The ride back to Charlie's house began in silence, heavy and wanting. Bella saw the furrow in Zelda's brow, the hard press of her lips, and suspected she knew the reason. She also knew that Zelda wouldn't bring it up, not today. Not on David's birthday. She decided to do it for her.
"He won't hurt you," Bella said.
Zelda's eyes flashed over to her in surprise, then back to the wet road ahead. She didn't pretend not to understand what Bella meant.
"He hurt you," she said. Her tone was mild, but her brow tightened. She began to chew at her lower lip.
"That was an accident," Bella said. "I was—" This should have been easy, but she found herself fumbling for an explanation that didn't betray the tribe's secrets. "It wasn't his fault."
Not enough, she thought, trying to think of something she could add that might begin to chip away at the barely veiled terror behind Zelda's eyes.
"So I've been told," Zelda said.
Her response surprised Bella, but only for a moment. The sting, however – that stayed.
"Who told you?" Bella asked. And how much did they tell you? How much did they hide from me, but reveal so quickly to you?
"Jacob. And Billy Black. And Leah Clearwater, and—"
"Well, then—" Bella began, relieved despite her petty hurt that she could speak freely of this, without worries about secrets and promises. Zelda didn't let her, though.
"—and every beaten and abused and shot and stabbed woman who's come through my emergency department doors, Bella," she said, her voice savage. "There's always a reason, a good one. It's always the same – He lost it, just for a minute, can't blame a guy when you've pushed him that far, right?" She started to laugh, but the sound caught on a sob. She sucked in a long breath, forcing herself calm.
"This is different." Bella said. She wanted to say more, but was once again uncertain about how much Zelda knew. Surely, if she understood about the wolves…
"How is it different?" Zelda asked. "Because they're wolves? Magic?" She shook her head. "It doesn't seem different to me, just more dangerous. They don't need a weapon in the house for things to go bad, do they, Bella? At least with regular guys, you usually get some warning, some chances to decide to leave, if you can manage it. But not with the wolves. It doesn't start small, because it can't start small. Instead of a bruised rib, maybe they shatter your spine. Instead of a shove, a slap, they just tear you open, ruin your face."
"You met Emily," Bella said, silently cursing the Quileutes. They'd told her nothing for so long, and now they were telling Zelda, a virtual stranger, far too much.
Zelda started to answer, but when she opened her mouth, nothing came out. She nodded instead, her eyes going somewhere far away.
Jacob has no chance, none. Bella was surprised by how deeply the thought saddened her.
"I wish you'd known him before now," she said. "I wish you'd grown up with him, the way I did. Those guys you're talking about, the ones that hurt their women…" She shook her head. "I know them, too. What woman doesn't?"
"We don't know what we don't know," Zelda said. "I don't think the women I take care of expect to end up where they do. I doubt they go on their first and second and tenth date thinking, 'This guy's gonna really mess me up one day.'"
"Maybe not. But I was married to this one for almost ten years. He never laid a hand on me, not like that. He didn't even raise his voice when we fought. It wasn't in him. It just wasn't."
"It's in all of them, Bella. All of us. That's so dangerous, believing that only those other men hit their women, kill their women. It's in everyone. If I've learned anything doing what I do, it's that."
It was difficult to argue with that. She wasn't sure Zelda was right, but she wasn't sure she was wrong, either.
"He was kind," Bella said, looking down at her left hand, where her wedding ring had rested for so long. "He never made me afraid."
"Are you afraid now?"
She didn't hesitate to answer.
"That should surprise me, but it doesn't. Like I said, I've seen a lot of this, more than any one person ever should. They're mostly like you, Bella. Sure, once in a while, the woman is so scared that she lets us help her. Other times, she's too scared even for that, and she lies for him, and she goes home with him, because she's afraid of what'll happen if she doesn't. Maybe not to her. To her family, her pets… her kids." She paused, swallowing hard. When she started again, her voice was stronger. "But that's not what usually happens. Usually, she's not scared at all. The worst is over, right? He's being sweet with her again. Kind."
Bella winced at the word, but Zelda went on.
"These women… right after… They're mostly not afraid, Bella. They know… They did their job. Took what he had to give. Like good girls do. And, because this is how those fucked-up relationships work, the women know things'll be good for a while. They're safe for a little while. Some of these women, that's the only time they ever really feel safe, really feel loved - when their bruises are fresh." Tears welled in her eyes as she spoke, and she didn't try to stop them this time as they spilled over, wetting her face, and then her shirt.
I'm not helping. I think I'm actually making it worse.
Too late, Bella began to wish she'd said nothing. She was the last person Zelda would listen to when it came to Jacob and the other wolves. To Zelda, Bella would always be one of those abused women she could not help, too trapped in the sickness of the relationship to even be properly terrified. It didn't matter that she wasn't with Jacob anymore, and it certainly didn't matter that he was more than human now.
"You should have died that night," Zelda said. "You know that, right? If you'd gotten to the hospital just a little later, or if you'd had any other doctor…" She trailed off, but there was something different, some question in her tone.
"I know," Bella said. "Dr. Cullen is very good at what he does." She kept her voice even, her eyes on the other woman's face. How much do you know?
Zelda laughed humorlessly.
"Yes, he most certainly is."
Bella felt her heart sink as she cursed Billy and the others silently. The wolves were one thing, but Zelda should not, could not, know about the vampires. The tribe had its rules, its elders and their secrets, but the vampires… Zelda was innocent in all this, but the Volturi, those damn vampire kings or whatever they were, wouldn't care. She was human, she was no one's mate, carried no family's protection - and she knew too much. Didn't the Quileutes understand the mortal danger they'd put her in by giving this kind of knowledge to an outsider?
They don't see her as an outsider, Bella reminded herself. The damn imprint… That's all that matters to them. Not the way my dad loved Sue, not the way Jacob loved me. Not even my baby, and certainly not Zelda's choice. Just the goddamned imprint.
She closed her eyes, struggling to control the sick anger that twisted in her chest.
"They shouldn't have told you about the Cullens," Bella said when she could trust her voice. "It's dangerous, more dangerous than Jacob Black could ever be to you."
They were getting close to Charlie's now.
"No one told me anything about Dr. Cullen," Zelda said as she made the turn onto Charlie's street.
"Then how –"
"I figured it out. I… guessed." She shrugged. "Dr. Cullen - there's something about him that's not quite right, isn't there? It's not just that he doesn't sleep. There are other doctors, and even some nurses, who never seem to stop working. But, on them, it shows. By the second day, you see it on their faces, the exhaustion, the misery – or mania. Either way, they look like shit. And other people slow down when they work like that. After a while, they start to make mistakes. But it's not like that with Dr. Cullen. It's not just that he doesn't sleep – he doesn't even get tired. I mean, he doesn't yawn, or drink coffee… or drink anything, actually. And he can be at the hospital three, sometimes four days, and he's as fresh as on day one. Not irritable, foggy, none of it. Clean and calm as the ones just coming on. He doesn't even sweat, Bella. And, another thing, I heard somewhere he's supposed to be fifty-two. Fifty-two. Like hell he is. I mean, when we're both coming off a shift, he looks younger than me, and I'm thirty-one next month. I don't know how I'm the only one who seems to notice how off all this is, but…" She shook her head, shrugged again. "I don't know. Maybe no one else is paying attention. We've all got our own shit; it's easy not to notice what's happening around you, especially in a place like that."
She knew way too much, but had not, so far, said the word that Bella feared most.
"Before, I don't know," Zelda continued. "I tried not to think about it too much. He was a good doctor. He saved a lot of people, and he didn't even treat the nurses like shit. I don't think I cared what he was as long as he answered his pages and got my name right most of the time. But then, after I talked to Jacob and his people… After I saw what they were… Well, if there are werewolves…" Zelda trailed off as she pulled her car into Charlie's driveway. She paused, both hands on the wheel, gripping hard as she struggled for her next word. "Vampires." She exhaled hard, meeting Bella's eyes. "Right?"
Bella nodded, feeling numb.
"Are there… nice ones?" Zelda asked awkwardly. "Because, Dr. Cullen… I just… I have a hard time imagining him hurting anyone. But the wolves are dangerous, so the vampires probably are, too."
"Who else have you talked to about this?" Bella asked, glancing around, as if the Volturi themselves might be outside, behind the hedges or under the shadowy eaves of the neighbor's screened porch, waiting, listening, ready to strike.
"Are you kidding? What would I say? That our best hospitalist is a vampire, but it's okay because his surgical infection rates are insanely low and his family gave the hospital money to start a new community wellness program?" She laughed and shook her head. "People barely listen to nurses when we are making sense. I'm pretty sure accusing Carlisle Cullen of being a vampire would have ended both my job and my nursing career. Forks is still a small town, you know."
Bella put her good left hand over Zelda's right one where it still gripped the steering wheel. She squeezed her fingers and leaned close, looking her hard in the eye.
"You're not supposed to know," she said, pronouncing the words with the slow emphasis one might use with a non-native English speaker. "Not about Carlisle, not about any of them. Not that vampires are real. None of it." But Zelda went on, not catching Bella's gravity, her fear.
"It is all of them," Zelda said, not quite making it a question. "The Cullens, and those children of theirs… They're all… what he is. Are they… good, too?"
"Yes," Bella said. "The Cullens don't hurt people. But other… vampires," (the word still felt so strange to say) "they're not like them. They're dangerous. They kill humans for food. And, Zelda, they have laws. The first one, the most important one…" She pulled on Zelda's hand, finally seeming to catch her attention fully. "It's that humans don't know about them. We – you and I – we're not supposed to know about them, that they exist. It's… very bad that we do."
"What do you mean?" Zelda asked, finally hearing the warning in Bella's words. She glanced out the car windows, searching around them, as Bella had moments before. "Is something going to happen to us now, because of this? Is someone going to try to hurt my baby and me? My mom?"
"It's probably okay," Bella said with forced cheer, and with no idea whether what she was saying was true. "You didn't tell anyone, so I'm the only one who knows that you—" She stopped mid-sentence. That wasn't exactly true, was it? Edward had been in Charlie's living room when they'd opened the box with the cake. He had to have heard Zelda thinking about Carlisle, about the other vampires. Did that matter? Without knowing why, Bella suspected that it did.
"What? What's wrong? What were you going to say?"
"Just… that you can't tell anyone." No point in bringing Edward into it now, giving Zelda something else to worry about. "If they – the vampires' leaders – if they don't know about you, then you'll be okay." That sounded right. The Volturi couldn't very well hunt down and kill someone for their sin of knowledge if they had no idea the person existed, after all. But then she remembered what Alice had said, that there were other vampires with special gifts, and she felt less sure.
"And if they do find out what I know?" Zelda persisted. "What happens to people who know about them?"
Bella didn't answer.
"God." Zelda's voice shook. "Oh god."
"It's going to be okay," Bella said, trying to believe it. "We're leaving. All of the Cullens are. And it shouldn't matter after that, as long as you keep the secret. As long as you pretend you don't know."
Zelda's eyes narrowed.
"You don't actually know that, do you? You have no idea what's going to happen to me, my family. You're about as new to all this as me, aren't you, Bella?"
Sometimes the only thing you have to give someone is the truth.
"I don't know it," Bella said. "Not for sure."
"Yeah. I didn't think so." Zelda sighed. Then she sat up straighter, cleared her throat. "So," she said, "What's my best move here? You're still alive, and I think I can safely assume that has something to do with who your hospital visitors were. I don't have a vampire boyfriend, and I'm not looking for one. But there has to be something I can do to protect myself, my family. Somewhere we can go."
Bella liked the way she saw Zelda pulling herself together, shifting back into that smallish woman who had been alert, but unalarmed, by the sight of Bella, torn like paper, pouring blood all over the linoleum of Forks Community's emergency department. Bella didn't remember everything from that night, but she remembered Zelda's face, her voice, how she'd seemed so unafraid, so ready and capable to take on whatever unthinkable horror the ambulance bay doors just delivered to her.
"There is somewhere you can go, and I do think you should go there. Today, if you can." Bella hesitated.
"But?" Zelda prodded uneasily.
"But you're not going to like it," Bella said. And then she told her.
Bella was right. Zelda didn't like it, but she listened, really listened for the first time, as Bella told her everything she knew about the tribe, the wolves, their history with the vampires, how the wolves could fight and kill what nothing else alive could. Bella told her what she knew about the imprint, too, not trusting that Billy, or even Sue, had communicated this well enough.
"First of all, you owe them nothing, and they know it. They'll never ask for anything from you in exchange for their protection. There will be no quid-pro-quo. Do you understand what I mean?"
"I think I do," Zelda said with just a trace of skepticism. "You're saying that I won't be required to pay for mine and my daughter's safety by accepting Jacob… romantically, right?"
"Right." She had to remind herself that it was absurd to take Zelda's distaste for Jacob as a personal insult. "You're not wrong about me being new to this, but you're not the first person I've met who's been on the receiving end of an imprint. And you're not the first person who wasn't thrilled about it, either. It was scary to other people, too."
"Yes. Talk to Malina. Talk to Emily. They can tell you what it was like for them. Just remember, your choice doesn't have to be the same as theirs was. What Jacob feels for you, it's not about possessing you. He'll be what you need him to be, whatever that is."
"What if I need him to leave me alone?" Zelda asked. Her chin pushed forward; one eyebrow went up.
"Then he will," Bella said. And it will be agony for him.
"Just like that?"
Zelda was skeptical, and Bella didn't blame her. But she didn't hesitate, either, in her answer.
"Yes. Just like that."
Bella didn't understand the imprint, but she'd seen it, that warm thread that ran from Leah to Malina. It made Leah watch Malina like she was the first sunrise to follow a lifetime of night, with adoration, and with awe, but never as though such a thing could belong to her, or to anyone. If Malina had warned Leah away, Leah would have gone. And Bella was certain that Jacob would, too.
Nor did she doubt that the tribe would accept and protect Zelda, her daughter, her mother, and any other people she counted as family. However unsure Bella was about the Volturi and whether they posed a threat to Zelda and her family, she had no such doubts about the wolves. The imprint meant Zelda was one of them, and it was all that was required to earn their unconditional protection and love. They would enfold her without thinking twice. Billy would call Zelda his daughter. Sue would befriend Zelda's mother, help care for her little girl. And, given time, Bella thought that Zelda could accept them and the promise of family they held out to her. They were kind people, and it was hard to be alone, even when there doesn't seem to be any other way to be.
There was a time when Bella would have done anything for that kind of closeness, to be a true part of the community in which she had spent so much time. They'd been good to her, and they did love her. She knew that. She also knew that there was nothing on earth or in heaven she could do to become what Zelda was to them – a daughter.
She didn't even know if she wanted that embrace anymore, but the unfairness of all of it still pricked at her, drawing forth a stubborn, sniveling emotion she wished she could extinguish in one final effort, like pouring seawater over the last embers of a smoky, struggling driftwood fire.
You don't deserve this, Bella thought, watching Zelda's car back out of Charlie's driveway. The wind picked up, and she pulled her coat more tightly around her. She knew she was right. Zelda was a good person, but she was a stranger to the tribe, and she'd done nothing to earn a place with them. But she didn't deserve the danger, either. She'd gone to work and done a good job, and now her whole family might get killed by monsters.
Don't call them that, Bella told herself, but the word wouldn't stop feeling correct. She started up the drive to the front door, surprised that Edward hadn't come out to meet her. She was glad, though. However precious she was to him, however fragile she seemed, she still needed these empty times, when the sky and the wind and ground beneath her were company enough.
Charlie's driveway was paved, but the concrete was cracked and uneven, something Charlie had always blamed on the overgrown spruce trees in the neighbor's front yard. It was the roots, he'd explained, that pushed out and up and slowly made rubble of the pathways men had so neatly planned and poured.
Bella looked up at the trees now, gangly silhouettes against the gray-white brightness of the sky beyond, wondering for the first time if the trees really were to blame, or if it was something else that actually deserved her father's ire.
Does it even matter?
Her thoughts wandered, and she marveled now over how many conversations she could remember having with Charlie about the trees and the pavement and why he was completely certain that his assessment of the issue was the correct one. He was certain that the trees were to blame, and so the neighbor, not him, deserved to pay to have the driveway broken up and taken away and repoured.
Deserve. What a useless word. The trees grow, the pavement cracks. Deserve changes nothing. A baby dies, a husband flees. A daughter hides, a father dies. The vampires play, a stranger sees…
Bella understood all at once that it didn't matter, not even a little, what Zelda did or didn't deserve. That didn't matter any more than the stretching trees and lurching pavement and the terrible, inexorable knowing that some things break while others don't.
Who is good, who is bad, who has earned their life, beautiful or wretched… Nothing that matters cares about that. Whatever it is that does the deciding… It simply does not care.
"What's wrong?" Edward asked, seeing her face as she came in the door.
"Nothing," she said, and she smiled, still thinking of Charlie.
Edward cupped her face in his hand. His eyes studied her with such worshipful fascination that anyone watching would have believed it had been much longer than two hours since he'd seen her last. He looked at her like she was the first sunrise in a lifetime of night.
"Kiss me," Bella said, and he did. And in that hesitant, disbelieving touch of his lips, she understood.
The kiss ended, and Bella turned to let Edward take her coat. She was warm now, and the fears she and Zelda had talked over in the car seemed far away and foolishly small. Her father felt close, though. Despite her worries, none of Alice's changes to the house had stopped him from coming to Bella's mind the moment she stepped inside. She mused that her memories of him must be deeply set in this place, in the beams and foundation. They could not be pulled up or painted over.
Oh, dad, I wish you were here today. I wish I could talk to you, one more time.
I need to tell you that you don't have time to be angry with the trees.