The warm, tepid air of Northern California's unrelenting heat fills the cab of the car, twists her hair in tangled tendrils about her face. She brushes away a stray lock, the rough suspension of her Jeep bouncing over even the smallest of dips, jostling her… but she's smiling.
A phone rings, incessant and unrelenting, on the passenger seat beside her and remains unanswered - she's lost count of how many calls have come through. They've all begun to stream into one long buzz, one person trying desperately to reach her after another. She turns the stereo up, smiling her almost permanent grin - she could turn off the phone, she supposes… but there's a sick thrill in knowing she's screening them, a sick thrill in knowing they're hearing her voice mail. A girl from a different time, a different place…
'Hey, you've reached Bella Swan - you know what to do.'
Her mouth is dry, and she probably should have stopped at that gas station a couple miles back for a bottle of water or a strawberry Yoohoo. But, she's still smiling.
She's not sure what possesses her to look down at her blinking screen, but the name that flashes back suddenly has her scrambling for the damn thing for the first time in hours. She's turned down the music, tapped the button and shoved the phone between her shoulder and ear before thinking twice.
And she really should have thought twice.
"Hello? Sue, is that you?" she says, voice rough from underuse.
It's not who she's expecting - not at all. She isn't prepared for this, doesn't have her pithy, sassy speech at the ready… not that it would matter much, anyway. The warm, velvet cadence of his voice has her crumbling almost instantly.
The car swerves to the right, hitting a rough patch of gravel, kicking up orange-tinted earth in a cloud of dust.
She can hang up, right now. She should hang up.
But, now she can hear him breathing. His slow, deep inhales and thin, shaky exhales. She can still smell him on her skin; pretend she can taste him if she licks her lips, all his honey and wine.
"Baby, please... fuck, just say something. Anything," he groans, and she can imagine him now - hand gripping the roots of his hair, running roughly through the untamed tendrils. If she were there she'd be telling him to knock it off, that she loves his hair too much for him to go ripping it out. She'd run her fingers through it, scrape her short nails along his scalp... and he'd hiss, maybe moan, turn his head and kiss her wrist.
She opens her mouth, hands gripping the wheel so tightly her knuckles are a concerning shade of white… but no words come out.
"Fuck," he gasps, and an awful sound rips out of him, rough and harsh - a sob. "Fuck, baby… I've tried to think, but I-I don't know what I could have done. I'm sick, so fucking sick thinking about it all. I'm sorry... tell me how I can fix this, tell me how I can make you come home."
Home. Once upon a time, she'd thought home was a place, somewhere wet and fresh and lush she'd been ripped from. But home isn't a destination - it's a person. It's in her Green boy, her man, tucked inside his chest beneath skin and bones and screaming heavy-harsh beats at her to return from miles away.
She swallows, and delicately clears her throat. He inhales on the other end of the line and pauses, waiting for her.
"You can't. That's the problem, Edward… you couldn't have fixed this, or fixed me. I made these decisions, and I have to live with them. You… you don't need me there, fucking your life up - "
"Are you insane?" he shouts and she flinches, nearly dropping the phone before re-adjusting it. "I don't need you? Of all the ridiculous… the thought that I don't need you. You're the only thing I need, Bella. Fuck everything else."
"And that's the problem, Edward," she whispers, licking her lips and continuing before he interrupts. She can hear his harsh breathing, his anger. "You have so much going for you, every opportunity at your feet, and you'd give it all up for me. I don't want you to have to make that decision, I don't want to… to ruin that for you. Because that's what I do, isn't it? I ruin people."
"Stop it!" he growls, and if she didn't think she was going to Hell before this, she surely is now - because her chest constricts at the sound, her thighs tremble… his voice has always been able to effect her this way. "Are you even hearing yourself right now? Did you forget what we said?"
She should pull over, truly - her tears are clouding her vision now, making the long stretch of road ahead of her wobble and blur, but she can only push forward on the gas, can only force herself to keep putting all these miles between them. And maybe, eventually, it might start to hurt less… because right now, it's absolutely unbearable.
"No? Well, I think you have, so let me give you a refresher: you and me, baby. You are my person. My sweet sunshine girl," he sighs, and his voice catches, wobbles. "You're mine, and I'm your's - always."
The desperate sob she struggled to keep down wrenches free, bursting from between her lips in a choked, raw noise that has him gasping, sobbing back to her.
"God, Bella, please! Just come back. Or tell me where you are, I'll come get you. I can't - I can't. I need you."
Her hair is sticking to the unrelenting tracks of hot tears flowing down her cheeks, and she uses one hand to push the offending tendrils roughly away. She could vomit right now - she wants to. She thought he'd be upset, even expected him to ask her back… but not this, not this horrendous begging. Not these loud, panicked sobs she feels in her bones.
Her breath chokes her, squeezing into a tight little gasp.
Her father exhales a shaky breath into the phone and she hears shuffling, some muffled shouting that is undoubtedly Edward. Calm voices that try to soothe him, the unmistakable tinkling bells of Alice… and Esme?
What is Esme Cullen doing in the same room as her father?
A door shuts, and then there's an eerie silence on the other end. The scenery around her begins to change, from dry heat slowly into the occasional spot of green.
"Yeah, Bells… it's me."
She hasn't heard her father sound so… informal in such a long time. It's throwing her for a complete loop.
She doesn't respond. He sighs again, and she can picture him now - sitting at his desk in the study, rubbing a hand roughly over his face.
"I'm not going to ask you to come back… I want to, believe me, but I know you won't listen. Bella, we're all going insane here. I don't expect you to tell me where you're going, but at least… at least tell me where you are now."
She wipes her nose with the back of her wrist, roughly rubbing away a fresh stream of tear tracks and slowing the Jeep to look around for any discerning signs. She's aware this could blow everything for her. Her father knows her well enough to make a wild guess at where she's headed but even if he doesn't, the second he tells Edward… her little joyride will be for naught.
"I'm a couple miles outside of Eureka, California."
He stops, and it sounds like he's holding his breath.
"You… you drove that far, already? Have you even stopped to eat, to sleep?"
"No. I… haven't been hungry. Or tired."
"You have your purse, right? Your cards?"
This was the conversation she wanted to avoid, mainly for her peace of mind - she hadn't planned too far ahead, truth be told. She had some cash on her, but not nearly enough for everything she'd need - a place to stay, food, clothing. There were a few large bills in her wallet, but aside from that everything was on her credit card - her father's credit card. He'd be checking statements, he'd know where she was. And besides that… she didn't want to have to rely on him.
"Isabella, you're going to listen to me now, and you best not hang up. If you think I'm completely clueless, you have another thing coming. I know you… I know where you're headed. I'm not going to presume why you've done this, though I have an inkling. And I'm not going to try and stop you. But I want you to use those cards. I need to know you're… you're safe, that you're taking care of yourself."
She inhales slowly, taking a moment to calm herself before there's a banging from somewhere in the background of the call.
"Isabella! Isabella, if you can hear me - "
His voice sends a tremor right down to the base of her spine.
"Is… is that…"
Her father swears - really, actually swears. "I told him not to come here, not while - not while the Cullen boy is around."
"Oh, my God - don't let him hurt Edward. Please, Daddy!"
The banging continues. His voice reaches straight into her heart, grips it and twists it, and the fear she'd almost forgotten is back again.
"Bella, you listen to me - I do not like to admit when I'm wrong, if I can help it. You know that. But just this once, I will… I was wrong about Jacob Black. And I was wrong about Edward Cullen. I wish I could go back and change everything that's happened. I can't, but I can assure you… no harm will come to that boy, if I can help it."
"Thank you… thank you," she cries, biting down on her lip so hard she's sure the skin will break.
"I have to go deal with... this. Please, just let me know when you've settled, when you're safe," he sighs, sounding completely defeated. "I… love you, bug."
Years. It's been years since she's heard that nickname.
"I love you, too, Daddy."