*Written for the Fandom for Mental Health Compilation- a great cause championed by the amazing Jeannie Boom!
FRIDAY, MAY 21
"Mountain therapy," night 1
11:57 p.m. - Master's thesis submitted (3 whole minutes to spare)
11:58 p.m. - full-on panic attack
I can't remember packing up all my shit from that dark dorm room, my prison for the last twelve months. I barely recall getting into my car, let alone a single detail of the two-and-a-half hour drive up the Kancamagus Highway, but I must've made it okay because here I am. My "charmingly rustic" single is pretty much as advertised: double bed, night table, claw-foot tub, and a slab of cement out back with a rocking chair facing the mountains—not that I get to sit in that chair tomorrow.
My "personalized therapeutic itinerary" starts with a 6:30 a.m. "Rising Dawn hike designed to reawaken the senses." I must've been in some seriously weakened state when I agreed to this. Oh yes, I remember now, the panic attack last week, when Dr. Cope said it was either the mountains or the hospital. So here I am.
I better get my ass to bed so I can toss and turn for a few hours before my reawakening.
Leaving my bed while it was still dark out might have bothered me more if I'd actually fallen asleep. The change of scenery and the cool bite of mountain air were actually a relief. Continental breakfast in the lobby began at 5:30 a.m.; I left my room at 6:25. Unnecessary interactions with other humans were not high on my list.
After surviving on five-hour energy drinks, coffee, and chocolate for the last three months, I wasn't ready to go cold turkey on the caffeine. Much to my relief, a giant urn anchored the buffet, and I used the last of my energy to make a bee-line for it. Reaching for one of the china cups—clearly, there was no "to-go" option—I noticed a sign hanging across the silver coffee pot like a necklace: "Might we gently suggest the herbal tea instead?"
Fuck you, spa shamers. Suggest all you want. Just keep the java flowing, you judgy anti-caffeinators. Oh, and I'll see you at the bar tonight.
I perfected my dark cup of deliciousness with two packets of fake sugar and an extra heavy pour of cream just to show 'em who was boss. Closing my eyes, I drew the cup to my lips when I was assaulted by a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed coffee spoiler.
"G'morning! I'm Mike! Ready to attack the mountain?"
I'm ready to attack you! Now, go bother someone else, you . . . deep breath, Bella. "Mmhmm."
I gave him my sweetest we're-done-here smile.
It didn't work.
"I come back here every few months to recharge my batteries." His mouth yapped on and on. I saw the shape of sounds coming out of his face, but they bounced off my force field and fell to the floor at my feet. "Luxury real estate, blah, blah, blah, top salesman in the office, blah, blah, blah, interest rates, closing costs, points, blah, blah, blah . . ."
A merciful "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," came from the center of the room. I recognized the boyish grin from the website—Emmett Cullen, co-owner and operations manager. "If I could have your attention, please?"
I cashed in on my opportunity to scoot away from the relentless yammering of Mike the Mouth. Thankfully, he didn't pursue me.
"I bring you exciting news this morning—"
"Alice had her baby!" one of the other guests shouted.
"I stand corrected," Emmett said with a chuckle, "Angela brings you the exciting news." He slapped his hands on his hips and pretended to look annoyed. "Do you people want the rest of the details or not?"
"Yes! Give! Spill!" the crowd yelled out.
"Fine, fine, you don't have to be so demanding." Emmett seemed to be in his element, smiling from ear to ear and doling out small tidbits of information to keep the crowd engaged. "At 3:26 a.m., Alice and Jasper became the proud parents—and Rosie and I became the proud aunt and uncle—of a bouncing baby girl."
The sleepy crowd came to life, applauding and cheering. Emmett spewed details as quickly as he could, trying to stay ahead of the questions being thrown at him from every direction. "Louisa Brandon Whitlock, eight pounds, three ounces, mother and baby are both doing fine. However . . ."—Emmett paused dramatically—"the new daddy is obviously in no shape to lead your hike this morning."
I wasn't aware of Jasper's reputation, but from the collective groan of the group, I gathered his absence was a bad thing.
A man standing next to me guffawed. "Don't tell us you're actually leaving the office, Emmett?"
"Nice try, Eric." Emmett wagged his finger at him. "Those paperclips aren't going to order themselves." He paused to let the ripples of laughter play out. I'd heard Emmett was the livewire of the place, the comic relief to his wife Rosalie's more serious side. I liked him already. "Nope, we have a very special group leader for you this morning. A couple of you might have seen him working out on the east rim last week? I'd like to formally introduce the newest member of our staff, my baby brother, Edward."
Emmett turned to his left, then looked around comically as if he'd lost something—and apparently, he had. "Where the hell . . . oh, there you are." Emmett jerked his thumb toward the doorway. Every neck in the room craned to see the brother in question standing against the wall, or more accurately, trying to melt into it.
Emmett shook his head and laughed. "As you can see, he's the shy one."
Oh my god, the poor guy, thrust into the spotlight. I could feel my own cheeks turning bright red while this Edward angled his face toward the floor, but Emmett was bound and determined to share his life's story.
"All of us grew up here on the mountain, but we like to joke that Edward was raised by coyotes. Truth be told, Mom doesn't much appreciate that joke. He knows this terrain like the back of his hand. Just follow his lead, and I am confident he'll keep you on the right path." Emmett clapped his hands together. "Okay, better get out there before you miss your sunrise."
The first ten minutes of the hike weren't actually bad. All in all, walking up a mountain was a whole lot more pleasant than writing a thesis on the changing views toward psychology as evidenced by women's fiction over the last century. And most definitely better than a mental hospital.
I fell to the rear of the pack, and everyone pretty much left me alone. Edward checked on the line a couple of times, but as long as I waved that I was still alive, he turned and led on. I could hear the chatter of twos and threes and that was fine; they weren't trying to draw me in.
I was one with the mountain, sort of. And then Mike the Mouth decided to drop back and "keep me company."
"Hey, have you noticed everyone else is paired up but us, uh…? I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name earlier."
I shrugged. "I guess everyone came out here with whoever they wanted to be with."
"So, you're not with anyone?"
"Nope," I answered, silently adding, because I want to be alone.
But Mike didn't get to be top salesman of the month for three months running by taking a hint. In fact, he took the exact opposite meaning, a wide, creepy smile spreading across his face as he nodded. "So, you're single."
I considered making something up, the boyfriend at home, the girlfriend at home, anything to throw him off the scent, but my battle-weary brain just didn't feel like working that hard. Besides, I could not have gotten a word in edgewise once he started up again.
I tried the force field trick again, tried watching Mike's words spill down the north face of Willey Mountain. I went deep inside my head and pulled on a pair of internal noise-canceling headphones, but damn, after fifteen long minutes, I just couldn't tune him out. I pulled out every trick Dr. Cope had taught me to repel the external, but I'd run out of tools in my toolkit. Time for the direct approach.
"You know, Mike, this is all super fascinating." I smiled. He smiled back. "But I think I need to be alone with nature. You feel me?"
"Oh . . . sure. You need to pee or something?"
Ohhh-kay, that's not where I was going, but I had to give the guy credit. He'd actually come up with the one activity he'd really have to leave me the hell alone for.
"Sure, you could say that." I gave him another sugar-covered, get-the-fuck-out-of-here smile, and just in case he missed my meaning this time, I added, "Later."
"Want me to hold your pack while you go?" he asked.
"Nah, I need stuff. Y'know?" I patted one of the fat zippered pockets so he knew I meant business. Tampons and other icky, girly things you don't want to know about . . . and thank you for giving me an alibi I can use on you for at least five more days.
Yeah, you do. Now, run along and find some non-menstruating female to irritate.
I veered off the trail just far enough to be convincing and waited until Mike was well out of range before sitting down on the rocky ground and leaning back against my pack. The sun was making a spectacular entrance in the eastern sky, and I lifted my face to the vivid colors that hadn't looked the same through my tiny dorm window.
The fresh mountain air filled my lungs, and I could almost feel the cobwebs blowing away. Ahhh. Grown-up camp might even be tolerable if the other inmates could just learn to suffer in silence like me.
I didn't want to completely lose the group, but as a kid, I had played enough hide-and-seek with my brothers to know a count to fifty was in order. I'd just reached "thirty-eight Mississippi" when I heard someone calling my name. Crap.
"Isabella? Isabella Swan?"
"Yeah, I'm over here."
"Oh, thank God." Heavy boots jogged toward me, and I got my first close-up view of our shy hike leader as he dropped to one knee next to my pack. "Are you okay?"
Damn, he was gorgeous. Like, drop dead, but first tear off all your clothes gorgeous. Or maybe tear off his clothes gorgeous. Fit and tan and mountain-man scruffy, wild hair poking out all around the edges of his camo-patterned Red Sox cap. Outfitted in neutral tans and greens that melted into the earth, he looked like someone far more comfortable blending in than sticking out—someone like me.
A semicircle of sweat darkened his tan T-shirt, and the rise and fall of slightly labored breathing distracted me to the point where I couldn't look away from that sexy chest. I couldn't tell if he was out of breath from his jog or the anxiety of misplacing one of his hikers in his first half hour in charge. Either way, it was my fault.
His eyes were hidden behind brown-tinted shades, but I could feel him checking me out for visible signs of injury or worse—something he couldn't see that might be even more dangerous out here in the wild. The serious set of his mouth told me he was completely frazzled. "You're not hurt, are you?"
I hopped to my feet and brushed the dirt crumbs off my shorts. "No. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you worry about me . . . or leave the group."
He looked like he wanted to ask more questions, but at the same time, like he really didn't. He rose beside me and twisted his head to peer over his shoulder. "If you're okay, we should probably . . ."
I leaned to one side so I could see around his spectacular body. No sign of Mike. I smiled. "Sure."
Edward seemed to put two and two together. He fidgeted a bit, his focus settling off into the distance. "You, uh . . . wanna walk up front with me?"
Poor kid. I'm sure someone had lectured him about not letting the crazy ones out of his sight, and I'd just soared to the top of that list. He'd now have to worry about me for the next four hours.
I felt for him, and I wasn't about to cause the guy any more trouble. Besides, I doubted even Mike would be bold enough to barge in on the two of us. "Sure."
That earned me a brief, relieved smile. I followed him to the trail, allowing myself a leisurely ogle of the view from the back; clearly, this wasn't Edward's first day in hiking boots. He picked up speed when he hit the trail, and I matched his brisk stride.
The rest of the group was stopped about fifty yards ahead, waiting. Wonderful.
"Shit," I muttered under my breath.
Edward glanced at me and followed my anxious gaze. "Oh, don't worry about them. They're enjoying the scenic vista." He smiled gently at me and waited until I smiled back.
As we reached the clump of hikers, Edward didn't slow down for their questions, didn't offer any sort of excuse for my behavior. He simply hiked along the edge of the group until we were out front and kept right on going. His actions spoke volumes: none-o'-ya business. A warm tingle floated down my spine. I didn't know boo about the man who normally led this hike—the other brother, Jasper—but right then and there, I counted my lucky stars for the intuitive man next to me right now.
Step after blessed step without a single word. What a goddamn relief to walk next to someone who didn't feel the need to fill the sky with noise. His silence wasn't just comfortable; it was downright luxurious. I returned the favor.
They say the view never changes if you're not the lead dog. Now that I was out front, I realized exactly how much I hadn't noticed. I couldn't blame Mike's motor mouth for all of it; I'd let myself get lazy and take for granted what was all around me.
Walking next to Edward, that was impossible. Without saying a word, he took in every detail: the full majesty of the sunrise, the screech of a hawk, the unnatural bend of a branch. Through him, I experienced everything I'd been missing.
He continued to check on his flock at regular intervals, waving a hand to the rear of the line and waiting for a return signal. He tallied his sheep with subtle chin bobs, and I found myself holding my breath each time it was my turn to be counted, acknowledging that pulse of electricity when his shaded eyes landed on me and paused, just for that split second, before turning forward.
Huh. So much for the girl who hated being seen.
Author's Note: Much love to Jeannie Boom for organizing the Fandom for Mental Health and rallying the fandom around such an important issue. You worked tirelessly to bring the compilation to life, raise awareness for mental health issues, and deliver much-needed funds for the important work of some fine organizations. I felt so proud to be part of your team, and I love you! Heartfelt appreciation for Meagan and Packy as well, for MUCH behind-the-scenes work and loving support for the project!
To Noel/Gee/OhGee, thank you for pre-reading this story and making sure Edward had the right tools *wink* in his hands! Your warmth, humor, and support are a beautiful trifecta! And my amazingly talented Betti Gefecht, for this beautiful banner, even though Mountainward is not exactly her thang. ;)
To my sweet, wonderful Chayasara, thank you for saving me from myself and always inviting the conversation. You are a gift and a blessing.
Chapter 2 coming soon!