Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
-"Invictus", by William Ernest Henley
Over the many long hours she had spent curled up in the hard, plastic chair, Bella had never heard the room so silent. She could hear her own heartbeat, the rhythmic rush of blood pounding through her veins, beating like drums in her ears. The fabric of her blue denim pants swam and wavered before her eyes as she swallowed hard, forcing the tears to abate. She refused to shift her gaze, to look up and see the still, pale shell laid out on the bed. She could see him in her mind's eye, writhing and gasping for breath, chest heaving as nurses flooded in…
She clenched her eyes shut, rubbing them hard to dispel the terrible image. She felt the salty moisture of tears come away on her palms and she hastily wiped them clean on her sweater, resting her head on her knees.
What in the hell had just happened? Sure, he had been sick, but she had never expected… never imagined…
"Isabella?" The voice from the doorway startled her, making her jump as she wheeled around to face the nurse.
"Yes?" Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat. "Yes?"
"Is there someone we can call for you? A friend or family member?"
Bella stared blankly at her, the question barely registering in her frazzled mind.
"Is there someone we can call for you, dear? An aunt or uncle, perhaps? Sister? Brother?"
Bella felt her eyes well up with tears once more, and this time, she was powerless to stop their course down her cheeks. The nurse clucked sympathetically and rested a gentle hand on Bella's shoulder as she wiped angrily at her face, shaking her head.
"No," she replied, turning at last to face the still form on the bed. He looked strange, as if someone had tried to recreate his likeness in wax. Gone was the gentle, crooked smile he had rarely shown, even to his own children. The brown, unassuming eyes that so resembled her own were closed, sunken and tired on his wasted face. His mouth bothered her; her father had never worn that expression on his face before, and she didn't like to see it now. His once-strong jaw was slack, letting his mouth fall open…
She clenched her eyes again and turned away.
"No, there's no one to call," she said, looking up at the kind-faced nurse who had been at the bedside when everything had gone so terribly, horribly wrong. The nurse's eyebrows pinched together and she breathed a little sigh before she sat herself in the chair next to Bella, in what Bella assumed to be a show of support.
"There's just me."
It had been ten full minutes since Bella had pulled into the driveway of her father's house—the one place she had been avoiding ever since he had fallen ill. The whitewashed façade that looked out over the sleepy side street presented an image of unassuming suburbia, a place where a happy couple might live with a few kids and a dog. There was even, Bella noted with a snort, a little white picket fence marking the edge of the property- a legacy from Renee's interlude in Seattle, when she'd feared for her children's safety along the road. Bella recalled her father's mutinous grumbling whenever an unsuspecting neighbour commented on their picturesque little corner house with its adorable fence and beautiful window boxes.
Bella knew that deep down, under all his harsh remarks, her dad had missed Renee, and disliked any reminder that she had ever been a part of his life. As far as Charlie was concerned, Renee had never crossed his path, and he was more than happy to pretend she had never existed. Never mind that she had borne him two children…
Bella shook her head and killed the truck's engine, lest she earn herself a noise complaint for the clamorous idling. She sat still in the driver's seat, looking up at the darkened windows and wishing, beyond hope, that she would see a light come on, some sign of life inside.
But there was only her, and so with great trepidation, she gathered up the stack of paperwork from the seat next to her and exited the truck, fumbling clumsily in her pocket for the house key. As it always did, the bottom stair of the wooden porch creaked when she stepped on it, and without warning, she felt her eyes burn as she recalled the sound from her youth—it always meant that he was coming home.
The key slid in as easily as ever and with a loud click, the lock gave way and the front door swung open. Bella could smell the musty scent of a house unused as she stepped gingerly over the pile of envelopes sitting underneath the mail slot in the door. She flicked a dusty light switch, sending bright, harsh, fluorescent light throughout the small kitchen. There was, she noted, a thin layer of dust and grime covering almost everything in the house, as it had been some weeks since Bella had been inside.
One glance into the refrigerator told her she had nothing edible on hand, and she resigned herself to her gnawing hunger, settling at the head of the small dining table. The kitchen clock ticked steadily on as she sat, her knee bouncing and fingernails tapping on the worn wooden tabletop.
What was she supposed to do now?
The pile of papers from the hospital sat untouched on the opposite end of the table. There was a stack of mail—mostly bills—sitting on the dusty floor by the door, and speaking of dust, the house needed a thorough going over. She had no food and no money until her small paycheck from the diner came in on Friday, and there was now the whole issue of sorting through Charlie's things. And she still had to make that dreaded phone call.
A lump grew in her throat as she sat at the unused kitchen table, finally alone for the first time in weeks, and this time, she did not force her sadness away. Her eyes burned as she swallowed hard, pursing her lips together to hold in the sounds of her grief. What was she supposed to do? She knew what she had to do, of course, which had nothing to do with crying at the dinner table, but she felt powerless to do any of it.
How could she get up and examine those bills on the floor, knowing that whatever meager insurance money she would receive from the agency would go directly to funeral and medical expenses? She could not bear to look at the total amount she would owe, now that the house and all of its bills would be signed over to her. She had learned firsthand over the past few months just how much it cost to run a house, pay for food, and keep up with the medical bills for her ailing father.
Her minimum wage, part-time salary didn't even scratch the surface.
Bella had thought it was only a security measure—a long-distant what if scenario when Charlie had summoned a lawyer to his bedside to revisit his will. She had never really expected to inherit the house, the bills, or whatever savings Charlie had managed to amass over the years working as a beat cop in downtown Seattle. She had never expected that she would be the one to make these big decisions, at 22 years old, about where the money would go and what should be done with all of his worldly goods.
This is the age, she thought bitterly, that she should be out with friends on some college campus far away, living off ramen noodles and wild nights at the pub. She should be almost finished a degree—a dream she'd had since she was just a little girl—and well on her way to launching a career. But instead here she was, alone and broke, without any hope of digging her way out.
She pressed her cheek against the cold, dusty wood of the table and closed her eyes, breathing a deep sigh. She didn't even notice herself drifting into sleep.
When she woke, it was with the harsh light of a rare sunny morning and a painful crick in her neck. A fly buzzed angrily in the overhead light fixture and Bella opened her eyes gingerly, watching its black fuzzy shape winding round and round the beveled glass. Turning towards the window, she saw the dewy grass and the crisp, cold frost on her beat up truck, but even that beauty was not welcome to her. She clamped her eyes shut against it, willing everything to disappear.
The clock above the table read 7:30, and although it was far too early, Bella could not sleep another wink.
This time last year, she was most likely waking up to the smell of fresh coffee and maybe some toast, providing he had managed not to burn it…
Bella shook her head to dismiss these longing memories and reached across the table, taking hold of the thick manila envelope she had brought home with her yesterday. She dumped the contents on the table, displacing the dust and making her eyes water as she glanced over each one.
A business card from the hospital social worker. Information on cremation. Information on funeral arrangements. A form to sign, authorizing the mortuary to cremate the body. Forms to pass on to the funeral director. Forms for the insurance company. A copy of the medical records. Another hospital bill, for the medications and interventions used at the very end… the ones that hadn't worked.
Bella pushed the papers aside and rubbed her eyes, knowing that she would have to force herself to handle them. She toyed with the idea of opening the mountain of bills, knowing that her anxiety would shoot through the roof when she did, but also knowing that it really couldn't be avoided…
The cordless phone that was mounted on the kitchen wall jangled loudly, echoing through the house and Bella let out a yelp, wheeling around.
It rang twice.
Just before the fourth ring could sound out, Bella leapt to her feet and stumbled across the room, snatching the heavy handset from the cradle and pressing the speaker to her ear.
"Oh Bella, I'm so sorry," came the voice from the other end, and Bella breathed a shaky sigh of relief.
At least it wasn't him.
"Hey Ange," she said wearily, clearing her throat.
"My dad just called to tell me about Charlie," she said quietly, no doubt trying not to wake Ben, her fiancé. "I can't believe it, honey. Are you okay?"
Angela Weber, Bella's friend from high school, was one of the few people she kept up with since most of her graduating class had moved out of state. Angela, for example, had gone to Northwestern in Chicago four years ago where she'd met Ben, a computer science major with a big soft spot for old movies.
Needless to say, Bella was not surprised one bit when Angela had called three months ago, ecstatic to announce that she and Ben were getting married.
"I'm…" began Bella, and for a brief moment she toyed with the notion of telling Angela the truth. She wondered whether or not it would help to have another person know about her fears and anxieties, about how screwed she really was.
"I'm fine," said Bella, being sure to make her voice sound calm and collected. She could not have Angela worrying about her, with her final year of college looming before her and a new internship on the horizon later this term. Angela had her own life to worry about, and Bella would not add to her stress.
"I hope you don't mind that dad told me," she said quickly, and Bella shook her head. "You know he's usually very quiet about these sorts of things, but this time it was you…"
"It's alright, Ange," said Bella gently. "Thanks for calling." Angela's father was a bit of an odd duck in the community—he had started out as an Anglican priest with a parish in Bella's neighbourhood, but in a move that shocked everyone, he had gone back to school to become a mortician. Angela and Bella had been nine at the time, and had mutually agreed that Mr. Weber's new choice of career was both morbid and absolutely fascinating.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked gently, and Bella heard her voice growing louder as she left Ben's side. "You know I'll do whatever I can to help…"
"I'm alright Ange, thanks though," said Bella, and to her annoyance, she felt the burning tears of grief stinging her eyes again. "You know me, I'll be alright."
"Have you…" began Angela gingerly, and Bella felt a well of anxiety rise up within her. She knew what Angela would ask, knew what she had to do…
"No," said Bella quickly. "I don't even know how. It's not like he left us a phone number."
"Yeah," said Angela, and Bella felt the awkwardness through the phone now. "Well, you could call the agency, maybe…"
"Yeah maybe," said Bella noncommittally, wishing for this line of conversation to end. She hated talking about it, hated acknowledging it, hated the feelings of guilt and betrayal that welled up in her heart whenever he was mentioned.
"He deserves to know, Bell," said Angela gently. "No matter what their relationship was like, he should know. He might even be able to help with some of the costs…"
"I don't want his money," snapped Bella, losing her temper as she stalked through the dark living room, memory guiding her towards the curtained window.
"I know, Bella," soothed Angela gently, and Bella felt a pang of guilt for directing her anger towards her only real friend. "But please tell me you're going to try, at least."
"I am going to," said Bella, and based on Angela's silence, she knew her friend was deep in thought.
"I wish I could come down," she said finally, and Bella released a shaky breath, sinking down onto the sofa.
"You've got school," said Bella gently. "I'm alright Ange, I promise. I'm going to go through some paperwork today to give to your dad, and I'm sure your mom will make me stay for dinner." Angela laughed her assent, knowing very well that there was no way Mrs. Weber would let Bella return home on an empty stomach.
"You'll let me know how it goes?" asked Angela, sounding hesitant this time around.
"Yeah, I'll shoot you an email, okay?"
"Alright Bell," she said, heaving a great sigh. "I love you."
"Love you too," said Bella, biting the inside of her cheek. How she wished Angela could be here…
"Call me if you need anything. I mean it."
"Bye," said Bella gently.
"Bye." The phone clicked, and Bella pulled it away from her ear, staring down at the lit screen that was timing the length of the call. Gingerly, she pressed down on the red "end" button. The lit screen vanished, and the house was silent once more.
She knew what she had to do.
Taking the phone with her, Bella jumped up from the sofa and moved determinedly towards the staircase leading to the bedrooms. Three closed doors met her on the landing, and clutching the phone almost painfully tight, she sidestepped the middle door, which Charlie would only open for cleaning, and moved instead to the far right, feeling like an intruder as she turned the handle. The room was exactly how she remembered it—small, but tidy. His belt hung on the hook by the door and his work boots were exactly where they always were. Bella saw his gun holster, missing its firearm, draped over the post at the end of the bed, and there was still an indentation on the pillow from his last afternoon nap.
Bella moved quickly to the bedside drawer before she completely lost her nerve and pulled it open, ignoring the scent of the cologne she knew he kept in there. She wasn't entirely sure where he kept his little black address book, but if she wanted that phone number, it was her only hope. Maybe he had left a number with dad, and dad had just never told her. Hopefully he had.
Under some old photographs from fishing trips in Bella's teen years, Bella saw the soft, worn leather of the familiar pocket book. Ever since she could remember, Charlie had always carried it with him in his back pocket, taking it everywhere from work to weekend fishing trips. Bella distinctly remembered the time they had been out on a boat and the book had tumbled into the lake. Her father, determined not to lose it, dove in after it, fishing it out of the murky water.
Once they had returned home, he had spent the rest of the evening with Bella's hair dryer, painstakingly warming each page and rewriting all the faded information.
Bella examined the pages in her hand, and couldn't help but smile when she saw the distinct ripples that not even the hair blower could cure. Bella had never been sure what the big deal was about Charlie's little black book, but her father had been most partial to it, and so Bella was careful to treat it well.
She sat down carefully on Charlie's lightly rumpled comforter and put the phone down beside her, taking a moment to breathe deeply and plan out what she was going to say.
How did you word something like this? What was she supposed to say to him if she dialed the phone number and he answered?
Something's happened to Dad…
Dad passed away yesterday…
She pressed her hands to her forehead to stave off the burgeoning headache, and forced her own grief aside as she tried to think.
She had no idea what to say.
Pushing her anxiety aside for the time being, Bella opened the little black book and flipped through the various names and addresses Charlie had written down. She glanced through with a nostalgic smile on her face as she took in old names and numbers that she had long forgotten. There was her old ballet teacher, with whom Bella had only lasted one year before she broke down and cried her way out of a second. There was the elementary school she had attended until the end of sixth grade, when she had moved to the vastly superior, yet incredibly intimidating middle school. There were pages of old acquaintances, people who had slipped in and out of Charlie's life as quickly and quietly as a rainbow after a storm. There were old, longtime friends that Bella was sure she would be seeing over the next few days, as well as people who had only ever met him once or twice. Here was a number for a woman he had helped some thirty years back, when he was just a rookie, and one for a man with whom he'd once quarrelled… the list was endless.
Bella couldn't find the name she was searching for anywhere among the vast list. She shifted to the "S" section, determined to find the familiar last name, but the only Swans in the book were her Nana and Pop, who had been gone almost fifteen years. Bella flipped desperately from side to side, scanning lists, wondering if maybe Charlie had written the name in another section. Maybe under "E", for his first name...
Finding nothing, her last hope resided in a small pouch at the back of the book, tied shut with a length of twine. Bella recognized one of Charlie's fishing knots on the thin rope—one she could never master—and smiled to herself as she touched it gently, wishing she wouldn't have to undo his handiwork. Charlie would not like her prying through his private things.
Bella took the ends of the string in her hands and gently, almost mechanically, untied the well-placed knot. Some part of her deep inside knew that it was necessary, that it was not a willful destruction of her father's work, but in that moment Bella felt pieces of herself come undone with each piece of twine she freed.
The small pouch fell open without any fanfare once the string was untied, and before she reached inside, she placed the string gently in her pocket. Only once it was settled did Bella reach one shaking hand inside the pouch, pulling out a single sheet of folded paper. She did not want to unfold it, fearing what she might find inside, but gently, almost gingerly, she parted the thick paper and glanced down at the page in her hands.
There he was, right on top, his name glaring up at her as a single tear splashed on the page. Bella blinked hard and blotted the spot before it could leave a mark, her niggling fear of her father's disappointment clawing its way up her back. She looked down again and took in the information written there, surprised by how sparse it was.
Benson Talent Agency
No address. No personal phone number. Not even an email address.
Bella's eyes swam once again as she snatched up the phone from beside her and began inputting the numbers that would put her through. It rang only once before someone picked up, and Bella scrambled to get her thoughts in order.
"Benson Talent Agency, Victoria speaking," came a crisp, cool female voice through the speaker. Bella took a deep breath and felt herself clam up, her throat constricting as tears clouded her vision again.
"Hello? Is anyone there?"
"Yes," she croaked out, "Yes, I'm here."
"How may I direct your call?"
"I'm looking for Emmett Swan," said Bella, clearing her throat as she took a deep, steadying breath. She had not spoken her brother's name in nearly three years.
"I'm sorry?" asked the woman, Victoria, rather skeptically.
"Emmett Swan," said Bella again, repeating the name. "This is the only number I have for him."
"This is a talent agency, ma'am, not a personal landline for our clients. If you'd like, I can connect you to his agent, though he's not in right now."
"Can you get him a message?" asked Bella, her voice cracking again as she fought to control her voice. "It's an emergency."
"Your name?" asked Victoria, and Bella heard the clacking of a keyboard in the background.
"Isabella," she said feebly, knowing very well that she was not in any database they had on hand.
"Isabella…" said Victoria, sounding more and more skeptical by the second. "No, I don't have anyone by that name on my list. You'll have to contact Mr. Benson directly."
"It's important," Bella insisted.
"Mhm, I'm sure it is," said Victoria, and Bella could not mistake the note of derision in her voice. "Listen, I can connect you with Mr. Benson. That's the best I can do. If you want to talk to Mr. Swan directly, this office can't help you—"
Bella hung up the phone and tossed it aside, feeling another piece of herself break away from the whole.
She really was well and truly alone.
A/N: Let me know what you think of this one!