"I'll have to close the shop and go back to Forks."
Bella stood in the doorway watching Jake shave. He didn't look away from his own reflection. "You know I can't go with you. School. And the play."
Ah yes. The play.
"No, I know. I can go alone. At least, at first. Then you can come out when things get bad."
"Alone, Bella? Who knows how long… how long you'll need to be there?" He'd been going to say how long until Charlie dies. And she wished he had. Maybe then she could cry.
"Well, the doctors gave him three months. That's really… I mean, in the scheme of things, that really isn't that long. You know?" There was a constriction of her throat—the usual, nothing more.
He shrugged and scraped the final streak of white foam from his bronzed face. "What about the mortgage, Bells? With the shop closed…"
"We'll have to pull it out of savings, Jake. That's all there is to it." Her voice was squeaky and damp, but her eyes were dry.
He nodded grimly and blotted his face with the towel. "Well. It is what it is, right? We knew this day was coming."
She went into the bathroom and put her arms around his waist. He gave her a quick squeeze then untangled himself from her embrace. "Sorry Bells. I gotta jam. I won't be home for dinner tonight. Technical rehearsal at seven."
"No problem. I can fend for myself." She wrapped her arms about her middle, hugging in the pain.
"Great," he said.
Forks was the way it had always been. Overcast.
Bella sat in the window booth of Maggie's Diner with her hands wrapped around a heavy ceramic mug of lukewarm coffee. She watched the Calawah and 101 traffic lights change, their glow vivid against the gray smear of foggy forest highway beyond.
Maybe if she'd been a native of Forks the place wouldn't feel haunted now. If cool and sodden and simple had been all she'd ever known—maybe she could've made different choices. But she'd been an outsider here and felt an outsider still.
She'd never really felt home anywhere.
Maybe I'm the problem. Maybe it's me. My choices.
The biggest one, her resolution not to try again after Emmie died. Cradle death.
There were maybe worse ways to lose a child, but not to Bella. Emmie'd been three months and three days old when she'd died in her sleep without so much as a squeak from the baby monitor Bella kept by her at all times. Not a squeak. Not a cry. Not a sigh. Just gone.
Still almost warm to the touch when Bella went to lift her from the crib that morning. That horrible morning. That life-stopping morning. And all the empty mornings that had followed.
The irony—Bella hated using that word, she felt tragedy was more appropriate, but irony it seemed to be—that three or four times a week Bella felt compelled to get out of bed in the night and place her hand on Emmie's back. Just to make sure. Just to feel that comforting rise and fall of baby breaths.
But not that night.
She'd thought there would be pressure to try again, not only from Jake, but also from friends and family, and true enough there had been some. But there had also been understanding when she'd explained that there would be no more babies.
Bella knew she'd never survive another heartbreak.
She also knew Jake thought she'd get over it in time. But time had marched by and there really had been no more babies, even though Bella never actively tried to prevent them. She just knew Emmie had been her only one.
Emmie would've been thirteen this year, if she'd lived through that night and the thousands of nights since. She'd be in middle school, maybe with braces and acne and new breasts and an attitude. Maybe she'd have been an athlete like her mom or a scholar like her dad. Or maybe she would have been her own person. That, Bella thought, would have been best.
A new creation made of her and Jake. Maybe Emmie would have been the magic that kept her marriage glued together.
"Here ya go, hon. The usual." Maggie dropped a heavy oval plate in front of Bella. "It's been quite a few years since I said that to ya."
Bella smiled up at her. "Some things don't change."
"Surely correct. And that's probably all for the good. Some things shouldn't change. I know how everyone in this town likes their eggs. And I like that just fine."
Maggie was grinning, and aside from the slight graying of her gums and her faded hay-colored hair she looked like she always had. Weathered and overworked but okay with it.
"You finally back to stay this time?"
Bella opened her thin paper napkin and covered one knee with it. "Well, you know about Charlie?"
Maggie's smile vanished. "So sad."
"So… that's why I'm here. I'll be here until… until the end."
"As it should be." Maggie nodded as if proud of Bella's choice. Bella wondered if the town had been speculating about whether or not she'd come.
Me and Forks, we never knew each other and still don't.
Maggie topped off her coffee and left. Bella regarded her plate and all the food on it, a mountain of food.
There's no room in me for all this.
She was empty, but not in a way food could rectify.
"Maggie's right. Some things don't change."
A million years could have passed and she'd still know that voice. It was a voice that scraped at the inside of her flesh like hollowing a pumpkin, chafing her insides with its gravel and filling her with the thick smoke of expectation.
She'd heard it a few times since leaving Forks, but only rarely. And once she'd heard his laugh, a breathy, wheezy, reluctant laugh that had made her sixteen all over again.
She looked up at him. He was older. And though he had once been unbearably handsome—when his skin was unlined and his eyes untarnished and his hair uncombed—he looked somehow better now. Like he'd needed the wear and tear of age to make him a man.
His face had been honed into reliable maturity, determination lines carved in the years between today and that windy, wildly hot summer day when she'd looked at him over the top of an ancient gas pump. If she'd known the terrain and topography of her future, she probably wouldn't have driven angrily off into the unknown tomorrow.
"Can I sit with you?"
"Always, Edward." She hadn't meant to say that. But of course, she hadn't meant not to either.
He slid his lean body in across from her and sat with his arm resting on the edge of the booth like it was draped around an invisible girlfriend. "How long's it been? Got to be, like, five years."
"Yeah. Five sounds right. It was at Sam's funeral when we last saw each other. Not there, but in town after."
"Right. You were headed back down to San Diego. Jeez, I think I forgot all about Sam. That's… well that's pretty fucking awful of me."
She shrugged. What were they supposed to do? Live in the past?
He gestured at her plate. "Still a vegetarian, I see. Or is that cow between those sesame buns?"
She smiled a you know me too well smile.
"I guess that's why you stayed skinny when my wife didn't."
It wasn't malicious, but it wasn't right either. She wondered what Jake said about her when he was sitting at a diner with an old flame. Maybe that she was boring and mousy. Maybe that she never gave blow jobs anymore. Maybe it wasn't what he said about her, but rather what he said about himself. About how his heart just wasn't in his marriage any more. Or that he loved his wife but he wasn't in love with his wife.
"Well. It's probably hard, married to a rancher… who eats nothing but meat and potatoes."
"Potatoes. That's a vegetable, right? Grows in the dirt." Edward's mouth curved into the closest thing to a smile it ever got. Except for that rare laugh, that rare full commitment to humor.
She gave him a pinched smile, "I think it's actually considered a starch."
"You still do that thing with your face. That… I didn't forget."
She felt as self-conscious as if she were a teenager again. It was his intense gaze that did it. Under his scrutiny, she couldn't seem to change her expression. It was frozen in that smushed-up smile.
"And look at that blush. Damn, Bella. I feel like I'm fucking fifteen again and just got Charlie to let me hold your hand."
She hid her face behind her coffee cup. "So, how are you? How's everything? Your folks?"
It wasn't so much a nod as a rocking forward and back. "Esme died last year, complications from diabetes. Don't know if you heard?"
"Oh no, I didn't. I'm sorry."
"Well, yeah. And then Car had a stroke. He's recovering; just has some aphasia now that's only really troublesome at Christmas when everyone's home. And it forced him to retire, which makes him fractious as all fuck. But he's settling to it. Slow, but settling."
Maggie came around with the coffee pot. "Well, my word. If it isn't Edward Cullen himself. If I'da known you'd be coming round I'da sat Isabella at your table for old time's sake." She meant the booth by the hallway that led to the bathrooms where they'd always sat as kids. Eating fries and cherry pie and drinking cokes.
"Hey, Maggie. Can I get a cup of that?"
"Why you sure can, sweetie. Have one right here for ya."
Maggie thumped down another sturdy diner mug and filled it with coffee. Edward added cream and tore open two sugar packets and shook them in, picking up where he'd left off.
"And Allie's getting divorced."
"Oh no. What happened there?"
Edward stirred his coffee. "Kids grew up and moved out and she and Ben just decided they didn't really like each other anymore."
Bella absently dragged a fry from her plate and ate it. She thought maybe she understood about Alice and Ben. Love wore down.
"And I get that. I hate that I get that, but I get that."
Bella also got that. She nodded.
"Anyway, she's still young enough to start over. And she seems to be doing just that."
"And Leah?" She felt about Leah the way she felt about Rosalie, the buxom blonde health teacher who ran the drama society at San Diego Prep. The woman she was certain Jake imagined during their increasingly infrequent marital intimacies. Rosalie was nice enough—and married to a former Olympian—but Bella still felt the shadow her allure cast across her already darkening marriage.
I'm dying inside.
She wanted to scream it in Jake's face and throw things. But she never did. She just kept on quietly wilting under complacent negligence.
Edward shrugged like Leah was the most irrelevant thing they could discuss. "She's fine. She's got a little produce stand at the farmers market where she sells kale and shit from the ranch. She also makes these… soap things. Like gourmet soap. And lotions."
"Cool." But Bella didn't really think it was cool.
"Now that the kiddos are off, we kind of do our own thing. Jessie's in a Peace Corps program as a health worker. And Angie went off to UDub last fall. Organic chemistry or something. Can you believe that?"
"You're smart Edward. I don't know about Leah, but you always sold yourself short."
"Yeah well. Our girls didn't turn out like me or Leah. Jessie's rootless. Ang's a whip. And really, no matter what happens with me and their mom, I'd do it all again for Jessie and Ang."
Bella thought it was cute, the way he said Ang. Not Ange, but Ang. Like boomerang. She also didn't miss the allusion to the quality of his own marriage. "Do you carry pictures?"
"I don't. I mean, with Facebook who needs to, right?" He pulled his phone out of his pocket and a few minutes later was scrolling through pictures of two tall girls with steely, confident, straight-at-the-camera unsmiling gazes. They could have gotten those chiseled cheekbones from mom or dad, really, but the long dark hair was Leah's. They looked more Quileute than Bella had been expecting. They looked like their mother the way Bella remembered her.
Beautiful, creative, passionate, fiery free-spirited Leah. Her hair always knotted on her head with beads and bangles tangled up in it. She'd smelled of exotic oils and worn these raggedy slips over pants like they were dresses. She never wore a coat, probably because she never wanted to hide the sharp peaks her nipples poked in the soft fabric.
The girl runs hot.
Boys said it with awe, while girls spoke about her with catty jealousy, not necessarily because she was easy—Bella never knew for sure if Leah actually did all the things people said she did. But that didn't matter. The lore surrounding her was sexual and powerful and inspiring. People had wanted to tame her.
Bella had thought Edward immune, but maybe no boy was.
Bella and Edward were about to graduate high school still a couple when Lauren had smugly confided to her that Edward had been seen around town with Leah. Not kissing or anything. But not exactly just shooting the breeze either. Bella would never forget that phone call, how secretly delighted Lauren had been, though she'd tried to play it like she was sorry to be the one to have to break the news. She'd even said that. I'm so sorry to have to be the one to tell you this...
Maybe it hadn't been anything before Bella confronted him about it. But then it was. Then she and Edward were "taking a break," which Charlie considered to be a good idea. She was off to UCSD, after all, and Edward was staying in Forks.
Everyone had seemed to think it was good idea for them to end their romance. Everyone except her. She'd thought it was a terrible idea.
It had crushed her. It changed her. It closed her.
It had ruined her.
She'd had to go on existing while Edward was seeing someone else. He was driving someone else out to Port Angeles in his pick-up and breaking curfew kissing someone else's mouth, and maybe even taking her for a fast fuck in their meadow. Her meadow.
She went from having a best friend and a lover to having a big fat void. Worse than a void, because a void indicated empty space. It was not empty space. It was devastation. Like the aftermath of a tsunami or an earthquake or a typhoon.
And rebuilding had taken forever.
"Your girls are beautiful." Bella meant it. She meant it without regret and without sorrow, though she felt both choking the words as they came out.
Edward turned off his phone and set it on the table.
"What about you? Are you and what's-his-name still together?
It sounded like no. It sounded like sort of. To Bella it sounded like maybe she was taking a break from being married without telling her husband she was taking a break from being married.
"And what's he do again?"
"He's a teacher. High school English. He likes to call himself a professor." She gave a little eye-roll. It really was kind of pretentious. But that was Jake.
"And you're a math teacher?"
She toyed with her napkin. "I'm a florist."
She hated the word florist. Hated the word flowers. Hated every event that required flowers, from birthdays to apologies to weddings to deaths. She hated being described as an artist even though that was how she viewed herself.
I'm a little pretentious, too.
"You went off to college, just had to get out of shitty little Forks, so that you could be a florist?"
His words described exactly what all her failures felt like.
"Sometimes stuff doesn't work out."
"Well. Sounds happy." He said happy the way she'd said yeah.
She nodded her way right into her coffee cup, draining it and setting it back on the table. "That's why I'm here in Forks by myself while my dad dies. Happiness."
They just looked at each other.
Bella ambled through the nearly empty cemetery with a few bundles of already wilting lilies tucked under one arm and a fifth of bottom shelf bourbon in a paper bag under the other. The earth was soft under her boots, and the headstones jutted from the grass like broken teeth. The impending storm shoved her breath back in her throat, the atmosphere like wading through still soup.
She found Esme on the eastern slope in a nice spot marked by a simple slate stone set into the raggedy grass. She read it and reread it.
Esme Anne Cullen
Faithful Wife, Loving Mother
The heart won't forget
A short, shallow death-haiku. That was all that was left of the vibrant energetic woman who had been a more consistent and reliable source of sunshine in gloomy Forks than the sun had been. For Bella, she'd been a radiant cornerstone of teenage life.
Edward wasn't the only thing I left behind when I fled Forks.
Pigeons warbled ambivalently from the eave of a nearby mausoleum; a sad crooning noise that echoed the anchorless feeling she'd been carrying with her for what felt like years now. If she'd stayed in Forks and married Edward, would the boredom and apathy and resignation exist between them like it did between her and Jake?
It was good to be away from him. Away from his polite kisses and disinterested touches. Away from his ridiculous lust for a ridiculous girl. Loneliness was more tolerable when you actually were alone.
She thought of Edward's daughters—those statuesque serious girls.
They could have been mine.
The idea was a dull knife wound to her heart, echoing the despair she'd felt holding Emmie's lifeless body to her chest.
Bella snapped the cap off the bottle and sipped from it. Tiny sips that turned down the burn of the bourbon and made it a dim glow.
If I'd been meant to be Edward's wife, I would have been.
She might not have been meant to be Edward's wife, but she was pretty sure Leah wasn't supposed to be either. It didn't take anything special to get knocked up at eighteen. It just took a broken condom or a neglected condom. It just took one instance of coitus interruptus failed. It took no great love at all.
News of Leah's pregnancy had made her heartbreak permanent and final. School had rescued her from the sight of Leah's soon-to-be-swelling belly and absurd glow and the stupid gloating swagger of a small-town, small-dreams girl who didn't recognize the trap she was happily walking into. School had managed to steal her mind away, bit by bit, from the memories of Edward's betrayer's body and staunch comfort and old cowboy wisdom.
Bella escaped into academics and athletics, and one day she'd started to realize that she was beginning to be okay and that things might be okay and that other boys might be okay.
But okay was all she had ever been again. Just okay.
The cloud cover split and a warm spray of light fell across Esme's headstone. It seemed to chase the cold right up into her spine and she shivered.
A Stetson-shaped shadow fell across the light.
"Twice in two weeks. It's almost like destiny." His eyes were in the brim's shadow, but she could still see their greenness. Red and gold stubble poked out around his mouth and along his jaw.
The Pink Floyd t-shirt he wore was thin and faded from a thousand washes, but it hugged his deltoids the way it always had. The muscles of his arms were wirier than she remembered, but the fine hair gilding his forearms was the same.
He looked very alive; like he stood in kindled contrast to all the silver and gray and black and blue of this place.
She realized she was staring and stopped. "Thought I'd come give Esme my regards. Can't seem to think of exactly what to say, though. You know? Everything in my mind… seems wrong."
His jaw clenched and unclenched, working frost-blue gum between his teeth. "So. What's wrong in your head? Don't know that I know that anything said to a ghost is wrong. Something tells me it's all okay."
That I miss her son? Though he's still alive and she's dead? That's okay? Though it's been a million years and a million miles and a million choices and a million experiences that separated us. A million regrets that made me.
"I didn't know her as well as I thought I would, one day. I know that's… dumb."
"It's not. I think everyone thought it. I think she wanted it." He came to stand at her side. "I wanted it."
An out-of-nowhere breeze lifted a piece of her hair and pressed it to her lips, as if telling her not to respond. She wiped it away.
"I remember the first time I met you. Out on Old Sluice Trailhead."
Edward canted his head left. "It was the summer before seventh grade. I thought you were a boy. You had your hair all tucked up in that trucker cap. But then you moved and it was obvious. You turned around and I was smacked by those lashes of yours."
She saw it vividly; saw him vividly. "You were on Southpaw. You asked me if I wanted to ride. I'd never been on a horse."
"And I convinced you to try, and you slid into the saddle behind me and hung on for dear life."
"I knew I was going to fall off."
His faint smile revealed the crooked canine on one side. "But you didn't."
The new breeze whispered his scent to her—that slight spice of exertion and saddle leather and recently tossed hay. And his deodorant, maybe, or aftershave. Something clean that didn't entirely mask the real odors of his life. His gum and his work gloves and his horses.
"I have to go." She gestured to the bundle of lilies crushed under one arm. "Still have to hit Sue and then. Well. Charlie."
Edward nodded. "How's the chief doing, anyway?"
"He's dying, Edward. He's really, really dying. In pain." The lump was back; her throat throbbed.
"Sorry. You know I'm so fucking sorry, girlie." He tucked the lock of wayward hair back behind her ear and let his fingers trail over her jaw.
The old endearment hurt worse than she would have thought. That single sentiment made the last twenty years feel more desolate than they ever had before.
I want a do-over.
A do-over where she knew everything she knew now.
She could still feel his touch on her cheek, like he'd drawn a fat mark down one side of her face.
There are no do-overs.
Bella parked her Subaru out on Old Sluice and hiked up the fern-flocked paths in a heavy mist that could also be termed a light drizzle. Fog was fastened to the trunks of fir trees in floating layers that blocked out the sunlight. It was cold.
Her breath came easy as she scaled the handful of miles it took to get to her spot, their spot. The spot where Edward had discovered her poking around at the mouth of an abandoned mineshaft when she was twelve.
The spot where they'd been just Edward and just Bella, like a two-star constellation that would never burn out. The spot where they'd been reduced to mingled breath so many times, his air in her lungs and hers in his.
Rich, ripe, everlasting love. They'd been bound by intensity of devotion, commitment at a level that tested sanity, maybe simply because of their youth. But Bella always thought it had been more than that.
The meadow was wretched with garbage.
A big, depressing rubbish heap denigrated one side of the clearing. Lighter items had caught the wind and been snarled in the knobby branches of underbrush, scattered and disintegrating into the protuberances of root and vine. The plastic covering of a TV dinner and Starbucks cups and once bright newspaper inserts and cheap paper-plates still smeared with BBQ sauce or spaghetti sauce or Thousand Island dressing.
A banana slug slithered slow and slimy over a doorless and dirty microwave. A spider's web glistened dewily in the hollow of a tire.
She wasn't mad about the trash, but she wasn't not mad either.
Bella imagined someone driving their pickup to this spot and using a big push-broom to empty a bed full of trash up here. Over and over again. She made a circle around the clearing and stopped next to the fallen tree that partially obscured the yawning mouth of the mine. A sagging file box full of mildewing shoes and clothes squatted in the place where Edward had claimed her virginity so many years ago.
It had been on day like this; a day where the fog kept your secrets for you, a day where you couldn't tell your breath from the moisture crystallizing in the air. She remembered the gooseflesh she and Edward had worn until perspiration dressed them. She remembered the crumple of ivy and wildrye and harebell crushed under the old saddle blanket nicked from Cullen Ranch. Under her back, under Edwards hands.
Edward. A flickering flame of heat and beauty gone to wildfire. He'd been ablaze with exertion, with furious precious joy.
She'd ached that day. Different from today. Today's ache was desolation. A silent plea from a silent chasm inside her. Compelling her to have lived a different life. That long ago day had been a triumph. It had been the ache of being too full, too complete, too perfectly happy, too certain her future would be everything she wanted.
How young she'd been.
Now she was just middle-aged and married, and the most risque thing that happened to her was when Riley adjusted her adho mukha svanasana.
Having practiced yoga more than half her life, she surmised there really wasn't much about her downward facing dog that actually needed adjusting, and hoped that when Riley laid his hands on her hips and pulled her towards him, it was really, maybe, just because he wanted to touch her.
It probably wasn't. It probably wasn't that at all.
She thought of the water-girl, a simple statue in a simple fountain in a busy outdoor plaza in San Diego. The fountain was wide and shallow, the red tile liner made the water a clear magnifying glass refracting the images of thousands of copper pennies and silver nickels and the occasional big round wink of a quarter. At the center stood the water-girl; an oxidizing statue of serene indifference dumping her casually held pitcher in an endless stream of giving, giving, giving.
And when was the last time someone laid a hand on the cool surface of that water-girl? The slap of a wet palm or a child's grabbing fingers or even the mindless caress of a maintenance guy? Bella thought it had been a long, long time.
For Bella, the water-girl's serenity had become estrangement, sadness. Lonely, lonely, lonely girl in the middle of so much life.
She imagined that water-girl fixed in place, praying soundlessly for someone to want to touch her. Someone who was willing to strip off shoes and socks and roll up their pant legs and place the sensitive skin of their feet against the slick tile floor of the fountain in order to wade right up to her and just touch her. Just lay hands on her. Reiterate her connection to humanity.
Bella would do that when she went home. She would do it. She'd touch the water-girl.
Bella turned her back on the moldering knoll of decrepit trash. Instead of hiking back down the way she'd come, she found her feet following the tire grooves that led the opposite direction.
She knew where it would spit her out. The old dirt road would dead-end against a paved one that meandered next to Cullen Ranch property.
She trampled moss and clover, waded puddles and ducked the spindly stretching branches of vine maple and red alder. The road seemed endless, longer than she remembered. So much so that she'd begun to glance back into the brume, questioning herself, when it suddenly let out on the sprawling valley she'd been waiting for.
She could see the barn where she'd mucked out stalls as a teenager. She could see the dogwood surrounding the farmhouse and the sturdy overgrown apple tree she'd fallen out of her first year in Washington. The impact of the ground had knocked all the breath out of her.
That was the first time she'd lain underneath Edward, not able to breathe.
She remembered looking up into his stalwart young face, remembered the panic that had stretched her eyes wide, remembered his hands on her and his voice melting over her like honey.
"Bella, hear me. It's just your diaphragm is confused right now. Just let it figure out how to work again, it will. It will—I promise and you won't suffocate. God, tough girl. You came down hard."
She remembered staring up at the underside of his chin when he'd lifted his head and called, "No, Allie, I think she's okay, just thunked herself a good one. Get mom."
Allie's sneakers thudded against the porch boards and the screen door screeched open and thwacked closed after her. A few minutes later Esme was there, smelling of dish soap and cinnamon applesauce. By that time Bella was up and breathing again.
Bella skirted the property she'd once known so well, from its old wells to its new paddocks, and watched as cows of varying colors ambled in from far-flung fields. The sun flirted with the horizon and under the hills violet twilight had already come—except on the big pond where the setting sun turned every little ripple into a squiggle of white gold.
She was going to get caught out in the dark. She checked her phone. No signal.
Well, she wasn't going to show up on Edward and Leah's doorstep. She'd just have to walk faster.
She cut across the overgrown bracken and sedge until she hit the blacktop. The trees made a tunnel over her head and underneath it was already night. She kept to the shoulder even though there was no traffic; her hands jammed into her pockets and her head tilted down to cut the bite of cold on her face.
She watched her feet push through the leaf mold as she hurried past the wrought iron arch marking the Cullen driveway—a path she'd last walked in a stupor of shame and humiliated ego and quickly mounting despair.
Headlights lit and defined the black oleaster edging the curve of the road. Bella shielded her eyes as the car fully rounded the corner, and she was caught in the pierce of its beams. She took a step to the right, wanting to give the car a wide berth as it passed her on the narrow road.
But it didn't pass and she knew as the truck slowed that the driver would be Edward.
His window came down and in the murky new darkness she saw him put the last bite of an apple wedge into his mouth. He chewed carefully and made a lazy get in gesture with his head.
Bella cut through each spear of light as she rounded the front of the truck. She pulled the handle and hoisted herself up into the Toyota.
Edward let the truck roll a few feet and then found the gas.
"What are you doing out here? In the dark?"
He whipped the truck onto the driveway of the ranch and threw it into reverse.
"My car's at the trailhead." She didn't need to say which one.
"You went to the meadow?"
She nodded, face forward but eyes shifting to his profile. Edward was lit in soft blue by the panel lights. It made him look young.
"Pretty awful up there, isn't it? Took the truck up there about a year ago and cleaned the place up, but it didn't last."
"Is that Cullen land over there?"
He shook his head. "Property line terminates just past the road. Stretches far the other direction, but no. I think it's a preserve now—for the mine—but fuck if it's being preserved for shit."
They reached Old Sluice and he met her eye when he checked his right of way.
"I'm sorry you had to see it like that. I would've warned you… if I'd thought…"
"It's okay. It's kind of artistic in a way. Even our best memories turn to garbage."
His answering silence turned her observation into a challenge.
"Maybe," he finally said. "Maybe, if you let them."
"I obviously don't have a lot of control over it." She meant the garbage. She meant her life. She meant everything.
The truck jolted her left and right as they crunched off the pavement onto the dirt shoulder. He killed the engine. She popped her seatbelt but didn't get out.
"Thanks for picking me up. I had another hour or two of walking ahead of me."
"You could have called me," he said and faced her.
"No I couldn't." Her tone was biting. She flicked her gaze to him and then back at the dash. "I'm sorry. I guess… I guess I just shouldn't have gone up there. It was like… cracking bedrock, or something. It was like a validation of my mid-life crisis. It wasn't what I was looking for."
"What were you looking for?" His voice was quiet and rough.
She considered. "Me, maybe. A lost me. A me that doesn't exist anymore, that can't exist anymore. I don't know."
She looked away from him and out her window. "I'm not okay. My dad's dying. And when he goes, I mean, this sounds selfish, but when he goes I'm left with nothing but a handful of almost-friends and a flat obligatory marriage. My family will be all gone, then."
"Almost friends," Edward repeated slowly, "and a flat, obligatory marriage. What obligates you, Bella?"
She ploughed her hair; the strands cool between her fingers. "I guess nothing. But that's all it feels like. It feels like following through. You know, keeping a hard promise you didn't know would be hard."
He just nodded, again the full rocking nod.
"Is my marriage bad? No, my marriage, by all standards, is good. My husband is a decent man, mostly. But I still settled when I married him. I still accepted the best I could get… instead of the best I'd ever had. It was still like I was waiting. Like I couldn't stop waiting. Even when I wasn't waiting for you anymore, I was still… waiting. I thought maybe one day that passion, that trust, that naive complete love I'd had for you would find me again, but it never did. It never could."
She shook her head and sighed. The bottom edge of the window was starting to fog.
"Losing you changed me. Closed me up. I never opened the same way again. You broke my heart."
He wasn't wearing his hat, and his hair was chaotic and soft and glinting when he pushed his fingers into it.
"You broke my heart first." His voice was earnest, as if this were an apology.
"How did I do that?"
"You were leaving Forks. I couldn't change your mind, and I couldn't go with you."
"I think we remember the situation differently," she whispered, trying to be gentle.
"You were determined to leave this town; you always were. I hoped and hoped that something might change, that you might change. But Forks was never enough for you, and that meant I was never going to be enough."
She sat silent.
"All the time you talked about getting out of Forks. You hated it here. You went down to Arizona and California on spring break and when you came back you were already gone. You were already gone. I couldn't go," he repeated.
"So you decided to start hanging out with Leah?"
He shook his head. "My heart was already broken." He shifted in his seat to face her more completely. "I lost you before you lost me."
"To college," she protested. "I couldn't just stay here. And do what? Be a housewife?"
His jaw clenched. "You make my dreams sound so small."
"I didn't mean it that way."
"Oh, you did."
The regarded each other. When he spoke, he wasn't looking at her but over her shoulder. "I came from this place; it was what I knew. It was what I wanted. What I wanted was family. I would've filled a bus with kids if I'd had the chance. As it is, I've got the two. Maybe… without them things might have been different, but that wasn't the choice I was given to make. I was given Jess and Ang, and it was a package deal. I'm a father first. Before I'm anything else. I'm a father to those girls."
The implication was clear. Their paths had swerved away from each other for a reason.
"Yeah, at first, with Leah, I was pushing back at you, pushing you away. Maybe trying to force some kind of… change of heart from you."
She scoffed and gave him an angry shake of her head.
He shook his head too. "Yeah, it was stupid. But it quickly became a whole lot more than that. My stupidity had serious repercussions. It wasn't for me to choose anymore. I had to own them, or be a shit-face who couldn't hold his head up with any kind of pride again."
Bella thought of Edward's steadfast honesty, something she'd always loved about him; his bright clear candor and acceptance of what was real and right in front of him. She'd never met anyone who took responsibility as unflinchingly as Edward always had—from the time he'd failed to mend a fence and lost a colt because of it, to knocking up a rebound fling.
He never made excuses; he just did what he could to fix what he'd done.
Jake wasn't like that. With Jake there was always a reason, someone else's faults that he could pin accountability on.
I shouldn't compare them.
"My marriage was obligatory; I get what you mean about that. My ranch, well—I've always been of this place. But it's those kids, Bella."
It was for a reason.
"And they're grown up now."
Somehow his torment seemed morevalidthan hers. Maybe because he really had obligations, noble ones. He was about his family, about being the kind of father his girls could depend on, but his kids would never again need him the way they had when they were small.
She thought of Emmie.
"I had a daughter," she said, blankly. "Did you know?"
Edward slowly shook his head. "I didn't."
She swallowed and her voice was thick when she continued. "She… she died. In her crib. So. I know. It might not be the same. But I know what it is to lose your children."
"Oh, Bella." He reached over the center console and pulled her into an awkward hug; his bicep around her shoulders felt like the safety bar on a roller coaster. He held her the way she needed to be held.
This is what it feels like to be home.
She breathed into him and slowly wrapped her own arm around his neck.
She smelled the same. Like the forest and her hair and that deep seriousness that had always been her way. There was a solemnity about her.
It pulled him. It had always pulled him.
I never got over you. I never did. I moved on. I did okay. But I never got over you.
Maybe that was why—when she pulled back and looked up at him—maybe that was why he did it.
He skimmed her mouth with his. His heart thundered—a cannonade in his chest and his throat and his ears—deafening him to all the reasons why he should not hold this woman in his arms.
He kept her, kept her gaze and grazed her lips the other way. Her mouth was live with soft electricity and he tingled with it.
How many times had he wondered if he would ever again know her taste or her touch and felt the stark emptiness of the probably not that answered that question.
She blinked and in her lustrous eyes he saw a plea. He saw want. He saw need.
He stifled a groan and slid her mouth open with his. Her taste was puffy and persuasive and he sucked at it, desperate to drink her breath and eat away the years. She kissed him back in the same manner.
Her mouth was so familiar and so foreign. New and old, like sliding into a favorite coat after a long thirsty summer. Fresh, but not strange.
Their fervency grew and grew and grew until they broke apart, panting.
"That's enough." She said, reaching for the handle.
And Edward quite agreed.
The creaky planks of the big porch announced Edward's homecoming with each step. The screen door screeched and slammed behind him and he hung his hat on its peg by the door.
His wife sat at the dining room table under a dome of bright light using tweezers to work through a pile of homegrown lavender on a careworn tea-towel. Her dark hair was back in a lank ponytail. Her tummy, rubbery from bearing him two children and slightly distended from too much beer, flubbed over the waistline of her jeans.
"Hey, babe. I didn't make dinner. There's some cold cuts in there though if you want me to throw together a sandwich for you."
"Don't get up. I got it." He kissed the crown of her head, the white part of her hair so familiar to him. "Car in bed already?"
"Yeah, since seven. Not a good day."
The kitchen was dark and tidy. Leah's soap-making equipment was stacked on the counter and gleaming dully in the dim light. He opened the fridge and stared into it.
He felt Bella's heat, her need, her emptiness. He thought of filling that emptiness. He wanted to.
He didn't want to.
He looked at the neat shelves carefully organized with products from his and Leah's own industry: the milk in the jug, the butter in the tin, the jam in the door, the eggs on the rack, the vacuum packed roast beef.
He lived the way he had always wanted to live. Simply. He scratched his temple and pulled out the jar of mayo and lettuce from the crisper.
Leah sneezed. "Damn this lavender."
He laid a slice of bread on a plate and thought about chewing it, thought about taking the flavor of Bella from his lips. He made the sandwich big, monstrously big, adding layer after layer of beef.
He leaned against the counter and ate his sandwich, chewing deliberately—masticating the food as if the mush could strip the inside of his mouth clean.
He watched his wife. Her face still had those fine angles, her hair was still silky and black, her smile was still warm and genuine. Her arms were no longer the reed-slender and expressive arms of a young girl, but the fleshy hardworking arms of a mom. Her hips had gotten wider and her bosom drooped. He'd never really noticed before. She embodied the comfort and care Edward trusted.
Would it be wrong to take her to bed just to close his eyes and think of someone else?
It wasn't like he'd never done that before, but never before had that been his intention when the lovemaking started. In the dark it would be easy, in the dark it was always easy.
She looked up at him and smiled. "What are you looking at?"
He gave her a sly grin. "Just you."
She laid down her tool and tucked the strands of hair that had fallen free from her ponytail behind her ears. He beckoned to her and she came to him.
The concrete block was put in place a few weeks later. Edward had the four foot cube delivered right to the center of the pull-in that led to the back-road up to the mine. Sturdy firs and thick wax myrtle bordered the inlet; the only way you could drive up there now would be on a motorcycle.
He snapped some photos with his phone, adding them to the ones he'd taken of the clearing after all the junk had been loaded into the bed of his truck.
He leaned against the block and sent the photos to Bella via Messenger.
No more garbage on your memories. Ever.
He waited for her response. A few minutes later when it still hadn't come he shoved his phone into his pocket and headed back towards the house.
He took each step into his shadow—made short by the mid-day sun. The distant lowing of cattle and busy chatter of finches and warblers cheered the day, along with the healthy scent of manure and sheared grass sailing in on golden spring breezes that trembled the aspen leaves on their branches.
Rows of knobby Nebbiolo grapes scratched the hillside just past the Cullen-Whitlock property line. Jasper always made him and Leah a gift of his hobby wines, but Edward seldom drank them. He had no taste for wine, and it only reminded him of the one time he and Bella had ever been intoxicated together. The night before she left town for a week of visiting colleges with Renee.
They'd been parked behind the old line shack drinking box wine in the bed of his truck watching the sky bruise into dusk. She was relaxed and smiley and even goofy. She hadn't seemed to notice his preoccupation or the rate at which he'd drank most of the box. She'd slurred and danced and sung along with the oldies station. She hadn't seemed to notice the desperation with which he'd clawed her clothes from her body or the way he'd clung to her after they'd made noisy, rambunctious love under a sliver-moon and a smeary infinity of stars.
He would lose her, first to school and then to the wider world beyond. More interesting places which held more interesting men who would want her and woo her, and she would never come back.
He'd gone from troubled to terrorized four days later when Bella called to announce that UCSD was definitely "it." The intoxication that had begun with wine out of a box had broadened to include stealing bottles out of Car's liquor cabinet and shoulder-tapping Seth from the rez. Seth, big and stoic and proud. And older brother to Leah Clearwater.
Edward spent the next few years battling alcoholism, somehow managing to kick it before the ripe old age of twenty-one. That was about the time when the core-ravaging pain of losing Bella had finally, finally started to ease into acceptance and even joy. Joy of his daughters and pride in his wife's resourcefulness and creativity and her love.
Because she did love him.
And I love her.
His phone vibrated in his back pocket and he pulled it out to find a reply from Bella.
You didn't have to do that. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy about it.
It took him forever to think of and type out his response.
I did it for me, too.
She sent him a picture of a heart.
The news of Charlie's illness had spread through Forks like the sad gossip it was. Leah probably wasn't the only housewife to send a casserole or a salad or a bunch of flowers to the Swan house. Edward had all three on the passenger seat of his truck as he pulled into the driveway of the old Victorian.
Bella was just getting out of her blue Subaru; her eyes were dark holes in her pale face and her mouth was red. A real Snow White, a beautiful ethereal dream of a woman.
She was different from Leah in every way—from her slim build to her bright scent to her dark leggings and tall boots. Her eyes were like caramels—golden brown sugar—while Leah's were almost black. Bella's mouth was prim—the I Want mouth of someone who knew how to persevere until it paid off. Leah's mouth was soft and agreeable, like the rest of her.
She lifted a single grocery bag from her backseat, and Edward followed her wordlessly inside. The house was empty. Charlie would never be back. Today he'd taken his final trip, his permanent move into the hospital where he would die.
She set the bag on the table and looked into it, through it, through the table, through the floor and into some kind of void.
"I don't know what I was thinking. At the store. I guess I wasn't really." She pulled out a bottle of bourbon and set it heavily on the table then reached back in to retrieve a cluster of vine-ripe tomatoes, which she just stared at.
Suddenly the tomatoes burst, seeds and juice ran over her slender fingers and slid down her forearms to the old oak table. She squeezed, wringing the tomatoes in her fists, her pearly pink nails digging into the red flesh. She squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until her tendons popped candle-white under her straining knuckles.
Then she let go.
The fruit hit the table with a wet plop. She blankly examined the red pulp coating her hands. Edward opened his mouth but found his words frozen as Bella again made fists, and then rubbed them in her eyes like a tired child.
"I can't seem to cry," she said, her hands still blocking half her face. "I can't ever just cry."
Her messy hands came down and gripped the edge of the table. She took a big breath and peeled opened her eyes. They snapped back shut.
She wore a gruesome reddish mask of tomato pulp. Tiny chunks were smeared in her brows and tangled in her dark lashes.
"It burns. It burns." She pressed her tomato-y fingers flat against her eyes, grimacing.
He reached for her and led her to the sink. She stumbled blind. "It burns. It just burns. Watering eyes are not the same as crying. Edward?"
"Yeah?" He soaked a wad of paper towels and began to wipe her face. Her eyes stayed screwed shut as he delicately dusted clots of tomato from her lashes. Murky light from the kitchen window bathed her face, lit the few strands of silver at her temples.
"Going through the motions is not the same. It's not real. It's not really feeling. My eyes hurt."
"I bet they do," he whispered.
"My eyes hurt and you smell amazing. You feel amazing. Like… Edward. I read this Rumi poem once–"
"Don't, Bella. Don't tell me Rumi."
"Sorry." And she looked it. "I'm afraid to open my eyes."
He looked down at her, her pink lip between her bunny teeth and her wet lashes clustered together and her small nostrils and her winged brows and her heart and her soul and her want and her need and his heart tripped over itself on its way to a full-out run. Edward brushed her lips with his.
She answered with an inferno.
She nipped at him and sucked at him and scourged his mouth with hers. Panicked tongues and gripping fingers and blood that rioted in the vein.
Knee weakening, soul compromising heat pressed into him until his back met the wall. Urgency pushed his tongue into her mouth and she sucked it. He felt the pull all the way down his spine and into his groin. Their teeth banged together and scraped and gnawed.
He rolled her, trapping her to the wall. He plundered her mouth, her chin, her neck. He felt drunk, he felt high, he felt low. Base. He felt like an animal, he growled like an animal and she responded with needy gasps.
Pushing, pushing, pushing. Pushing into her.
He felt the wall under his hands and the sharp splinter of sanity in his mind. He pushed back and pulled away.
He slurped in air. Gasped for it. Grasped for the back of a dining room chair as he staggered back. She slid down the wall; her eyes still shut, her knees butterflying apart, her hair curtaining her face.
Oh god. Too close, too close, too close.
"I'm sorry," he panted. "I have to go. I have to go."
He snatched his keys from the counter and forced one booted foot after the other until he was out the front door, down the porch steps and climbing up into his truck.
He stabbed the key into the ignition and turned the engine over. He wanted to push the pedal to the floor until the pistons screamed. He wanted to whip out of her driveway in a snarl of smoking rubber and push hard and fast away from Forks and away.
He sat behind the wheel, still chasing his breath, eyes fixed on the small square that was the kitchen window. Limp, lace curtains prevented any view inside.
He cocked his head to check his reverse and his eyes stumbled on the containers in the passenger seat. Broccoli salad and Mexican casserole and carrot cake and happy yellow mums.
Just tell Leah she wasn't home. Just tell Leah no one answered the knock.
He thought of Leah and her careful shopping and her simple recipes she prided herself on and her sharing nature and he should not go back in that house. He should not.
He thought of Bella's grocery bag containing a bottle of bourbon and two ill-fated tomatoes. He thought of her burning eyes and her burning mouth.
"Fuck!" he said to no one. He raked his fingers through his hair, then fixed his hat back on and twisted the key to silence the engine. He collected the food and the flowers and really slammed the Tundra door before going back up the porch steps and back in that fucking front door.
Bella wasn't in the kitchen. Neither was the alcohol. The empty bag lay on its side on the floor. He set the containers and the flowers beside the tomatoes oozing on the table.
He found Bella in the small lilac bedroom that had once been hers. She sat on her old bed clutching the bottle, only a few swigs missing. Edward remembered hot afternoons where they'd been tangled up atop her bedspread, his tentative but eager hand under her shirt but over her bra.
He remembered how Charlie's heavy footsteps in the hall would make them propel away from each other, shooting in opposite directions. Edward to the desk where he could hide his demanding erection in his lap, Bella to the window where she'd perch casually with a textbook.
Charlie was probably never fooled, especially not later when the hand wasn't under Bella's top anymore but under her skirt, caressing the soft wet heaven that made him a perpetual jack-off artist until the day she'd lain down next to the mine and he'd finally had all of her.
He'd made her come on that lilac bedspread, with his hands and his mouth, but never in that field. Never that way.
He suddenly felt like a complete shit. Thirty-eight years old, married, domestically settled if not overjoyed, having a nostalgia boner in the house of a dying friend.
"I'm leaving Forks after Charlie's funeral. However long or short that is. I won't be coming back."
Bella pinched the bourbon bottle between her legs and crossed her arms under her breasts. "But until then. Until I leave. Maybe we'd better stay away from each other."
Edward nodded stoically.
"I'm not… I can't be trusted alone with you." She looked at him, her eyes red like she'd been crying though she hadn't. Her mouth swollen from his kiss. She held her hands out, as if to say she was sorry.
She looked so alone. She was alone. Edward felt her loneliness.
He sighed. "You're not the only one."
"I'm not okay right now. It's not just Charlie dying. It's not just that."
Her profile, austere and exquisite, pointed up at the ceiling, her neck graceful and soft. "It's not just that," she repeated.
He sat next to her on the bed and she shifted so their legs wouldn't touch. She was clutching at herself again, as if to hold herself together. A demeanor Edward recognized and hated. He thought he could just put his arm around her. He could give her a friend's comfort. He could do something. Something small so she didn't feel so alone in the world.
He held her as she held herself. He could feel her shoulders rising and falling with her deep breaths.
Just cry, Bella.
The purity of her face when she looked up at him melted away time and space. And then, somehow they were kissing again. Soft languorous kisses that sucked breath and restraint from him. He kissed her and kissed her and kissed her until they were lying against the pillows.
He could just kiss her and then his boundary alarm would go off again and stop him. He'd just kiss her—kiss her senseless, and then he'd go home and screw his wife and things would be normal.
Her mouth was a flame that sucked his oxygen, consumed it, breathed it in to become a conflagration. She had the insistent flammable taste of bourbon, and he could just catch the slightest scent of ripe tomatoes at her hairline.
He sucked her neck and her earlobe and ran his mouth over her freckled shoulder, remembering it with gut-wrenching want. Her fingers hooked in his belt loops and she pulled him into her, into the writhe of her hips, the bed complaining under them.
He wanted it gone, those layers of denim and cotton they thrashed against, the thin barriers separating them. He cupped her ass and brought her to rhythm harder, harder, harder against him. Her sweltering center slashed his painful, reckless, belligerent cock—so hard it had to hurt; it had to hurt her as it hurt him.
Her eyes were only slits of white between still wet lashes. Her nipples pushed obstinately through the thin cotton of her blouse. Her breath came in needy whines. Really needy.
He could touch her breast and still say it was just a kiss. He could touch her over her clothes and still call it nothing. He could.
He palmed the heft of her breast and thumbed the nipple. She tipped her head back and whipped up into him, as if under water, as if rising to an electric current. He could see it, in his mind he could feel it. Her hot-pink petaled flower opening to him. Her moans were an aphrodisiac; stealing his rationality and stirring him to the hardest, most demanding erection he could remember.
I'm not going to make it. For fuck's sake. I'm not going to be able walk away from this.
When was the last time somebody touched her?
She's famished, she's famished, she's famished for me. I have to put this flame out for her. I can't leave her like this. I can't leave her like this.
And that was where the record broke in his mind; the words, the feeling, the knowledge that he couldn't leave her like that was the only conscious thought he had as he stripped her pants from her long shapely legs and put his mouth on the throb of her clit. He tongued her as she surged into his face; he clamped his hands on her hips to keep her rhythm from throwing his off.
When she dug her heels into the comforter and arched back, her tits pointed straight up at the sky, still pert and sassy all these years later, her taste like a wave of ocean slapping him in the face, the sweat of her thighs and the small of her back and the curve of her belly glistening in the dimming light, he didn't even need to thrust. His dick spat come in short, sharp waves of his own, right into his boxers. Like he was fucking fourteen again.
Jerk-off artist, look, no hands!
She lay spent, and he sat panting, and in his head the record caught a new groove.
Now I'm a cheater. For all time, I'm a cheater. Now I'm a cheater. For all time, I'm a cheater.
Bella laughed. It sounded the way he felt. Desolate and scared and exhausted. She sat up abruptly, her long waving hair fluttering down to cover her puckered pink nipples. Her neck was already blooming with blotchy suck marks. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes still burned.
"What about you?" she asked.
He blew out his breath. "I didn't quite make it." He wasn't embarrassed. "You still have a really… strong effect on me. Dangerous, really."
He stood on shaky legs. If he'd been a teenager, he might have been ready again, but he wasn't.
Poison. This is poison.
He realized suddenly just how poisonous Bella could be to his life. He loved his wife. He was bored, but he loved her. He loved the calm of their simple life in Forks, with no disappointed bigger aspirations, like Bella was prone to. Had always been prone to. No demand, just easy comfort.
What possessed me? What am I doing?
Bella pulled her knees into her chest and then crossed them.
Edward could only stare. The small triangle of groomed hair at her pussy was slick, the labia very pink. Very, very pink and very, very swollen. And he found that he was—in fact—hard again. Very hard and very, very ready.
Because she's different. Because she's new. Because she's not new. Because she's Bella.
But it wasn't only that. It was also some kind of magic of the one that got away. He knew the clench and suck and pull of that hot crevice between her legs, and it made his head swim.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
"I want you, God help me."
She held her hand out to him, a sweet beckoning smile on her face. He shucked his shirt and jeans and soiled boxers and wrapped himself in the condom Bella offered him.
It made an absurd kind of sense—that condom. If he let the raw wanting flesh of her soak the rigid staff of him, it would defile the promise he'd once made to cleave unto one woman only. That would be ultimate and unforgivable.
There are still barriers. There are still barriers. I can still take some of this back.
He placed his palm at her breastbone and pushed her down on the bed, positioning himself.
Thrust one into that moist grip, the wet wanting fist that churned and milked and pulled and demanded everything from him, and his head went slack against her shoulder.
Oh god, oh god.
Her hands clutched at his biceps, her breath right in his ear, her mewling breath, her mewling needy little sips of air. Her heat and her air and her breath and the pointing tits piercing his chest.
His backslide was just so that he could re-bury himself in her coaxing body. Slow, honeysuckle hold, slide, pierce. Fuck.
Wet, wet, wet.
His ass felt very naked, and he wondered if the door was locked. It was that asinine thought that stuck with him as he plunged into her, withdrew, plunged again. Getting caught. They would get caught. The door was open; anyone could walk in.
They'd get caught, push. They'd be found out, pull.
Someone would see him, see what he was doing.
Fucking Bella Swan. I'm fucking Bella Swan.
I'm fucking another man's wife.
His pace went into overdrive. He pulled her to the edge of the bed and hoisted her lean frame against him. Only her shoulder blades seem to skim the bedspread, and he punished her with the quick pump and ride of his thrusts. Their bodies smacked together, Bella's hair splayed out over the rumpled blanket.
"Yes, fuck me," she pleaded. "Fuck me."
A woman now. Not the shy discreet girl she had once been but a juicy overripe berry ready to burst in his hands. Asking for it, wanting him. More than want. Imperative magic spell.
He was caught in it.
Days became weeks became a month.
He'd become incapable of getting through the day without the crush of her body against his. She never opened her legs for him out of duty; she was never tired or too busy. He never had to lick his fingers because she was always ready. She rode atop him like someone was chasing her; she looked at him like he was made of steel, like he was a god.
Holding her in his arms was like capturing a melody on the wind, feeling her pulse quicken in time with his was like the beat of some amaranthine drum marching him into the fire. Seeing her smile bloom on her face was like releasing a caged animal back into the wild.
I want her. I want to keep her.
Bella lay in the crook of his arm on the worn hearthrug they'd sprawled on as teenagers, snarfing popcorn or pizza after school. It had to be filthy from the years of foot traffic, soda spills, and firewood ashes. Living. But all he could smell was the lingering perfume of Bella's sex and the heat of her skin, and the bright clean fragrance of her hair.
"Have you been faithful… to your wife? To Leah?" Her eyes gleamed gold, relaxed in the dimming afternoon light. "Besides now, obviously."
His arm curled to bring her close to him and he felt her breasts flatten against his chest, felt her legs flex next to his. Her hair fanned cool over his forearm as he lifted her to his kiss. First one corner of her mouth, then the other.
"Yes," he whispered, kissing her bottom lip and her chin. "Only you. God, only you. Beautiful girl."
He kissed the divinity of her throat and saw himself doing it just this way when he'd been sixteen. But, though he'd wanted her then—wanted her furiously—he hadn't understood. Hadn't understood what love was or could be, what commitment was or would be, what fear was, what mortality was. What it was to have lived twenty years without her. To have become accustomed to another woman's shape and scent and smile.
He'd been a prisoner of tolerance and conformity and acceptance and his own guilt. He'd been cheated.
Bella now was like holding captive a goddess. The love they made was an expression of more than lust, more than hormones. It was the frantic scrabbling away of years and distance that had separated them.
It was coming home, breaking free, taking wing. Flying.
"This is more than infidelity to me." She breathed the confession right into his mouth. He let his fingers stroke the hair at her temple as their tongues slid together. He held her to him, this love long lost, felt her vibrate in his arms, felt her blaze and stoke. Himself stoking with her.
"It's funny because I never dream of Forks or Mom or Charlie. But every couple months, you show up in my dreams. Like you were checking in on me or visiting me."
"Maybe I was."
"Maybe," she agreed. "Sometimes Leah's there too."
Let's not talk of Leah.
"I'm sorry." He kissed her eyebrow and then her temple and then her cheekbone.
"It's okay. I don't hate her anymore. I did, you know that."
"I'm sorry." He repeated. And he was. For so many things.
"You know, after that day. The day we met at Maggie's for the last time… what devastated me most was that we weren't even friends after that. You were my best friend. And I lost you."
That Day. Like it deserved to be capitalized in his memory. Her worried face as she'd asked him about the rumors circulating, and he'd answered with ambivalence. He'd never touched Leah, not once, not even kissed her. Sure, he'd thought about kissing her. He'd thought about doing more than kiss her, but he hadn't yet. Not That Day.
Looking back he had no idea how he'd managed to nod when Bella had asked him if he wanted to break up—because all he'd wanted was wrap the chain of his love around her and bind her to Forks and to him and not let her go.
She hadn't cried. She'd laid a five on the old oak table with the splintering edge; risen carefully from their booth and walked like a blind person out the front door of Maggie's, groping for the slim silver handle with pale hands.
He'd turned to stone after that—any time Bella was near him, he'd steeled himself against her. Against himself.
Because she'd had to go, she was going. She was already packing. She was already making plans that left him behind.
A few days later he'd been hurriedly unloading hay bales from the back of the pickup when Bella appeared, her arms tight about herself like she might fly apart if she let go. And maybe she would have.
Angry black clouds churned somersaults over their heads and turned day to dusk. The last real furor of spring, Car had said. And it had been.
Edward couldn't look at her, couldn't listen as she began negotiating in a tremulous voice.
She'd spoken of long distance relationships that had worked; some author had done it. And a scientist. This person unknown to him and that person he'd never heard of. They could too. She wanted to try.
They'd find a way.
"I don't think so." He jumped down from the pick-up and pocketed his work gloves before unraveling the rope that would tie down the barn door, which always whipped open in heavy wind.
She spoke of going to UDub instead of San Diego. She said they could see each other weekends, more even. He'd answered her with stony silence.
"There's a JC in Port Angeles." Her teeth began chattering. "That's half an hour from here. I mean that might even be the best idea, considering I'm not totally sure about my major… and..."
"Go home, Bella."
He couldn't take this. He couldn't.
"You say my name like I'm no one to you. You won't even look at me."
He spoke to the side of the barn. "This has nothing to do with you going away for school. You have to just accept this."
"I can't." She'd held her hands open, a Bella-gesture he'd seen her do a thousand times—when she was explaining something, when she waited expectantly for an answer—but now there were no explanations and there were no answers. "I love you."
He knew he'd have to look at her for her to get it. He had to look at her, and she had to see nothing in his face. He cinched the knot that secured the barn and ran his fingers through his hair and faced her.
The sight of her was a punch in the gut.
She looked like a ghost. Her face was white and her mouth was white and the wind whirled her hair sideways and fluttered the thin sleeves of her insufficient shirt. Her ochre eyes were dull in deep sockets.
"This was a high school romance, Bella. We both know these things don't last. It's time to move on."
She shook her head, confused and frustrated and wild-eyed. "I don't accept that, about us. I don't accept that."
He turned away from her. "You have no choice."
She had to go to school. She had to get out of Forks or she'd never be happy. She'd hate him and she'd hate herself. And he couldn't let that happen. He loved her way too much to let her hate herself.
"I'm begging, Edward. Don't do this."
"I don't want you anymore, Bella. Not your long distance relationship or your short distance relationship. Go home."
The rain came.
She obeyed him.
Fat droplets splattered against her face, and she turned slowly and retreated back the way she'd come. When he reluctantly looked down the driveway a few minutes later she was soaked to the skin, her hair hung in wet ropes, the bones of her back jutting out—plastered with her thin blouse.
At school she was as studious as ever, but at lunch she sat alone. She didn't eat and she didn't smile. She didn't go to prom, and she didn't cross the stage for graduation. She got her diploma from the office and a month later she left Forks forever.
By then Leah was pregnant.
Edward didn't know if she'd lied about being on the pill or if it really had failed—lying seemed a little too devious for Leah—but ultimately it didn't matter. Edward found it ironic—though he hated that word, tragic seemed more appropriate—that their first time together had resulted in pregnancy.
Edward was certain it would have been their only time if not for that small, insurmountable oversight.
He'd had her in a sloppy, drunken, desperate moment that ended with him blacking out before his pants were even back on. He barely remembered it except that she had smelled wrong and tasted wrong and laughed wrong and been wrong.
He'd used her, and he felt like shit and he was a shit. Never more than the moment he'd come in from the barn to find Leah sitting with Esme looking scared out of her mind. A piece of paper with a gnarled edge where it had been torn from the pad bore the trademark center fold of one of Esme's Pro/Con lists.
In his only display of temper ever, he pushed his fist through the drywall next to Esme's old grandfather clock and yelled, "Fuck!"
Leah had flinched and covered her face with her hands.
Everyone knew within a week. And that meant Bella knew.
Edward could practically feel all of Forks surge with the news of the Cullen boy and the Clearwater girl. And Bella, he knew, would have to confront it everywhere she went.
The only person who didn't feed off the gossip or fling judgment in his face had been Chief Swan—who was probably just relieved that it wasn't his daughter Edward had knocked up.
He saw her for the final time at the Shell on 101 as she gassed up her old Volvo. Her suitcases and a few picture frames were in the backseat. Her freckled shoulders slumped, and her unsmiling face was pointed at the ground, like she was off to jail instead of adventure. Then she'd looked over the gas pump to see Edward step down from the pickup and her expression hadn't changed.
She'd just looked.
The grief in her face was also in his guts. His riotous, stupid, eighteen-year-old guts.
Unspoken and festering between them was his betrayal, his carnal knowledge of someone else.
He didn't want anyone else; he wanted her and that made her some unearthly kind of beautiful. In that sweltering moment, she was tremendous and terrible in her perfection. That somber quality she'd always possessed had become tortured; melancholy had purified her skin and ripened her mouth and blown her hair down careless.
Maybe it was just that he couldn't have her. Maybe it was the look she had of no longer being his.
"Goodbye Bella," he'd whispered. She didn't answer, just brought her sunglasses down from their perch on her head. She'd docked the gas pump, ducked back into her car, and rolled out of his town and out of his life.
You were my best friend, and I lost you.
He looked down at her now, cradled in his arms. It wasn't that she hadn't aged. She had. But she still had that excruciating beauty that completed his soul. She'd always been more than everyone else, always been the answer to the question his heart asked, but now he knew it.
Why had he been so determined to drive her away? Now, he could see that it had been folly not to snatch whatever chance she'd offered him. He'd been her slave since that day outside the mine when she'd reached a trusting hand up for him to hoist her into the saddle behind him.
"I love you," he said. "I never stopped."
That August was hot. The hottest on record. Charlie wilted into the grave; each day seemed like it might be his last, until finally, a shriveled twig of a man with owlish eyes dimming in a pronounced skull, he drew his last wheezing breath and let it out with an audible sigh.
The sound of his soul escaping.
Edward was there, standing apart as Bella held and stroked her dad's hand. She laid it gently on the green hospital blanket and said only, "Okay."
And then again. "Okay."
And then she looked at Edward. "He's okay now."
Edward could only nod. The nurse stepped in to chart the death, and Bella backed up all the way into him. He didn't wrap his arms around her or do anything else but just be a place for her to lean.
People in white coats came and spoke to Bella, but she wasn't hearing a word. Couldn't seem to do anything but nod. Edward acted as her husband would, telling the orderly what mortuary would collect the remains and guiding Bella out and into his truck. He told himself this wasn't an appropriate time to be having fanciful feelings, but he couldn't help but notice how much he wanted it. How much he wanted the act to be real.
Leah's my wife, not Bella.
The obligation had become more, but it had never become the undeniable rightness, the irrefutable pride and sense of propriety he felt with Bella. When he made love to her, when he stood at her side, when he even just looked at her.
I want her. I want her in every way. I want her to be mine in name and place.
He'd have to go through hell to get there. And he would.
They left the Subaru in the lot, and he drove her back to her father's house. Her dead father's house.
He unloaded and led her inside where she collapsed at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands. "Jake's coming for the funeral. He's getting on a plane tomorrow."
Edward filled the kettle and spiked the burner to high. Flames licked up the sides.
"Jake. Well, Jake knows. About you. And me. I told him. I told him I needed a break and well, it just… happened that I told him. Not who you are, but that there is a who."
He nodded staunchly.
"So he knows and he's… well he's pretty upset. I told him I need to clear my head, and he doesn't think I can do that. Not here. Not with Charlie…" She swallowed. "Not with Charlie dead. He's probably right."
Her forearms swayed as she shook her head at the table. "He's probably right."
"I'm not on a break," Edward said softly. "I'm actively lying to my wife. And breaking my marital vows."
She wrapped her arms around herself and looked up at him, her eyes wild like they'd been twenty years ago under the tempest. "What am I doing? What are we doing?"
Edward's reaction was swift. We're fucking.
It's not just fucking. I have to tell Leah, I have to leave her.
His kids were grown; he'd done his duty. He'd done what was expected of him. He could have Bella now.
"I'm going to ask Leah for a divorce." He hadn't realized he'd made the resolution until the words blurted out of him. He hadn't expected the stab of remorse and regret at the speaking of those words.
Sweet Leah. My wife. Gentle soul.
He had to tell her before it became obvious.
She'll be heartbroken and humiliated. Devastated.
She'll be okay.
Bella stared up at him with an unfathomable expression. She looked alone and adrift; a solitary creature in a turbulent friendless world.
"I'm not sure how this is going to happen," Edward fumbled, trying to find the words that would console and comfort her. "I just can't bear you leaving me again…"
Something cracked and came apart in her face. It started as a squeak that became a Banshee wail that turned to sobs. Bella was crying.
The church was packed. All of Forks had turned out to pay their last respects to the Sheriff who'd served their town for fifty years before finally hanging up his gun and promptly dying. Flowers choked every flat surface, and the room sweltered with thick pollen richness and the heat, despite the air conditioner running noisily overhead.
Edward sat in the back with Leah. She fanned herself with a paper folding fan; her hair pinned up, the collar of her best dress limp against her damp neck.
He saw Jake for the first time when he escorted Bella to the front of the room and unbuttoned his suit coat and slung it over the back of his chair. He wasn't a big man, only a few inches taller than his wife, but his stature seemed to make sense. It gave him a present ownership of her—or maybe that was the fifteen years they'd spent together.
The service stretched from morning to afternoon as everyone seemed to find a few words to give to the casket on the dais. Men with hats in their hands talked about getting busted on dirt bikes or nicking this or that from the 7-11 when they were young and dumb. Ladies came up to talk about fundraisers and functions where Charlie Swan always, always, made donations of time and money to the community who loved him so well.
Everyone had a story or a memory.
Leah nudged him when the pastor asked if anyone else had anything to say and Edward clambered to his feet and made his way slowly to the front of the room. He set his hat on the podium and looked at the mike.
"The thing I'll remember most about Sheriff Swan is the first time I met him. As some of you may remember, I dated his daughter Bella for a time. Back in the day. So anyway, I was going to pick her up for our first official date, and Charlie answered the door with a shotgun."
A chuckle rumbled through the crowd and Edward chuckled himself. He tried not to look at Bella but did; her veil was up and she was smiling softly. Jake was not smiling.
"So anyway, he asks me how fast I drive and about my grades and my mother and father. And then he shook my hand. It's the handshake I'll never forget about Charlie. Because he looked me right in the eyes and broke every bone in my hand. Felt like, anyway."
"Anyhow. Bella was lucky to have him, and we were all fortunate to have him as our peace officer."
He planted his hat back on his head and stepped down, not looking around as the pastor spoke, "Okay well, if there's no one else, I think it's time to hear from Isabella."
Edward sat down as Bella stood.
She kept her veil down. Her voice shook and wavered as she gave her eulogy. It was short but meaningful and ended with an invite to a memorial service being held at the Elks Lodge out on 101. Everyone was invited.
Edward would remember that smell forever. The smell of grief and flowers and meat roasting on a big outdoor grill. Big troughs of baked beans and potato salad and green salad lined a red and white checked tablecloth. Flimsy, filthy paper napkins clustered on every table, crumpled like rosettes and scabbed with barbeque sauce. Red plastic cups pegged every flat surface, filled with lemonade and sweet tea and fruit punch.
There was a no host bar and Edward knew Bella had put most of the alcohol on her charge card. Ice melted in coolers, which stood open, draining a thin trickle of dirty water down to the curb.
Bella stood with a circle of people around her constantly. She didn't lift her veil and she didn't eat. Jake didn't leave her side. Edward resented and envied and loathed him. He wanted to pry Bella's fingers from where they locked around her husband's bicep.
You don't know her, don't know that you don't own her.
"I think we've stayed long enough, don't you?" Leah asked, her fan back out and working back and forth in front of her face. "Should we give our condolences?"
"I don't think so. Let's just get home." God knew he'd condoled Bella physically enough over the last six weeks.
Leah gathered her things. Edward tried to catch Bella's eye, but it was impossible with the barrier of her veil blocking her from the world.
Leah's grip on his arm frustrated and annoyed him.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is all wrong.
Maple and birch trees drooped under the sun's pressure; the black asphalt parking lot radiated heat back up in shimmering waves. He felt as if a rubber band wrapped his legs; he fought its restraint with every step he took away from Bella.
He turned to look back at her.
Jake was approaching with the countenance of a bull after a flag. Bella clung to his arm and tried to keep her husband's manic pace.
Edward knew what was coming. A cold fire started in his feet and his hands and his groin. He'd have preferred for this to happen privately, but it would be what it would be.
Jake jutted his chin up at Edward.
"You used to date my wife?"
Edward looked down at him, feeling small. "I did."
"You're the one giving her her identity crisis?"
Oh, Jake. I'm giving her much more than that.
He could feel Leah buzz alive with awareness, could feel her eyes on his profile. He wondered if she was starting to connect the dots; starting to think about why the fuck he was showering so much, why he was gone so much.
Edward looked at Bella; at the way she was clinging to Jake's sleeve, holding his arm with both her hands. Not to stop him, but like he was a life raft. Like he'd come to save her from drowning and she would tether herself to him and be dragged to shore.
And she didn't care who else flapping around out here drowned.
"Well, she's coming home now. Home to San Diego. I'll be selling Charlie's house. She won't be back."
"Edward... ?" It was Leah, her fingers clenched around his own bicep.
"She's done with you. Done with you taking advantage of her. She's coming home," he said again. Bella's blasted veil was still down; all he could tell about her feelings was by her white-knuckled grip on her husband.
Then she let go, her fingers stretching wide.
To leave her husband, or simply to unleash him?
Edward saw the punch coming but was too dazed to duck or block it. Jake struck him hard in the face—right where his nose fit into its crease—and Edward's head whipped back. Pain exploded behind his eye as Jake hit him a second time.
"That's for fucking my wife."
Leah's fan hit the pavement and zipped itself closed.
Edward's vision slowly cleared, the garish red melting back into the real world. The black asphalt and green grass and blue sky seemed to throb and pulse and shiver with starbursts. He felt blood trickling over his upper lip, smearing into the crease of his mouth.
The copper tang of blood touched his tongue and he thought of Bella.
She'd finally pinned up her veil. He could see all of her, into her—really inside of her. Into some kind of darkness he'd never noticed before.
She just stood there like a statue in black, her body cold and unreachable. Her face grim and forbidding. Her mouth prim, her eyes fathomless.
He wanted to throw up, not just the meal from the memorial but his own guts. Throw them up in a big steaming waterfall dragging his heart out last.
Next to him, Leah cried. Sobbing into her cupped hands, trying to hide her shame and her face.
Bella just watched. She was the way she'd been all those years ago across the gas station island. Her melancholy gave her an absurd perfection. He felt her emptiness and her grief and her somberness.
And more. Something much more and much worse.
Bella met his eye and whispered, "Goodbye, Edward."
Has it gone for good?
Or is it coming back around?
-Fireside, Arctic Monkeys