Our hugest thanks to Maplestyle for pre-reading, and myimm0rtal for her beta-love.
Thank you, also, to all of you who are reading, rec'ing, and reviewing. We appreciate you heaps.
Shell and Believey. xo
After the words are out, swan-diving through the speaker of my phone, splashing into my mother's ear, I feel the gravity of my mistake. It's like watching a victim in a horror film head straight toward her killer when she's really trying to run away. It's an obvious, stupid mistake, but there's nothing you can do about it.
Hindsight. Mistakes, big or small, too often recognized after the fact. Too late. What about foresight? Our protector. Why is she so elusive?
It had to have been Edward's voice on a loop in my mind. His casual "I used to like you," and the way it made me rethink old memories. How I'd sat under my tree and at my table and in traffic willingly remembering. The ensuing thoughts that flickered like filtered sunlight through a moving car: hope, future. Tingles, like fingers playing over skin, the skips of my insides, the dreaminess in my head—all the manifestations of promise. And his just as casual words—as if I must have known, as if he was sure he'd already mentioned it—that brought everything to a severe halt: She's my wife.
It had to have been thoughts like these that resulted in my slip over the phone, the mention of my appointment, and now my mother knows I'm having my yard redone. Though I am surprised she listened, that it registered with her. But it did, and she presses me to let her come over and take "before photos" despite the fact that I told her Edward already took a dozen pictures.
"You need to be in the pictures," she says. "I'll make a collage of it. A progressive photo narrative."
Of course she'd turn this into a new project. It'll keep her busy and out of the house.
My mind circles for an excuse but isn't quick enough to land. Agreeing to let her come is the best thing, anyway. This could be so much worse. Could be that she wants me to visit their house, both my mother and father at the same time. My skin constricts against my bones. They would launch questions at me and interrupt my answers, her questions having nothing to do with his and his having nothing to do with hers. They use me to let the other have it, let one know the other's voice isn't heard. I've taken to not answering most of the time, but sometimes I lose it, let out an unrestrained yell that I've had enough of their childishness. This only exacerbates the situation. The accusations come out with knifeblade points.
I was able to avoid them at Easter, but I can't avoid them much longer and it's better this way, one at a time.
When it's just my mother, I've learned to smile and nod and say "oh," and "mmm," and "uh-huh," as she complains about my father. That's what she calls him. Never Charlie, always "your father."
"Your father bought himself one of those atrocious massage chairs. I would've liked to buy a new sofa, but no, he went and spent all that money on a chair only he can sit in."
"I'm fed up with your father never helping me out around the house. All that man does is glue himself in front of the History Channel."
I don't know when I came to own my dad, but I sometimes wonder if my mom blames me, perhaps even subconsciously, for her unhappiness. As a teenager, I suspected they were staying together for my sake. That's what people do, right? They stay together "for the kids."
Because obviously, I would rather have lived in a house that rattled with constant bickering, snide remarks volleyed across the breakfast table, than have them split up and take a chance at finding someone who'd make them happy. Or hell, take a chance at making themselves happy.
I remember when I used to cover my eyes while they fought above me or through me, wishing I could vanish. Funny thing was, from their vantage point, I had vanished. They couldn't wade through their own problems far enough to see me.
I spent much of my teen years hiding out at friends' houses and sleeping over on weekends.
My friend Riley's bed was like a slice of cake, frosted with the satiny pink ruffles of her comforter. Reclined on her candy-colored scatter pillows, I groaned. my sugar high wearing off. The giggles deserted me and left me with only a churning stomach.
"We lost," Riley said.
I lifted my head. "What?"
"Vicky just texted me. The boys lost 3-0."
Friday nights in our junior year were usually spent in the stands watching the baseball or football games. That particular Friday, however, Riley's parents had insisted she stay home and babysit her brother and sister, and Angela and I had agreed to stay in with her. It had been a grudging agreement on my part, though I tried my best to hide it. Ball games were some of the only times I could watch Edward—really watch him, without betraying the extent of the crush I carried. Everyone else watched him, too. So I could soak in every detail—his grin when things went our team's way, the furrow that appeared on his brow as he listened to the coach, the easy grace of his swing, the power of his throwing arm, his butt in those pants.
But that night, I'd had to trade watching Edward for Simba, and sips of spiked hot chocolate for way too many Red Vines.
As soon as Lucy and Seth were asleep, we'd retreated to Riley's room, keeping our music low enough to hear any movement from the little kids.
I ran my tongue over my teeth, felt their weird furry coat and wished again that I'd grabbed my toothbrush that afternoon. I'd forgotten my pajama pants, too, in my hurry to escape my parents' bickers about who shouldered more of the household chores—"When was the last time you took out the trash, Charlie?" "When was the last time you had a job, Renée?"—and the sweatpants Riley had loaned me were too short and too tight.
I wriggled. My heels slipped against the shiny comforter. "That sucks."
I wondered how Edward felt. Did he drink away his disappointment? Or did he bail on the after-game party, prefer to be alone? I imagined him on the pitcher's mound in the darkened stadium, throwing ball after ball, disappointment turning to determination.
"Who cares? Baseball's boring." Angela was sitting on a beanbag she'd shoved against the closed door. "Hey, Bella?"
"Somebody told me you had a boyfriend, who looked like a girlfr–"
"Shut up." I sat forward. Elastic dug into my stomach as I threw a pillow at Angela. She'd played that song on repeat for about a month. I wished she'd never heard of The Killers.
She giggled when the pillow landed in front of her red-socked toes. She kicked it and it skittered across the floor and disappeared under Riley's bed, lost to the monsters that lived under there, hidden amongst the out-of-style clothes and old school books. "We need to go to Vegas."
I rolled my eyes and lay back as Angela told Riley what she'd been telling me for weeks, her plans to sneak backstage at a concert and seduce Brandon Flowers.
"And then," she said, and even without being able to see her, I knew she had her hands clasped by her cheek, a dreamy smile fixed in place. Hamming it up as usual. "He's going to marry me."
"He's not going to marry you," I told the ceiling. "You're seventeen, Genius." Riley's ceiling was pocked with the dirty residue of the sticky-tape she'd used in previous years to affix dozens of pictures of galloping horses above her bed.
"Ignore Bella." Riley threw a packet of chips at me. I opened them despite how full and uncomfortable I already was. "She's still bitter that Edward kissed Heidi at Mike's party."
She kissed him.
I'd seen it. Last Saturday night. I'd been looking for him since we got there. My gaze stuck to him like velcro when he came in with a few other guys and slapped Mike on the back. Heidi approached, drunk, giggling and falling over her own feet. Edward gripped her upper arm. "You all right?"
I watched her twirl her hair around her finger, while I imagined bolts of lightning shooting from my eyes, propelling her through the window behind her in a shower of glass shards. With a step closer, she lifted her hand to his shoulder for balance. Then, as he looked down at her, she moved her fingers to his jaw and planted one on him.
I felt the lead lining my stomach. Saw him step away, shake his head. Saw the smile he flashed her, like an apology.
Details like that didn't matter in high school gossip, though, nor did they matter to Heidi Milton. By lunchtime on Monday, the whole school had heard that she'd hooked up with Edward Cullen.
And although I knew it wasn't exactly the truth, disappointment still ate away at me. I wanted to hear him deny it—in front of everyone.
I kept silent though, as Riley and Angela vomited up the same gossip that had traveled the school all week. I didn't want to hear Angela tell me that I had to talk to him, flirt with him if I wanted to be the one he kissed. Didn't want Riley to offer me one of her tops or see her smirk when I reminded her that her clothes were too tight for me: "That's kinda the point, Bella."
Instead, I shoved a couple of chips into my mouth. My crunches blocked out the discussion of the finer points of Edward and Heidi's supposed relationship. God, what if he'd found consolation tonight with–
They're not dating, I told myself. I've never seen him sit with her at lunch. They can't be dating.
But he wasn't dating me either. Not even close.
On my way to Edward's office, I try not to torment myself with these memories. Like writing his name and mine combined.
Bella Cullen. Bella Marie Cullen. Isabella Marie Cullen.
The things that went through my mind as I looped our names together with my pen. We may not have been anywhere near dating, yet I had this fantasy that it was possible.
He'd ask me to prom and we'd hit it off. Laughing. I saw lots of laughing. Because isn't that what people do together when they hit it off? We'd become inseparable; in fact, unable to separate from me he'd walk me to every class, linger at the door, reluctant to let go of my hand.
He'd drive me home after school or take me to his house. When he hit a double or struck out the opposing team—one, two, three—his eyes would find mine in the stands and he'd have some sign, some wave or something, just for me.
I'd know what his lips felt like on mine, what his hands felt like on my face, in my hair, on my body.
Someday we'd be married. He would ask me.
Mrs. Edward Cullen.
One boring day over Spring Break I drew a band around my marriage finger with my gold metallic pen.
Isabella Marie Swan-Cullen
When you're a teenager, fantasies seem possible, plausible—even likely.
It's only after you nosedive into reality time after time that you realize exactly what fantasies are, that even when you dream about real people you see daily, you may as well be dreaming about unicorns.
I ignore the parking spaces within view of the Tea Shoppe and coast by while I get ahold of my head.
This is not a big deal, I tell myself.
I pull my car into a spot around the corner. My palms are sweaty on the steering wheel and I keep them there, fingers clenched, letting the engine idle. Its rumble seems to travel into my fingers and buzz up my arms, into my chest. "Stop it," I say, as if my body is more likely to obey spoken words.
They're just ancient feelings enjoying their brief revival. As I get to know this Edward—grown-up Edward, Gianna's husband Edward—these feelings will likely leave as quickly as they reappeared.
With a deep inhale, I cut the engine and brush the specks of dust I can't see but just know are there off my blazer.
I stretch in my seat until I can see my reflection in the rearview mirror. I turn my head from side to side. Of course tendrils have escaped my braid. They creep like vines down my throat and around my face. I try to poke a strand back into the middle of the plait but it's a lost cause. I reapply my lipstick and blot my lips with a clean napkin from the glove box.
It's a simple business transaction. Just go in, look at some pictures, and write a check. Ten minutes tops.
I push open the heavy wooden door, greeted by Gianna's warm smile. How can she be more beautiful than she was yesterday?
I smooth my skirt, my hair, touch my necklace. There's no sign of Edward. Relief and disappointment play tug-o-war inside me as I recall Gianna saying she'd stay late for me.
"All right. Here are the final sketches." She unrolls a couple of large sheets of heavy paper. "Did he get it right?"
It takes me a while to answer. I meander through the designs, squinting as I try to imagine Edward's neatly drawn black lines and noted dimensions take life. What would a Raised Bed (4 x 12) look like in my yard? Varicolored Perennials… But which colors? What does Shade-tolerant Ground Cover even mean?
As we talked about it yesterday, I could see it. But now…?
Feeling a little foolish, I turn to the last sheet and pause.
I'm lost in the images that emerged from Edward's pencils. The splashes of purple and pink; the oranges, yellows, and reds that could line my back fence. The herb garden. I can almost smell the scents mingling: cilantro, basil, mint, thyme, sage... The neat rows of the vegetable patch. The paved area with a barbeque and an outdoor table, framed with strings of lights. My apricot tree.
"He got it right," I whisper. I clear my throat, tear my attention from the drawing to Gianna. "It's perfect."
She untangles her fingers from their knot and breathes out. "I'm thrilled you're happy with it."
"It's–" like he's read my mind. No. Like he's read some part of me I couldn't even decipher myself and translated it into two-dimensional space. The colors, the scale, the feel. It's me. "It's better than I wanted... or expected."
"Great." A deep voice and my heart speeds.
Edward is here, occupying the same space he did yesterday—back against the wall, arms across his chest.
Still enchanted with his sketches, I smile at him before I catch myself. How much enthusiasm do I show? How much enthusiasm would I show a regular contractor? One who wasn't an old friend? Who didn't throw me off balance with one word, with his presence?
"It looks... very good." I trail my fingers over the apricot tree.
He gives me a tight smile from the corner of his mouth. "I'm glad."
"Here's the itemized quote." Gianna turns another piece of paper toward me so I can see the list of planned work and materials, and the figures that accompany them.
I scan the lines of black type for the total. Barely under eighteen thousand. I finger my necklace. It's within my budget, but it's high. At the top. It'll leave me with just a few thousand left in my savings. I want this, though. And I have to have it exactly as Edward's drawn it.
Gianna places the paper on the table and pats it. "So, fifty percent down is standard."
Pen poised over my checkbook, I say, "I can pay the full balance now." I swallow, experience a moment of panic. Perspiration arises at my pulse points. Why did I say that? Just to prove to her that I can pay? Too much pride, Bella.
Gianna's eyes seem to plead with Edward to accept while my mind pleads for him not to.
She says, "That's–"
"Not necessary." Edward moves from the wall to Gianna's desk. He lays his hand over my checkbook like he knows I'm foolish enough to insist on writing the check for the full amount. And I am. I concentrate on not pushing his hand out of the way and ridding myself of ninety percent of my savings in one go.
"It might change, anyway." A muscle in his jaw flexes as he looks down at me. "In your favor. Depending on the species of plants we choose. And maybe I can sweet talk Jacko into giving you a better price on the mulch and topsoil."
Edward this close, eyes on mine as he speaks to me, our fingertips touching where we both hold a part of my checkbook, my chest expands. I have to look away from him.
His wife is across the desk from us.
I take a breath and center myself. "Fifty percent then." I wish it didn't come out quite so weak. I write out nine thousand dollars and tear the check along its perforated edge. I hand it to Gianna with my chin high and my eyes on hers. "I rounded up."
"Thank you." She slides my check into a drawer.
"Okay. So, the nursery." Edward rubs his palms together. "Saturdays are best for you?"
I frown. "But I want this." I touch his drawing. "Exactly this. Is it still necessary to go?"
The smile Edward turns on me is patient. "Sure. But, here, say..." He leans in, reaches in front of me and brushes the vibrant colors that spring up along the back fence. "We could put roses, or begonias… or something else. Depending on what you like."
"Um–" I shift my weight to my other foot to gain some distance. He's a contactor. You're his client. "Okay."
"Edward's free next Saturday," Gianna says. "Does that work?" She opens the calendar on the desk, slips a pen from its holder, and waits.
I just nod.
"Ten o'clock?" she asks.
"No." Edward straightens up and aims a look at Gianna that I can't understand. A furrow in his brow. He's communicating something to her. All eyes. He turns to me. "I–I've got something going on. Is one okay?"
"They close at 4:30 on Saturdays," Gianna says.
Edward rubs his neck, kneads at a muscle there.
"I don't want to inconvenience you," I say. " If Saturday isn't the best."
"It's not a problem," Edward says. "I know that nursery like the back of my hand. A couple of hours is all we need. I just... one is cutting it close for me. Can you meet me at our place?"
Part of me wants to say no. One of the last things I want to do is go to their home, where they've built a life together.
As it is, it will be only Edward and me in the small cab of his truck for an hour. Both ways. How weird would it be to insist on taking my car? Client, contractor.
I'd ridden in a car with him once before. It was early in the semester. February. In art I'd said something about walking home in the rain.
"Want a ride?" he'd asked, throwing me off the face of the earth.
He told me to meet him in the parking lot after school.
I hadn't expected or hoped for an offer, but he gave me one. I realized how it might have looked. Like I was hinting. So then I couldn't speak to him the whole way home, other than forcing my voice to be loud enough when he asked me where to go and which house was mine.
I felt him turn his head toward me, and I gripped the edges of my seat.
I could smell him underneath his fading cologne. It was the same cologne so many of the boys were wearing at the time, but for some reason, mixed with his scent, in his car with the windows rolled up, it smelled like everything.
I found myself holding my breath.
It wasn't until I was out of the car, just before I closed the door that I gave him four words he didn't have to pluck from me. "Thanks for the ride."
I slide my pendant along its chain. "That works," I say, and I force it to be loud enough.
"All right," says Gianna, gathering the sketches of my dream yard and rolling them up.
"Bella?" Edward reaches the door before I do and pulls it open for me. "You're not an inconvenience."
I can't look at him, but I offer him a small smile because I think I should.
In bed, my back to the headboard, softened by the pillow, laptop on my lap, itemized quote in my hand, I look back and forth: final price to bank account balance, bank account balance to final price. Twenty-three thousand now, and when my check is cashed: fourteen thousand. And after I've paid the balance: five thousand. Twenty-three thousand to five thousand.
I feel inside a bit like I've just vomited. Except that when I vomit, while I'm left with a burning throat and feeble bones, I'm not also left with a brand new, beautiful yard.
"This isn't all I have," I say to my bank account, or to the quote. There's some money tied up in investments. But that money, I can't get to it so it usually doesn't factor in to my summations. Not until now, as justify spending almost all of my "front" money within a few weeks.
Front money and back money, my dad calls it. Front money is what you have for spending now and for emergencies; back money is for the future.
"Easy come, easy go," I say. Though it wasn't easy come at all. I've been saving for as long as I've been working.
I close up my laptop, push it aside, fold up the paper, and scoot down to my back.
You'll be okay, I tell myself, my eyes on the ceiling. Some people take out loans to have work like this done. My savings will be eaten up, but I won't be in debt. You'll save more. You'll build it up again.
I can't sleep.
For three nights I toss and turn.
On the fourth night, when I decide the patio can wait until the end of summer, while I build up more savings in the meantime, I'm finally able to sleep.