage, strength, and love, they think of you. Take good care of my son. I expect lots of grandchildren.
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May you have a long and happy life together. Mom I set the paper down. And I want to be brave and strong and love, love, love this man the way that he deserves. I sit in my robe. My robe and my hair and my makeup. And my mother would not be fussing over me if she were here. I'm glad she's not. I'm glad she's not here. Because this is our day. I refuse to let her ruin it. There is a ray of light peaking in through a slit in the tent wall. A strip of sun shining across my face. For a fleeting moment, I panic. As if none of this is real. But this is not a game of pretend. And then the sun is gone. Just like that. Like blinking. I look up, and I can feel his eyes on me. I know he's there before I see him. Standing there. Watching me. And I am no longer sitting. And he is no longer outside the tent. I'm in his arms. And I don't care about tradition or bad luck. For the longest time, we don't even say anything. And his hands are enough to ground me and remind me why we're here. The quiet is broken by promises. Our own private vows. Words about love and fear. Whispers against my skin. And there becomes a point where I don't know which words are his and which are mine. He pulls away slowly. "You going to be okay?" I can only nod. There is a torn piece of cream colored envelope peaking out from the pocket of his jacket. And it is only now that I really see him. Handsome and tall in his tux. "Just remember, all of that," he gestures out the tent doors, "doesn't matter." He presses a kiss over my heart. And another over my belly and then he's gone.
- 299 -

Alice reappears as if on cue. She's ready to help me into my dress and this is happening. She laces me up. "Not too tight." My hands rest over my stomach and she smiles. I wonder is she knows. "I'll go get Dad." She's gone before I get the chance to thank her. Moments later, Carlisle stands at the tent door before stepping silently inside. "You look lovely, Bella." He sits across from me. His hand rests on top of mine, calming my nerves. He has soft, father eyes. He smiles a brilliant smile before looking down at his feet. But when he speaks, he looks directly into my eyes. "Bella, you were always meant to be part of this family." And I don't know if it's the pregnancy hormones or the fact that I believe what he's telling me. I try not to ruin my makeup. "I only wish my wife were here to see this day." The way he says that word. Wife. Because that is what she will always be. Even though she has been gone for a decade. I wrap my fingers around his hand. "She's here." His answer is only a nod and then he's on his feet, holding his hand out to me. "Shall we?" Wispy clouds are painted across the sky. I focus on my heartbeat and I pray that I can stay here in this moment. With my hand tucked in Carlisle's elbow. One foot in front of the other. I don't know if Esme is here with Carlisle or if she is somewhere else entirely. But I'm not alone. This I know for sure.
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Our little secret. Our baby. Here. In front of our barn, surrounded in draping white, with the sun on my skin, there is something else that I refuse to let go of. Hope.

-PC-

A/N: To Susan, thank you for being fucking fabulous. And for listening to me argue with wikipedia. Because, really, what do they know about owling? To my favorite people, you know who you are. I love you guys. I'm hoping to have the next chapter up by Christmas.

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Kissing Words and White Fabric


Kissing Words and White Fabric

Edward

The white chairs face the barn. I stand next to the officiant in my tux as our guests laugh and chatter. I watch them. A handful of family and friends. Some colleagues of my father's. Weddings are strangely public, considering they represent such a personal commitment. I didn't think I would be nervous. But here I am, standing in the dry grass, reminding myself not to lock my knees in fear that I might pass out. My pulse is racing and my hands don't know what to do with themselves. Nervous and fidgeting, I'm tempted to shove them in my pockets. I don't. They're probably sewn shut anyway. I'm not sure if I feel calmer or more tightly strung after seeing Bella. I couldn't stay away. Not after reading the letter from my mother. I've never been this nervous. For anything. And not because I'm afraid. But because I don't know how to be. I don't know how to have everything I've always wanted. Almost everything. I now want things that I didn't know about before. I suppose that's the story of getting older. Growing up. The sky is nearly clear. But I would stand here in the rain and do so gladly. I would appreciate the sound of the rain and the feel of the sun on my skin. My mother's voiceher wordsecho in my mind when I need them the most. And I hope that I will not feel the need to go back and live my life one more time. I hope that this lifetime will be enough. I can still remember the timbre of her voice. Her laugh. Her scolding voice. Her smiling voice. Her dying voice. I thought I would forget. I thought she would slowly fade away. Or disappear. There are entire days that pass when I don't think of her. And it's okay. It's what
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she would have wanted. Because when I look at my life, when I really look, she is everywhere. And my children will know her. And they will have the best parts of her. I replay the words in my mind. The ones from her letter. The ones she wrote to me ten years ago. The ones that have been sitting closed up in an envelope until today. The words she wrote as she tried to imagine the man I would become. And the woman who would be my wife. If she only knew. I replay the words, and maybe she does know. Do not expect her to read your mind, but do your very best to read hers. Her smiling voice. Do not leave your shoes at the foot of the stairs. Trust me on this one, son. Her scolding voice. Be the kind of man that loves his family more than his job. Be the kind of husband and the kind of father that I know you can be. Her dying voice. Sometimes I close my eyes and I see you. I see the man you have become and I am so proud to call you my son. Know that I would call her my daughter if I was there with you on this day. Alice winks at me from her seat in the front row. Her own wedding seems so long ago. It has only been a year and a half. But it seems so impossibly long ago. Or maybe it was Bella and I that were the impossible ones. As our guests stand up and turn to the aisle, I forget to breathe. And it's almost funny. Our wedding is funny. I want to laugh. Because ring on the floor, she said no. Because I bought a different ring for a different girl. And I could have an entirely different life right now. A lying life. An if I could go back and live it one more time life. And I've never been more grateful that I trusted my gut. That I didn't settle. Because it wouldn't have been fair to anyone involved.
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And this place, our barn, would be sitting here abandoned. Haunted by the ghosts of what was and what could have been. I don't want to think about that life ever again. This will be the last time. And so I let it go. Because Bella stole the ring from my pocket. She is going to be my wife even though I thought I had lost her forever. For the longest time, I thought she was mine. And then one day, I knew she wasn't. I knew that she was never mine to begin with. I want to laugh at the things I used to know. And then I see her. And I no longer want to laugh. I just want. And all I can think is how beautiful she is. And I couldn't look away if I tried. As I take in her face, her eyes are already boring into mine. My eyes lock with hers as she walks. Her head held high, she is smiling. And brave. And blushing. And the mother of my child. And Bella. And so fucking beautiful. And I wish the aisle wasn't so long. Each step she takes is too slow. And I'm so tempted to meet her halfway, I have to tell my own feet to be still. To stay put. For what seems like an eternity. Until she is standing in front of me. Finally. Dad kisses her hand and holds it out to me. And it's the first time I even realize he is there next to her. That he has been there the whole time. And not just today. Everything is blurry. Except for her face. Her smiling, perfect face. And she can't believe it either. That we're here. With her hands in mine, I remind myself not to squeeze too tight. The officiant's voice is gentle, yet booming. "The bride and groom have requested that we take a moment to remember those family members who are no longer with us on this earth, but are here in spirit."
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I don't close my eyes. I can't. Her eyes hold me here. And she is looking at me the way that I always wanted her to. For all of those years. She is looking at me like I'm the only man on earth. It is only the two of us, standing here in front of our barn. The two of us will soon be a fond memory. As we become parents. But right now, in this moment, it is only her and me. The moment of silence is over, and I do my best to pay attention to the words. But I can barely hear them. Her eyes are smiling and tired and glistening in the sunlight. I say the words. The repeat after me words. She says them too. These words are supposed to be important. But nothing we could say now could ever be enough. There are rings and shaky hands. And I don't know if the officiant says the kissing words. All I know is that her lips are on my lips. And there is no sound. There is only kissing. Gentle, yet needy kissing. As my hands hold her to me. Lips against insistent lips. Saying everything that we feel. Standing up in front of our family. In front of people who matter and those who don't. And I can't wait to get her alone. I can't wait to be alone with my wife. As our lips break apart, she looks up into the sky. With the sun on her face, reflecting in her eyes, she looks happy. So happy that it hurts. The impossible kind of happy. But here we are. Those eyes that say everything she is thinking and feeling. I want to kiss them. So I do. She is standing in front of me in her dress. The dress. I force myself to see it. To see all of her. Draped in white. And I just need one more kiss. One more.
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The world slows down. What was spinning is now still. As we walk back down the aisle in slow motion. And I take in the grinning faces of my father and Alice. Alice tucks her hands under her chin. And this is one of those moments when her face is so much like Mom's that it's alarming. And comforting. And I can only hope to have a daughter with Bella's face. With her honest eyes. The ones she claims are the color of mud. I want to laugh again. "What's so funny?" And maybe I am laughing. She wants to know, so I tell her. "Your eyes, Mrs. Cullen. Your perfect, honest eyes." I love it when she scowls at me. When her lips curl up and she tries to be mad, but she can't. I kiss her face. I stop laughing. I just love.

-PC-

I've been studying all day. I can no longer see straight. Saturday night TV is boring as fuck. Lights out, there is a pounding knock on my apartment door. Shit. She won't leave if I ignore her. I know this from experience.

- 306 -

I drag myself off the couch and unlatch the deadbolt. This is how it goes with us. If she wants to come in, she's going to have to open the door herself. She stands directly in front of the TV. Hands on her hips, primped and dressed to kill. "We're going out." "No, you are going out." "This whole brooding thing you've been trying out really isn't very becoming. You can't live like this, Edward. It's not healthy." She takes a gulp of her Red Bull. I stare at her blood red, acrylic nails. She doesn't even call anymore. She just shows up. "Rose, you're never going to get laid if you keep carting my sorry ass around with you everywhere you go." But she doesn't hear me because she's already gone from the room, undoubtedly rifling through my closet. She returns with some jeans and a button down shirt that still has the tags on it. Alice keeps sending me clothes. As if I don't know how to dress myself. Rose holds the shirt out, eyebrows raised. "Don't even fight me on this. You're not wearing what you have on. And when's the last time you ate anything?" I have to think about it. It may have been this morning. She rolls her eyes before I can even answer. So we go to a house party. It's the same party that I've been to a hundred times. Smart girls pretending to be stupid, fawning over a bunch of assholes who think they are already doctors. I grab a beer. And then another. I try to avoid eye contact with every platinum blonde that passes me by. Rose flirts with anything with a penis. I don't know why she drags me to these things. I mean I do know, but I don't know why I let her.
- 307 -

I don't sit. Sitting is an invitation for a conversation. Leaning in hallways is the best way to avoid interaction. "There you are." Rose is leading some blonde Barbie by the hand. She sets her directly in front of me. Like she's my prize for the night. "Tanya, Edward. Edward, Tanya." She has an annoying name. Her teeth are really shiny, and I think she might have too many. Her hair is all bouncy. She might actually be a natural blonde. She also might be kind of pretty. It's too hot in here. I need some air. I turn around and walk out to the balcony without a word. I dump my beer over the ledge. "You really don't give a shit about any of this, do you?" I jump at the sound of Tanya's voice. It's softer than I expected it to be. I'm surprised that I was even thinking about what her voice might sound like. I don't turn around. And she doesn't care. She talks. And talks and talks and talks. She tells me the story of her life. She doesn't even know me. I'm a stranger and she's telling me about her entire fucking life. Her dreams. Her hopes for the future. The kind of life she wants. Everything. It's annoying. Except I find myself listening. And almost wanting to know more. She's articulate. Driven. I don't know what to do with her. I don't know what to do with a girl who is so open and honest. I turn to face her. She is pretty. It's the first time anyone has been pretty in years. Maybe she is more than these other plastic girls.
- 308 -

I look at her eyes. And I'm confused. There is substance. Her eyes aren't vacant. But they give nothing away. "You stopped smiling." I didn't know I was smiling at all. I hold my hand up to my lips. This is stupid. I am stupid. There is a gorgeous girl standing in front of me. A girl who wants me. I wonder if this is what people do. Normal people. Meet a girl at a party. Kiss a girl. Fuck a girl. Marry a girl. And I try so hard to see her. The music from the house is beating in my ears. "It sounds like a good life." She has the oddest expression on her face. "Dance with me?" She doesn't wait for an answer. Her hands are on me. I don't move. She doesn't care. She moves for both of us. It's stiff. She smells like girl. Like the wrong girl. But it feels nice. Too nice. I need to get out of here. "I have to go." I leave her there on the balcony. She doesn't follow. It doesn't take me long to find Rose. "We're leaving." I grab her by the arm and I don't care what it looks like as I drag her out the front door. She doesn't fight me as I open the passenger door to my car. We sit in the car. In the dark. Keys in the ignition. My hands grip the steering wheel. Until my knuckles are white. Her voice is quiet. "Edward, she's just what you need." "She's not." I might be shouting. "She's just a girl, Edward."
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I'm not sure who she's talking about. It doesn't matter. She's wrong.

-PC-

We are surrounded by white flowers. I don't know what kind. I don't know these kinds of things. I stare at her face. She's taking it all in. The people. The flowers. The sky. The done-up barn. Me. The photographer whisks us away for photos. Sitting on the ledge of the loft. Walking hand in hand down the path. Kissing in the grass. Kissing. Kissing. Kissing. We hardly speak. There is nothing to say. Her eyes say it all. The rest of it is all blurry. Appetizers and toasts. Dinner. Bella slyly leaves her glasses of expensive wine all around the room. With the tables lining the perimeter of the barn, the dance floor is small. I take her by the hand. Or maybe she takes me. We ignore all of the smiling, staring faces. We barely move. "Good thing we practiced." "Good thing." She presses her face against my chest and it's dancing in the little room. Just her and me. The last of the day's sun shines in through the barn walls. There isn't a bat or a field mouse in sight. Our old forgotten barn, full of life and promises. The important kind. We whisper to each other until the song is over.

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Dad is waiting with his hand out. But I don't want to let go. "I'll give her right back, son. I promise." I stand with Alice and Jasper. Alice hugs me tight. "Take good care of her, Edward." "I'm going to miss you, Alice. We're going to miss you." She wipes a stray tear from her face and turns into Jasper's side. I watch Dad twirl Bella around. As she smiles. I'm by her side as soon as the song ends. Scooping up my wife. "What are you doing?" "I'm dancing with my wife at our wedding." She laughs and it's as if I've never seen her laugh. And it's as if I've never kissed her before. And I've never held her in my arms. Everything is the first time. Alice and Jasper, Emmett and Rose, dance around us. The barn darkens as the night descends. Lit with white twinkling lights, the room is all sparkling shadows. I let my hands wander. "Is it time to go yet?" I can hear the blush in her voice. Emmett cuts in, stealing Bella away. She laughs as he lifts her off of the ground. "Be careful with her." I watch Rose quietly leave the dance floor. With two waters in hand, I sit down next to her. "Hey." "Hey, yourself." We sit quietly, watching the guests in varying states of drunkenness. "Tanya sends her best."
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"You told her?" "I thought maybe it would give her some closure." "I see." "She met someone." "I'm glad." It feels good to say it and mean it. Rose keeps her eyes trained on Bella and Emmett. "I'm sorry, Edward." "For what?" "All of it." "Hey, Rose?" "Yeah?" "Thank you." "For what?" "All of it." She smiles and I think she hears me. Emmett and Bella appear in front of us, out of breath and laughing. Emmett whisks Rose away. I pull Bella into my lap. She kisses my nose. She is all smiles and giggles. I point to my own smiling lips. She leans in slowly. "What do you want?" "You." I press my lips to hers. She tastes like Bella. I nod towards the open doorway of the barn. The white fabric is caught up in the breeze. "Come on."
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I take her by the hand and lead her into the dark night. This is what I've been waiting for all day. I hold her to me. Crickets and bullfrogs. Cool autumn air. I dance with my wife. Under the stars. Until our guests trickle out. We say our good nights and I don't know what happened to the last six hours. We have a room. I thought it was stupid when Alice first suggested it. Bella and I live in town. We have our own house. I didn't think we needed an overpriced room at a country inn. But looking around this room, seeing the look on Bella's face as she appraises the huge bed, it's no longer stupid. It's perfect. The fireplace is lit. Crackling and glowing. I play with her fingers. "You hungry?" She grins up at me, shaking her head. "You tired?" Another no. She fists my jacket in her hands and pulls me flush against her. Up on her tiptoes her lips kiss along my neck, until they are ghosting over my ear. Her voice is quiet, yet forceful. "Get this dress off of me." I have never wanted anything more in my life. My clumsy hands don't even know where to begin. But she knows. And she helps. With her dress pooled at her feet, and her skin glowing under the light of the fire, she is perfect. "You're beautiful."
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She tucks her hands under the collar of my jacket and shrugs it off of my shoulders. I want to kiss her everywhere. As she steps out of her shoes, I pick her up. I carry her to the bed. I strip her naked. She still blushes when I stare. I want that forever. Hovering over her, my hands are everywhere. In this glowing orange room. Bella, Bella, Bella. I love the way her breath catches when I take her nipple in my mouth. The way she threads her fingers in my hair and holds me between her legs. The way she moans. The way she stretches herself out on the bed. God, I love her. It's scary to love her this much. To love her and to know that she loves me the same way. I listen to her fall to pieces under my hands and my lips. And I'm wearing too many clothes. I kiss her belly. Again and again and again. Her eyes are shining, her skin a rosy pink. Her chest heaves up and down as she unbuttons my shirt. As she pushes my pants to the floor. I need to be inside of her. Now. Crawling up the bed, hovering over her, she's mine. Forever. She takes me in her hands as my lips find her lips. As our tongues push and need and love. Maybe it's not fucking against a hotel room wall. It's just Bella and me. But right now, in this king sized bed, with our baby growing inside of her, it's everything. And if this is it, if this is the end, as good as it's going to get, it wouldn't be an if I could go back and live it one more time kind of life.

-PC-

A/N:
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To Susan, thanks for being amazing and for following me around in my doc so that I could get this out before I leave for the holidays. And thanks for still being my friend when I do things like freak out over chapter titles. To Kim, thanks for being pretty and making this chapter happen. We have seven chapters to go. Which sounds like so many. And so few. You ready for event number three? See you in the new year :)

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Nuts and Bolts


Nuts and Bolts

Bella

We're married. Married. Edward is my husband. And I am his wife. He catches me smiling sometimes and he wants to know why. He always wants to know. My answer is always the same. Because you're mine. With each day that passes, this feels more and more like my life. Like it could belong to me. And maybe life doesn't have to be so hard. Our barn is now dressed down, absent of tables and chairs, linens and twinkling lights. That day, that night, already a blurry memory. Every morning that Edward goes to work, he leaves me with two kisses. Every morning. One for me. One for the baby. I stand in front of the mirror in my pajamas, taking in my profile. I'm starting to show. With my shirt pulled up and my hands resting under my little belly, I wonder if my mother ever stood in front of a mirror. She's been everywhere lately. I don't want her here. I don't want her. Because this life is too good. Too close to everything I've ever wanted. And I'm afraid that she's not going to let me keep it. I pull my shirt back down and push the thought of her from my mind. I can still hide my pregnancy by wearing loose clothing, but maybe I don't want to hide it anymore. Our baby is healthy. I don't want to hide anything, let alone something this important. Edward has already baby proofed the entire house. We haven't even told anyone
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yet, and we have child locks on every cabinet, plug covers in every outlet. At first it was funny. But he worries about these things. I can't blame him, with the kinds of accidents he has seen in the ER. He has a box full of padded corners to put on nearly every surface in the house once we've announced our news. Alice and Jasper are back in San Francisco. Back to the rolling fog and the concrete and the traffic. Back to their own lives. Carlisle is coming over for dinner. He has been joining us every Tuesday. Each week he brings a bottle of wine, and Edward helps me pretend to drink it. If Carlisle notices, he doesn't say anything. We sit at our kitchen table every Tuesday in our simple little house, and the conversation is easy. It feels like we're family. And I know that's how it's supposed to feel. But it feels real. Edward and I have been moving ahead with the adoption process. Even though all we get in return is a firm no. I convince myself that it doesn't matter. Whether I'm being naive or not, I have to believe that something will change. I have to believe that when we get that phone call, we'll be ready. Edward helps me unload the groceries. The top layer of our wedding cake sits wrapped in a white box in the center of the freezer. Alice says we're supposed to save it and eat it on our one year anniversary. Sometimes I think she makes these things up. Standing in front of the nearly packed freezer, I sneer at the white box. "Are we really keeping this for a year?" Edward slides his arms around me, covering my belly. I think he would keep his hands there always if it were up to him. With his chin over my shoulder, the cool air from the freezer mingles with his warm breath against my neck. Goosebumps everywhere. I don't know if it's the ring or this baby, but the way I want him has become all consuming. "Yes. We are." He says the words into my too hot skin. I try to keep my voice steady. "I'm not eating year-old cake." "No?" I can feel his lips curl into a smile as they ghost over my collarbone.
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"No. That's disgusting." His fingers toy with the hem of my shirt, seeking out my bare skin. "It's tradition." It's too hot and too cold and I'm trying to calculate how much time we have before Carlisle gets here as my own fingers tangle with his, over my stomach. And I thought it was impossible, but I swear I want him more with every passing day. I play with his ring. He looks so fucking sexy wearing that ring. I think of the countless hours we've spent in this house, in nothing but our rings. I try to imagine what our lives will be like in a year. I wonder if we'll look back on this time before children and it will seem like a distant memory. If our lives will be so altered, that we won't remember this life at all. I'm not sure what to wish for. He pulls my shirt down off my shoulder, peppering kisses over my freckles. "The cake stays." And it's a miracle that I can find words at all. "There is no way I'm eating cake that's a year old." "I guess I'll be eating the whole thing myself then." He pulls me flush against him, my back to his front as his smooth, hot lips suck and tease at my neck. "I think we should tell your dad tonight." I squeeze my eyes shut. His lips pucker and let go. And I want to take the words back. To rewind and keep my mouth shut. To let him undress me in the kitchen. I turn around in Edward's arms, holding his face in my hands. He doesn't look at me. "Forget it, Edward. Let's never tell him." He doesn't laugh. Or even smile. "No, you're right. We should tell him tonight." He has been reluctant to tell his father any of it. About the pregnancy and the adoption. Edward loves his father. I know that much to be true, but sometimes I wonder if he fears him too. Or maybe he only fears the rejection.
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"It will be fine, Edward. He'll be fine." "Saying it doesn't make it true." "You underestimate him." He holds my chin between his fingers. "You have too much faith in him." And maybe I do. We call Alice. Because we know she'll be excited. And supportive. And giddy. And Alice. She doesn't disappoint. And maybe we're making a big deal out of nothing. Carlisle arrives with his bottle of wine, smiling obliviously. Edward is jumpy throughout dinner, accidentally knocking over his wine, moving his food around on his plate like a child. What was once comfortable is now only awkward. This is ridiculous. Carlisle sets down his fork. "Something on your mind, son?" "Well, we have some news." Carlisle looks back and forth between Edward and me before he picks up his fork and continues eating. I don't want him to choke. So, I wait. We agreed that I would be the one to say it. I am not afraid of Carlisle Cullen. But I am suddenly mute, the words in my throat. And apparently I am taking too long. "Well?" It is Edward who finally speaks. "You're going to be a grandfather." The words rush out of him. I look up at Edward's face and he is only smiling and proud. He captures my hand under the table.
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Carlisle stares at the two of us. And now he is the one who is mute. He looks as if he might cry. And even though I don't know what kind of tears they would be, I almost wish he would cry. He doesn't. He's Carlisle Cullen. He clears his throat. "Alright then." And goes back to cutting his steak. Edward's hand clenches around mine under the table, squeezing it too tight. "That's all you've got, Dad?" He is wounded, yet resigned. Carlisle doesn't even look up from his dinner. "What would you like me to say?" Edward pushes his plate away from him. "Forget it." I can feel his anger bubbling up. I stare at Carlisle. And I hope I will never do that to my children. Make them feel small. He clears his throat. "How's work going, son?" I don't want to look at Edward's face. I can feel the rage emanating off of him. "We're also in the process of adopting." He spits the words at his father. It's enough to force Carlisle to look at him. To look at us. "You're what?" "You heard me." I feel sick. That we are telling him this way. "Since when?" "Does it matter?" Carlisle only shakes his head, a dry laugh escaping his throat before he tosses his napkin on the table. His hands go to his hair as he looks up at the ceiling. Edward's posture is stiff. Ready for a fight. "What's so funny?"
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"Nothing. Nothing is funny." He speaks with a lopsided smile and when he laughs again, I think Edward might crush my hand under the table. "Then what?" He wants an explanation for the nervous laughter. For the lack of support. "I question whether you have a thorough understanding of what it means to raise an adopted child." The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. I don't know if Carlisle realizes what he's saying, but it doesn't matter. He's saying it all the same. "I'd like to know what it is that you think I don't understand, Dad." "Enough with the theatrics, Edward. I'm trying to look out for you." "Well, don't." "Can't I have a conversation with my son without it turning into a melodrama?" Edward lets go of my hand and clenches his own into a tight fist. The room is green and spinning. I hold my face in my hands as they both stand, posturing at one another. Edward turns suddenly, storming from the kitchen and kicking the back door on his way out. Carlisle watches him leave and he can only shake his head. If we have a son, I pray that this is not the legacy he inherits. "I apologize for my son." I stare at him in disbelief. I want to tell him that he should be apologizing for himself. But I'm speechless. "Congratulations, Bella. You'll be a wonderful mother. Give me a call when he's cooled off." And without waiting for a response, he's gone. From the kitchen, from this house.
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He will be the only grandparent that our children will have. And I don't think he wants it. Perhaps the whole concept of children, babies, is too terrifying for him. Too many painful memories. Most of them thanks to Renee Swan. I want to blame her for tonight. I want to blame her for being confused and selfish nearly thirty years ago. I leave Edward be. I clean up the kitchen, eying the back door as I dry the dishes. The old weathered door stays firmly shut. I look around the clean kitchen. All evidence of tonight's dinner is put away. Dishes washed. Cabinets closed. I stand with my hand on the cold metal doorknob, listening for any signs of Edward. But there is only silence. I push the door open and walk out into the dark night. He is sitting on the back steps, looking up at the stars. It's freezing. The kind of cold that crawls into your bones and refuses to leave. He doesn't look at me. I sit down beside him and watch the moon on his face. Shadows and worry. With my fingers at the nape of his neck, I can see him visibly relax. He lets out a breath that hangs in the air in front of us. He finds my other hand with his own. His fingers are so cold that I flinch. "Bella, you should go inside." I move to stand, but I don't let go of his hand. He doesn't fight me as I lead him back into the house. As I lead him up the stairs. He doesn't fight me as I undress him. As I turn on the shower, letting the steam fill the room. As his whole body shivers and shakes. He winces under the warm water, his too cold skin undoubtedly burning. He doesn't fight me as I step in after him, washing his hair and then my own. Clean, thawed out, and covered in white terrycloth, I turn the heat up on the thermostat. We don't talk about dinner or his father or the adoption as I pull out an extra quilt
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for our bed. We don't talk. I know him well enough to know that he doesn't need to talk. We slide between the sheets, towels on the floor. And I try to tell him without any words. To show him that we'll be alright. He's always been the brave one. The tall one. The smart one. The beautiful one. It hurts to see him broken. Over something so small. To see him crushed, even if it was from getting the exact reaction he expected. "Look at me." And he does. And maybe life is hard. But when I kiss him and his fingers dig into my flesh, desperate and needy, it all seems so worth it. So unbelievably fucking worth it. And when he pulls me on top of him, tenting us with heavy winter blankets, I know we'll be fine. Heavy hands that squeeze and guide my hips. The same hands that hover gently over my belly. The same reverent hands. And the eyes that see me and know me and love me. Even in the dark. They're all mine, mine, mine. As our pace quickens and his voice is almost a strangled sob, I feel like I'm about to fall to ash. And when I do, the only thing left is the certainty that we'll be more than fine. We aren't going to be our parents. He tucks me into his side and I listen to his heavy, weighted breaths. I watch him drift off. Brushing the hair from his face, I whisper into his ear, "You're going to be an amazing father." And it's true.
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The next couple of days pass without a word from Carlisle. We go back to our bubble. Rosalie is on her way over for lunch. "Remind me again why we have to tell her?" "Because she's my friend. And because she's bound to find out at some point." I make coffee and sandwiches. Because I don't know what else to do. I wear stupid shoes. I may very well be the only pregnant woman looking forward to a time when I can't see my feet. Rose has never stepped foot in this house and I think if it were entirely up to me, I'd prefer it stayed that way forever. And yet it was my idea to invite her over. Because as much as I want to hate her, I can't. As much as I think she's selfish and mean spirited, I know she was there for Edward for years. She was there when I wasn't, when I couldn't be. She was there when I left him broken. And part of me will always be grateful. She appraises the house without saying a word, scrutinizing every surface with her eyes. She thanks us for having her over and I'm so nervous that I want to crawl out of my skin. Edward holds my hand and she stares. It's the county fair. I watch her sip her coffee. I want to be the one to tell her. So I don't wait for the right moment. I just say it. "We're pregnant." She doesn't respond. I want to know how she does that. How she can remain expressionless. I watch her perfect, empty face until her lips curl into a forced smile. And then she laughs. She fucking laughs. "I see." I want to ask her what exactly she sees. "Congratulations." She looks at Edward. She doesn't look at me. Which is fine. She asks a million questions, which I don't expect. For the most part, I'm quiet. I
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let Edward do the talking. The way they speak to each other is so easy. So casual. I find myself not really listening, so intent on watching her mannerisms, watching the ease in which they converse. And I realize how much I missed all of those years. I can feel the regret seeping in, and as much as I try to shake it, it won't leave. It hurts that she knows him in ways that I don't. They're those old friends who can go months without speaking and pick up right where they left off. I'm jealous. And it has nothing to do with the fact that she's a girl, a woman, and everything to do with who she is. Rosalie Hale. I shift my attention back to the conversation. And my heart pounds wildly because they're talking about the adoption. I wish he hadn't given her that part. "But I thought she was pregnant." She says it as if I'm not in the room. Two feet in front of her. "I am pregnant." And I don't want to explain it to her. I refuse. But Edward explains, because he's a bigger person than I am. "We started the adoption process before we knew we were expecting." She crinkles her nose up. "And you're still trying to adopt?" "Yes." "If you ask me, it seems kind of selfish. I mean, you're going to have a baby of your own." My blood is boiling. I can't keep quiet any longer. "If we wanted your opinion, we'd ask for it." Edward gives me a pointed look. He doesn't seem phased in the slightest by her rudeness. Rose picks at her split ends. "It's all very Brad and Angelina." I am ten years old. "Fuck you, Rosalie." And Rose is no longer expressionless. Her lips pursed together in a tight line, she glares at me, before turning expectantly towards Edward.
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His voice is calming and apologetic. "Rose... I'm sorry. Maybe you should go." And I don't know why he is apologizing to her. She turns and marches from the kitchen straight to the front door. She slams it on her way out. Hard enough to make me flinch. There is no principal's office to sit in this time. Charlie won't be here to pick me up in the cruiser. I can't believe we're here again. Some things don't change. "She's been through things too, you know. Everyone has their stories, Bella. Even Rosalie." "I hardly think that lusting after someone she can't have qualifies as facing adversity." He looks at me like I've lost my mind. "You're being ridiculous." "I'm being ridiculous? I know exactly what she was thinking when I told her." My thoughts are spinning in circles. He's getting frustrated with me, but he's trying not to show it. "And what was that?" "She was thinking of course she's pregnant. As if that explains everything. She thinks that's why you married me. I could tell by the look on her face." "You got all of that from a look?" He's teasing, but it's not funny. Rosalie is not funny. "Why can't you see her for who she is?" He sighs. "Who is she?" "She's an arrogant, conceited, selfish bitch." "Bella." "What? She is. Why are you so blind to that?" "Because Rosalie is one of the most insecure people I know."
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"That's ridiculous." "No, it's not. It's true." Edward places his hand on my shoulder. And it's the first time since we were a couple of teenagers that I want to shrug it off. My phone rings and I'm grateful. Until I answer it and my bones feel like they're being crushed from the inside out. It's our adoption agent. I put it on speaker. It's another hurdle. Another no. I sit in the quiet kitchen, Edward by my side. And it's like I'm being punished for wanting more than I deserve. Why can't I just be happy with all that I have? Maybe Carlisle is right. Maybe it's not worth all of the heartache. Edward's voice breaks my thoughts. "Are you sure it's worth it, Bella?" And even though I may have been thinking the same thing only moments ago, I don't want to admit it. Because it is worth it. She is so worth it. "How can you ask me that?" He whispers it. "I hate to see you like this." "I thought you wanted this. I thought we were on the same page." "I do. We are." I believe him. And yet I feel so alone on this. "I'm going for a drive." "Bella, please don't go." "I need some air." Keys in hand, I leave him there in the kitchen. I don't dare turn around as I walk
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away. Because I know that the expression on his face would kill me. I pretend not to know where I'm going as I start the car. I pull away from the house. I want to scream and cry and I wish that was enough to make everything different. Better. I try to force the tears down. And the fact that I'm crying makes me even more angry. I don't even know who I'm angry at anymore. I feel hopeless. I thought that feeling was gone. I thought I had thrown it away. The butterflies in my stomach won't quit. Except they aren't butterflies. They aren't butterflies at all. Everything slows down. The headlights travelling in the opposite direction. The voices on the radio. My foot on the accelerator. I place my hand over my belly. And I had almost forgotten that there is someone in there. Someone fluttering. I can feel our baby moving. From the inside out. It's the strangest, most surreal feeling. And now I'm crying all the more. But these are different tears. Tears that I should be sharing with Edward. Instead, I'm alone in the car. I shouldn't be driving. I pull over on the side of the road and cut the engine. The flutters are gone. I button up my coat and get out of the car, slamming the door. Rosalie isn't the only one who can slam doors. The sound makes me feel marginally better and a whole lot worse. I walk to the cemetery. Ready to tell my mother off. Of all people. Because it's easier to blame someone who's been dead for twenty years. Someone who resides in the Forks mud. I spend the walk thinking of all of the things I want to say to her. I can see my breath in the grey air. Taunting me.
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I walk through the large iron gates, and I march right past my mother's grave. I march the way Rosalie marches. Although I'm sure I look ridiculous doing it. I don't look at my mother's headstone. As if ignoring it means that it doesn't exist. I sit in front of Esme's grave, out of breath. It's cold, too cold, to be sitting on the damp ground. I do it anyway. I don't know what to say to her. I wish she was here. I miss her. I don't even remember her and I miss her. But if I'm being honest with myself, she is not the one I miss. I brush the back of my coat off as I stand. But it's damp and soiled from the muddy ground. My feet don't move. I can see the back of her grave from this spot. "I felt the baby move today." That's all I say. It's all she gets. I don't know how I can understand her in one moment and the hate her in the next. I wonder if our own children will feel the same way about Edward and I someday. I hope they don't. I go back to the car. I crank the heat up. Until my lips are dry and my eyes are burning from the hot air. And I just drive. I drive around this town that was supposed to fix it all. Eventually, I pull up in front of our house. I've been gone for hours. Emmett's car sits in the driveway. I stare at it. And I pray that Rosalie is not in my house. The front door is unlocked. I half expect her to be standing there staring me down when I open the door. The living room and the kitchen are both empty.
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I stand at the bottom of the stairs. "Hello?" I can hear Edward cursing and Emmett laughing. They're in the little room. And all I can think is that Rose better not be in there. She better not. I climb the stairs with determination. Ready to tell her to get out of my house. I push the door open and I stop breathing. Edward stops what he's doing. His expression goes immediately from frustrated to concerned. Emmett is staring too and I wonder what my face must look like. I let out a long breath. "What is that?" His voice is quiet in response. "It's a crib." I know it's a crib. "Why is it here?" "It's for the baby. I should have asked you first. I just thought..." I am stupid. For ever being angry at this man. He stands in front of me, his hands unsure of what to do. Emmett slips quietly past us and out of the room. Edward and I stand here among the nuts and bolts. We stand among the pieces of a crib. A second crib.

-PC-

A/N:

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To Susan for making the words pretty and Kim for making me write them. Happy New Year, lovely readers :)

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Tuesdays and Baby Blankets


Tuesdays and Baby Blankets

Edward

I thought the crib would make her forget about my father and Rosalie. I thought it would make her understand. I thought it might even make her smile. And it did. It did a lot more than make her smile. If only every argument could be settled with a second crib. And make-up sex. It's a Tuesday. The first Tuesday in a while that my father won't be joining us for dinner. He hasn't called. I'm not the only stubborn one. When I arrive home form work, there are several large boxes on our doorstep. I open the front door to find several smaller ones in the living room. "Bella?" She pops her head out of the kitchen doorway. I kick off my shoes and eye the brown paper packages. "Did you do a little online shopping?" She shakes her head, and she's grinning. I pull her into my arms and press my lips against hers. She tastes like candy. "They're from your father." Of course they are. Of course. He's the king of Amex apologies. "I opened one." I try to hold her to me but she wiggles from my arms. She pulls something out of the cardboard box on the coffee table.
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A baby blanket. It's pale green. And I hate him. She pulls out a second blanket. Two blankets. Fucker. "I'm sure Alice picked it all out." I sound like an ungrateful child. And maybe that's what I am. She sighs. "Edward, does that even matter at this point?" And the way she says my name. She's already forgiven him. And now I'm the asshole. For holding a grudge. Against the man who gifts baby blankets instead of giving a simple apology. Bella is starting to tear into another one of the boxes with a pair of box cutters. She's clearly been waiting all day to open the rest. She's excited and I don't want to ruin it. I take the box cutters from her before she loses a finger. She laughs and holds the baby blankets up to her face. She watches me with twinkling eyes. And I open the boxes. Boxes and boxes of baby things. Two of everything. And maybe it's a familiar apology. But I don't care. It's not enough. Even though she's smiling. And maybe I'm smiling too. I lug everything upstairs. Clothes that are impossibly small. Baby monitors, diapers, car seats. I haul the two cribs, still in their boxes, straight from the front porch and into the garage. He could have at least asked what we needed instead of liquidating the store. Bella is up in the little room, sitting cross legged on the floor, cutting tags off of clothes and organizing the closet. She's almost giddy. I stand in the doorway and watch her smile. At clothes. "Are you going to call him?" She whispers it. "No."
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"Edward..." "He can pick up a phone when he's ready to apologize." She doesn't like it, but she doesn't push it. We eat Tuesday dinner. It's quiet and awkward. And now I'm all the more angry at him. For doing this. For having so much control. "Rose can't have kids." I don't know why I say it. To make myself feel better. Or worse. "What?" Bella's eyes go wide before she covers her face with both hands. "You didn't think you should have mentioned that to me before we told her we're pregnant and adopting?" I rub my forehead. "I didn't think about it." Obviously. "I didn't think she would care. She's always said she doesn't want kids. I didn't think it would matter." "Yeah, well, it matters. Of course it matters." She looks embarrassed. "She doesn't talk about it. I don't even think Alice knows." "And yet you know." There is a question there but she isn't asking it. "I shouldn't have even said anything." "No, you absolutely should have said something. Before I went and made an ass of myself." She closes her eyes tight. "I should say something to her. Apologize for being insensitive." "No. You can't. She'll kill me for telling you." She looks at me for a long while, deep in thought. I try to read her mind. But I've got nothing. She doesn't drop her eyes when she eventually agrees to let it go. And there is a sadness there that I don't ever want to be the cause of. She clears our plates.
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I stand in the middle of the kitchen like a fool. She stands in front of the sink. Hiding from me. "Bella, are we okay?" She grips the edge of the kitchen counter. I watch her knuckles go white. She doesn't turn around. "You know her in ways that I never will. You're that person for her. Am I selfish for not wanting her to have you?" "No." "No, what?" "You're not selfish." I can see her profile as she shakes her head. "Then what am I?" "Honest." I run my fingers tentatively down her arm until I'm covering her hand. She visibly relaxes before turning her palm up. Her fingers intertwine with mine. She melts into me. I hold her tight. In the kitchen. "Edward, arewe being selfish?" Maybe we are selfish. But maybe selfish is the wrong word. "It's okay to want." She worries her lip. Eyes closed. "Do we want too much?" She's not looking for an argument. She wants to know. "We're fighting for our child. I think that's what parents do." That's what they're supposed to do anyway. I do the dishes. I pack the leftovers up. She made extra. Enough for three. But he has a phone. He can call. The cake box sits in the center of the freezer, the corner slightly ajar. I lift the lid, just to peak. To find half of a cake.
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I can see Bella from the kitchen, curled up with a book on the couch. That book. I carry the white box with both hands, standing in front of her on the couch until she slowly peels her eyes from the book. Her entire face immediately turns rosy pink. I try to be serious, but I can't do it. "Bella, what's this?" She's biting her lip and looking up at me all innocent. "It looks like the box for our wedding cake." She's adorable. "I thought you said it was disgusting." She shakes her head. "Did I say that? I don't remember saying that." I open up the lid and set it on the coffee table. It's been properly slaughtered. "So what happened to the cake?" She's trying not to laugh. "Weak pregnancy moment." And then we're both laughing. And it might not be year-old cake but it's still funny. She runs to the kitchen and returns with two forks. "This is the best fucking cake I have ever tasted." Between the two of us, we finish it off. I kiss the thawed white frosting from her lips. And we'll be needing a new cake for our one year anniversary. She snuggles into my side, pulling the blanket up over us. "Read to me?" I pick up our book, opening it to the dog-eared page. And I read. Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. She stops me, flipping through the pages, looking for a different part. I hold the pile of photographs in my hands as she searches the pages of the book. There is one photo that overshadows the rest. One photo that doesn't tell the story of our past. One photo that represents something else entirely. Hope.
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Bella's hands have gone still. And when I turn to face her, she's watching me. Her eyes go back and forth between my own and that photo. "What do you see?" I take a moment to decide. "I see you." And I know it's crazy. But it's true. I look at that little face, those muddy eyes, and I see Bella. She smiles a brilliant smile. "I see you too." She sees me too. She hands the book to me. "Harper Lee?" And I read. From the book we've both read countless times. For entirely different reasons. I read until she's asleep. Even after. Because in some ways, it's the first time. I stare at the words on the page. The ones I know she was looking for. The ones she wanted me to hear: 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.' I read the words again and again. But maybe I don't want to climb into my father's skin. Maybe he needs to be the one to do it. To see things from my perspective. For once in his life. I watch Bella's sleeping face. I kiss her forehead and I pray that I do not become my father. Outfitting the little room was more than I expected from him. Far more. But it's not enough. If he wants to be in our lives, in the lives of our children, he needs to learn to be a decent human being. Because this is only the beginning. There are moments in our lives that only happen once. Moments that we can't get back. Like telling our parents that we are expecting. He is our one and only. And he ruined it. I kiss her temple. Her eyes. Along her jaw. Until she's awake. I lead her up the stairs to our bed, all sleepy eyes and messy hair. I help her out of her clothes and
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hold her close under the covers. "Marry me, Bella?" She finds my feet with her icy toes. Telling me she heard me. And I love those feet. Those toes. As the world goes quiet, and sleep is right there, she finds my ear with her lips. It's a scratchy whisper. "I'll think about it." I hold her tighter. "Too late." As the weeks pass, I watch Bella's belly grow. She's more beautiful with every passing day. She blushes when I say so and waves me off, but it's true. And I want her to know. We spend the holidays with Alice and Jasper in San Francisco. Dad declines their invitation, citing business trips. At Christmas time. The new year comes and goes without fanfare. The director of the orphanage has lobbied on our behalf to no avail. It's frustrating. No, it's infuriating. She's a year old now. She has spent the first year of her life living in a metal crib in an orphanage in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It's a Tuesday. I haven't spoken to my father in months. I know I'm being stubborn. I don't care. He has ruined Tuesdays. Bella talks to him. She doesn't say it, but she thinks I'm being unfair. I have the day off. We sleep in. We stay in our naked bed until nearly noon. Tangled in sheets and warm blankets. With her hair draped over her face, she fidgets with the corner of the pillow case. "I had lunch with your dad yesterday." She watches the fabric instead of my face. But I don't need to see her eyes to
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know what she's thinking. That she's been stewing over telling me since yesterday. "He asked if you liked the baby things." She bites the inside of her cheek. "He can't buy an apology. He should know that by now." "Edward, he's trying." "It's not enough." She looks at me now. Really looks at me. "Maybe it has to be." Wrapping the sheet around her, she pulls it from the bed. She hands me my phone from the nightstand. "He was so formal. So Carlisle. So desperately trying to remain composed. But I could see it, Edward. How much he cares. How sorry he is. How alone he is." Damn it. And maybe she's not playing fair. But this isn't a game. And neither of us would wish loneliness on anyone. "It's Tuesday." I say it like it means everything. Like she can read my mind. "I know." And maybe she can. She takes the sheet with her into the bathroom. I stare at the white ceiling. Part of me wants to stay angry with him forever. But I know I can't. I won't. Our child, our children, deserve more than that. My mom would have smoothed things over ages ago if she were still here. And while maybe she shouldn't have always made excuses for him, she would have fixed this. I can't blame him for being lost without her. I pull on some clothes. I go to the little room and shut the door. I sit in the chair in the corner. I hear the water of the shower go quiet. And the creaking of the stairs as Bella goes down them. She's giving me space. I stare at my phone. I dial his number. With my thumb over the send button, I watch the screen until it goes black. I slip the phone into my pocket.
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A small writing desk sits under the window. It's an antique. It was my mother's. It wasn't here yesterday. Which means he was here. In this room. I run my fingertips over the grains in the wood. Remembering a different house and a different city and a different woman who sat here to write. Like flashes of light. There are two stacks of letters sitting on the little desk. Two stacks of letters that now have a home. Stationery filled with words for our children. Bella has been writing for weeks. I haven't read any of them. They're not secret, but they're private. And she didn't write them for me. I sit on the old piano stool with clawed feet. The same one Alice and I used to spin around on as children. I flatten out a plain piece of paper. I tap the pen against the wood. I don't have any words. Two babies who are both ours. But not yet. I'm not a writer. I don't have beautiful things to say. But I can write a letter. My father would never have written me a letter. He never will. He would say that letter writing was my mother's passion. It doesn't matter. I can write letters to my children. I don't know which letter to start with. I look around this room that is filled to the brim with everything baby. It won't seem complete until they are both here. Greedy or not. One who already has a name and a face and a personality. One who is still a mystery. Bella hasn't wanted to talk about possible names yet. I think she's waiting for that phone call. The one that will make us a family of four. Even though one has nothing to do with the other. Writing to either of them is terrifying. I tap the pen until the sound is irritating. The date seems like a logical place to start. January 12, 2010
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And I tap the pen. Until the paper is covered in little black dots. Twenty four weeks today. I imagine ten little fingers and ten little perfect toes. I know your mother has been writing to you. My own mother, your grandmother, was a writer too. She wrote words in every space she could. Her letters have become her legacy. I am so grateful to have those pieces of her now that she is gone. I hope to give these to you in person one day, when you are grown and your mother and I are starting to grey. Perhaps when you are getting ready to have children of your own. I'm sure your mother's words are far more articulate and meaningful than mine. I know my handwriting is barely legible, but you deserve to know how important you are. I hope you have her eyes and her heart. I know you will be strong and brave. I hope you have the best parts of both of us. I love you already and I can't wait to meet you. I'm not sure how to sign it. I tap the pen. Dad I pull out a second sheet, and this letter is even more daunting. Because if I write to her, then she's our daughter. Which is seeming more and more impossible with every passing day. We have a crib and yet I'm afraid of a bunch of stupid words. And this is what he was trying to protect us from. This feeling of absolute despair. Of wanting, no loving, someone we might not be able to have. Of falling in love before we had any right to do so. I set the pen down and try to imagine a time when our children are grown. I hope we get that. Together. I realize that even if we do, even if we live a long and happy life together, my own father will most likely be gone. I pull my cell phone from my pocket, and I make a call. I press send this time. He picks up on the first ring.
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I keep it short. I invite him for dinner. He accepts. He doesn't apologize. It's what I expect. I can't fault him for being predictable. I can't fault him for being a broken man. And as much as I want to understand, I have no concept of what it's like to walk around in his skin. My thoughts are disrupted by a piercing scream. My feet are in motion before I can even process any of it. The door to the little room is swung open, and I'm screaming too. "Bella!" She answers me with a strangled sob. And years of training, don't mean anything. There is no such thing as composure. With this freight train in my chest. As my feet fly down the stairs. And then I see her. On the couch in the living room. And even though I'm running and tripping over my feet, I can't get to her fast enough. With her one hand clutching her belly and the other like a claw over her face. There is only pain. Excruciating pain. My mind is racing. Doing the math. The survival statistics. Twenty four weeks. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. We haven't even chosen a name. This isn't happening. This can't be real. There is only screaming. And then there is no longer any sound. There is only Bella. My Bella. Without wasting a second, I run to the kitchen to grab the house phone. I dial 911 with shaky hands as my clumsy feet try to make their way to her. My entire life is right here in this moment. I drop the phone to the ground when I see what she sees.
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-PC-

A/N: To Susan for always making it better and Kim for being mine. I don't usually do review replies, partly because of time, but mostly because I never know what to say. You'll be getting one this time with a teaser within a week because I'm feeling all kinds of guilty for that cliffie. If you don't want a teaser, let me know and I won't spoil you.

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Ugly Money and Stone Faces


Ugly Money and Stone Faces

Bella

My mother is buried in the Forks mud. We were in the wrong place when the earth began to shiver and shake on that fateful day in 1989. I spent days trapped between slabs of concrete. I have a bank account filled with ugly money to remind me. Ugly apology money given to me by the government. For spending two days in a smashed car next to my dead mother. That was real. That was my story. The one that I decided I wasn't going to carry around with me anymore. But scars don't leave. By definition. I have always loved words. Words on paper. The beautiful ones. Even the ugly ones. These are a different kind of words. They run across the bottom of the television screen in capital letters. Words and numbers. I see them but I can't feel them. Until I can. Until they crawl all over my skin and shatter my bones. I watch the screen. I watch the words that can't be real. Because it is my story. Not her story. The words must be wrong. I watch the running words until there are faces to go along with them. Newscasters with stone faces. But their eyes betray them. Their eyes give them away. The gravity of what has happened lingers there. I'm trying to listen to what they are saying but I can't hear. I can't hear over the screaming. I see the words in singular flashes.
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Tuesday. January twelfth. Two thousand and ten. Tuesday. Tuesday. Tuesday. Magnitude seven point zero. Catastrophic earthquake. Haiti. Mass casualties. My vision goes cloudy as I stare at the TV. I close my eyes and I picture her in her crib. Her little hands. Her wiggly body. Her hair that sits in tight curls against her head. Her big brown eyes that stare and stare. Breathe. Just breathe. I try to keep her this way. The way she looked last May when I was there. I try to hold this image of her. But it won't stay. And the things I see. Nobody deserves to die that way. Nobody. Not thieves or liars. Not the greedy or the selfish. Not even my mother. Certainly not an innocent child. My throat is raw and aching. The screaming won't stop. It won't stop. And it's coming from me. Edward's name echoes in my ears. As if he could save her. I know he's here. But I'm not sure where here is. I squeeze my eyes shut again and again. And when I open them, I'm in the living room. Our living room.
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The air smells like copper. The jackhammers pound in my ears. And I can't breathe. I stare at the sturdy, motionless walls. Only mildly comforted that my eyes are telling me a different story than my ears. Until the walls and the furniture are falling to dust. In one swift motion, everything that is solid is nothing but sand. Everything real is slipping though my fingertips. There are no longer any walls, only the insides of a smashed car. Tangled metal and torn upholstery. And I can smell it. Blood and cheap perfume. But I can feel the living room carpet under my feet. Between my toes. Breathe breathe breathe. The sound of his voice is the only thing tying me to this house. Not the only thing. My hands rest on my stomach. I am not nine years old. And I can't breathe. My mind is bouncing back and forth between the two of them. My babies. One baby whose life is tenuous. In so many ways. I feel my heart racing away. Because she could be trapped. And maybe nobody is looking for her. She could be dead. I scream the thought away. Another baby who deserves so much more than to be living inside this screaming body. This body that is falling to pieces. And it hits me. I am responsible for another life. I alone am endangering the life that is growing inside of me. And there's not enough air in the world.
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I can't breathe. And for every moment, however fleeting, that I've convinced myself that there might be something greater out there, a higher power, this is the moment when I know I'm wrong. That there is nothing. Because there is no way that God would shake the earth, crumble buildings and steal the lives of people who are already suffering the way that the people of Haiti are suffering. Edward's voice lilts in and out, and his hands are everywhere. I can't breathe. My feet are tingling and my hands are tingling and I can't fucking breathe. I can't breathe. I feel the earth slipping away. I'm hyperventilating. I know this. But I can't stop it. And even the thought of the little one inside of me doesn't stop it. The helplessness that I thought I had banished is everywhere. As my heart races away. This is what it feels like. To have my whole life hanging in front of me. Out of my reach. My hands are too cold. Or too hot. Edward's own hands wrap around mine. And I can feel it. His worry. And not just for me. I'm trying to tell him. I can't breathe. But there are no words. There is a steady pounding. Thud. Thud. Thud. It is the only sound louder than my beating heart. My eyes focus on the front door. I can feel Edward's reluctance to let go of me. But I can't listen to the pounding noise any longer. I ball my hands into fists. Giving him no choice. I try to clear my vision. I blink the fog away. A man stands on our doorstep. Not just a man. A police officer. A familiar face.
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From more than a decade ago. The last time he stood there, in that very spot, he was the bearer of bad news. When I was the girl who couldn't cry. Or feel. Or love. And right now, I want to be that girl. That vacant girl. But I'm not. This is real. And all of this is part of being real. Alive. The policeman stands on the porch. In the uniform that hasn't changed. The way he looks at me, with those concerned eyes, makes me forget and remember and somehow calms me down. He knows us too. He remembers. I can almost breathe. Until I start to wonder what he's doing here. And I want to scream it. Why are you here? I try to listen to his voice. I try to hear the words. He's here out of courtesy. Protocol. For a dropped 911 call. He's not here because someone died. But the reason for his presence doesn't change anything. It doesn't change what happened. An act of God. Whatever that means. Breathe. Damn it. Breathe. I don't hear the rest. I don't see the rest. I'm in the ER. Edward's ER. And when I can finally breathe again, when I can hear our baby's steady heartbeat, I feel like a failure. Like I've already failed as a mother. Like I've failed them both. Some pregnant women are prone to hyperventilating. This is what they tell me. This is how they explain it to me. Like it's nothing. Like I'm normal. Edward doesn't leave my side. The way he looks at me makes my heart hurt. For
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putting him through this. I'm calm. I breathe breathe breathe. Until Carlisle walks through the door. The man who was once my father. The same man who has been a shadow of a father to my husband. Edward doesn't speak. Doesn't ask him what he's doing here. He won't even look at him. He sits on the edge of my hospital bed, with his back to his father. His eyes don't leave me. "I'm glad the baby is fine." The words come from Carlisle's lips. I watch his face. The same face that sat at our kitchen table on a Tuesday. The rage emanates off of me. "Fuck you." He stares at me with wide eyes. "Bella I only care about your..." "You don't get to care now!" I can see my words prickle all over his skin. And he's just a man. He's just a man who's managed to fuck up everything that matters. And I don't want to care. It's the first time I've ever seen him defeated. His blue eyes are piercing. Raw with emotion. "I suppose that's fair, but it doesn't make it true." "She doesn't need any more stress right now, Dad. Just go. Please." Carlisle stands with his feet firmly planted in place. "I'm sorry. For so many things. I'm sorry." I watch Edward's face. I watch the apology settle in. Carlisle turns and walks slowly to the door, pausing with his hand on the handle. "For the record, I'm not going anywhere." Gone from the room, but not from our lives, he means it. And I feel inexplicably lighter. The nurse returns to do a sonogram. As a precaution. She's calm and cheerful. Her flamingo pink lipstick is smeared on her two front
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teeth, and I want to shake her. Don't you know what's happening in the world right now? Maybe she knows, maybe she doesn't. She's sturdy. She looks like the kind of woman that would never fall to pieces. The kind of woman that would never hyperventilate. She slathers the cool, clear gel over my round little belly. And I breathe. "Have you found out what you're having, Mrs. Cullen?" I'm not used to that name. The one that belongs to Esme. Edward answers for me. "No, Bella wants to be surprised. We decided to be surprised." I watch Edward's face instead of the monitor. His worry lines. His tired eyes. His wild hair. I listen to the steady heartbeat. And breathing has never felt so good. "Baby is awake, that's for sure." The nurse's voice is filled with smiles as she moves the device all over my belly. I watch Edward's lips curl up as he watches our baby on the monitor. And I can see it on his face. He knows. I turn to the black and white screen. Squinting, trying to discern what he sees. Or doesn't see. And maybe I know too. Maybe I've known for a while. His fingers curl around mine. He squeezes my hand twice. I turn back to him. "Maybe I want to know a little bit." He almost smiles. "Are you sure?" I can only nod. He presses his lips right up to my ear. "She's a girl. And she's perfect." The tears fall, loose and quiet.
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A girl. They say that sorrow is necessary to truly appreciate joy. I used to believe that. I don't know what I believe anymore. I don't know what's real or true or certain. Maybe nothing. But that can't be true. Because she is real. And ours. Edward's lips trail all over my face. I and love and you. And I try to stay present. I try to appreciate this moment. Because we won't get it back. And this is a moment I have control over. The nurse leaves us be. A girl. Edward's eyes are my eyes. Impossibly happy. Impossibly lost. I breathe. My eyes start to droop as I listen to the humming of the hospital. My doctor wants to monitor the baby for a couple of hours before I can go home. I can feel the bed shift moments before Edward places a warm kiss on my forehead. A second over my belly. A third over my heart. A third. "Sleep for a bit." I want to argue but we've been here for hours and I'm tired. So very tired. Nurses come in and out of the room. Fussing over me. And I have a feeling that it has less to do with me and more to do with the fact that I'm Dr. Cullen's wife. I don't mind. Let them fuss. Edward is on his phone. I let sleep take me away. I'm in an airport. I walk up to the gate. Without a ticket. Without taking my shoes off. And this is how I know it's a dream, but I don't care. Because I need to know who I'm waiting for. I need to know.
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I shuffle from foot to foot. Uncomfortable and heavy. When I look down, I can't see my feet. My shoes. My hands rest on my swollen belly. I watch the gate and I wait. People start to file out, weary and loaded with carry ons. I don't know who I'm waiting for. But my heart knows. It's flying away. I see his hair over the crowd. His unruly hair that is only him. But there is someone else. In his arms. Someone small. And dark. And beautiful. And then I'm running. My entire body is weightless. As my feet fly over the ground. Until they're in my arms. It's a good dream. An impossible one. A cruel one. I'm ready to wake up now. I'm ready to wake up. But dreams don't work that way. I want to will it to be true. I want to will it away. The rest is black. Grey. White. Blinding light. Minutes. Hours. I don't know. I lie still. Eyes closed. I'm awake. But I'm not ready to open my eyes and face what's out there. It takes me a moment to remember. Everything that has happened. I can hear Edward's voice. Carlisle's too. They're shouting in whispers. Arguing. But not with each other. They're irritating the shit out of my doctor, who by the sound of it, thinks I'm fine to go home. Let them argue. I don't know if I can go home. I don't know if I can walk through that door and stand in that living room.
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I don't know if she's okay. I'm afraid of what knowing will do to me. My doctor leaves the room, leaving the two of them to commiserate and unfairly question her competency. I watch them. It's a relief to see Edward and Carlisle speaking to one another. To see them as a united front. Even if they are being overly cautious. Overprotective. Carlisle's eyes settle on mine, and he quietly slips out of the room. Edward is back at my side. His hands taking inventory. I run my thumb over the crease between his eyes. He closes them. Holding his breath. "Edward, what is it?" He lets out a slow breath. "I was so afraid." I'm still afraid. And he is too. I can see it, even with his eyes closed. "Take me home?" His lashes flutter before he looks up at me. Wide eyed and searching. "Okay." Okay. And so we go home. It's late. We sit in the driveway. "Bella, it's bad. It's really bad." I know. "And it could be a while before we hear anything." I don't want to accept this. I don't have a choice.
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We walk through the front door and there is only one room I want to be in right now. He follows me up the stairs. Up to the little room. The room with two cribs. And walls that are too yellow for two little girls. And it doesn't matter if this is more than I deserve. Because it's what she deserves. This impossible life. I sit in the chair in the corner. He brushes the hair from my face. "Come to bed, Bella." "I just need a minute." He blinks twice. "Alright." I sit in the dark room. I breathe. Eyes closed. I just breathe. Until he's scooping me up. Trying not to wake me. Tucking me in to our bed. Draped in heavy quilts, I have never felt this desperate. I paw at him until he's holding me tight. His warm lips run over my face. He covers my hands as I try to undress him. "Bella, sleep." Of all of the things I need right now, sleep is at the bottom of the list. The very bottom. "Edward, please." I undress myself. Without any help. He watches me. And I don't know what he's looking for. And if he's wondering if I'm okay, I'm not. And if he's being honest with himself, neither is he.
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I feel selfish for being in this warm bed and this warm house and thinking that we are the ones who aren't okay. And I have never needed him more. I let the blankets fall as I sit up in our bed. Searching his tired eyes. Searching for something that will save me. Save her. Save us. He takes in my naked body. A shiver runs up my spine. His hands don't wander. I just want him to touch me. I need to feel those hands. He tries to pull the blankets up over me. But I don't let him. On my knees, I straddle his fully clothed hips, my hands finding purchase on his naked chest. My growing belly keeping me upright. Keeping me front flattening my body to his and smothering him with kisses. He remains still as I rub against him. "Bella..." "Please." His eyes are fire. His hands grip my hips. Digging into my flesh. And just when I think he's giving me what I want, he's lifting me off of him. I turn away, lying on my side. But I don't have time to wallow. Because he's right there. Every inch of the hot skin against my back. I can feel his heavy breaths, his heaving chest. His fingertips trail down my arm, covering me in goose bumps. As he quickly rids himself of his sleep pants. His knee slides between my legs. Making his intentions clear. And his hands are everywhere. And his lips are everywhere. When I turn my head to kiss him, he's right there. Teasing me with his hips. And as I taste his lips, his tongue, he's filling me.
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And when I gasp into his mouth, he stills. "Are you uncomfortable?" "No." No, no, no. For the longest time he doesn't move. And neither do I. As our hands come together, fingers intertwined, he sets the pace. He tortures me with his body and his words. Whispering into my ear, gently sucking the skin along my neck. It's almost too much. I hold his hand tight, my other hand fisting the bed sheets. I breathe. Heavy and shallow. "Let go, Bella." Let go. As if the sound of his voice can will it into reality. "I don't know how." And it's true. I just want to feel. Or maybe I want to be numb. I want both. Heat radiates from my skin. From his mouth. "I can't ever lose you." And I know it's true. Reverent hands roam my body. Making everything white hot. Like wildfire. And for that blissful moment when I'm standing at the edge, on tip toes, poised to fall over, I forget everything. Everything. Until I'm falling. Falling so fast. Lost to the world. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. And it's good, so good. As he lets go too. Mine and fierce and aching. Until everything is rushing back. Staring me in the face. Making my body shake for entirely different reasons.
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Burying me under a pile of rubble. He gives me three kisses. One. Two. Three. And I want to beg him not to move. Don't ever let go. And he knows. His strong arms and legs wrapping me up. And I don't know which one of us needs it more. We stay like this. Tangled and white hot. Until it's no longer Tuesday. The days pass slowly. Without word. I don't leave the house. I check my phone a hundred times a day. It's worse, far worse than I ever imagined it could be. The devastation. The despair. People sleeping in the streets. The aftershocks continue to terrorize the people who live there. The ones who survived. They are estimating that hundreds of thousands of people are dead. I have no concept of what hundreds of thousands of people look like. But if I could trade them for one life, I would do it. The guilt of this thought weighs on my chest. Makes me wonder about the content of my character. I watch the news. For days. I sit on the couch in the living room with the remote in my hand. Edward is watching me. I can feel it. I can't look at him. Because maybe he can see the thoughts that sit behind my eyes. "You need to stop watching this." "I can't." He covers the remote with his hand and I let him. I let him take it from me. I look away as he turns it off. I stare at the cold glass of the window, blurring the stars that sit beyond it. So far beyond that I can see things that may no longer exist.
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I don't pretend to understand the science behind the stars. Light years. Plasma held together by gravity. Edward told me once that stars burn out, die, long before they disappear from our night sky. It seems tragic that something that exists for millions, perhaps billions of years would die out at all. But not as tragic as a baby girl who was never given a chance. To live. Edward and I sit in silence on the couch. For too long. I close my eyes. I tell myself not to go there. But hundreds of thousands of people are dead. And when I close my eyes, I see them. "I think I need to talk to someone." I don't even recognize the sound of my own voice. I can hear the tap of the remote as he sets it on the coffee table. His hand tangles with mine. "Okay." Okay. I make dinner. I do the only normal thing I can think of. Edward's on the phone with his father. They've been speaking several times a day. I think. I hear heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. I turn just in time to see Edward barreling into the kitchen. And the look on his face. Is enough to ruin me. Forever and ever. Those hands on my stone face. I try to remember if I've ever seen him cry. His voice is shaky and thick with emotion. And I know what he's going to say. But I need to hear it. I need to hear the words. And when I hear them, when they fall from his lips, I think my heart might give out. "She's fine. She's alive and she's fine."
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Happy tears streak down his face. And in this moment, it doesn't matter if she's ours. It doesn't matter, the country or the crib. All that matters is that she is one of the lucky ones.

-PC-

A/N: To Susan, you're the prettiest beta around. I apologize for giving you carpel tunnel. That fragment alert on Word is persistent. One day I'll agree to finish a sentence. To Kimberley, thanks for reading this at 5:00 am. Is it dawn yet? I was overwhelmed by the response to the last chapter. Like really fucking overwhelmed. Also, I have mad respect for authors who do regular review replies. Many of you figured out what was happening and I love that you read so closely. I love that you care so much about these characters. I f-word love you guys, okay? *winks at Nic* See you in a couple of weeks.

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Snapshots and Sunday Stew


Snapshots and Sunday Stew

Edward

I've wondered what it might be like to have my life flash before my eyes. I thought it would be like a movie. In fast forward. Every milestone, every birthday, every scraped knee. It's not like that at all. My life boils down to a series of select images. Moments that refuse to leave, for whatever reason. Moments of consequence. Single flashes. Like snapshots tucked into the pages of a book. Split-second glimpses of photographs as the pages flutter by. Proud moments. Sad ones too. My favorite places. Fist fights. A handful of pocket change flung against a wall. A couple of falling buildings. And an old whitewashed barn. But most of the images are of people. The first patient I lost. The first one I saved. My mother. Laughing with Alice in the kitchen. Scolding me for tracking mud in the house. Tucking me in at night. Reading to me. Sitting in the window seat with a journal and a pencil. Dancing with my father. Dying. Bella. Sitting in the cafeteria, face in a book. Glaring at me in the barn with her tangled mess of hair. Staring in the cold, cold forest. Kissing me. Staying with me. Leaving me. Standing on my door step in the pouring rain. Telling me she loves me. Promising me. Wearing a white dress. Wearing nothing at all. Loving me. Winking. Blinking. Smiling. Screaming. Sleeping peacefully in our bed.
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The way her hair frames her face when she's fast asleep, still makes my heart stutter. I snuggle into her warmth, my hand gravitating to the swell of her belly. She sighs in her sleep, muttered words and restless dreams. I close my eyes. I try to be here in this bed and let the rest of it go. But it's not that easy. Not that simple. When I first saw the news headline, the word earthquake, my immediate response was relief. Because that earthquake was someone else's tragedy. In that moment, I didn't care how many people lost their homes, their livelihoods, their lives. How many children would suffer. Faceless children with faceless parents. I only cared about the safety of my wife and my child. I was a fool. Because that earthquake does belong to my child. My family. That fleeting moment of relief gnaws at my bones. Because I didn't care. And now, I can do nothing but care. I wish I could be more than just a man. I have never felt so helpless, first thinking that Bella was going into preterm labor and then realizing she was panicking. That our other baby was the one in danger. And even now that we know she's alive, I can't help but be afraid for her future. Information has been scarce. We know that the orphanage still stands. We know she's alive. That's all we know. It's not nearly enough. I don't let myself think about her for too long, because when I do, the guilt seeps in, slow and thick as molasses. I can't help but feel that we haven't done enough. Money is loud, and we did nothing but talk when we should have been screaming. That is the guilt talking. I recognize it immediately. My mom always said that guilt serves no useful purpose in life. Guilt is ugly and traitorous. I try to push the images from the news out of my mind. I hold on to different images. The ones that tell a story. I hold on to my wife. I sleep.
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Until my alarm goes off in the morning. I leave Bella in our warm bed with three kisses. I go to work. And I might as well be a corpse with a medical degree. I don't know if it's the lack of sleep or the news footage that won't stop playing in my mind. Or the realization that my job is unfulfilling. The fact that I'm admitting it. If only to myself. I don't want to be here. I count down the hours until I get to go home to my wife. She's waiting for me when I open the front door. Nervous. I'm not sure what kind. "Your father called." Of course he did. He's been doing a lot of that. We've been talking regularly but it's still awkward between us and I don't know how to change it. I don't know if I want to. If it's even possible. I kick off my shoes and slump down into the couch by her side. "He asked if we'd join him for dinner." I can hear it in her voice. The wishes and hopes and wants. She never had a grandparent. She never had a family. She wants more for our children. And so I agree. Because I want what she wants. For the first time in months, we stand on my father's front porch. The front door is unlocked. This makes Bella smile. The house smells like stew. Instead of pizza. Or Chinese takeout. I peer around the kitchen doorway, looking for the reason. Suddenly afraid that there might be a woman in this house. That he's met someone. It's been more than a decade since Mom passed. He'd have every right to move on. But the thought of it turns my stomach sour. Bella grips my arm. I turn to face her and she's grinning. At the sight of my father and a crock pot.
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He's all nervous smiles, staring back at us. "I cooked." I shift from foot to foot. "I can see that." Bella holds my arm tighter. "It smells delicious, Carlisle." He looks elated. And maybe it's simply because we accepted the invitation. We're here. I want to know what he's doing. What he's trying to pull. The man doesn't cook. He doesn't have us over for Sunday stew. His eyes crinkle as he lights the candlesticks on the table. When I look at him, when I really look, I can't help but wonder when he grew old. I watch his hands as he dishes up the plates. They carry the story of his life. If only they could speak. His smile seems genuine as he serves us at the old kitchen table. Insisting that we sit. Bella has a matching smile. Sunday stew is not enough to make me smile. I listen to them talk. Back and forth. I try to follow but I can't get out of my own head. They discuss the earthquake and somehow it's not heavy. It's not personal. It's all dates and facts and statistics. His voice matches his old hands. "I have a lot to get done and very little time to do it in." This confuses me. He's never cared about anything other than being a doctor. Being the best. "You told me you were cutting back your hours, Dad." "I'm taking a leave of absence instead. Would you be willing to look after the house when I'm gone?" He's speaking in riddles. "While you're gone?" "They need doctors. I'm a doctor."
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My heart races. Afraid to believe it. Afraid not to. "What are you saying, Dad?" "I'm saying that I'm going." Bella's hand grabs my leg under the table. Her voice is brittle. "Going where?" Because even though we both know where, we need to hear him say it. "Haiti." And with one word, all is forgiven. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that means more. Sometimes actions and words are all part of the same. Neither one speaks louder. I can't think of a single thing to say that would be enough. That would make him understand what this means. I let my hands do the talking. I reach out tentatively, covering one of his old hands with my own. He places his other hand on top of mine. Looking straight into my face, it might be the first time he's really seen me. Or maybe he's seen me all along. "I know, son." I go to speak but there is nothing there. Bella says the words for me, the words catching in her throat. "When do you leave?" "I fly out the day after tomorrow." "So soon." "I'm afraid that time is only working against them." He's right. He's so right. That reality haunts my dreams. "They are seeking doctors who specialize in trauma, Edward." Like bricks on my chest.
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Of course. Of course they are. I've been so caught up in our own little world that it didn't even occur to me. I'm ashamed I didn't think of it myself. Bella's hand loosens on my thigh, and I don't know what she's feeling. What she's thinking. Stay or go. But when I see her face there is no question. She is begging me without words. Pleading eyes and shaky hands. Please. Please go. But how can I leave my pregnant wife alone? How can I stay when our child is there? How can I stay? Dad releases my hand and stands from the table, clearing our plates. "I'll just be in the den. Think it over, son." I feel like a child when he calls me that. He pats my shoulder as he leaves the kitchen. Bella and I turn to face each other on the bench seat. Her hands frame my face. "Please, Edward." As if I could ever say no to her. "Please." I nod, bringing her face to mine, resting my forehead against hers. "I don't want to leave you." "Please don't think of it like that." "I wasn't finished." She takes a deep breath, exhaling slowly. "I want to go. I need to go. It should have occurred to me sooner. I should have been the one." She's kissing me all over my face. "Edward, Edward, Edward." "Will I ever stop feeling like a child?" "Edward, you'll always be his child." I want that to be true as much as I wish it wasn't.
- 365 -

"Hey, look at me." Her eyes are soft and warm. "I am so proud of the man you have become." Foreheads resting against each other again, we stay like this. Hope and fear and love and bravery. She presses her lips to mine, drowning me in everything that she is. "Take a walk with me?" "Bella, it's the middle of winter and you're pregnant." "Take a walk with me." She looks up at me and even though it's not a question, it's still a plea. "Alright." Her arms reach around my neck, fingertips along my hairline. And she kisses me. Once. Twice. "I'm going to go talk to your dad for a minute." I watch her walk out of the room, and I don't know how I'm going to do this. I go out to the garage. Sitting on the cold cement steps for a moment, I let it all sink in. I pile the wheelbarrow high with firewood and an old quilt. Back in the house, I can't help but watch and listen from the foyer. "I'll give Edward a call tomorrow with all of the contact information to volunteer his time." He's so formal. Speaking as if we're simply being Good Samaritans. As if it's not personal. And maybe it's not to him. But I know better. We all know better. He's protecting himself too. "Good night, Bella." He kisses her cheek. "Take good care of that baby." He's a different man with the same face. Bella smiles wide, nodding and blushing. Then she's wrapping her arms around him. Hugging him tight. Thanking him. For being a grandfather.
- 366 -

"If it's late when you get back, you're welcome to stay the night." With a nod, she's ducking out of the den, looking at me sideways for eavesdropping. I pull a couple of coats from the closet, helping Bella into a familiar purple parka and zipping it up to her chin. It's cold. Even for January. "Maybe we should just go home." She smirks at me. "I'm pregnant, not an invalid." "It's cold. It's a long walk." "Edward." "Bella." "Edward. Take a walk with me." So we walk to our barn. In the dead of winter. Surrounded by the stars and the cold night air. I've never been so afraid. Afraid of going to that country and seeing how she lives. Having to leave her there. I tell myself to stop. She's fine. She's not the only reason I'm going. Except of course she is. She's my reason. The barn sits in the distance, the moss covered roof lit by the full moon. An old friend. It was the first place Bella and I talked, really talked. In all of the time we were apart, I remembered it as the place I fell in love with her. Except she loved me too. It will forever be our barn. Even if we're only a chapter in its story, it feels like it belongs to us. Or maybe we belong to it. It's the place we said our vows. The place we made love. Bella tugs on my arm as we approach the massive doorway. "What are you
- 367 -

thinking about?" I remember how she used to scowl at me when I would ask her the same question. "I was just thinking that our daughters will never be allowed to bring boys to this place." She laughs and it's the best sound. Standing at the bottom of the ladder, looking up, I have to wonder what we're doing. If we'll ever grow up. I follow close behind her as she takes each step. We stand in the empty space of the loft. No books. No fluffy bed. Only memories. I lay out the blanket on the rough wood. Bella lies on her side with her head propped up by her elbow, twinkle in her eye, watching me. "Why are you way over there?" As soon as I'm lying down next to her, she's kicking her shoes off and tangling her feet with mine. Those cold toes. "I wish I could go with you." While I understand, that is the last thing in the world I wish for. Without stepping foot on Haitian soil, I know that what I see there will be haunting. "I'll be back before you know it." "You better." She runs her palm over her belly. Our daughter. "Do you want to talk about names?" I think this is something we should talk about before I go. Before I leave my pregnant wife. She worries her lip. "You already have a name in mind, don't you?" She shakes her head, but her eyes give her away. She burrows into my side, trying to hide her face. "You do! What is it? Tell me." She speaks into the fabric of my coat. "You first."
- 368 -

"I don't have a name." Except I do. And we're both liars. The sound of an owl echoes in the distance. "She's going to be alright, right?" I want to lie to her. To tell her that she'll be fine and ours and happily ever after. But I won't do that to Bella. "I don't know." The words leave my throat without permission. I seek out her eyes and even in the dark of night, it's all there. The last ten years. The best of it and the worst. She feels it too. "Kiss me." I brush the hair from her face, letting my fingers wander. Along her forehead. Over her cheek bones. Under her jaw. Fingertips over her soft skin. And she still takes my breath away. I watch her eyes flutter closed as I bring my lips to the corner of her mouth. Barely touching her. Until my face is in her hands, demanding my lips on hers. We're not teenagers. It's not the forest. Owling and the coldest hands. And when I look at her, I don't see who I want her to be. I see who she is. Who she's become. And while I'm terrified of what's before us, she gives me strength. Courage. My hand on her now fuller hip, as our lips push and pull. Tangeled up in the warm quilt, we just kiss. And kiss. And kiss. Until the story of our life falls away. We're Edward and Bella. On a cold winter night. Wrapped around each other. Until the hard wooden floor of the loft is too much for both of us. It's late. Bella can barely keep her eyes open. I help her down the rickety ladder. We walk hand in hand into the clear night.
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She rests her head on my shoulder as we stare at the wheelbarrow still full of firewood. "Carry me home?" "I thought you were pregnant, not an invalid." "I changed my mind." I dump the wood into the dirt. For a different cold night under the stars. I lift her into the wheelbarrow. She's all giggles and flailing arms. We make it two feet before she's begging me to stop. Wheelbarrows were not meant for dirt paths and pregnant women. I help her back to her feet. We abandon the wheelbarrow, toppled on its side. We make the slow walk back. And it feels so real. How much our life has changed. We have grown up. Maybe this is what it feels like. The house dark as ever, we climb the stairs to my old room, too tired to speak. I feel like I could sleep for days. Or never again. In my old bed, with Bella curled into my side, I pray for courage. The next morning is spent on the phone. This is real. This is happening. Everything is arranged. It's complicated and surprisingly simple. They are desperate for doctors. They are desperate for anything. My father flies out days ahead of me. Which is somehow comforting. We're doing this together. And on our own. He has called once. He didn't say much, only that it's like nothing he's ever seen. In a few short days I'll be getting on a plane. I don't think anything will prepare me for what I'll see there. I have a long list of errands to run before I leave. I drive by Rose's house on my way out. I pull into her driveway on a whim. I almost hope she isn't home. We haven't seen each other since she stormed out. Since Bella and I told her we were
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expecting. Just as I'm about to turn around and walk back to my car, her front door swings open. "Edward?" She's surprised to see me. Standing on her porch. I'm sure I look a mess. She is probably running a hundred scenarios through her head. "I was hoping to catch you." "Well, you caught me. What's going on?" "I'm leaving town for a while, I just want to say goodbye before I left." She motions for me to come in. She puts on a pot of coffee even though I tell her I can't stay long. We sit in her living room and have small talk. Rosalie doesn't do small talk. We talk with long pauses. It's awkward. And annoying. I don't know why I came here. "How's Bella?" I don't appreciate her tone. "She's fine. All things considered." Her demeanor changes. "And the baby? In Haiti?" "She's alive. That's all we know." "I'm glad." I think she might even mean it. "So, I'm going there. To Haiti. They need doctors and... Well, I'm going." She frowns at me. "Maybe you should take some time to think it through, Edward." "I'm leaving the day after tomorrow." "So this is real? This is your life?" I don't know how she can even ask me that.
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"Of course it's real. This is my family, Rose." She looks taken aback. As if I've just revealed some monumental secret. "Your family." It's not a question. I say it again. "My family." Because she needs to hear it. She crosses her arms tight over her stomach. "I'm sorry, Edward." "I know." "Be careful." I can only nod. "Alice will be here a week after I leave, but Bella's alone until then." I don't know what I'm saying, what I'm asking, until the words are already out of my mouth. "She could use a friend, Rose." She doesn't scoff at me. She stands motionless. "Alright." Alright. Whether I came here for that reason or not, I feel marginally better. "How long will you be gone?" "A few weeks. Maybe longer." She stares at me. I don't know what she's looking for. What she's thinking. Maybe I don't know her anymore. "I really have to get going, Rose. Thanks for the coffee." She takes my mug from me and is opening the front door before I've even moved to stand. "Goodbye, Edward." And it sounds so final. She's still standing on her front porch as I pull out of the driveway. She's still standing there with an empty face.
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But I don't have time to dwell on it. I can't and I won't. I spend the next couple of days with my wife. Minutes and hours passing in a blur. Until we're at the airport. "You'll make sure, right?" I don't have to ask her what she means. And even though I'm terrified, I'm equally excited. Because I'm finally going to meet our daughter. Bella stands tall. Brave and proud. I kiss her belly. "Stay in there until I get back, okay?" This is one of my moments. An image that burns forever. Slotted between the pages. Of the story of my life.

-PC-

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Forgiveness and Hope


Forgiveness and Hope

Bella

All I can see is the back of his head as he goes through security, and there is a moment that I want to yell for him to come back. I don't know which is more selfish. Asking him to go or asking him to stay. I know he doesn't want to leave me. To leave us. We talked and talked and talked about it. I also know that there is a part of him that needs this. A part of him that needs to feel like he's doing something meaningful with his life. And the Forks ER isn't it. There is another part of him that needs to share this with his father. Baby girl aside, this is important. It matters. It's bigger than the two of us. The timing is wrong. We both know this. But the timing will always be wrong. And once the baby is here, I'll want him here always. And he will want the same. He can do this. We can do this. I sit in my car in the airport parking lot. I call Alice before I lose it. Before I give myself another moment to think about the aftershocks. To think about where he's going. How long he'll be gone. Alice answers on the first ring. All light and airy. As if I'm just calling to say hi. I know what she's doing. And she knows too. We both pretend. They're her family too. We talk about her trip up here. "Jasper doesn't mind that I'm stealing you away?" "He'll be fine. Dad and Edward will be fine too." I decide to believe her.
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I go home to an empty house. And it's okay. He'll be back. I can do this. I sleep alone in our bed for the first time. I lived alone for years and years. But this is different. Quieter, emptier. Because I know what I'm missing. Except I'm not really alone. I tap my finger tips over my belly. "Good night baby girl." I lie awake listening to our old house. The phone rings before dawn. Startling me out of a restless sleep. Sending my heart into overdrive. I answer it in the dark. "Edward?" "I know it's early. I wanted to tell you I made it safely." His voice trails off. "And I miss you." He sounds so far away. I think I ask him a hundred questions without taking a breath. "I just wanted to tell you I love you, Bella. Go back to sleep." "I love you too." The line goes dead. I run my open palm over his side of the bed. Underneath his weightless pillow. Sleep comes easier with the sound of his voice fresh in my mind. I sleep until the sun is up. Until I have to pee. I try to avoid my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I'm all puffy eyes and tangled hair. I have an appointment today. With someone who specializes in Post Traumatic Stress. Whatever that means. I want to cancel it. But I don't. Because I need this. And if not for myself, then for my family. The entire drive there I want to turn around. Because I don't know how to be honest with a stranger. I don't know how.
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I've talked to plenty of shrinks. That's not true. I've lied to plenty of shrinks. But that's not what this is going to be. I don't want to be a liar. The building is old. Individual offices with a central courtyard. I walk through the atrium with my heart thundering away. It's damp and musty cold. Too many closed office doors with placards that scare me. This is ridiculous. I am a coward. I'm afraid of things that have already happened. Things that no longer exist. I find the door. The one that is scarier than all of the rest. I hesitate, for just a second. Hand on the door knob. Until it's being pulled open. Open and away from me. I'm startled. By the face. Rosalie stands inches from me, deer in headlights. Her skin is splotchy. She combs her hands through her hair. It takes me a moment to remember where I am. I stand here, slack-jawed. Her eyes settle on my stomach. She says my name in greeting. Or reprimand. And brushes past me before I have a chance to respond. I sit in the small waiting room. And it's the perfect distraction. Because why was she here? Perfect, beautiful Rosalie Hale. Tall and strong and everyone's best friend but mine. I try to reconcile the image of her that I have in my head with the woman who was standing in front of me minutes ago. Until my name is called. And I find myself in a room with a view. I promise, if only to myself, to be honest and brave. It's different than I thought it would be. My doctor doesn't have a name I can't pronounce or a neck that's too long or wonky teeth or mascara goop in the corner of her eye. I think I almost like her.
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I schedule my next appointment for a few days out. I don't cancel it. We talk about coping strategies for high stress situations. But that's just a band-aid. I talk. And I talk. I tell the honest parts. Even the parts that feel like they might rip me open. They don't. I'm still here. I admit that I want to forgive my mother. For her sins. I admit that I don't know how. Perhaps she's not the one you need to forgive. It's not true and it's all true and I don't know how to do that either. Forgiveness. My mind is swimming the entire drive home. I'm in the driveway and I hardly remember getting here. With my house key in the front door, I see a glimpse of something on the porch under the window. Goose bumps prick on my skin. I face the door, peaking out of the corner of my eye until I can make it out. I blink, willing it to disappear. It doesn't. A small bird lies on its back. Wings splayed out. Head twisted to the side. I'm afraid to move. Afraid to look away. It's dead. I'm going to be sick. I breathe in through my mouth.
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It's just a bird. A bird that flew into a window. It happens all the time. I stare at its beautiful, lifeless body until my face and my hands are too cold to be out here a second longer. I push the front door open and slam it behind me. The house is eerily quiet. I know I will probably long for this kind of quiet some day, but on days like today, I only wish for noise. Any kind. I rifle around my closet for a shoe box. To bury the bird. And when I find one, I don't know if I have the courage to do it. To scoop up that flightless bird. Armed with a pair of kitchen gloves and a shovel from the garage, I open the front door. I stare at the spot on the porch. And it's gone. It's gone. Flown away or carried off. I don't know whether to be alarmed or relieved. I close the door quickly, almost scared that it will reappear if I stare for too long. I walk up the stairs with heavy feet, hoping Edward will call again. I need his voice. If only for a little while. I stare at my reflection in our bedroom mirror. My fuller cheeks. My muddy eyes. With my hair down, I look like her. My mother. I turn to the side, hands covering my full belly. I wonder if this is what she looked like. When she was pregnant. She was younger. She was alone. She had left her husband a full year prior. Believing that the grass truly was greener. Realizing that it wasn't at all. I try to imagine. Being young. And impulsive. And stupid. Pregnant. Without a steady job. Without the nameless father of my child. Without the man who loves me. The one who I think couldn't possibly ever forgive me.
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And even though that's not my reality, I can feel the suffocating truth of it. The panic she must have felt. This is as close to understanding her as I may ever get. I go to the cemetery. To her grave. Maybe for the last time. I trace her name. The date. I relish the feeling of cold, sharp edges against the pad of my finger. And I remember. I remember being four years old, crying with laughter as we rolled down a grassy hill in a random park in an unknown city. I remember spending an entire day at the movies with a pocket full of quarters for video games and an endless supply of candy. I remember hot fudge sundaes at an old-fashioned ice cream shop on my birthday. I remember loving her and hating her. Telling her the second part. I remember the empty feeling in my chest when she died, and being so, so angry at her. I remember the first time Charlie told me he loved me. When he was still a stranger man. When he was still my father. I remember being nine years old. Losing myself. Learning to pretend. To be who I thought everyone wanted me to be. I remember being hollow. Unable to cry. I remember feeling dead. Fallen, but still breathing. A lifetime ago. Maybe several. Those memories leave me feeling nothing but grateful. To be alive. And to feel it. To really feel it. "Hi, Mom."
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Everything is gray. The sky, the earth, her headstone. Her life. For the first time, I feel sad for her. Because she'll never get to meet her grandchildren. Because she didn't understand, didn't appreciate the way Charlie loved her. Because she spent her life searching for something she never found, and maybe didn't exist. "Mom?" I wish she could talk to me. Could hear me. Could see me. "Mom, I forgive you for being lost." And then I walk away. My hair blowing in the wind. My feet patting down the Forks mud. I walk away. I walk away. And even though my body is heavy, my heart is light. Lighter than it's ever been. I pick Alice up at the airport. She screams when she sees me. All of me. Her hands are all over me and I can't help but laugh. "I'm so glad you're here, Alice." "Me too." We spend days playing in the babies' room. Folding and refolding clothes. Arranging books and toys. "I forgot, I have something for you." She runs from the room, returning with a small box tied with a bow and setting it in front of me. I loosen the satin ribbon, letting it fall away. The box is old, worn at the edges. I pull off the lid, peaking at the contents. "It was my mother's." I blink at the tangled pile of sterling silver nestled at the bottom of the box. I hold the silver locket up, dangling from its chain. It's a little tarnished. It's seen better days. "Open it." I don't know if I want to. My fingers shake slightly as I try to undo the clasp.
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I blink at two tiny black and white photographs. One of me. As a baby. The other of my mother. Younger than I remember her. Alice looks nervous. Unsure if she made the right choice. "My mom used to always wear it. I never knew it opened." I don't know what to say. I don't know if I could ever have a heart as loving as Esme Cullen's. "Thank you, Alice." She helps me fasten it around my neck. It's cold against my skin. We head downstairs and make ourselves comfortable on the couch. We order a pizza. And soon the locket is no longer cold. But I don't forget it's there. I've been waiting for Edward to call all day. He calls when he can. He hasn't given me many details. The conditions are deplorable. Ocean containers converted to operating rooms. Minimal supplies. He doesn't tell me about the people he's treated. I don't ask him about the death toll. He said he was going to the orphanage today. I can't stop fidgeting, waiting for him to call. I can't wait to hear how she's doing. If she's walking yet. He promised to take pictures. He promised to call. "Bella, what's wrong?" Alice has been teaching my how to knit. Her mother taught her, and one day I'll teach my daughters. It will be a gift. From their grandmother. We sit on the couch with our knitting like a pair of old ladies, as we wait for the pizza. "Bella?" "Edward should have called by now." I hold the locket, running my thumb over the smooth metal. "Bella..." I don't want her to look at me like that. So I change the subject. And focus on my knitting. I'm starting with a scarf. A simple scarf that I will never wear because it's lopsided
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and I keep dropping a stitch. But I'm still weirdly proud of it. Because in moments like these, it feels like Esme is here with us. The phone rings from the kitchen, cutting the silence. Alice is on her feet to answer it before I can even think about standing. My entire body is tired and aching. Her voice echoes from the other room. "It's an international number." "Answer it!" I can't wait to hear his voice. And from the kicks in my belly, neither can someone else. I whisper to her. "Don't worry, your daddy will be back soon." When I look up, Alice is standing before me, face serious, holding the phone out. Edward isn't on the phone. I can see it in her eyes. As she stand motionless in front of me. Holding the phone away from her like it caries a deadly disease. "It's for you." Birds taking flight in my chest, I wrap my fingers around the hard, plastic phone. I hold it up to my ear without letting it touch my face. As if somehow that will save me. My voice is barely audible, even though I feel like I'm shouting. "Hello?" Mrs. Cullen? My blood runs cold. Sharp in my veins, like shattered ice. Mrs. Cullen? Birds flying into panes of glass. Falling falling falling. Alice kneels in front of me on the floor, her hands on my legs, her eyes welling up with tears. Mrs. Cullen? "This is she."
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I listen to the voice. I try to hear everything she is saying. What this means. But it can't be real. It can't be. I close my eyes. Do you understand what I'm telling you? I don't understand any of it. I don't understand. I can only nod. I drop the phone to my lap. And I would give anything to have Edward here in front of me. To wrap myself around him and hold on forever and ever. "Bella, what's wrong?" My voice is barely audible. "She's coming home." Alice's eyes go wide, her mouth hanging open. "What?" "She's coming home." I don't have any other words. She's coming home. Our daughter is coming home. I want to jump up and down and shout at the top of my lungs. Loud enough for God to hear me. But I'm frozen in this spot. The kicks in my belly won't quit. It's as close to jumping up and down as we're going to get. Alice is smiling from ear to ear. "But how, Bella? How?" "I don't know. Something about humanitarian parole. She called it 'an evacuation that's in the best interest of the child.' All that matters is getting her out. The details, the red tape, it all seems to have evaporated." I sit on the couch in complete disbelief. She's coming home. And soon. I take a shower. The white noise of the water beating against the tile gives my mind a chance to process it all and time to convince myself that it's real. I wrap myself in a towel and my cheeks hurt. "Bella?" I open the bathroom door to find Alice holding the phone out to me, grinning like a
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loon. I press the phone to my ear with such force that it hurts. "Hello?" "Bella?" And when I hear his voice I can't help but burst into tears. Smiling tears that won't stop. And maybe he's crying too. "I'm coming home. I'm bringing our baby home." And even though he's not here, he's here. Alice and I sit on the landing at the top of the stairs. She rests against my shoulder as Edward tells me about meeting our daughter. For nearly an hour. Until the line cuts out. And it's okay. Because this is what it feels like to have everything I've ever wanted. We eat cold pizza and it's the best meal I've ever had. Days pass slowly. It still doesn't seem possible or real. And maybe it isn't. Maybe it's all a set up for heartbreak. The worst kind imaginable. But it seems real. The survivor's guilt tries to seep in. So many people have died. And we were given the one gift we thought we wouldn't be able to have. Because of that earthquake. I don't know what to do with that. I watch Alice pack up her things to take over to Carlisle's house. "Are you sure you don't want to come with me?" "Yeah. This is your moment." She taps the tip of my nose. "Call me tomorrow, Mama." I'm in the airport. Surrounded by people coming and going. My moment. Our moment. I've dreamed of this moment a thousand times. And every time I'm running to them. But my feet don't move. They won't budge. I scan the crowd, searching for Edward's unruly hair. My feet are cement.
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I don't see him. I can't find him. I refuse to panic. I refuse. I try to stand on my tiptoes. Which is nearly impossible. And then I see him. He's so real and here and impossible. But it's not a dream this time. He's searching too. Searching for me. I should be shouting, waving my arms. I don't do either. I watch his face. His sleepy eyes that smile at the corners. That keep looking down and up. That say everything. He looks like he hasn't slept in days. Weeks maybe. And as the crowd parts in front of him, I see her. In his arms. All small and sleeping and perfect. He's a father. She's here. And he's here. And we're all here. Her face is tucked into the crook of his neck. That soft skin that used to only belong to me. I can share. And when he sees me, his whole face is shining. Bright like the sun. Exaggerated steps until he's close enough to touch. "Hi." He rests his hand on my huge stomach. I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding. I whisper against his lips. "Hi." His thumbs brush across my cheeks, wiping my tears. I can't take my eyes off of her. "She's so beautiful." The way he holds her. The way he looks at her. "She's our daughter." Her eyes flutter. Opening slowly and then closing again. She turns in Edward's arms, snuggling up, rubbing her face against his shirt. I watch her curly eyelashes blink against him. As she tries to wake up. To make sense of this noisy, strange place. She's still so small. But she looks good. Her cheeks are plump and all baby.
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He kisses the top of her head, saying the words into her hair. "You want to say hi to your mama, sweet girl?" She doesn't move, sleepy against him. He adjusts her in his arms, trying to turn her slightly so she can see me. Our eyes connect. Brown on brown. And they're the same. Her eyes are the same. I reach my hand out, hesitating because of the way she's watching me. Guarded. Serious. Her own hands grip Edward's shirt. Forming little fists. Holding on tight. She doesn't know me. She hides her face in his neck, snuggling back up to him. To her father. And when I look at his face. He feels it. I run my hand gently down her back. She peaks out from under Edward's chin, eying me wearily. Curious but afraid. "Hi, Hope." Her eyes widen at the sound of her name. She stares and stares and stares. It takes everything I have not to scoop her up. To force her to know me. To love me. She slowly lifts her face from the safety of Edward's warm skin. She watches me. I try to be patient. I didn't expect her to remember me. But a part of me thought that she might. That she might know right away that I'm her mother. That I love her. She shifts in his arms, letting go of his shirt. Her little hand reaches out, resting on my chest, grabbing hold of my necklace. And I think I might die. Or live forever. She holds the locket tight. Tugging slightly. I hold my hand out, palm up, praying that she'll want to come to me. That she'll let me hold her. She stares at my open palm. Until her face is pressed to my hand, her chubby
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cheek resting against me. Everything that matters is right here. It's the three of us. The four of us. Cradled between us, she leans into me. And I'm melting. I pull her closer. "You got her?" I'm never letting go. She's light and heavy and just right. Edward runs his hand up and down her back. And now I'm the one she's snuggling into. Holding my necklace in one hand and my shirt in the other, she's really here. And I'm here. This is my life. I don't know where I'd be without her. I don't know who I'd be. Although I do know. I'd still be that lost girl with a closet full of shoes. I'd be my mother. Edward's face carries the weight of the world. "Bella, let's go home." And so we do. We go home. To the house our children will grow up in. It's late. She falls asleep again on the car ride home. Edward carries her upstairs and lies her down in her crib. She stretches in her sleep, resting both of her hands above her head. And we watch her. Forever. "If we don't sleep when she sleeps, Bella, we'll never sleep again." He's right. But that doesn't make it easy to let her out of my sight. I turn the baby monitor on. Even though our room is mere feet away and all doors are staying open. We crawl into bed and he's so warm. And here. His fingers run up and down my arm as my eyes droop. But I can't get comfortable. I'm too big and the little room is too far away. I check the volume on the baby monitor. Again. "Bella, she's fine. She'll be fine. I promise." I don't know how he can promise such
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things. But it's only minutes until he's up from the bed, disappearing from the room, only to return moments later with a sleeping baby in his arms. In our bed, with Hope nestled between us, I don't care that I'm so pregnant I can't sleep. Edward presses his lips to our daughter's forehead. Then leans in to my belly. "Thanks for staying in there while I was gone. You can come out any time now."

-PC-

A/N: To Susan and Kim, you know what you did. To my beautiful readers who are still here thirty chapters later, I kind of love you. One more chapter and a short epi left. I might need some hand holding. See you soon :)

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Sparkly Shoes and Harper


Sparkly Shoes and Harper

Edward

I watch her sleep. I watch them both sleep. Hope tucked around Bella's tummy, her mouth slightly ajar, arms wrapped up in her mother. She's breathtaking. They both are. It's painful to look at them. But I can't look away. Because this is our moment. The one I wished for but didn't quite believe in. Not the way Bella believed. It's difficult for me to reconcile the image of Hope in that orphanage in that city in that country that has fallen to ruin, with the image of her here, cuddled up in this bed with my wife, her mother. The same child with a different life. A different future. She rolls over, facing me. Her eyes jumping behind her eyelids. She whimpers, still half asleep. Her eyes flutter open, staring back at me in the dark night. Bella startles awake, reaching for our daughter. I brush the hair from her face and place a kiss on her forehead. "Sleep." I carry Hope back to the little room. To the chair in the corner. She's tired. We're all tired. But this life is disorienting. Especially for her. She starts crying. But not a real cry. Not a screaming baby kind of cry. A cry that breaks my heart. She doesn't want food. She's freshly changed. She's in my arms, eyes wide open, whimpering quietly. I wonder what she sees when she looks back at me. "I'm new at this." She only stares. Giving me nothing. I start humming. Because I think babies are supposed to like that. But I don't know any children's songs. I'm not going to sing to her. Except I am.
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And she's already her mother's daughter. Her eyes start to droop as the words pass through my lips without conscious thought. She quiets down at the sound of my voice, whisper-singing the words. "May the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten." My voice catches in my throat, thick and overwhelmed with emotion. "Like birds, flying always over the mountain." She reaches for my face, resting her fingertips against my moving lips. And it's too much. I feel like I might burst. Her eyes are now heavy with sleep but she's stubborn. Or afraid. Perhaps to close her eyes and be back there. Maybe we're afraid of the same things. "Let me take her for a little while." I look up to see Bella, hands on her tummy, leaning in the doorway. Watching us. I wonder how long she's been there. I'm not sure I want to give Hope up. Lifting her to my shoulder, she rests her tear-tracked cheek against my neck. Up from the chair, I take Bella's hand in mine, fingertips against fingertips, and I don't need sleep. "Dance with me?" "Edward..." "Dance with me." "I'm too big to dance with you." I close the space between us, pulling her against me. All of her. I curl my free arm around her, finding purchase on hips that sway despite her resistance. With our baby snuggled between us, she's no longer fussy. We sway back and forth without any music. With Bella's lips against mine she hums the tune. And I want our babies to stay small forever. I want this always. "Are you ready? Are you ready to be a family of four?" She smiles at that. Because it wasn't very long ago that we weren't a family at all.
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"A few weeks to go, still." "I don't know. I think she might come early." "Oh, do you?" She tucks her face under my chin, nose to nose with our now sleeping baby. "I think I'll miss being pregnant." And I don't think anything could be better than this. Dancing with my family in the middle of the night in the little room. Days and weeks are spent at doctor's appointments. It's difficult to see our baby poked and prodded. She's in the 5th percentile for height and weight. She's small. She doesn't eat a lot. But she eats. She's going to be fine. We've been to countless consultations. Specialists. One doctor went so far as to suggest a feeding tube in her stomach. Bella was horrified. She said no. We said no. While her weight is low, her head is in the 50th percentile. Alice calls her my little bobble head. Her cognitive functions are fine. And she's beautiful. So beautiful. She's not walking yet, but that's still well within the range of normal for a thirteen month old. We've settled into a routine, and while it's anything but easy, it seems like it's always been this way. Bella, Hope and I are a family. Hope goes to sleep in her own room, but more often than not she ends up in our bed, nestled between us. I wonder if we'll ever sleep again. Bella and I sit on the edge of our bed folding the largest pile of laundry I've ever seen. "I saw Rose the other day." She focuses on the corner of the pillowcase in her hand, running it between her thumb and pointer finger, avoiding eye contact.
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"Did she come by the house while I was gone?" She's looking at me now. "Why would she do that?" And I've been caught. "Because I asked her to." "Edward, you can't force her to like me. It's been... twenty years." And when she says it like that, I feel like an idiot. "I think I'll always be that girl to her." "What girl?" Because I honestly don't know. "The one who represents everything she hates. And I'm done. She doesn't have to like me." "She doesn't hate you." "You're right. She tolerated me for a long time. Until I married the man she loves." Here we go. "She doesn't love me. Not like that." Bella tries not to make a face. "I saw her coming out of the doctor's office on the day of my first appointment." "Your OB/GYN?" "Not that doctor." Oh. "She looked a mess, Edward." She's asking a question without saying the words. "I don't know what she would be doing there. I don't think chipping a nail qualifies as trauma." Her words strike a nerve. "You look at her and see someone with a perfect life, but you don't understand." I promised myself that I wouldn't let Rosalie Hale come between Bella and me, but then I say things like you don't understand. "I'm sorry. That's not fair." "No, you're right. I don't understand. So, explain it to me." Her mouth set in a tight line and her eyes challenging me to stay quiet. I'm being torn in two.
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Rose swore me to secrecy. I never should have promised her. She hasn't even told Alice. Because of shame or pride, I don't know. I promised her I wouldn't tell a soul. But that was before I said my vows, an entirely different kind of promise that holds more weight than anything else can. Or should. "She had a boyfriend in college who... wasn't very nice to her." I was a stupid kid making stupid promises. I didn't promise I wouldn't beat the shit out of him though. I didn't promise that. Bella doesn't say anything, but her expression immediately softens. "Wasn't very nice how?" It's painful even for me to think about. "You name it. I remember when they first started dating, he was sugar sweet to her, calling her Gorgeous all the time. I never liked the prick." She rolls her eyes. "Of course you didn't." "They were engaged." The words fall from my mouth and hang in the air. Bella looks at me like I'm a liar. "What? Rose was engaged?" "Yeah, well, it was short lived. She came to me with a black eye one night. It had been going on for a while." "Oh my God." I don't tell her that the black eye wasn't even the half of it. "I took care of it." She doesn't ask and I don't elaborate. She sits quietly on the bed, piling the folded laundry. "Edward, you were more than her friend. You were her protector." I thought that's what friends did. "We protected each other, I guess." But that was then. Because all the people I feel the need to protect right now live right here in this house. "And for that I'm glad." She's glad. "Maybe she doesn't need protecting anymore." Maybe she needs to let someone else do the protecting.
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Bella goes back to the laundry. But there is something else that is weighing on my conscience. "Bella, it's not her fault she thought the worst of you all of those years." It's not her fault. It's mine. "I was angry for a long time." She looks at me then, her face so open and honest. "I know." She knows. And we've worked through this. But it will always be a part of our history. Our parents. Earthquakes and terrorist attacks. It will always be there. "Come here." And so I do. Standing in front of her, with my hands on her face, there's nothing else to say. I kiss her, soft and sweet as my hands find her belly. "Yep, still pregnant." She giggles against my lips. She's uncomfortable and tired but she doesn't complain. "I could take Hope and do the grocery shopping. Let you get some rest." "That's okay. I need to walk around. I need to get out of this house. I can't just keep sitting here waiting for nothing to happen." So we go to the grocery store. As a family. I hold Hope and Bella pushes the cart. Carts are dirty. My daughter isn't sitting in a grocery cart. Hope reaches for the oranges, nearly knocking down an entire mound of them while I try to fill a bag with apples using only one hand. "Edward, she can sit in the cart." "I've got her." Bella scowls at me, but she couldn't hide the smile if she tried. "Why don't you two go pick out something for dessert." I hold Hope up so she's facing me, her little nose inches from mine. "What do you think about that, baby girl?" And when she smiles it's like there's nothing in the entire world to be afraid of.
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We meander to the bakery, talking to each other. I hold fancy desserts up and she hides her face in my shirt. We end up in the ice cream aisle. Trying to decide between cookies and cream and mint chocolate chip. "Edward?" I turn around slowly, Hope beating her little open palm against my chest. Rosalie stands there with her basket. Looking at me sideways. "Hey." It's awkward. Because of how we left things. Because of how little she knows about my life now. "So this is the baby?" The baby. "This is my daughter, Hope." Hope babbles at her before accidentally smacking me in the nose. And even Rosalie can't help but laugh. She smiles and it seems genuine. "Can I... hold her?" And it's the last thing I expected her to say. The last thing. Hope is already reaching for her earrings. She's like a little raccoon, drawn to anything shiny. I hold her out to Rose, who takes her awkwardly. Not quite sure where to hold on. My daughter stares at her for a moment. Suddenly very serious. Before reaching back for me. She holds on tight when I take her back into my arms. The sweetest hands. This is when we should have an awkward goodbye and go about our shopping. But
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her face is too heavy, too tortured. She's my friend. At least she used to be. "Is everything okay, Rose?" I hold her gaze, challenging her to lie to me. I can see that she's not okay. But I'm not that person for her any more. "Emmett asked me to marry him." This is nothing new. "Again." It's not a question. "Yeah, well this time it was more of an ultimatum." "Rose..." "I know. You don't have to say it. I know." "You love him." "Yeah, well it's not the first time I thought I was in love." And this conversation is no longer appropriate for the frozen food aisle. Her eyes are trained on the square floor tiles. She's not afraid of Emmett. She's afraid of herself. Rose looks up, her eyes set on something behind me. And it's amazing how she can do that. Change her expression, her demeanor, her everything in the blink of an eye. I turn to look as Bella makes her way down the aisle. The sight of her makes me smile. And I'm not the only one. Hope wiggles against my side trying to get to Bella. She's quiet about it, but it's obvious what she wants. With Hope in her arms, Bella faces Rose with a smile. "It's good to see you." They exchange pleasantries and we're on our way. If only Rose could find the courage. To let the past go. To let someone in. Bella's right. I can't force them to be friends. But somehow I still think that they could be. They're different but the same. We go home. Bella doesn't say anything about Rose. But her eyes are a million
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miles away. Alice comes over after lunch. I wasn't sure how she'd be with Hope. If she'd connect with her. If she'd want to. But she loves her. And has since the moment she met her. I can only pray that it will be the same for my father. If he ever comes back. Alice dresses Hope up like a doll, her hair covered in bows. She doesn't seem to mind. I scoop her up from the floor of the little room. "What has Auntie Alice done to you?" "Let me take her out for a little bit. We'll go to the park." No. No way. "I don't know, Alice..." "Edward, you're going to have to let her out of your sight at some point." I try to gauge Bella's reaction. She looks far calmer than I feel. "Just for an hour." An hour? Does she have any idea all that can happen in an hour? "Edward, you asked me to take her when Bella goes into labor. Consider this a trial run." Bella packs up a baby bag while I hold on tight to our daughter. This is stupid. Alice holds her hands out expectantly. I whisper in Hope's ear, "Wouldn't you rather just stay here?" But she's a traitor, reaching for Alice's open arms. Bella places a kiss on her temple and a warm winter hat on her head, which Hope promptly removes, throwing it to the ground. Bella kisses Hope's nose. "You're right. It's a nice day." She tucks the hat into a pocket of the bag that rests on Alice's shoulder. Alice winks at me. "I'll bring her back in one piece, big brother." We follow them down the stairs. Bella holds my hand as they walk out the door. I stare at the back of the closed front door.
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She pulls on my hand, walking back toward the stairs. "She'll be fine, Edward." "Maybe I should go with them. You know, just in case." Bella wraps her arms around me, her belly flush against my back. Her hands roam my chest. And it's an entirely different kind of want. I turn in her arms. "Bella, what are you doing?" Her lips reach up to the pulse of my neck. "She said an hour. And I miss my husband." She takes me by the hand, and I follow her wordlessly up the stairs. To our unmade bed, bathing in afternoon sun. Bella pulls my T-shirt up and over. And it's been far too long. Far too long since I've undressed my wife. Since I've kissed the softest skin of her hip, tangled my fingers in her hair and made her mine. And for once, I'm not the one with greedy hands, as she lies on her side, touching and grabbing. Like I'm about to disappear. "You have to tell me if I hurt you." "I swear to God, Edward, if I don't have you right now..." "Promise me, Bella." She only nods, her face flushed and eyes wanting only me. Surrounded by pillows, I love her. All of her. Kisses to my favorite toes, the softest skin and swollen breasts. And fingernails that beg for more. I thought I loved her before. I thought there could never be anything more. But being away from her, and now seeing her with my child inside of her, I feel like I've reached the end of my rope. Like I'm hanging on by frayed edges because a love like this could kill me. It can't possibly be real. It's slow and deliberate as I move inside of her. As my lips never leave her skin. As her moans fill the air.
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"I missed you too, Bella." Her voice and her mind and her skin and her love. I missed the way her eyes melt before she falls to pieces. "Fuck, Edward." And I still. Afraid I'm not being gentle enough. "Don't you dare stop. Don't you fucking dare." And I would give her anything right now. Everything. So I do. Slow and gentle everything. And all around me her voice and her body are humming. Singing. Begging for more. Even slow and gentle can be all consuming, as I lose myself in my wife, forgetting the horrors of the world and my fears about the future. Because she's mine mine mine. Mine. Sticky bodies and heaving chests, we don't move. Skin on skin has never felt so good. I wipe the wet hair from her face and watch the light catch in her eyes. "I missed you too, Bella. I missed you too." We nestle into the warm quiet, nothing but steady breathing. Until eventually we're nose to nose, sharing secrets in an empty house. She kisses my lips. "Three days overdue feels like three weeks." I can't help the small smile in my eyes. And she sees it. "This is your fault, you know." "Oh really? Do tell." "For knocking me up. For telling me the baby was going to come early. " I hold her face in my hands. And I kiss her. With everything I have. So that she knows and feels and understands. How much I love her.
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And she laughs. Because apparently my kisses are funny. And I'm laughing too. Because there is nothing better than that sound. "We still don't have a name, Bella." "What about Iris?" "Our daughter is not going to be named after a flower. No. How about McKenzie?" "It's not 1986, Edward." We go back and forth like this. Shooting down names that don't fit. Not agreeing on anything. "We should get dressed. Shower. Hope and Alice will be back soon." It's not difficult to get out of bed. Because the only thing that holds a candle to being naked with my wife is holding my daughter in my arms as she smiles with that jack-o-lantern grin. The next couple of days pass slowly. Bella has trouble sleeping. I wish there was something I could do for her. We go for long walks. She eats spicy food. We spend plenty of time naked between the sheets. She tries to nap when Hope naps. It's the middle of the afternoon when the doorbell rings and I fly down the stairs to answer it before it rings a second time. Cursing under my breath, I swing the door open. Rose, of all people, is standing on our door step. She's holding a square box wrapped in pink paper, tied with the biggest bow I've ever seen. "I should have called. I won't stay long, I just wanted to drop this by and see how Bella was doing. I haven't heard anything. I wasn't sure if she had the baby yet." She holds the box out to me, but I don't take it. "Come in." "I shouldn't."
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"Come in, Rose." Seconds pass, filled with a wordless conversation. Until she nods. "Alright." Bella descends the stairs, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Rose gives her a sympathetic smile, her own tired eyes focusing in on Bella's stomach. "Yep, still pregnant." And while she's trying to make light of it, I know she's ready for this to be over. I know she's beyond uncomfortable. "I brought something for the babies. I was just going to leave it on the porch, but I thought I'd just say a quick hello, see how you were doing." Bella stares at her. The way that Hope stares. Until she's smiling. The way that Hope smiles. They sit in the living room. Talking. And I don't think it's for my benefit. Rose motions to the gift on the coffee table. "You can open it later, if you'd like. It's silly. It's nothing." "I could also open it now." She looks at Rose expectantly. It's like they're meeting for the very first time. I feel invisible. Bella peels away the paper slowly, careful not to tear it. She lifts the lid and stares into the open box. She doesn't move. She doesn't even look like she's breathing. I can't see what's inside. Bella reaches in and pulls out two pairs of shoes by the heels like they might burn her. They're the smallest shoes I've ever seen in my entire life. Covered in red sparkles. Bella's fingertips hover over the sparkly shoes. Rose looks nervous. I have no idea why. They're just shoes. "You can touch them." Bella stares at her. Until she's smiling. Until they both are. And it's like an inside joke I'm not privy to. "Thank you, Rose. Thank you."
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Rose leaves with promises to visit after the baby arrives. And her promises don't sound empty. With Hope fast asleep in her crib, Bella runs her hands over the shoes resting on the old dresser. I don't ask her why they matter. What they mean. Rose and Bella deserve something that's just theirs. Her doctor is planning on inducing her in the morning if she hasn't gone into labor. She doesn't like this idea. She also wants the baby out yesterday. We still don't have a name. "Remember when I said I was going to miss being pregnant?" I nod, smiling into her lips. "Well I lied. Get this baby out of me." We go back to our room and I do my best to give her what she wants. I spend one last night loving my wife. Showing her. The alarm goes off before sunrise. She looks down at her belly. "Yep, still pregnant." We go to the hospital, her overnight bag already packed and in the car. Alice comes to stay with Hope. And pretty soon we will have two babies. I try to remember what my life was like a year ago before Bella showed up on my doorstep in the pouring rain. But I can't. Driving my wife to the hospital with my hand in hers is the only thing that's real. "Promise me something, Edward?" "Anything." "Promise you'll let my doctor do her job." Anything but that. The woman has Bella convinced that she doesn't want an epidural. Which is ridiculous. "Promise me." It's not a request. So I promise her. Because she knows me too well.
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Before long we're checked in to a room with a garden view. Only in Forks. The nurse administers the pitocin and we wait. Seeing Bella in a hospital bed on an IV drip puts me on edge. Even though I know women do this every day. Even though I've witnessed more births than I care to remember. Some of them traumatic. Some tragic. The continuous electronic fetal monitoring puts my mind at ease. Bella has talked with her doctor about the possibility of Post Traumatic Stress symptoms brought on by labor pains. She's prepared. And when I look at her face, she's nothing but brave. And beautiful. I pull out To Kill a Mockingbird. "You want me to read to you?" She smiles. "Only if you do the voices." I don't even pretend to tell her no. I pull the book from her bag, opening the well-loved front cover. I run my hands over the title page. And it's now or never. "Bella, what about Harper?" When she doesn't respond, I wonder if I only said the words in my head. I chance a peak at her. She's mouthing the name silently. Mulling it over. "Harper and Hope Cullen." And then she smiles. Her Bella smile. I kiss her belly. "Come on out, Harper." Bella runs her hands through my hair and I cherish this moment because a few hours from now it will all seem like a distant memory. I read to her. I even do the voices. Until she says she's going to rip the book from my hands if I don't shut up. The afternoon is filled with contractions that threaten to break my hand and doctors that need to be more attentive to my wife. But all of that is forgotten when our daughter comes into the world. Writhing and screaming. It's the best noise. And this is the moment when I no longer have the desire to be more than just a man.
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This moment is enough. As Harper lies on Bella's chest. Wide eyed and alert. Our baby. We did that. And I didn't know how I was going to love her with all my heart when I already felt so full. When I already have one daughter that has captured me so completely. But it's like lighting a candle. Flames that don't get smaller. Measured, weighed and cleaned up, she weighs nothing in my arms. With her head in the palms of my hands and her weightless body resting on my forearms, I could hold her forever. She's all peaches and cream but she has her sister's pouty lips. And her hair is wild and brown. She's Bella's daughter. And Hope's little sister. And all three of them are mine. Bella strokes her hair. "She looks like you." "Nah, she looks like her mama." Maybe we're both right. Maybe it doesn't matter. Because she's perfect and ours. I give the two of them a moment of peace. As difficult as it is to walk out of that room, the prospect of seeing Hope makes it bearable. Alice and Hope are in the waiting room. Alice is bouncing Hope all around, looking even more haggard than I feel. Hope is fussy and tired. Pouty faced and adorable. And she suddenly looks huge, perched on Alice's hip. I walk towards them with an urgent need to hold her in my arms. "How's my sweet little girl?" She reaches for me. And there's nothing quite like it. "Your sweet little girl has refused to sleep all day." I ignore her. "You ready to meet your sister?" She cuddles in my arms, oblivious to how her life is about to change. Again. And when she sees Bella, her face lights up. Her mouth screeches unknown words. Until she spies the sleepy little bundle in Bella's arms.
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She stares. And her eyes are so focused and wise. She watches Harper start to squirm as Bella unwraps her, and attempts to swaddle the child that doesn't want to be swaddled. Hope reaches her hand out. Pointing. Wanting to touch. Like she does with everything. I hold her little hand in mine. "Gentle." Whether she understands or not, she's cautious. Patting Harper's hand. Dark brown against pale pink. And that's when little fingers close around Hope's own fingers. And I know it's a reflex. It means nothing. But it's everything. And Hope laughs. A real laugh. Infectious and sincere. That echoes in the room. Before she pulls her hand away, curling it up under her chin. Her smile is a mile wide. She reaches for Bella then. Wanting her mother. And her smile is Bella's smile. I watch my wife and my daughters. And somehow it all suddenly makes perfect sense. The way my father loved my mother. The way my mother loved Renee. The way Renee loved Bella. And the path doesn't matter. However crooked or beaten down. I wouldn't change it. Because here we are. Bella and Edward. Hope and Harper. Here we are.

-PC-

THE END

A/N: I want to cry big, ridiculous tears knowing that this is the final chapter. A short epi will be up in a few days.
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To everyone who stuck with this story, I want to squeeze your hands. Twice. To Pants, thanks for giving me the courage. To Susan, thanks for being my beta and for making everything pretty. More than that, thanks for being my friend. To Kim, thanks for being my fic wife. I love your face up. To Nic, thanks for pimping the shit out of this story back when the reviews were in double digits. To Jaime, thanks for the beautiful banner and for being my voice twin. To I, M, and Letters thanks for the shouty cap tweets. I will love them for always. To every author who rec'd my story, I fucking love you, alright? To Faniac, thanks for adding my little story to favorites in June back when you were my only reader. And for still being here. To grabadietcoke, Pocket Change is for you. A year and a half ago I was in NYC when I picked up an article in the New York Times about adoption regulations being lifted after the Haiti earthquake. And now here we are. I know using real life events in this story has rubbed some people the wrong way, and for that I apologize. My intention was to tell a story about people whose lives were both marred and saved by tragedies. I firmly believe that beauty can be found in even the most horrific situations. I can remember the 1989 earthquake like it was yesterday. I had family members in the WTC on September 11th. I was the Maid of Honor in Alice's wedding. I lost my grandmother to lung cancer. I have a mild obsession with barns. And for the record, my mother is lovely. However, my favorite game as a child was "orphans." Do with that what you will. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that this story matters to me. I can't even begin to explain how it feels to know that it matters to you too.
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I'm just a girl. I'm just fandom. And you all made me feel like a writer.

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Epilogue
Bella

I don't go to the cemetery anymore. When I feel the urge to step foot in that gray place, I write a letter to each one of my girls instead. Because there are all different ways to remember. I sit at Esme's old writing desk, the one that now lives in our bedroom. Dear Harper, This morning you cried for an hour when I told you that you will, in fact, never get to be older than your sister. And while I know it won't, I hope that this proves to be the gravest tragedy of your young life. You are my little ray of sunshine and my storm cloud. My girly girl and my tomboy. And I know you won't always be five years old. I know your life won't always be so simple and carefree. I know I'll have to see you stumble, fall even, as you navigate the changing tides of growing up. I'll have to step back and let you make your own mistakes. And hopefully you'll know that your father and I are here. Hopefully you'll never doubt how much we love you. Our wild girl. You wear your heart on your sleeve and I pray that you'll stay this open and honest forever. Love, Your mama Harper crawls up into my lap just as I'm setting the pen down. "Mama, why does Grandpa call me Mockingbird?" I tap the tip of her nose. "Because you love to sing and mockingbirds are very special." I don't have the heart to tell her that it started because she copies everything her sister does. "Tell me the story about the mockingbird book again?" "The mockingbird book was one of my special books when I was just a girl." "A girl like me?"
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Not quite like you. "A girl like me, Mama?" "A girl like you." "Mama, did you know it's a sin to kill a mockingbird?" "Yes." I could eat her up. "Because they make such pretty music." "Maybe you should tell it, Harper." She attempts to wiggle one of her front bottom teeth, the mockingbird story long forgotten. "Am I ever gonna lose a tooth, Mama?" "If it were up to me, no. And you'd stay my baby forever." She makes a face. "But lucky for you, it's not up to me." "I want to lose a tooth tomorrow." I kiss her nose. "Always in such a hurry to grow up." She slides off my lap and all I hear is the stomping of her little feet as she runs down the stairs, most likely to find and torment her sister. They bicker. They also take turns sneaking into each other's beds at night. They love each other and hate each other and are everything that sisters should be. I tap my fingers over a fresh sheet of paper and I try to find the words. Dear Hope, You have been an old soul from the start. You have a quiet maturity about you. At the tender of age of six you are perfectly content to curl up with me on the couch with a book and read the day away. Sometimes I look at you and can't help but see a younger version of myself. While this scares me, it's also a comfort to know the thoughts that sit behind your eyes when you're quiet and serious. When you're prickly and stubborn. And when you laugh, we all laugh because it's the best sound. Maybe it's because you understand loss. Maybe it's because we both have two mothers. Whatever the reason, you're part of my soul. You're my little piece of Heaven.
- 409 -

Love, Your mama All of that time I spent waiting for Hope to come home, I worried that Edward may not love her the way I did. Those thoughts seem foolish now. He loves her the way a father loves a daughter. The way my own father loved me. Charlie was the greatest gift that my mother ever gave me. He made up for everything she took. Even though we didn't share blood, and even though he knew it, I was his daughter. I still am. Harper's raspy little girl voice echoes from downstairs, "Mama, I can't find Hope!" I scoot the wobbly piano stool away from the desk, and go in search of my daughter. Peaking my head into the doorway of the little room, I find her sitting on her bed with a picture frame in both hands. The photo of her birth mother lives on her bedside table. A surprise gift hidden in a pile of documents and medical records that arrived months after Edward brought her home. She stares at it sometimes. Today is one of those days. Harper wanted to know when she could have a photo of her birth mother. She was none too pleased to find out that that person was me. And while I listened to her cry about how unfair it was, I couldn't help but smile. I watch my daughter. Her long legs tucked up to her chin with the frame up to her nose, she stares and stares. I give her a private moment, intercepting Harper on the stairs and soliciting her help in starting dinner. I put her to work peeling potatoes, even though we're not actually having potatoes for dinner. I listen to her endless chatter, lucky to get a word in edgewise. The soft click of the front door goes beyond her notice. "Because he's a boy," she tells me as she mangles the poor potato in her hands. Edward's voice interrupts her jabbering. "Who's a boy?" "Daddy!" She drops the half peeled potato on the counter and jumps down from her chair. He leans down until he's at eye level. "What boy?"
- 410 -

"My friend who's a boy." She gives him a sideways mischief-ridden smile. He raises his eyebrows. "But not a boyfriend." It's not a question. "No!" "And what do you do with this boy?" "Play." "But no hugging, right?" "No!" "And no kissing, right?" She falls to the floor in a fit of hysterics. "Nooooo, Daddy!" "Because who are you allowed to kiss?" "My family." She knows this game that isn't a game. Because my husband is the most overprotective father. And maybe I like it that way. Edward kneels down in front of Harper, pointing to his cheek. She gives him a sloppy kiss filled with giggles. He points to the other cheek and just as she's about to blow him a raspberry he scoops her up screeching and shouting. With our daughter over his shoulder I get my own kiss. "Hi." "Hi." "Where's Hope?" "Upstairs. Having a quiet moment." He kisses me again, before setting Harper down. "We'll talk about this boy later. You have potatoes to peel." He takes the stairs slowly. I watch him disappear into the little room. The boy who loved me before I deserved it. The man who loves me still.
- 411 -

Harper and I finish up dinner and I try not to worry about my oldest and her inner thoughts. She's so quiet behind me. I don't know she's there, until little warm arms wrap around my waist. I turn around and she presses her face against my stomach. "I love you, Hope." She slides her hands into the pockets of my apron. "I love you like the ocean, Mama." And then she laughs. A face warming, belly rolling laugh. I hold her little gap toothed smile in my hands. She's Edward's daughter, Esme's granddaughter and when I look at her face and listen to the gentle rhythm of her voice I can't help but believe in something greater than this life. I know of three kinds of change: the kind that jangles around in your pocket, the kind that happens slowly, every moment of every day, and the kind that blows you away in an instant. After all this time, there is one thing that I know for sure: fast or slow, piercing or silent, change is everything. Dear Edward, Thank you for letting me keep you.

-PC-

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