Thank you so much to my beta, Iris, for cleaning this up, you're a doll! Thanks to MrsSpaceCowboy for prereading and Ceci for my beautiful banner! And Nic, I'm not sure I have words enough to thank you with. You're the best hand-holding, prereading pimp there ever was! Thank you so much! Gigantic thank you to everyone reading this! Any mistakes are mine!
I'd wanted to get out of this town the entirety of my adolescence. Now, at the age of 25, I'm back in the one place I've tried to forget, tried to escape.
I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina in a picturesque small town named Waynesville, where the snowbirds spend their summers and the locals can't wait for wintertime. It's a place that still values manual labor and refuses to come into the 21st century. The people are as country as the music they prefer to listen to, and there's no patience for outsiders. It's a great place to raise children, has a low crime rate, and is the type of place where everybody knows everyone else, which is also why it's hell; everyone else is always in your business.
My sister, Alice, is excited for my homecoming. We've had our ups and downs in the past, not seeing eye to eye on many issues, but family's always there for you when you need it. Southern values dictate that type of solidarity. We choose to agree to disagree and move along to more kosher subjects. We couldn't be more different; I'm the night, and she's definitely the day, always bright and shining regardless of the darkness that surrounds her. She married her husband, Jasper, when she was sixteen and now has five children with a sixth on the way.
I pull onto the gravel-covered drive of my new-to-me home just after dark. It's a small, rustic wood cabin with a covered back deck that sits next to a stream. Behind the stream is a cow pasture with a few cows. There's a field beside the house growing corn with creepy, mannequin scarecrows keeping watch.
It's all very country and so different from the city I just left. Walking into the cabin, I see the remnants of my life in cardboard boxes sitting in their designated locations. Alice met the movers here today, and my bed is all put together and ready for me to fall into, which is exactly what I do. I'm exhausted from the drive, but my mind is plagued with thoughts of Garrett and the break up. Tossing and turning all night, I wake as the sun comes shining through my curtainless window.
I told Alice I would meet her at the wood yard once I'd showered and eaten. Jasper owns a landscape and lawn care business, and also sells firewood from a lot on Dellwood Road, one of the main thoroughfares in Waynesville. The yard is the hub of the business; all the transactions take place there, and Alice runs it. Well, she'll run it until she can train me how to schedule jobs, take orders for wood, pay bills, and designate what workers go where on which days. Then, it's all me. Alice has a few more months before she's due and could probably continue to work without a problem, but the guise of a job is an easy excuse for her to give me money and for me to accept.
As I pull into the yard, the workers are leaving for their assignments for the day. Trucks fitted with various tools and large equipment pass me in a convoy. The last driver in the line catches my eye. He has a thick, reddish-brown beard and a trucker hat pulled down low on his head. The hat isn't low enough to hide the piercing gaze being shot my way. It's one I haven't seen since I left Waynesville, and it looks just as angry now as it did then. Shit. I didn't think I'd have to deal with him this soon. I wasn't aware he works for Jasper, something Alice should have told me before talking me into this whole job thing.
I park my car and head into the office to find out what the fuck she's thinking, omitting that little tidbit of information. I know she doesn't know exactly what went down between us, but a little heads up would've been nice.
"Hey! You made it! How was the drive? Are you tired?" I'm still reeling from my past smacking me in the face when she greets me with a hug and some word vomit at the door.
"Yeah, it was a long drive. Thanks for meeting the movers and putting my bed together for me. I would've slept on the floor if you hadn't. I was dead on my feet."
"I know you would've, which is why I went ahead and did it. I didn't want to give you any excuses to not show up this morning." She smirks at me. Her hair catches my eye; it's shorter than I remember but still the same dark brown, almost-black mine would be without the chemicals. I don't think she's ever bleached or colored it in the 31 years she's been alive. That seems so strange to me, because everyone I know changes their hair color regularly. It's just another difference between where I've been and where I am. She sits in front of her desk and pulls herself up to where her bump touches the edge, and for a moment, I'm taken back. A flash of things that could've been comes to mind, and it's all I can do to swallow the lump in my throat and keep the tears at bay. It's way too early in the day for the liquor and pity party that usually follow this line of thinking.
"Speaking of excuses not to show up, why didn't you tell me Edward works for Jasper?" My voice tries to betray my indignant tone as it cracks. I quickly school my features into a look of annoyance before she has a chance to question it.
"I didn't think it mattered. You two haven't dated in years, and you were almost married to Garrett. Why would you care?" To anyone who doesn't know the history, it's a very appropriate question. If things were as they seemed on the outside, I probably wouldn't care. It'd just be a very mundane thing, us having dated once upon a time. That's not what it is, though. Our past is an event, a marker in time that changed me forever.
"It doesn't matter. I just wasn't expecting to see Edward Cullen first thing this morning." I'm such a liar. I just don't want to get into it with Alice right now. I knew I was going to cross paths with him eventually; I just didn't plan on it being today or every day from now on. Before she can ask any other questions I don't want to answer, I divert her attention by asking about what she does on a daily basis. The rest of the morning is spent learning what a "cord" and a "half cord" of wood are, as well as the mowing rates for weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly cuts. I also learn about the workers, which ones actually work, and which need a swift kick in the ass to get moving. There's a lot more that goes into this job than I originally thought, which is a good thing; idle hands being the devil's workshop and all.
Around noon, Alice says she's going to the bank and will grab us some lunch while she's out. There isn't much in the way of traffic coming through the yard, so I decide to stack some wood that's been chopped. I take two logs and lay them parallel to one another, then add two more pieces on top of the first two in the opposite direction. I keep on this way until I've built a tower that's my height, and then I then start a new stack. I don't have gloves on, so my hands are dirty and the skin on my arms is scratched up. There's a weird satisfaction in creating something with your bare hands − a sense of accomplishment.
Before coming back here, I'd been so stagnate in my job. I worked as a corporate accountant in a cube farm, transferring data from one column of a spreadsheet to another. I would go days without interaction from another human. Everything was so corporatized and monitored, I thought I would choke on the rules and regulations. After I called off the engagement to Garrett, there was no reason to stay in Atlanta. I hated my job and was ready for something different. I knew I didn't want to find another accounting job here, not that I could; there are hardly any fast food chains in Waynesville, let alone corporations in need of accountants.
Alice returns, breaking my train of thought. She climbs out of her Armada, arms laden with brown paper bags. I think she's brought enough food to feed an army. I quickly make my way over to help her carry it into the office. "I went to Ammons. You use to love it there, right?" I haven't had Ammons in years, and I'm really glad she remembered. "I got you a hot dog with ketchup only and a BBQ sandwich with ketchup only, because I couldn't remember which one you liked more."
I'm surprised she remembered I liked the place and even more so that she remembered my two favorite menu items and the way I liked them. It kind of makes me feel like an asshole. I couldn't in a million years tell you if she even liked Ammons and certainly not what she'd order.
"You're amazing, and this is perfect. Thank you!" I watch as a small smile plays on her lips while she digs through the bags for her food. We eat in a comfortable silence, enjoying each other's company. Once we're finished, I continue making stacks of wood while Alice sits in a lawn chair watching. She tells me about the different kinds of wood they sell and what each type is good for.
The workers start filtering in slowly around four. As they come in and begin putting away tools, they notice me with Alice and throw sideways glances our way. I can see them talking amongst themselves while continually looking at me, then at Alice, and back at me again. I'm mentally rolling my eyes; small towns and their gossip. Apparently, it's not just women who like to gab. Alice calls out to the guys, and tells them to come and meet her sister. They cease their conversations almost immediately and lope their way over to us. The first of the guys is a scrawny-looking kid with a STIHL hat propped sideways on his head. He has messy brown hair sticking out in all directions from underneath it. As he approaches, I notice his jaw has a bulge in it, almost like he has a jawbreaker stuck low in his cheek. He turns his head to the left and spits out some tobacco juice. I mentally cringe and hope the look of distaste isn't showing on my face.
"Seth, this is my sister, Bella. Bella, this is one of the newest of Jasper's crew, Seth." He raises his hand and gives a little wave in my direction. Alice goes on to tell him that she's training me to take over for her at the yard. The rest of the guys walk over as she's finishing instructing Seth to treat me as he would her.
"So this is the infamous Bella," I hear snorted out from a rather large man. I turn to look at him and try to figure out exactly what he's getting at. His sky-blue eyes are dancing with laughter, but I don't think he's laughing at me; more like an inside joke only he's privy to.
"This goober here is Emmett. He's Jasper's right-hand man and acts in more of a supervisory capacity. Usually he runs one crew and Edward runs the other when Jasper is out doing estimates." Alice continues to introduce me to the men. "This is Crowley, Wormy, and Jake." The three men offer mock salutes and mumble hellos as they continue getting finished up for the day. Emmett is still standing and looking at me with a furrowed brow, like he's trying to do algebraic equations in his head. What the fuck is his problem? I wonder as another work truck rumbles past us.
I turn my head in time to see Edward climb out of the driver's seat, nod a greeting in Alice's direction, and head to what I'm guessing is his own vehicle outside the gate. Great! I thought this was going to be awkward. "Well, you already know Edward, so I guess that introduction isn't really necessary anyway," Alice helpfully points out.
Since it's quitting time, I decide I'll just head back to my house to start with the unpacking and organizing. I tell Alice goodbye and that I'll see her in the morning at the same time. As I'm heading to my car, I see Emmett and Edward in a heated conversation. I can't hear what they're saying, but there are definite hand and arm movements with stern looks adorning both their faces. As I pass them, my eyes lock with Edward's, his narrowing while his expression turns positively glacial. Their conversation stops mid-sentence, and I feel both sets of eyes on me. My stomach is in knots, and I really just want to get the hell out of here, stop by an ABC store, and drink myself into unconsciousness.
God bless the South and its liquor stores on every corner right next to the churches.
The stop at the ABC store yields me some Sailor Jerry. When I get back to the house, I begin the ritual of unpacking and deciding where to put the things I deemed worthy of keeping in my haste to get out of Atlanta. I don't even know what I have in these boxes; I just remember packing and the feeling of suffocating if I didn't get out as fast as possible. My dishes didn't even get newspaper cushioning before being boxed away. I'll be surprised if there's little more than ceramic debris left over. I reward myself with swigs of liquor for every couple of items distributed to their new home.
By the time I've finished with the kitchen items, I'm well on my way to wasted and couldn't be happier about it. The more I drink, the less shitty I feel. When hammered, I don't have to deal with the constant barrage of self-deprecating thoughts. I can make myself believe I'm awesome and great, not stupid or selfish, which I am on both counts. It's a slippery slope to try and navigate sober.
Before I get too far gone, I set the alarm on my phone to ensure I make it back to the yard in the morning. I don't want to give Alice ammunition; I'm already pegged as the "undependable" one in the family. I'm really not sure how I got the reputation, either. I just know that's what my family thinks. You can see it on their faces at holidays or birthdays. The "Glad you could make it" rings in my ears with "Surprised you came" instead. They never could understand my leaving or why I'd wanted to. It's been a source of contention for as long as I can remember.
You would think going to college and earning a degree would be something most parents would want for their children, to experience life outside of a small town and culture beyond the tree line of the mountains. I think mine took it as a personal insult, like I was saying they and what they stand for isn't good enough for me. I guess, looking back, maybe I was harsh about the mountain way of life. I'd never made any bones about the fact that as soon as I was able, I'd be getting the hell out of this small-minded, ass-backward town.
My mom and dad divorced when I was twelve. Alice had already been married to Jasper for two years by then, so she missed most of the fireworks from that explosion. Mom cheating on my dad with Jasper's Uncle Harry was the nail in the coffin that was their marriage. Daddy couldn't handle the betrayal and life without mom, so he moved to Canton where my Aunt Charlotte, his sister, keeps an eye on him. I'm pretty sure my love of the bottle is hereditary.
Mom didn't stay with Harry. She's already been married twice since daddy. The newest guy, Phil, seems to be all right. He's a hard worker and treats mom decently, so I guess that's all I can ask for. I love both of my parents; I'm just not able to relate to either of them.
I wake curled around a mostly empty liquor bottle with what was to be my wedding dress tucked under my arm like a teddy bear. At least I wasn't wearing it this time. I crawl into the shower to wash away last night's booze and regret. As I fold my arms over each other and lean my head against them, the slightly-less-than-scalding hot water rains down my back. This is the downside to my reminiscing. The morning after hurts almost as much as the memories themselves. I do it for the absolution I find in the few hours my mind turns off once the alcohol takes over.
After washing, I drag my body out of the shower to get ready for another day of training with Alice. At least today is Friday, and I'll have two whole days after this one to pull myself back together should there be any more Edward run-ins. I know we need to talk just to clear the air, but I don't know what to say. Judging by the less than warm welcome I received from him, he's looking forward to the talk as much as I am.
I get to the yard early before anyone else and have my fingers crossed that Alice is the next to arrive. I hate the awkward dance around getting to know new people, and having to make small talk with one of the guys I met yesterday sounds painful. God didn't hear my pleas and must have an unusual sense of humor, because before I know it, I see the 4Runner Edward was standing outside of yesterday turning into the lot. Fuck.
He parks a little ways away from me, but I can see his hands clenched around the steering wheel and his eyes closed with his head tilted forward. I watch as his lips move, like he's in prayer. I feel a little voyeuristic but am enjoying getting this minute to ogle his profile. He's still the most beautiful man I've ever seen. More than his looks, though, I miss his friendship and our relationship. Once we were over, it felt like a part of me was missing, one I still haven't found. I'm lost in him, and startle when his eyes open and he turns to catch me gazing. His features harden, and I can actually see him steel himself, getting ready to deal with me. Oh, this is going to hurt. He looks like he's ready for battle. He keeps eye contact with me as he opens his door and steps out.
I follow his lead, taking a deep breath and trying to mentally prepare myself for whatever happens next. He has to walk past my car to get to the gate, so I wait for him to cross the distance. He doesn't stop walking once he gets to me, and I practically have to jog to keep pace with him.
"Edward, hey! Wait up!" Nope, he isn't waiting. He keeps his forward progress until he reaches the locked gate. "Edward, can we talk for a minute?" Ignoring me, he takes his keys out of his pocket, proceeds to unlock the gate, and pushes it open. I know he's mad, and I understand that. I'm mad, too. Resorting to grade school tactics isn't going to get us anywhere, though. "Really? This is how it's going to be?" I growl out.
That gets his attention. He whips his body around, and his eyes are on fire. I can feel wrath emanating from his every pore. His eyes narrow, and his mouth twists into a snarl. "You fucking made it this way, Bella. You chose this, not me." He punctuates the end of his sentence with a finger pointed in my face, and it feels like a punch to the chest.