For Abigail and Aria. For as long as I live, you will live, too.
Whenever there was quiet in her mind, whether she was driving and not paying attention to the radio, or trying to work or just look like she was working, she tried to imagine him. She retreated from the world's noises and wants and picked up his life in little pieces, examining each one like rocks on the beach.
Some moments were still as vivid to her as the taste of cool water, or maybe the sting of a bee. That first moment after his birth when she touched his head, and it was warm, wet velvet. Her first real look at him, in the isolette, covered in tape and wires and the odd fleck of dried blood. The way his chest fluttered from the action of the oscillator, that wonderful, terrible machine that let him get air, but not take a natural breath.
God, the sound of it. She'd never forget it.
She found herself desperate for more moments to turn over in her mind, even if they hurt her. There was so much she couldn't remember, lost to the medications they'd given her or the exhausted delirium of life in the NICU. And all the moments she hadn't seen with her own eyes; those, she imagined.
She saw him beginning in her with a flash of light, an unsteady spark growing into something more solid and real. She knew his body was only ordinary cells in those first moments and days, but like the bible's universe, she always saw him beginning with a light in the darkness, something where there had been nothing. She wished she knew when they'd conceived him, but she didn't. Those moments ran together, and they hadn't been trying. She hoped that it had happened when it was good, when they were fearless and desperate for each other. She hoped that it wasn't one of the times when her mind had wandered to some stupid work conflict or how she really needed to replace the tire gauge that she'd been sure was in her purse but she couldn't find anymore. She hoped she had been paying attention in that most important of moments.
She had a wavering belief that, even if that entire lovemaking experience hadn't been remarkable, there must have been a remarkable moment that made her son. They must have pulled each other closer. She must have buried her fingers in his hair and begged him not to stop. In that moment, they must have loved each other.
"I love you," she would whisper now, to the red light at the intersection, or to the bathroom tiles as she shuffled around numbly trying to begin the day, or to the LED numbers on her bedside clock telling her that another night was passing without sleep finding her.
"I love you."
There'd been no name waiting for him when he'd arrived. They'd planned to hold him, look at his face and listen to his cries before assigning him a label. She'd read about other parents doing this and liked the idea. This was, of course, when she walked in a different world, one where there was always enough time to do it all perfectly, and only other people's children died.
They had named him David.
His name was a chant now in her mind, a sacred counterpoint to the "I love you" that she spoke, over and over. The image of the word was always behind her eyes. His name had come to define her so much more than her own ever had or would.
Sometimes the name was a cry of grief, a desperate scream to bring back that which she couldn't live without. Sometimes it was quieter, a second heartbeat, living gently inside her.
Today was a quiet day, thank god. In a moment of rare cosmic mercy, or maybe just emotional numbness born from one damn hurt too many, Bella's grief was simmering low today. She drove her not-quite-new, not-quite-old SUV through Forks' quiet streets, navigating her way to the hardware store. She'd wondered if she'd remember how to get there, but she needn't have worried. She remembered it all exactly, and, of course, the town itself never changed much.
The parking lot was empty, and she took a space right in front. Once inside, she found what she was looking for quickly: garbage bags, work gloves, some storage totes, a few more cleaning supplies. When she brought her selections up to the register to pay, the clerk looked hard at her.
"Isabella Swan?" Angela said.
Bella forced a smile.
"Just Bella," she said.
"Wow, it's been years!" Angela said as she rung up the purchases. She paused, her expression growing serious. "I was really sorry to hear about Charlie."
"Thank you," Bella said automatically.
"Is, uh, that what brings you to town?"
"Yeah, I need to start going through the house, get it ready to go on the market," she said as she swiped her credit card.
"Hey, if you need a hand, let me know," Angela said. "Eric can handle the kids for an afternoon or three. I'd be happy to help out." She ripped off a piece of register tape and started writing on it. "This is my phone number. Just call me whenever."
"Thanks, I appreciate it," Bella said, taking the number and knowing she'd never use it.
Bella awkwardly gathered up her purchases and turned from the counter. She lost her balance, corrected herself, and felt her armload slipping. She braced for the sound of all of it crashing to the floor, but that didn't happen. Instead, there was a pair of hands first helping her steady the load, then taking it from her.
"Let me help you, Bella," Carlisle Cullen said.
"Dr. Cullen," Bella said, surprised. She followed him back to her car, opening the back cargo door so he could put everything inside. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he said, closing the hatch. He looked exactly as he always had: tall, pale, and immaculate in his dark suit. He studied her a little too closely for her comfort. "I am so sorry for the loss of your father, Bella. How have you been doing?"
"I've been alright," she said. Those were the words you were supposed to say, but she didn't even know what they meant anymore. She usually stopped at that, but found herself adding, "You know, this year has been hard."
"Yes," Carlisle said, because he did know. "He… David would be almost a year old now, wouldn't he?"
The sound of her baby's name was a terrible and beautiful knife inside her. Bella closed her eyes against the hot tears that threatened.
"Yes, he would be a year in three weeks."
Three weeks and two days, she added silently, struggling to regain her composure.
She wanted to say more, to unstop the place inside of her full of thoughts and feelings and stories about her son, all those things that so few people wanted to hear about anymore. It had been almost a year, after all. She was supposed to be done by now. But Carlisle didn't look as though he thought so. He stood patiently, watching her and waiting for her to say more.
"I… don't know if I ever told you how much I appreciate everything you did for us at Seattle Children's," she said at last.
"You don't need to thank me, Bella," Carlisle said, looking unhappy. "I just wish I had been able to do more."
Me too, Bella thought.
"I know you did everything you could," she said.
Carlisle didn't answer.
"Well, I need to get back to the house," she said, opening the driver's door.
"Bella," Carlisle said. "If you need anything at all, please call us. Truly. We would like to be of help to you."
She smiled. "Thanks, I will," she said, knowing she wouldn't, and climbed into the car.
Bella pulled her car up to the house and sat behind the wheel for a few minutes, gathering up the energy to go inside. It looked powerfully familiar and yet heartbreakingly different than it had when she had lived here with Charlie her last two years of high school. In the six months since Charlie had died, the yard had become overgrown, the siding had gotten dingy, and the gutters had filled with tree litter. The place's neglect saddened Bella, driving home her father's loss in a fresh way. Even though she'd lived most of her life away from Forks, this house, and Charlie's steady presence in it, had been a constant in her world, a person and place she could always go back to if needed.
Charlie's newer model Ford truck was sitting parked up against the side of the house, and if you didn't pay attention to the weeds that had grown up around the tires, it was almost as if he were just inside, cleaning fish or watching baseball, waiting for Bella to come home from school. Although she couldn't see it from where she was now, she knew that the old red truck was back in the yard, where it had been sitting since the engine had died three weeks after her graduation. She'd have to figure out what to do both of the vehicles while she was up here.
There was no sense in putting it off any longer. Bella got out of the car and went up to the house. The key was still on her ring, where it had been since she was seventeen. The door stuck in the frame for a second, then swung open. When she saw the living room, the kitchen, the old table with the wobbly leg, a wave of memory washed over her, making her feel a little ill.
She knew it wasn't exactly as he'd left it. There was a thick layer of dust over everything, but the house was far neater than Charlie ever kept it when he was living here on his own. After his death, Sue Clearwater had come in with a few others and done some cleaning. They'd washed the dishes, taken out the houseplants and emptied the refrigerator and cupboards. They'd washed the last dirty laundry Charlie Swan would ever produce and folded it back into his dresser drawers. They'd stripped the blankets and sheets off the beds, washed those, and put them away in the linen closets. After they'd done everything else they could think of to spare Bella from returning to more of a mess than was necessary, they'd turned down the thermostat and made sure the place was locked up tight, waiting for when she'd be able to come and go through Charlie's things.
It simply hadn't been possible before now. Six months after she'd lost David, Bella was barely functioning. She and Jacob were trying to hang onto their relationship, but it was becoming clear that it was a losing battle. Bella's full-time job was just existing, living as a shell of weary flesh around the agony that was her grief. She couldn't be a wife anymore, and she couldn't be a proper grieving daughter. When Charlie's deputy called to tell her that he'd been found at home, dead, after he'd failed to show up for work, she'd just shut down. They said that it looked like a stroke, an early arrival of the inevitable result of his long hours, poor diet, and the cigarettes that he thought he'd kept secret from Bella.
Renée had flown in to Seattle the next day and taken the situation in hand with uncharacteristic competence; Bella wouldn't have gotten through the funeral without her. Renée had called up to Forks to make the arrangements and had driven up with Bella and Jacob the day of the service, sharing out tranquilizers from her purse to Bella at regular intervals. Between her shock and the effect of the drugs, Bella's memory of that day existed as little more than a blur of sights and sounds. She remembered the black lacquered surface of the casket, the many bright sprays of flowers, the impossibly large crowd that had gathered to say their goodbyes to Chief Swan.
Carlisle Cullen had been there that day. That detail had stood out, because it had drawn a painful thread between the loss of her son and this new loss. The doctor had been there with his family, a still and silent group that had stayed near the back of the crowd as the minister spoke meaningless words over her father's casket. All of the Cullens were there, even the youngest son, whom she'd not seen since she'd first come to Forks her junior year of high school. Was his name Adam? Allen? She couldn't remember. He'd stood with his parents and siblings that day, looking as odd and lovely as the rest of them. When the service had ended, he'd said something quietly to Carlisle and left before anyone else. She'd noticed him turning to go, and the next time she'd looked over at them, he simply hadn't been there. To her fogged mind, it had seemed as though he'd just vanished.
What a terrible day, a standout even in a year full of terrible days.
Renée had offered to come with her to help with the cleanout of Charlie's place, had practically insisted, but Bella had refused. As much as she would have loved to put this task in her mother's hands, as she'd done with the funeral, she just couldn't bear to be around Renée right now. It had been their habit to talk on the phone once a week or so since David's passing. In their conversations during the last couple of months, though, Renée hadn't mentioned him. Bella at first had thought it was a fluke, but then it happened again, and again. These conversations with her mother were about their current lives, but no longer about Bella's son. Eventually, Bella accepted the truth: although it had taken longer for Renée than it had for most of the people in Bella's life, Renée was moving on, and was expecting Bella to do the same. But that would never happen, could never happen. And even if it could, Bella wouldn't want it. Every time someone else stopped talking about him, it felt to Bella as though another piece of her son vanished from the world. Lately, it felt to her as though she might be the only one left holding him here, tethered to the earth by a thread made of her suffering. That thread of grief pained her, but she loved it; she watered and fed it and took fastidious care of it. She was terrified of the day that she would get better, stop hurting, and move on; then he would truly be gone.
When your child has died, your last task as their mother is to grieve them. The longer Bella grieved, the longer she believed she would truly be his mother. She had no tolerance for people who, directly or indirectly, would try to take that away from her. Not even her own mother. She hadn't spoken to Renée in over a month.
Now Bella turned in a slow circle in Charlie's living room, wondering where to begin. She set her purse down on the table, and went back to the car to get her cleaning supplies and suitcase. She'd figured she would stay here while she was in town, but now she wasn't so sure. The house felt so wrong without her father in it. It made the whole world feel wrong. She wandered from room to room, the ache in her chest growing until tears started running down her cheeks.
No one tells you that what grief actually is is a terrible, bottomless wanting. The things you had, the way things were, it all leaves a space inside that just sucks you inside out with its wanting to be filled.
Bella wanted her father back. She wanted those stupid high school days back so she could grumble about chores and run off with her friends off into the woods or down to the reservation, then come home and get grounded or, more often than not, let slide without a word.
Bella wanted those innocent days with Jacob back, when she didn't know what was ahead of them, or why there was any reason to feel anything but joyful and brave.
Bella wanted her son back. She wanted to carry him up to Charlie's door on her hip, and then have Charlie open the door and welcome them both inside.
Bella wanted her mother to understand that she still needed her help, not in cleaning this house, but in remembering her son, out loud and often.
Bella curled up on the bare mattress of the bed she'd slept in during her teenage years and wept for the insatiable wanting inside her. At some point she stopped crying, and at some point after that, she fell asleep.
She dreamed of golden eyes watching her from the darkness. In her dream, she knew that she should be frightened, but somehow was not.