A/N - this was my entry to the Seven Sins twific competition, voted 1st place winner. Beta'd by Midnight Cougar. Pre-read by Sparrow, Gemma and Shelli. love you girls xox


It seems like everybody is a prisoner in this town. Old Doc Cullen—tied to his house by memories and a sense of family loyalty; Mr Bertie—still teaching class in a town he thought he'd be passing through twenty years before. I, too, am shackled by love and responsibility. Convicted of a crime I didn't even realize I'd committed. I've been sentenced to life without parole.

But my poor mother is the biggest prisoner of all. Held captive by her own body, in a room she hasn't left for nearly a decade. She lies on her back; her days one, long, cobbled road on the journey to oblivion. It isn't a pretty illness, either. Not one of those romantic-wasting diseases where you wear billowy, white dresses and are held by a handsome man who whispers sweet regrets in your ear. No, hers is a grotesque ailment. One that has turned her from overweight housewife into a sideshow freak. One that has caused her body to creep and grow until her bed can no longer sustain nor contain her. The last time they weighed her—using an industrial scale they rolled into our house—she topped off 972 lbs. I can remember feeling almost regretful she wasn't the heaviest woman in the world. Even drowned by flesh and fat that seems to undulate forever, she still wasn't anything special. Just my mom.

The pale moon hangs low in the sky like an overripe fruit, slowly disappearing as the sun steals all his glory. As I lie in bed and watch the night fade into another steamy day, I feel like I'm disappearing right along with it.

"Bella." I hear her call from her bedroom. Over the years her voice has thickened along with her body, turned deep and low. Doc Cullen says it's a side effect of all the pressure on her throat, constricting her larynx. "Bella?"

"Coming, Mom." I climb out of bed and pull a hoodie over my head. My day starts just after five and ends sometime around midnight. Like the US Post, I make it through all weathers. So, I go to her room and clean her up, then begin the hour long job of moisturizing her body. I have to rub the thick, viscous cream into every inch of her skin. With her inability to even roll, she's at risk of her flesh drying out and dying.

"The Doc says he'll come over and see you tonight," I tell her, my fingers rubbing circles against her flesh. "I think he may have a crush on you."

Mom chuckles, and for a moment I can almost pretend I'm a child again. Back when she could stand, when she could walk, when we could have fun together. When I didn't feel so terribly alone.

"Apparently, his son is coming home." I keep up a steady stream of one-sided conversation every morning. Part of it is guilt that I have to leave her alone for hours while I go to school. Some of it is relief I actually have somebody to talk to. I guess there's still a big chunk of me that craves the normalcy of a mother-daughter conversation. "He's recently gotten divorced. According to the Doc, he's coming back for some peace and quiet. He wants to write the 'Great American Novel'."

By the time I make it past her shoulders, my fingers are aching from the pressure. My palms feel almost too smooth from all the cream. Sensitized and tingly. I have the softest hands of anybody I know.

"Oh, and I've been offered an extra shift at the Thriftway. Saturdays, noon 'til close. What do you think?" I glance up and meet my mother's gaze. Her deep-blue eyes can't be hidden by the swollen skin around her face. They're still beautiful and expressive and make me feel a little soft inside. This is the part of her I love the most: her face, her lips, her eyes. This is the real her. The mom I picture when I fall asleep at night. The one I remember back when I was a toddler. The one I miss so much it hurts.

"Sounds good."

One of the best things about working at the Thriftway is the staff discount. Our weekly food bills are huge, and our income meager. Somehow we have to juggle things around until the dots all add up. I almost smile when I catch myself thinking "we." Because it isn't we. It's me. Seventeen-year-old Bella Swan. That's how it's been for the longest time.

When I finish moisturizing her, I take her brush and run it through her thin, grey hair. She stopped dyeing it a few years ago. I guess when the only two people who see you are your kid and your doctor, the need to take care of your appearance lessens. A few hairs come loose and cling to the bristles, and I pull them off, throwing them in the trash can next to her bed. They rest on top of empty chip packets and screwed up wrappers.

"How's school?"

I'm almost shocked to hear her ask. We don't talk about it much; maybe because there's nothing to say.

"School's fine."

"And prom? Has anybody asked you?"

I shake my head quickly and drop my gaze to the floor. A few times I've seen boys glance over and hoped they might be considering asking me. But now, with the dance only a few weeks away, I'm coming to the conclusion that nobody wants me. I'd be lying if I said it doesn't hurt.

As if she understands, Mom gives me a sad smile and moves her fingers until they brush against my cheek. I close my eyes and let her caress me; let her be the mom, even if it's only for a moment. I wish she would do it more often. Smiling, I lean in and press my lips against her cheek, feeling her flesh dimple against my mouth, then I go to the kitchen and fix her first meal of the day.

It's bigger than a three course dinner.

Sometimes I feel like her enabler. Like a drug pusher, I feed her addiction; make sure she's still hooked to the very thing that's killing her. But when I suggested I should stop, Doc Cullen explained that the shock of withdrawing food could cause her body to shut down, or induce a heart attack. So, here I am, carrying a tray full of thick, juicy bacon and grits, with a big bottle of full-fat Coke, and the thick, meaty aroma twists at my stomach until it makes me want to gag.

It's still cloying in my nostrils when I go to get dressed. I clean my teeth, staring at my pale reflection with wide eyes, and try to imagine a world where my mom is a mom, I am a kid, and every day is filled with roses and sunshine. Even at seventeen, I want to believe in fairy tales.

*~ BB ~*

School is neither a nightmare nor the best day of my life. It's just there, like a freckle on my hand or a scratch on the windshield. Sometimes it's annoying, other times it's almost a relief to see it. The familiarity both nurtures and suffocates me. In the last lesson of the day—AP English—I'm staring out the window, watching the juniors running around the track. My eyes sneak up to look at the sky, watching the way little wispy clouds snake through the blue. I've never been on an airplane, never left the state, but sometimes I dream of sitting in one of those bucket seats and smiling at the airline hostess as she pours me a cool glass of iced tea. I don't even know if they serve iced tea on airplanes, but they do in my imagination, and since the only flight I'm likely to take is one of fancy, I guess it will have to do.

"...So, next week Mr. Cullen will be joining us."

The familiar name jolts me out of my reverie. I glance around before resting my gaze on Mr. Bertie, wishing I'd been paying more attention. I start to wonder why the Doc will be coming into English class. Surely biology is more his thing?

Jessica Stanley raises her hand.

Mr. Bertie nods at her. "Yes, Miss Stanley?"

"Is it true he's writing a book?"

For a moment I'm confused. As clever as Doc Cullen is, he has no time or inclination to be a well-written man. He's practical, likes working with his hands. He's a healer, in the truest sense of the word. That's why it takes me so long to realize they're not talking about the Doc at all. It's his son who has caused all the excited whispers. The divorced academic, returning home to his boyhood town. I can't remember his name, even though the Doc talks about him enough.

"Yes, Mr. Cullen will be talking about his book with you. He'll also be teaching you college level English. It's a real privilege to have him." Mr. Bertie takes off his wire rimmed glasses and stares at us. He does this quite often. It's supposed to signal his seriousness, but mostly it makes him squint. "I expect you all to behave when he's here. He is used to teaching college students, so no hijinks from any of you."

A muffled laugh comes from the corner. I glance around to see the jocks acting like monkeys. They always sit at the back, a rowdy group who rock on their chairs and laugh a little too loud. Mike Newton—a linebacker who is clinging to this AP class with only the tips of his fingers—throws a ball at Jasper Whitlock. Jasper is slightly more intelligent, but not enough to ignore the ball. He leans to catch it and his movement tips his chair backward, where it teeters for a moment, before clattering onto the floor. Just like in a slapstick movie, his head hits the tiles with a satisfying thwack. I roll my eyes and turn away. If the two of them are anything to go by, it looks like next week is going to go swimmingly.

The bus drops me home about four. I grab the letters from our mailbox—mostly junk—and pick up the newspaper from the middle of the driveway. The plastic bag is covered with tiny dead flies. I've tried to persuade Mom to cancel the deliveries, explaining we could read the headlines online, instead, but she refuses. She claims she likes the rustling sound it makes, and the smell of the printed paper.

When I make it to her room, I see Doc Cullen sitting beside her, his reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. He reads to her out loud from the letter he has clutched in his wrinkled hands. The sound of my sneakers on the scratched, wooden floor causes him to look up, his watery-blue eyes peering over the rim of his glasses. The corners of his lips hook up into a smile.

"Bella. How was school?"

Everybody always asks that. I'm not sure they really want the true answer.

"It was good."

"Did I tell you Edward is going to be working there? He's doing it as a favor to the principal. Giving something back to his old school."

Edward. That's his son's name. As soon as he says it I want to kick myself. Of course, it's Edward. I can hardly remember the Doc's only son. He left town when I was still a child, an intellectual prodigy who went to college when he was barely seventeen. Just a year after his mother died. The little I know about him comes from Doc Cullen's stories.

"So we've been told."

His beam grows bigger. "He arrives tomorrow. He's driving down in his convertible Mustang." The Doc's chest juts out with pride. He reminds me of a peacock I once saw on a school trip. "Doesn't that sound mighty fancy?"

"It does," I agree. "What color is it?"

"Why, red, of course." He chuckles at my question, then shakes his head. "What color is it?" he mutters, quietly amused.

"Are you ready?" I ask him. Because he hasn't been delaying his examination purely for the pleasure of Mom's company, even if I do know he likes to sit with her. He's been waiting for me to come home. Examining my mom is a two-person job. It involves lifting, turning and moving, and none of this is light work. I rarely get through it without my skin glowing with sweat.

The Doc places his stethoscope on her chest, putting the phones into his ear. I watch as a frown pulls at his mouth. "That doesn't sound too good, Renee. Is your chest hurting?"

"No more than usual." Of course, she coughs. "I've never been able to breathe very easily."

This is true. That's why she has an alarm I hook her up to at night. The monitor is in my room, resting on my nightstand. If she stops breathing it starts to buzz, and I know to go in and adjust her until she can breathe again.

"Well, I'd like to keep an eye on it." He looks over at me. "If she starts to cough violently or has more difficulty breathing, you call me and the paramedics, you hear?"

I nod; my eyes wide with concern.

"Good girl." He reaches out and ruffles my hair. Then we work together to get Mom comfortable, before I escort him out of her room.

"Would you like a glass of iced tea?" I always offer him something. It's the least I can do. We can't afford to pay him for his visits, so instead I ply him with cold, sweet drinks and homemade cakes. The currency of the poor.

"That would be very hospitable of you."

We take our drinks out on the porch. The Doc sits in my mom's old rocking chair, while I take the swing. "Are you looking forward to having your son stay?" I ask. I can only believe he is. The Doc lives in an old-fashioned home, a big house set in acres of fields on the edge of town. I imagine it has to be lonely, just him and his thoughts, all rattling around inside those stone-built walls.

"I surely am."

"How long do you think he'll stay?"

The Doc shrugs. "No idea. As long as it takes, I guess."

I don't ask him what "it" is. It could be his novel, his marriage, his absence from his academic life. Whatever it is, I guess it's none of my business.

"How are you doing, Bella? It's not easy on you, any of this..." He flings his arm to sweep across the house, the lawn, the street. "It's no job for a seventeen-year-old girl."

"I'm good," I tell him. And that's exactly what I am. A good girl. Just like he's a good man. We are two people weighed down by our own amiability. Anchored to this town by our kindness. Maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe there is. Who knows?

"This lawn needs cutting," he mutters, looking out over the yard.

"I can't turn on the mower." I'm ashamed to admit it. I keep pulling and the damn thing keeps sputtering then dying.

"I'll send Edward over once he's settled. I'd do it myself but..."

Doc Cullen is over seventy. He's so stooped I worry he might fall over. There's no way he could cut our grass or even have the strength to get the mower started. I want to bless him for the offer, though.

"That would be very kind of your son," I say with a smile and nod. Because we've fallen too low to ever turn down an offer of help.

*~ BB ~*

I skip school on Monday. Mom's breathing is becoming more erratic, but when I talk about calling an ambulance, she starts to cry and begs me not to. I sit on the side of her bed—my stomach tied in knots—and dry her eyes with one of her old, monogrammed handkerchiefs. I can understand her fear. The last time she went to the hospital they had to take her out through the double patio doors and transport her in a U-Haul van. A whole crowd gathered outside our house, gaping and watching as ten paramedics wheeled her out on a specially made, reinforced stretcher. People took pictures with their phones and shouted out insults when she got stuck in the doorway. My eyes start to tear up at the memory. I just can't put her through that again.

So, I stay home, where we sit and watch the daytime soaps, and she attempts to get me up to speed on who is dating whom and which man is the father to which woman's love child. It's so confusing that I find myself nodding and pretending I understand.

By Thursday she's feeling better. Doc Cullen confirms her chest is almost clear, so I head back to school. I'm still worried enough to make her promise to call me at the slightest twinge. Though we're supposed to leave our phones in our lockers, I switch mine to vibrate and surreptitiously hide it in my pocket anyway.

When I slide into my chair in AP English, the only person who seems to notice is Alice Brandon. She pushes her too-long bangs out of her eyes and stops chewing her gum for long enough to talk.

"You're back."

"Uh-huh."

That's it. Neither of us are big talkers. She doesn't ask me why I've been away, and I don't volunteer any information. We just sit and stare ahead of us, letting the silence envelope our bodies as we wait for Mr. Bertie to arrive. When he does, it's almost a relief. We both look up as the door pushes open and his dark loafers appear in the doorway.

Except, it's not Mr. Bertie.

Mr. Bertie doesn't wear jeans and a shirt, unbuttoned at the neck to show a grungy t-shirt beneath it. Mr. Bertie doesn't wear his hair a little too long, so it falls in his eyes in a distracting way. Mr. Bertie doesn't have an almost swagger in his walk as he makes his way to the desk and lays his papers on top, running his hand through his hair to pull it out of his face.

No, this certainly isn't Mr. Bertie.

There's a murmuring in the room, and I glance over to see Lauren Mallory preening in her cheerleader's outfit. I've been wondering why she's wearing it; it isn't even Friday. Jessica Stanley giggles in that fake, high-pitched way and I catch Alice's eye, trying not to smile at their blatancy.

"Good afternoon, everybody."

"Good afternoon, Professor Cullen."

This guy looks nothing like his dad. There isn't the slightest hint of resemblance. Where the Doc is medium height, his son is tall. He'd be lanky, but there's a fullness, a firmness to his body that prevents him from being anything but muscular. The Doc's hair is pale and thin, exposing his mottled scalp where he oils it back in the same way he's done since he was a kid. Whereas Mr. Cullen—Professor Cullen—has thick, brown hair. It's clean and shiny, and I wonder if it feels as good as it looks.

"Today we're going to write some poetry."

A collective groan comes from the back of the room. When it comes to the hierarchy of AP English, poetry is right at the bottom, right below Dickens. The jocks prefer modern stories, or at least those written in the twentieth century. Having to be wordsmiths is downright boring.

"On Tuesday I read you some romantic poets. Today I want you to try and write your own poem. It doesn't have to be long; I simply want it to come from the heart." He stands up and starts to move around the room, placing a piece of letter-sized paper on everybody's desk. He doesn't even notice me, nor ask me why I wasn't here yesterday. I guess my invisibility cloak is working today.

"I want your poem to be titled 'The Most Beautiful Thing in the World'."

I hear the jocks start to laugh.

"Come on, guys. I don't mean the latest girl you've got your eye on. I want you to think about eternal beauty. A flower growing in the middle of the desert. A broken vase. Rays of sun beating down through the grayest clouds."

He returns to his desk and leans back on it, folding his arms in front of him. "You're going to be assessed for this one, so make it good."

I've no idea what I'm going to write. I want to raise my hand up, explain I wasn't here yesterday, so I don't know the poems he's talking about. But that would invite too many questions, ones I'm not prepared to answer in front of the rest of the class. Instead, I try to remember the poems I have read—the ones Mr. Bertie has forced upon us during the last year. But all I can think of is War Poems: "Dulce et Decorum Est", "The Soldier." There's no beauty in dying in the corner of some foreign field.

"He's cute, huh?" Alice leans across from her desk, inclining her head toward Professor Cullen. I follow her gaze and look at him. Lauren Mallory is talking animatedly to him, gesturing at her paper. I'm guessing she's asking him some inane question in an attempt to get his complete attention.

"I guess." He is cute; he looks wholesome, good. Even if his clothes are casual, you can tell from the cut they're expensive. Everything about him says well-bred, and that's not something we are used to around here.

"Lauren says he's only twenty-seven."

Only? It still seems old to me. A lifetime away.

I nod and look down at the blank page in front of me. I don't want to talk about Professor Cullen anymore. I don't want to think about the way he escaped this town and made something of himself. I don't want to think about the fact I'll never be able to leave. I simply don't want to think at all.

Instead, I start to write. A sense of sorrow engulfs me as I close my eyes and picture the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I scrawl my words across the page—blue on white—and try to ignore the lump that's growing in my throat. I don't want to cry, not here where showing emotion is tantamount to social suicide. But everything about this poem is making me raw.

Professor Cullen takes our assignments in at the end of class, promising to have them back to us by the next one. Once again, he barely glances at me as he takes the paper from my hand, murmuring a "thank you," before looking at the next student. I sling my backpack over my shoulder and leave the room.

"Hey, Swan!"

I turn around. Mike Newton is leering at me, a grin splitting his face.

"Yeah?"

"Are you going to the prom?"

"What?" I feel my lips pull down into a frown. "I don't know."

"Jasper wants to go with you." He starts to laugh.

I look over at Jasper Whitlock. A red flush stains his cheeks. I can tell he's embarrassed by the way he's standing. "I didn't say that."

"He's into you, Swan. I told him, you wanna see what a girl's gonna look like when she's older, you just have to look at her mom. But he still likes you." He openly guffaws. I can feel the bile start to rise in my stomach.

"Fuck you." I say it quietly, but from the expression on his face, he hears it. His eyes widen in surprise.

"I would, but I'm not into big women."

Angry tears flood my eyes. I turn away so they can't see them, unwilling to let them know how they've affected me. I open my locker, pull out my things, and head toward the bus stop, hoping it's already there.

"Bella, wait up!" Jasper shouts out, running across the parking lot toward me. When he reaches me, he's out of breath, and his chest rises and falls with his fast pants.

"What do you want?"

He gestures back at the school. "I wanted to say sorry. Mike can be a douche sometimes."

"You ever tell him that?"

"No."

"Then you're no better than him."

*~ BB ~*

It's a little over a month until graduation. I can do this, I tell myself. I can wallow through the mud that is my life and pull myself out at the other side. I'll accept my diploma, then walk straight to the Thriftway and ask for a full-time job. We'll have more cash, which is a good thing. Although it will mean I'm out of the house for longer than I am now.

The following Tuesday, we have AP English again. The class is quieter today, and we watch as Professor Cullen shuffles through our poems and clears his throat before speaking. "There was some good work in here. I was particularly impressed by some use of language and simile. However," he looks up, "there are a few of you who could do with watching a lot less MTV and reading a few more books. Newton," he glances around until he spots Mike's hand up in the air, "I asked you to write a poem, not porn. Could do better."

The class laughs, and I join in. It's nice not to be the one humiliated, for a change. Not that Mike looks that humiliated, as he exchanges a high five with Emmett McCarty.

"Lauren Mallory. While it was a good attempt, I'm a little sad that Harry Styles is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen." More laughter. "Can I respectfully suggest you get out more?"

So it goes on. He hands the sheets back with a comment, some kind, some pithy, until all he has left is one piece of paper in his hand. Mine.

"Bella Swan?" He scans the room, seeking me out. Eventually, I raise a hand—not high, just up to shoulder height. It's enough to catch his attention, and his eyes slide over until they meet mine. He walks across, standing in front of my desk. I have to crane my head up to look at him.

"This was one of the most beautiful piece of poetry I've read." He gives me a gentle smile. "Do you mind if I share it with the rest of the class?"

I mind like hell, because everybody is looking at me. I sink low in my seat as if it will help me hide from them. But I shrug an agreement anyway.

As he reads my words, my face gets progressively hotter. I can feel all the stares burning into my skin; it makes me want to pull on my invisibility cloak and disappear. There's only one thing worse in this school than anonymity, and that's pushing your head above the parapet. I can feel an imaginary target being painted on my back.

Professor Cullen stops talking and places the paper down on my desk. "The way you described your mother's smile was breathtaking." His face softens. "How long ago did she die?"

Mike Newton starts to chuckle loudly. "Her momma ain't dead. Unless she was eaten by a whale!"

Everybody joins in with the laughter, and I find my face flaming even hotter. So, I may have written about how much I missed her smile. Why the hell did that make the Professor think she was dead?

"She's gonna die soon, though. Nobody can be that fat and go on living."

"You can't die from being fat."

"She's so ugly she should die."

I push myself up from my desk and run across the room, the tears already scalding my cheeks. I swing the door open, trying to muffle my sobs, and run up the corridor toward the exit.

"Bella!" Professor Cullen shouts after me, but I ignore him, running out of school and into the parking lot.

I practically sprint the three miles home, arriving back at our house a total mess. I'm out of breath. I'm covered with tears. I'm shaking from anger.

This is why I prefer to be invisible.

*~ BB ~*

After taking care of Mom, I find myself at a loose end, unable to sleep, but not wanting to be awake, either. My thoughts are raging through my head, itching at my brain from the inside out. I want to unzip my skin and scratch each one away. Instead, I try to find solace in a book, pulling out an old, dog-eared copy of "Of Mice and Men" from our dusty bookshelf. I curl up on Mom's old rocking chair to read it, drinking from a glass of cool lemonade.

Time passes fast when I read, and I'm right at the part where Lennie kills his puppy when I hear a door slam. I look up to see a sporty, red car parked at the end of our lawn. Professor Cullen is walking up the path. He's wearing the same clothes he had on in class—though the shirt is off, and I can see his t-shirt is an old one from his alma mater. I vaguely recall he did his first degree at Ole Miss.

"Hi." He's made it to the porch. The yellow lamp floods his face, and I can see where his beard has started to grow, shadowing his jaw.

"Hi." I place my book on the coffee table, pages down. The spine is already broken; I just don't want to lose my page.

"Can I sit down?" He points at the swing. I shrug in a "be my guest" kind of way, and he does exactly that. Leaning forward, he picks up my book, glancing over the words on the yellowing page. "You enjoying this?"

"I've read it before." I've read all the books in our house before. There aren't many of them, and I'm not a big one for watching TV. It doesn't distract me enough.

"Do you like it?" He seems genuinely interested.

I frown, trying to work out why he's here. I don't want to be rude, but he's a reminder of all the crap that went down at school today. "It makes me cry."

"Me, too."

"I'm fixing for a lemonade. Would you like one?" I ask him in an attempt to break the silence, and because I've been brought up in the South, where we'd never treat a guest unkindly. Being hospitable is as natural as breathing.

"That would be nice."

When I bring back his drink, I pass it to him and look over at his Mustang. "I like your car."

He smiles. "My father thinks it's flashy. Says I've been living in the North for too long."

I wonder why Doc Cullen told him that. I know how proud he is of his son, but clearly Edward doesn't. "Well, a little flashy would do all of us some good."

"That's true." His face softens again. I hadn't noticed his eyes before—hadn't been close enough to look—but there's something deep and lovely about them. Like a meadow on a summer's day. "I wanted to apologize for earlier."

I feel myself clam up. My chest tightens. "It's okay."

He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. The old, rusty hinges of the swing start to creak. "It isn't okay. I should have thought before I spoke. I'm sorry those guys said what they did, it was cruel and unnecessary. I've reported them to the principal."

My face falls. "I wish you hadn't."

"Why?" He seems genuinely perplexed.

"Because it's hard enough to be a senior in school, without being the one responsible for other people's punishment."

"You're not the one responsible. They are."

I take a long, cool sip of lemonade. "Just how long is it since you've been in high school, Professor Cullen?"

He laughs. A deep, throaty chuckle that cuts through the night. It takes my breath away. "Long enough."

"So, maybe you don't remember the rules. Or the fact that it's better to fly under the radar when you're somebody like me. I try to stay invisible. Getting the jocks punished for making rude remarks really isn't helping."

He's quiet for a moment. His gentle, green eyes stare at me, and I feel his assessment like it's a stroke of his fingers on my skin. "You know, it isn't always like this, Bella."

"Like what?"

"Being a teenager. It gets better. You grow up and graduate; you get to leave this town and realize there's a great big world out there. All the crap that happens in high school…you can just shrug it off, forget about it."

"I'll never get to leave this town."

"What about college?"

"I'm not going to college. We can't afford it." I drain the last drops of my lemonade and place the glass back down on the table. Lenny and George stare back up at me from the book cover, looking about as trapped as I feel.

"What about grants? I could put you in touch with a few people." He seems almost frantic. Like my being stuck here is the worst thing in the world.

"Even if I could afford to go, I wouldn't. I can't leave my mother." I glance back at the house. "She needs me here."

He looks so sad I want to reach out and cup his cheek. I try to think of something to say to change the subject.

"How is the novel going?"

"Not great." He smiles, seemingly relieved at the turn of conversation. "I keep sitting down in front of my laptop and drawing a blank. It's like the characters are hiding."

"What's it about?"

"I'm not even sure yet. I've got this image in my mind; I feel like I know the people personally. But I just want to follow their lead, see where they take me."

I don't want to laugh, but I do, anyway. "Sounds like they're leading you up the garden path."

He joins in. "It would seem that way."

Professor Cullen finishes his lemonade and takes his leave, promising to come over on Saturday morning to cut the grass. I guess his father has been having words with him.

*~ BB ~*

I'm woken in the middle of the night by the shrill alarm of my mom's breathing monitor. I fling the covers from my bed and jump on the wooden floor, running into her room. She's lying on her back—as always—propped up on pillows, her grey-shadowed eyes closed; her body unmoving. I rush over and check her pulse, searching desperately to find that little rhythmic push beneath her folds of skin. In my panic, I can't find anything, and my own racing heart is threatening to burst out of my chest.

I grab an oxygen mask and place it over her face. Then I run and dial 911, hoping the paramedics will get here in time. All the while I'm leaning over her, trying to wake her up, praying she hasn't slipped away through my fingers. I'm too scared to cry, too paralysed by fear to do anything but stand here.

It isn't the paramedics who arrive first. It's Doc Cullen, still wearing his soft, cotton-striped pyjamas and old leather slippers, trailed by his son, who at least is wearing jeans and an old t-shirt. He lets himself in with the key he always has and heads straight into Mom's room, taking his black medical bag from the Professor.

"What's happened?" He has his no-nonsense medical voice on. I go through the events of the past few minutes in the same way, attempting to swallow down the sobs that are trying to escape.

Then he starts to examine her, and I step forward, waiting for him to tell me what to do. Instead, he calls his son over, and together they do what is necessary to restart her breathing. I feel powerless and alone, in spite of their company, and when the paramedics arrive, it only makes me worse. This time, it's the Professor's turn to step back, and he joins me at the edge of the room, his face shrouded with pity.

"Are you okay?" He reaches out and brushes my wet cheek. I'm too upset to talk, but shake my head. He pulls me into his arms and rests my face against his chest. And that's how we stand in the room where my mother could be dying, watching the paramedics and the Doc trying to save her life. His body is warm against mine, his chest hard, and his hold soft. I haven't been held like this in the longest time. My mom can't hug me like this and I haven't had a boyfriend. The closest thing I get is a quick clasp around the shoulder. But this…this feeling of comfort, this sensation of protection, it's what I crave, what I need. And I lose count of the minutes that we stand there, waiting for an answer, but I don't care, because he makes me feel safe.

"She's breathing on her own." I look up to see Doc Cullen's kindly face. "She isn't out of the woods yet, but we've managed to get her stabilized."

"She's going to be okay?" I feel hope start to bloom in my heart. The Professor releases me, and I step forward, wanting to see Momma's face. The Doc holds me back for a moment.

"Let them make her comfortable. Normally we'd take her to the hospital for observation, but…" His voice trails off.

But she's too fat. Too big for the ambulance, too heavy for the hospital beds. It takes days to arrange for my mother to get to hospital, not minutes.

"I can monitor her."

"What about school?" the Professor asks.

"I'll ask them to send home some notes. Don't worry about it, Professor Cullen."

"Edward. It's Edward."

"He's right, Bella. You only have a month until graduation. You need to be in school. I'll arrange for somebody to come in and watch her."

My face falls. "We can't afford it."

"I'll pay."

I whip around to see Edward's face. He looks genuine.

"No. I can't accept charity." This is untrue. I accept charity each and every day. I let Doc Cullen look after her pro bono; I accept offers of spoiled food from the Thriftway. It's Edward's money I can't accept. I don't even know why. It just seems wrong.

"We'll work out that side of things. I'll make a few calls."

I shake my head again, but let him take the lead anyway. I'm too exhausted, too depleted to do anything else. I even accept the Doc's offer of sitting with her until morning, so I can get some sleep, and let Edward take me to my room. It's only then I realize I've spent the last hour clinging on to him wearing a pair of tiny shorts and a thin tank that exposes everything.

I love the fact he's been gentleman enough not to notice.

"I guess I'll hit the sack."

"You look like you need the sleep."

"So do you."

Edward smiles for the first time since he walked into my mom's room. "I'm not sure I'll be able to." He pulls the covers over me and leans forward, placing his lips softly against my forehead. "Sweet dreams."

"You, too," I murmur, almost asleep. I barely hear the door click before I'm drifting off, letting sleep wash over me like a gentle wave.

*~ BB ~*

It seems strange to have so many people in the house, especially when I'm used to it being only Momma and me. Nurse Gwendolyn comes in the morning at seven, just as I'm leaving for school, and always has time to pass me a freshly-baked muffin before she starts her shift. She's relieved by Albert at 2:00 p.m., and it's to him that I come home from school. A retired army medic, he's silent and taciturn, going about his work without the monologue that Gwendolyn always seems to manage to keep up. He leaves later in the evening, and then it's my shift. I sleep on a mattress next to Mom's bed, curled up under threadbare sheets, lulled by the soft mechanical noise of her oxygen machine. That's where I wake every morning, and almost jump out of bed in my eagerness for school. Because it doesn't seem so mundane anymore.

Edward has been driving his father to our house for his nightly visits. While the Doc examines Momma with the help of Albert, the Professor and I sit out on the porch, sipping sweet tea and talking about literature.

On Saturday, he arrives wearing outdoor work clothes and starts up our stubborn mower, pushing it along the overlong grass until it looks almost presentable. I can't help but watch as the tight muscles of his back flex and bulge beneath his shirt, perspiration sticking the thin cotton to his skin. When he catches my eye, he smiles, and I feel my heart begin to race.

I'm not stupid enough to think he feels anything for me but pity. I'm not naive enough to think there's anything more between us than a budding friendship. But the little crush I harbor on Edward Cullen draws me to school like a magnet. He's the bright point of my day; my diamond in a sea of coal.

The following Thursday I'm feeling lighthearted and happy. Momma seems to be making a marked improvement, enough for Doc Cullen to be muttering about her not needing constant supervision anymore. In English we're studying Metaphysical poets; which pleases me, not only because Jasper and Mike have trouble even pronouncing the name, but also because hearing Edward read Donne's "The Good-Morrow" out loud is like getting my own little slice of heaven. His voice is soft and mellifluous, and his years up North haven't taken away any of his Southern drawl. If I close my eyes I can picture him in a lounge suit with a dapper hat.

I guess the main reason I should be happy is today's my eighteenth birthday. But if anybody knows they're keeping mighty quiet about it, and I have no inclination to tell them. I plan on spending the evening with my mom, sharing cake and talking about when she was a girl. Of course, in her mind she inhabited some sort of parallel universe where she was an offbeat combination of Scarlett O'Hara and Thelma and Louise. I suppose it's easier to romanticize things when there's nobody left to contradict you.

She hasn't always been this obese. When she was my age she was pretty enough, perhaps a little plump, but it didn't seem to matter back then. She started to put on weight when my father skipped town, as if she could hide her embarrassment behind folds of skin. Things got worse when I started Kindergarten. It was as if she gave up on living and started to hide for real. When every other little girl was inviting the class over for tea parties and play dates, I was sitting alone on the bus, clutching my lunch pail and wishing I could join in. But they didn't invite me; because their mommas didn't know my momma and because they never received an invite to my house. From the start, I was a loner by necessity.

Now...I don't know what I am.

"...Whatever dies, was not mixed equally; If our two loves be one, or, thou and I, Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die." Edward closes the book and regards the class. "What was Donne trying to say here?"

There is silence. I glance to my left and see that everybody is looking down at their desks, afraid of catching his eye lest he picks on them to answer.

Tentatively, I raise my hand.

He looks surprised. "Yes, Bella?"

I clear my throat. "He's talking about the difference between making love and being in love." Heat floods my cheeks. "He can't remember what it was like before he fell in love."

"What do you know about making love, Swan?"

I turn around and glare at Mike.

Edward holds up his hands. "Enough. Miss Swan is right. Donne is comparing spiritual love to sensual love. It's about waking up in the morning next to somebody you have fallen in love with." He laughs. "The Beach Boys kind of stole the concept when they recorded 'Wouldn't It Be Nice'."

We spend the rest of the lesson debating the poem. Most of the class find the Metaphysicals boring and virtually incomprehensible, while I think their allusions and use of language is beautiful. Edward's opinion falls somewhere in between. We're still talking heatedly when the final bell rings. I pack up my things and start to head out of the classroom, only stopped by Edward's sudden call.

"Miss Swan, can you stay behind for a moment, please?"

I hang around his desk and watch as the rest of the class files out. Alice taps her watch and murmurs, "It's a long walk home if you miss the bus."

I don't ask her to hold it. Mainly because we aren't friends and I don't think she'll do it anyway, but also because I don't care. A few minutes spent with Edward Cullen are well worth an hour of walking.

When it's only the two of us, he walks around his desk and stands in front of me, folding his arms across his chest. "Is there something you want to tell me?"

Immediately, I start to panic. Has he realized I have a thing for him? Is he calling me out on it? "Um, no?"

His face erupts into a smile, and it takes my breath away. "Not even a little matter of your eighteenth birthday?"

Relief floods my veins. "Oh, that."

"Yes, that. When were you going to tell me?"

How about never? "It's not a big deal."

"Of course it is, you're only eighteen once. It's the biggest deal of all." He starts to rummage through his drawer, pulling out a package, wrapped in shiny, silver paper. He hands it to me. "Here, I got you a little something."

I take it, feeling giddy like a child, and unwrap it with trembling fingers. It's a journal, bound with thick, green leather. Inside are heavyweight cream pages, all empty, waiting to be filled.

"I know you guys are more used to writing on iPhones and laptops." He sounds almost apologetic. "But there's something about writing on paper that adds permanence to your words. I want you to fill up that journal with poems and stories and tales of your days. I want you to make your mark. Because you are special, Bella Swan, and I believe you have important things to say."

His words choke me. I feel them crush and squeeze against my heart. "Thank you." It's the only thing my quivering lips can form.

"What are you doing to celebrate?"

"Sharing some cake with my mom." It sounds so lame; I can't even bear to look at him.

"You're not going out?"

I shake my head. I have nobody to go out with. No one who cares enough to know it's my birthday. But I don't tell him that.

He's quiet for a moment, as if he's thinking something through. Finally, he speaks. "I'll pick you up at seven."

Alarmed, I catch his eye. "What?"

"I'll come to your house and pick you up at seven." His tone is patient. Almost teasing. "We can do whatever you want. Your choice."

"But my mom..." Albert finishes at nine. I'm usually ready and in her room long before then.

"My father can sit with her. So, come on, what do you say? Anything you want to do."

I feel overwhelmed by his offer. I have to steady myself against his desk, my fingers clutching the scratched wood. My heart hammers in my chest. Nobody has ever been as kind to me as Edward Cullen.

The problem is, I know exactly what I want to do tonight, but it's so boring, so lame. I can barely bring myself to say it. "You'll think I'm stupid."

He reaches out and places a finger under my chin, tipping up my head until our gazes meet. "I will never, ever, think you are stupid." He sounds deadly serious. "So, what's it going to be, birthday girl?"

I take a deep breath and blurt it out. "I've never been to the movies, or to the mall." They're both more than an hour's drive away, and we've never had a car. Even if the likes of Mike Newton and Lauren Mallory seem to spend half their lives there, not once has anybody offered for me to join them.

"The mall it is." He grins. "You're a cheap date." It takes him a moment to realize what he's said, and suddenly the smile drops from his lips. "Not that this is a date..."

"I know that, silly." I push his arm gently and reassure him with a wink. But, even so, I'm going to pretend it is anyway, just for one night.

Happy birthday to me.

*~ BB ~*

Of course, I miss the bus, but I'm too high on Edward Cullen to even care. I spend the long walk home making tracks in the dirt and daydreaming about his smile. I close my eyes and remember the way he looked at me when he told me I wasn't stupid. The intensity of his gaze, the seriousness of his words. It would be so easy to persuade myself that he feels something for me, too.

I don't have enough clothes to suffer the normal dilemma of what to wear. It's a foregone conclusion it will be jeans and some kind of top. It would be weird if I dressed up, anyway; there's no way I want to look like I'm trying too hard. I may make an effort with my top. My blue blouse, maybe, or the checked shirt I got two Christmases ago.

When I walk into my mom's room, Albert gives a low whistle. Mom calls me over and stares at me with a satisfied smile. "You look beautiful." There's a tear in the corner of her eye. "I can't believe my baby is all grown up."

I lean down and kiss her cheek. In spite of everything that's happened, she still smells like her, and I take a deep breath in. I love her so much, and I came so close to losing her. Even the memory just about breaks my heart.

There's a loud bang from the front door, and Doc Cullen walks in, taking off his hat and laying it on Momma's dresser. He takes one look at me and starts to laugh.

"What?"

He merely shakes his head and laughs louder.

"What?" I say it again with more emphasis.

"Go see for yourself. Edward is waiting for you outside." He pulls up a chair and whispers something in Mom's ear. I hear her joining in with his laughter. I can't remember the last time I heard her sweet chuckle. When I lean down to kiss her goodbye I start to laugh, too, shaking my head at them as I make my way to the porch.

Edward's sitting on the swing chair, his head resting against the cushion, his eyes closed as he pushes himself back and forth with the balls of his feet. I sigh and for a moment I stare at him, taking in his chiseled jaw, his full lips, his freshly shaved skin. Then I glance down at his clothes and I laugh out loud.

"What?" His eyes fly open.

"We match." He's wearing jeans and a blue shirt. It's untucked, but still follows the contours of his body, showing both his muscular frame and the slimness of his waist.

He stands up and walks toward me. "You wear it better."

"You have to say that. It's my birthday."

"I don't have to say anything. I'm simply speaking the truth." His voice is thick. He leans down and brushes his lips against my cheek. "Are you ready to leave?" he asks in a soft, smooth voice.

"Sure."

"Then your chariot awaits."

In the hour it takes us to drive to the mall, Edward insists on listening to what he calls "teenage music." He seems to have the impression I'm hankering to be a normal eighteen-year-old, if only for one night. Terrible music, a visit to the mall and a rotten-tomato type action movie. It's a teenage rite of passage, and I love the fact he can read me so easily, because that's exactly what I want. What I like even more is the way he winces every time Timberland or Macklemore come on. I tease him that he's old before his time.

"I'm not old. I just have good taste."

"Antiquated taste."

"There's nothing antiquated about me."

I look him over. He's right; nothing about him screams old, he's too good-looking for that. His clothes are cute and his face is cuter. He places his hand in the small of my back as we walk through the automatic doors and in to the mall. He keeps it there as we head past the shops on our way to the food court.

There's a group of kids hanging around the booths, and for one horrifying moment I think they're from school. I turn to him with my heart lodged firmly in my mouth. "What if anybody sees us together? Will you get in trouble?"

"I don't care." And he really doesn't. The expression on his face is a testament to his nonchalance. Not to mention the pressure of his palm against my spine. He makes me feel so safe, so accepted. Like I'm somebody.

"What do you want to eat?" he asks, glancing down at me.

I look around the court. There's every cuisine in which you could ever want to indulge. My stomach growls at the sight of it. Chinese, Mexican, Thai, American; there's even a Moroccan deli. I swing my eyes from booth to booth, unable to make my mind up from the smorgasbord of choice.

"I don't know."

"What's your favorite?"

"All of them." I can almost taste them; the dim sum, the sushi, a juicy taco with all the trimmings, even though I've never eaten them before in my life. I don't know how I'm ever going to decide. "Why don't you choose for me?" I push my hand in my pocket and pull out a wrinkled ten. "My treat."

Edward looks almost offended. "Hell, no." He grabs my hand and drags me over to an empty table. "You sit here and I'll buy the food." He pauses. "My treat."

So, I sit at the table and play with my fingers, trying hard not to follow him with my eyes. I can't get rid of the smile that lingers around my lips, because this is officially the best night ever. Yes, things could be easier. He could be ten years younger or I could be ten years older. But the age difference lends me comfort. It allows me to fantasize all I like without the merest possibility of any of it coming true. I'm nothing more than an object of sympathy for him. Poor little Bella Swan, the girl who grew up too young.

When I look up, I see him approaching, carrying a tray that's overloaded with food. He smirks at my wide-eyed expression, placing it on the table in front of me, then turns to look at the two members of staff who have followed him over. They, too, are carrying trays, and they put them down so the whole table is completely crammed with food from every single stall in the court.

He stands there, smiling down at me proudly. I feel myself want to cry. Because this is the nicest thing anybody has done for me in my whole entire life. The guy is absolute perfection, and he doesn't even know it.

"Oh, my God..."

"I couldn't choose, either."

I don't know what to eat first. I grab a carton of noodles, just to give my hands something to do. "Edward..."

"What?" There's still this huge grin on his face.

I want to make him happy by eating all the food he's bought me, but my stomach is so constricted, I can barely think about eating any of it. The only thing I really want to feel on my lips is him.

"I can't believe you bought all this stuff!"

He starts to laugh. I join in, clutching at my stomach as I look at all the food we are never going to eat. He grabs a taco and stuffs it in his mouth, trying to keep his lips closed so he doesn't spray it across the table.

"Why did you get divorced?" I blurt it out and immediately regret it.

His expression turns somber, but after swallowing his food, he answers, "I think my wife fell out of love with me."

I stare at him with my mouth agape. How could anybody fall out of love with Edward Cullen? "You think?"

"Her sleeping with my colleague was a fairly big clue."

His words strike me dumb. I feel the pain in them, and I want to suck it up like a sponge. I reach out to squeeze his hand. "I'm so sorry."

He stares at me through thick lashes. There's a sadness in his eyes that makes my heart clench. It makes me want to gather him in my arms and squeeze him until all the misery goes away.

"You have nothing to be sorry about."

"But I'm sorry for you." I hold both his hands with mine. It's like I'm trying to cling on with everything I have in me. Be strong for both of us. I'm so scared we might drown.

"Then, thank you." His voice is soft. "You're the best person I know."

I shake my head. "I'm not that good."

"You're so good I want to carry you over my shoulder and barge my way in to Heaven." Now it's his hands that squeeze mine. "I want to wrap myself in you and feel your goodness leaching through my skin."

God, I want that. I want to get under his skin. I want to bury myself inside until I don't know where he ends and I begin. Neither of us ends up eating much of anything, instead we cling to each other's hands and stare for long, charged moments. And for me, it's because I'm so full of emotion there's no room left for anything else. As for Edward...I just don't know.

*~ BB ~*

We make it to the theater just as the movie is about to start. It's half-empty. I guess most people don't want to see explosions and shootouts on a Thursday evening. I do, though. Edward sprawls out on his chair, and his left leg encroaches into my space. His thigh and knee are touching mine. I sit as still as a statue for the entire two hours. Not because I'm afraid of him or frozen by desire. It's fear I might lose this body contact that paralyzes my movements.

There's an armrest between our seats that ends in a big plastic cup holder. Edward puts a giant container of Coke in there, and we share the drink, our lips touching the same straw, our hands brushing as we reach for it at the same time. It's strangely intimate.

If I never have a night like this again, I don't care. This is my perfect moment. I may grow old and absentminded—a withered lady sitting on the porch sipping at iced tea—but I swear the details of this night will be as clear as water in my mind. I'll remember the way he smiled at me, the kindness he showed me in the food court, the gentle sensation of his thigh pressing against mine.

It is enough.

Our drive home is quieter than on the way there. This time we listen to his music. He likes guitars, soulful voices, lyrics that mean something. Music to soothe the soul. I let it caress mine as I stare at his profile from the corner of my eye, trying not to be too obvious about it. I wonder what his skin tastes like and the thought makes me shiver.

"Are you warm enough?"

"Yeah, I think a cat just walked over my grave."

"What?" He starts to laugh.

"It's one of my momma's sayings. Like when you shiver for no reason."

"Does your mom have a lot of sayings?"

I screw up my face in thought. "I guess she does. She doesn't talk much, but when she does she can be a wise woman."

"So, that's where you get it from."

We arrive home shortly before midnight. The porch light is out, the house shrouded in moonlight. I can't see if Momma's light is on or not, since her room is in the back of the house. Edward escorts me up the path, his hands stuffed firmly in his pockets, his arm muscles sinewy and tight beneath his thin shirt. When we reach the screen door I turn to look at him. His face looks gray in the half light. It makes his features look stronger, more defined.

"Thank you for a lovely evening."

"You deserved to have some fun. I hope you enjoyed it."

"I did. It was a lot of fun." It was everything.

There's an awkward silence. I guess if this was a date it would be filled with meaningful looks, maybe a heated glance from me. Then he'd lean forward, sweep the hair from my face, and gently place his lips against mine.

But this isn't a date.

"I'd best go in and check on Momma. I bet your dad is about beat."

"I'd like to come meet her properly some time. See if her smile is as beautiful as you described."

I forget he hasn't met her, apart from that one terrible night when she stopped breathing. All the times he drove his father over, he spent outside with me.

"It really is." I find my own lips curling into a grin.

"Another thing you inherited from her."

Bam! Like a wrecking ball, it hits me right in the gut. Standing on my mother's porch, staring into his mossy-green eyes, I realize I'm in love with Edward Cullen. I feel the sensation clutching at me, tearing me from the inside out. It's such a sweet pain, but I don't have the chance to think on it further.

The door swings open and Doc Cullen is standing there, clutching his hat between his hands. "You two have a good evening?"

I catch Edward's eye. "It was perfect."

The smile he gives me is dazzling. "Yes, it was."

"Is Momma okay?"

The Doc nods. "We had a nice evening. Talked about the old days. That woman has the memory of a..." His voice trails off. "Anyway, it's past my sleep time. Good night, Bella. Happy birthday." He leans forward and kisses my forehead, then makes his slow way down the steps and over to Edward's car.

"I guess this is goodnight." I don't know if it's the light or pure wishful thinking, but for a moment Edward looks as conflicted as I feel. He takes a step toward me, until we are only a breath away from each other. I'm hyperaware of his body—the strength of his muscles, the suppleness of his skin. I can almost imagine the way his arms would feel if they wrapped around my waist.

"Thank you again. You don't know how much this meant to me," I whisper.

He leans forward and places his lips on my brow at the same spot his father did moments ago. But everything about this kiss is different. It's like his lips are burning into my skin, lingering there, marking me as his. I close my eyes and breathe him in.

He slides his head down until our foreheads are touching. His eyes stare into mine, and I can feel his lips almost brushing my face. My heart stops beating. Time stops ticking. Everything in my world revolves around him.

"I think you're amazing." I feel his breath fan my skin as he says the words. Then he pulls back and opens the screen door for me. Reluctantly, I walk inside, glancing back at him one last time.

"Good night, Edward."

"Sweet dreams."

Thanks to him, I know they will be.

*~ BB ~*

School is buzzing with talk of the prom. What dresses girls are wearing, who they are going with, who will be voted king and queen. I'm finding it hard to believe this year is coming to an end. I've been looking forward to it for so long—aching to leave school behind—but now I feel conflicted. Twisted. Because no more school means no more lessons from Professor Cullen. That thought about breaks my heart.

"You going on Friday?" Alice asks as we wait for Edward to arrive. I shake my head. "Nah, me either," Alice says. "It's all a load of bullshit anyway."

For a moment I think she's going to ask if I want to do something with her instead. But I'm relieved when she doesn't; because I plan to spend that evening sitting on my porch, writing in the journal Edward gave me. These past few weeks have been so special; I don't want to forget a thing.

When Friday comes, I find myself doing exactly what I had intended. I take a pen and write my details on the first page, trying to keep my letters as neat as possible. Then I turn over the next page and begin to pour my heart out...

My name is Isabella Marie Swan. And this is the year I fell in love with Edward Cullen...

It's about an hour later when a shadow falls over the page. I look up to see Edward standing there, wearing dress pants and a white shirt.

"Where did you come from?" I hastily close the journal. "I didn't even hear the car."

"You were too engrossed. I'm glad to see you writing."

I stand up and place the book gently on the seat.

"You didn't go to prom," he says as a matter-of-fact.

"No."

"Why not?"

I could make up a lie and tell him how I disagree with outdated rituals, and that I believe proms subjugate women. But this is Edward. I don't ever want to bullshit him. "Nobody asked me."

"Jasper Whitlock did."

How does he know this? "Not really, Mike Newton asked for him. It was just a stupid jock joke. I would have said no, anyway."

"Why?"

My chest feels tight and constricted. I'm finding it hard to take in any air. I don't know why Edward is here, but the air around us feels charged with emotion, with possibilities. If there is such a thing as magic, I think it might be around us tonight. "Because I'm not in love with him."

His face softens. "You don't have to be in love with somebody to dance with them."

"I've never danced with anybody. I don't know how to."

The corner of his lip twitches. "It's the man who leads. You just have to follow."

"I don't know how to do that, either."

"Let me show you." He gently takes my hand in his, laying his other softly in the small of my back. Then he starts to move, pulling me with him, as we dance across the wooden boards of the porch, moving only to the rhythm of our breaths and the beating of our hearts. When I look up at him, a few moments later, I see every emotion I'm feeling reflected right back at me. Fear, desperation, happiness...love.

We're still moving when he inclines his head and brushes his nose against mine. His breath is hot on my face, his jaw smooth on my cheek. I tip my head slightly to the side, enough so he knows I want this, and his lips press softly to my mouth. I lift my hand from where it is clutching at his bicep and curl it around the back of his neck. Then he kisses me again. This time his lips move with mine, soft and gentle and oh, so sweet. For long minutes we dance and kiss our way across the porch, his hand sweaty where it's clasping my palm, my fingers curling into his. I can think of nothing except the way his body feels touching mine.

When we finally stop moving, I'm leaning against the wall of the house, with his chest pressed into my front. I can feel it rising and falling rhythmically. His hands are wrapped around my waist, and I hook my own around his neck. Neither of us can stop smiling.

"If that's the last kiss I ever have, I will die happy."

"That won't be the last kiss you ever have, sweetheart."

"How do you know?" I ask, beaming at his endearment.

"Because this," he leans down and captures my lips again, "this," and again, "and this are only the beginning."

Later still, he is sitting on the porch swing, holding me as I wrap my body around him. Neither of us seems able to let the other go. He strokes my hair and tells me stories of when he was a child. He recites poems and talks of cities I've only ever dreamed of visiting. I close my eyes and let his words caress my ears.

"When did you know that you liked me?" I ask, glancing up at his handsome face.

"I fell for your words," he replies in all honesty. "That first poem hooked me in. When you ran out of the classroom, it took every ounce of strength I had not to run after you and abandon the rest of the class. Each time I see you I'm torn between wanting to protect you and wanting you to protect me."

"We can protect each other."

"We already are." He leans forward and takes a sip of lemonade. "That night at the mall. Our first date—"

"You said it wasn't a date."

"I lied. It was definitely our first date. By then I'd reconciled myself to the age difference. I guess you turning eighteen helped with that issue. Anyway, that was the night I really let myself fall in love with you. And that's how it felt, like I was tumbling into a black hole and I didn't know what was at the bottom."

"I was there, waiting to catch you."

"Yes, you were." He presses his lips to mine, again.

I want to tell him I love him, too. But a shyness descends I can't quite seem to get over. So, instead, I pick up the journal and hand it to him; he opens up the cover and reads the first line. Then he kisses me so hard I think I might break.

When he finally leaves, I creep back into the house and check on my mom before heading to bed. I'm surprised to find her awake. Her blue eyes stare softly at me. "You're glowing, my sweet girl," she says. I lean down and press my lips against her doughy cheeks, and I feel a dampness on them. "You look so beautiful tonight. Like you've been touched by an angel."

"I have."

"Is it Doc Cullen's son?"

I nod. "Yes, it's him."

"He's a good man, just like his daddy. The apple never falls far from the tree." She wheezes loudly as she tries to breathe. "Does he make you happy?"

"Oh, Momma, so happy." I hug myself with joy, and the smile she gives me is the most beautiful I've ever seen.

*~ BB ~*

Everything is quiet when I wake the next morning. It's still early—not even five—and I stare at the ceiling for a while, playing out scenes from last night in my mind. Eventually, I pull myself out of bed and head for the bathroom; peeking my head around Momma's room door first to check if she's awake.

She's lying still.

Too still.

Her body isn't moving, not even with the soft rhythm of her breathing. She's lying prone on her back, her eyes closed, her face waxy. It's then I realize the dreadful, gut-clenching truth.

She's dead. My momma is dead.

I run over to check her skin. She's cold to the touch. There's no pulse I can find, no evidence her heart is beating. Panic rises in my throat as I grapple with the fact there's nothing I can do. She's been gone too long.

Her oxygen line is no longer hooked up to her nose. It looks like she tore it away and flung it to the side of the bed. On her other side the breathing monitor is switched off. I can't even begin to imagine what kind of strength it must have taken for her to reach across to the machine. She would have had to roll her body over ninety degrees. That's the kind of effort you only hear about in newspapers. The sort of strength a mother would use to pull a child from a burning car or fight off a wild bear. The kind of determination that only comes from a mother who loves her child more than anything.

I fall to my knees and clutch at her cold hand. Tears flood my cheeks, dropping onto my chest, as I think about last night. She knew I would never leave her, not while she needed me. So, she made the biggest sacrifice of all. I love her and I hate her all at once for it. I have to swallow down the hate because she did this for me. All for me. She died knowing I was happy.

Somehow, someday, I know that will be enough.

Not today, though. Today I cry and wail and mourn the loss of my mother. Then I run to the telephone and dial his number. I barely say the words before he hangs up and rushes over to hold me, when all I want to do is fall. At the bottom of the black abyss he is there to catch me.

We protect each other. That's the true meaning of love.

*~ BB ~*

We lay my mother to rest on a hot June day. It seems like the whole town has come out to watch her body being lowered into the ground. Whether it's out of respect or their morbid curiosity to see the oversized coffin being wheeled by twelve strong men, I neither know nor care. I stand on the edge of her freshly-dug grave, my body flanked by Edward and his father. They both clutch at my hands, their fingers curled around my own. A promise I'm not alone; that I still have a family.

My tears start to fall as the pastor says his final words. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. My mom escapes from a life that held her captive and in to one where she can be free. As the tears stream unbidden down my cheeks, Edward pulls me closer, wrapping an arm around my waist, lowering his head until his face is resting in my hair. Even through my veil of emotion I can see some surprised looks coming from the townsfolk. They must be wondering about the Professor and the poor, little Swan girl. I can't even bring myself to care about that, either.

Afterward, we head back to Doc Cullen's house. He's arranged for caterers and a hog roast, and we congregate in the garden. People I barely know walk up to me with heartfelt condolences.

"Your momma and I were best friends in Kindergarten..."

"We used to go to Sunday school together..."

"I've been praying for her every week at church..."

I want to ask all these good, God-fearing folk where they've been for the past eighteen years. But I'm too hospitable to be rude to them, even if my heart is screaming at their words. So, I thank them with a kind response, a sweet smile, and long for the hour when I can be alone with Edward again.

As the sun starts to fall—a fiery ball that turns the sky into a salmon-pink palette—he takes my hand and leads me back to his father's house. "You're staying here tonight." It isn't a question or an offer. It's a statement. It's exactly what I need right now. I've had to make so many decisions in the past few days, answer so many questions. I love that he can read me like a book.

"Yes, I am," I agree.

He holds me in his bed that night, his body wrapped around mine, his lips weaving a fiery trail across my skin. I realize how John Donne was wrong. You can't separate physical and spiritual love. I worship Edward with my body and my mind. The same way he's worshipping me.

"I love you," I whisper as his lips capture mine. "Everything about you."

His fingers tap out a rhythm on my lower spine. When I look in his eyes I can see them glistening. "I love you, too."

Though our kisses are seasoned with salty tears, they taste of hope. I get greedy, stealing them from his mouth, my own moving desperately as I hold him tightly. His skin is soft and warm, stretched across hard muscles that press against me, until I can't help but close my eyes and sigh. When I open them again he's staring right at me, asking me a question I answer only with my hands. He groans when I touch him, the sound vibrating against my lips, and I swallow his pleasure until it becomes my own.

He's so gentle as he pushes inside me; it's like I'm gossamer in his hands. There's a curve to his lips as he presses them to my cheek, and I feel his warm breath bathing my face. Then the heat trails down my neck and across my chest as his mouth closes around my breast, sucking gently till I start to shudder. Slowly, achingly, we become one; the physical and the metaphysical blending together until all we are left with is beauty and joy.

*~ BB ~*

I used to think of this house as a prison. But now I know it was only a beginning. This is the house I was born in, the house where I fell in love. These four walls have known more sadness and happiness than most people get to experience in a lifetime. As I wander through the empty rooms of my childhood home, I feel my love's hands wrapped around mine. There are tears welling in my eyes as the memories assault my senses, but this time I revel in them.

"I'll be waiting outside." Edward gently untangles my fingers from his. He knows everything about me. He swallows my tears and shares in my laughter. He understands my need to be alone.

"I'll just be a minute."

"Take as long as you need, sweetheart."

So, I do. I sit in the room where my mother lived a half-life and cry fat, cathartic tears. Then I talk to a God who I truly believe is merciful. I pray that she is in a better place. I know one day I'll see her again, and when I do I'm determined to regale her with a lifetime full of tales. Her sacrifice won't be for nothing. I won't let it be.

When I walk out onto the porch, Edward is sitting on the swing, his eyes closed, his head tipped up to the sky. The afternoon sun glows yellow on his face, and I feel my heart clench with love for him. Then he opens up his eyes and reaches out his hand, and I curl my body on top of his, feeling his arm circling my waist. I am warm and protected. I feel loved.

"Are you ready?"

I lift my face to his and nod. "I'm ready."

He takes my hand, weaving his fingers tightly between my own, and together we face a brand new day.