Summary: The residents of Birch Hollow are used to strange things happening in autumn.
A/N: Unbeta'ed. Forgive me my mistakes. (Also. Hello again.)
The residents of Birch Hollow are used to strange things happening in autumn.
On the first day of school last year, the swings in the elementary school playground swung steadily higher and higher, despite the absence of even the slightest breeze. Later that week, the lilac bush over on Grove Street burst to life, giant bunches of soft purple blooms painting the air fragrant for a full block, even though, as a general rule, lilac only blooms in springtime.
One morning, a charm of hummingbirds hovered over the green in the center of town in the unmistakable shape of a heart. The small gazebo in the middle of the lawn greeted the dawn with every panel covered by spider webs, the combined effects of dew and sunlight making them shimmer like curtains of diamonds.
Invisible telephone wires crossed, and a phone call placed to the bakery could wind up ringing in the storage room of the used bookshop three doors down.
The cool sweep of wind that preceded each nightfall smelled of crisp orchard apples, and dragonflies sat lined up on windowsills like commuters awaiting their trains home. Customers at Jessica Stanley's Bath Shoppe purchased cinnamon-scented candles, only to light them and find that as they burned, they smelled instead like honeysuckle.
The leaves on one side of the enormous maple tree outside the library turned lemon yellow, then burnt orange, then deep crimson before releasing their hold on the branches and fluttering slowly to the ground, while the other half remained as green and verdant as it had been all summer long. Then, overnight, they dropped to the ground and in the morning, the tree was bare and brown, stark as winter.
For a solid week in the middle of September, not a single piece of mail passed through the Birch Hollow Post Office. Then, one night at the start of October, every single phone in town rang at 2 a.m., yanking everyone from slumber and into the type of panic reserved for middle-of-the-night phone calls. When receivers were lifted, a single "Hello?" was met with 243 others – 243, because that's the total number of households in Birch Hollow – and it took a few moments for them all to realize it was just one of those things, and they returned handsets to cradles and themselves to their beds.
The following day, Lauren Mallory cut into a butternut squash to find not a well of seeds and muck, but a single, perfectly formed glass marble the size and color of a plum.
Shelley Banner baked batch after batch of lemon sugar cookies and couldn't for the life of her understand how they emerged from the oven fragrant and golden and tasting not of lemon, but of lavender.
Mike Newton, the best painter in town, took an eight-week vacation starting September first, just as he had every September first since seven years ago, when he spent four days painting Sue Clearwater's three-story Victorian house a beautiful shade of buttercup yellow and arrived on the last day to find himself staring up at a house the deep, dark red of a ruby.
Schoolchildren attempted to make wishes on dandelions but the fronds refused to be blown off the stems, clinging stubbornly in the face of full-cheeked gusting puffs. For a single afternoon the week before Halloween, the stream behind the Catholic rectory was as warm as a just-run bathtub, steam rising into the crisp late-autumn air, and more than a handful of courageous or just plain curious townsfolk kicked off their L.L. Bean duck boots and rolled up the cuffs of their corduroy pants and waded in, shuddering against the surprising heat.
These strange goings-on happen year after year in Birch Hollow, and Bella Swan is the only one in town who doesn't bat an eye.
. . .
Edward Cullen had very nearly forgotten about the autumnal oddities in his hometown. It isn't until he's standing staring up at the east-facing façade of Willowbrook Academy on his second day as its new upper school physics teacher that it all comes back to him, for the wall, from ground to roof, is entirely covered in black Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies.
The knuckle of the middle finger on his right hand is already stained with the blood-red ink of a ballpoint pen, his other hand hidden in the pocket of his dark slacks. The skin of his forearms is slightly chilled where he's turned up the cuffs of his burgundy dress shirt, and he watches as the butterflies rustle their wings slightly, the movement making the brick wall appear to move.
Edward doesn't know if it's because it's autumn or because he's home or if it's because of the annual parade of the odd and inexplicable, but he can't stop thinking about his mother. More specifically, he can't stop thinking of the wooden sign she had hanging above the kitchen sink, an old Houdini quote that she loved.
All my life I have been searching for true magic, but you were right here beside me the whole time.
"Who gave you that, Mom?" he remembers asking her as they sat at the table for two eating breakfast, enough years ago that his feet didn't touch the floor.
"I gave it to myself," she said, cradling a coffee mug with more tenderness than a piece of crockery deserved. Gentle, his mother. Always gentle.
"To remember where the magic is," she replied, and even as young as he was, he couldn't not notice that they were sitting across from each other, and the only thing right there beside her was empty space.
Years later, the same empty space was beside her bed, even as Edward came barreling through the door, desperate not to be too late.
"It was you," she whispered with fading breath. "You were my true magic."
He appreciated the sentiment, but he also bristled at it: he didn't want to be somebody's magic, and if he was, he thought the whole concept was probably a sham. Now, standing staring at the undulating black wall, he thinks back to her amusement at what Birch Hollow residents always refer to as simply, "the happenings."
"Everyday magic, Edward," she used to say with a small smile and a shrug when the salt she sprinkled over the popcorn turned out to be as sweet as sugar and her pancakes spread and spread until they were the size of placemats. "There are some things in life you just can't explain away." In his admittedly hazy memories of her younger self, she always seemed amused and charmed by the absurdities.
On the cold November morning when they lowered her coffin into the ground, he didn't doubt she'd have been delighted by the shower of tiny sweet pea petals that suddenly rained down on the shiny wooden lid, calling to mind the scent of the perfume she'd worn when he was a child.
It was the closest he came to crying until the next morning, when he was on his way back to college and found himself sobbing at a rest stop somewhere in Massachusetts.
"Morning, Mr. Cullen." Edward is tugged from the memory by the arrival of the earliest students. In the crisp morning sunlight and against the pinwheel of fall color behind them, the boys' charcoal V-neck sweaters and girls' ash-colored cardigans look like something from a promotional pamphlet on the benefits of a prep school education.
"Morning, guys," he says, stepping aside. Most of the students glance up at the wall of wings, a few of them slowing slightly, but not a single one stops, and Edward wonders, fleetingly, what effect being raised amid oddity has on a person. After one last look up, he follows his new students into the building.
. . .
If Edward has a favorite thing about his tiny hometown, it's the fact that it didn't change a lick in the nine years he left it behind and tried to recreate home somewhere else. The library is the same, with its flyers for toddler story hours and knitting circles and book clubs, and the same librarian perches behind the counter, lost between the covers of some obscure Swedish crime thriller.
The general store diagonal from the library still has a jar of five-cent Tootsie Rolls on the counter, and old Mr. Black still sweeps the sidewalk outside the front door each morning, whether it needs it or not.
The bakery just up the street still has apple crumble every Friday, and Shelley Banner still winks at him when she gives him a curl of vanilla ice cream on the side without charging him for it. The postmaster still knows him by name, the coffee shop waitress still knows how he takes his coffee, and the school nurse is still, all these years later, trying to set him up with her daughter.
It's ironic, how a town with "Hollow" in its name can fill his empty spaces, and, as he resettles into the life he was once so eager to leave behind, he finds he can't quite remember why he was so desperate to go.
As the summer days Edward spent sweating as he lugged all his earthly possessions out of the back of a U-Haul truck and into the surprisingly sparse home of his childhood fade, the edges of the evenings begin to curl with the slightest hint of a chill. The click of the radiators as they slowly come to life in the middle of the night seems a silly thing to make him nostalgic, but it does. The row of maple trees at the back edge of his property – his mother's property – are just beginning to go yellow at their very tops and in a few random spots where sunlight hits them directly, and standing at his kitchen sink gazing at them – standing beneath his mother's Houdini sign – makes him feel home in the most elemental of ways.
It's true that very little has changed about Birch Hollow in the years between when Edward left and when he returned. Perhaps the only truly different thing is Edward himself, and how surprised he is to find himself comforted by the familiarity.
. . .
"I'll have the apple crumble, please, Shelley." Edward traces the voice to a girl–woman–sitting three stools down, the color of the dark braid draped over one shoulder a dead match for the steaming coffee at his elbow.
"Sorry, Bella. That's the last slice, right there."
The woman turns her face to his, and he attempts a smile. "Sorry."
She meets his smile with one of her own, equal parts polite and aloof. "Don't worry about it." She turns back to Shelley. "A cinnamon roll will be fine."
Edward's fork hovers over the still-intact square of crumble. He glances again down the row, turning the utensil back and forth between his fingers. It feels, absurdly, like it would be rude to eat it, knowing she wanted it. He watches as she fingers the end of her dark rope of hair. She's wearing dark boots and a long, flowing skirt printed with peacock feathers that hides the stool beneath her nearly entirely. Her navy cardigan sweater has a small hole in the elbow, and he can see one tail end of a violet scarf dangling down her back. Her focus is on a yellow-edged paperback on the counter in front of her, oblivious to his concentration as he tries to place her. It's happened a lot since he's been home, like a game of Memory: flip over the card of someone's decade-older self, then try to find its younger match somewhere in the recesses of his mind. It took him longer than it should have to place Jasper Whitlock, who had lived only a block over but went to the public high school instead of Willowbrook Academy with him. When it finally comes, the recollection of her is vague, at best: a dark-eyed, dark-haired waif of a girl, always watching everything with those wide, bottomless eyes.
"Bella Swan," he says, and when she looks at him again, her eyes aren't surprised or curious or inquisitive, but rather resigned, like a celebrity who's been noticed despite her best efforts not to be.
"Edward." He points his fork at his chest. "Cullen."
"Hello," she replies, giving no indication that she remembers him at all. And why would she? She returns her focus to the book on the counter in front of her.
"Sorry about the crumble."
"No problem." She meets his gaze, and there's a tiny, momentary thaw in her eyes. "I see you're on the complimentary scoop list."
"The…?" He glances down at his plate, at the ice cream melting slightly at the edges, and then back up. "The list?"
"Single, under forty-five, and not unbearably rude gets a free scoop," she says, shrugging. "Shelley's shameless."
He claps a hand to his chest. "And here I thought I was the only one."
She lets a small, short laugh escape her lips. "They all do." The conversation stalls, and she nods down at his plate. "That'll be soup if you don't eat it soon."
"Oh. Right." He takes a bite. "I just moved back," he says, surprising even himself with his chattiness. Since his return, he's gone out of his way to avoid the small talk—the remember-whens and the welcome-backs and the tell-me-what-you've-been-up-tos and the I-remember-your-mothers that everyone in Birch Hollow favors.
"Welcome back," she says, eyes once again on her book.
"Thank you." He takes another bite. "Have you been here all along?"
When she drags her dark eyes back to his, she cocks her head to one side. "All along?"
"Since graduation," he clarifies, wondering himself at his odd phrasing. "I meant have you been here since graduation?"
"Yes," she says simply, "I've been here since graduation."
Shelley reappears with Bella's cinnamon bun and a steaming mug that smells of bergamot. "Here you go, Bella."
"Thanks," she murmurs, placing a feather between the pages of her book and closing it gently before wrapping her hands around the mug. Lifting it to her lips, she blows gently, and Edward watches, his chewing slowing, as the waft of steam curls itself into the shape of a crescent moon. An odd tingle slides down the line of his spine as he suddenly remembers the rest of it: the taunts that swirled around her, particularly during the autumn months. The way they more or less died down by Christmas, only to be resurrected the following fall. The wide berth trick-or-treaters always gave that big Victorian house on the corner of Walnut Street, despite the rows upon rows of caramel apples lined up on the long harvest table on the porch, gleaming beneath golden porch lights.
The garden that bloomed in the oddest of months.
"You're remembering," she says without looking at him, the crescent moon dissipating.
"I can't believe I'd forgotten."
Dark eyes on his again. "It's easy to forget things that had nothing to do with you."
He wants to agree with her, but then again, he wants to tell her it's easy to forget anything, if you try hard enough. But she's slipping her cinnamon bun into a wax paper bag and rising from her stool, holding the mug up and saying to Shelley, "I'll bring it back," to which Shelley merely nods and waves her away.
After she's gone, Edward looks down to see his free scoop of vanilla gone, and in its place a pool of melted white. When he takes a sip of his coffee, it's as sweet as syrup, despite the fact that he hasn't added a single packet of sugar.
. . .
In the three days that follow, Edward walks past the enormous Victorian house on the corner of Walnut Street each morning on his way to school, even though it's two blocks out of his way. The house is still beautiful in design and intimidating in size, though it's slightly different than he remembers. It takes him a moment on Wednesday morning to figure out why: where it used to be painted a smoky gray, it's now a bright, brilliant white, the white of bleached cotton hanging to dry on a line in the spring sunshine. The walkway is swept and the windows are clean, but there's no activity save the faint sway of a long-roped wooden swing from the branch of a tall maple tree to one side of the house.
On Thursday, as he passes, he realizes the other notable thing about Bella Swan's house: while the other houses in town have potted mums and dried corn stalks on display, Bella's garden is still bursting as if it's the early months of summer. Morning glories climb a trellis, honeysuckle winds its way through fence posts, and a massive rhododendron bush in the corner explodes with fuchsia blooms. He can smell lavender and roses with an undercurrent of rosemary, and a row of sunflowers faces west, watching the sun pass overhead.
On Friday, as he approaches, he sees a black cat lying on the top step of the porch, watching his approach with wary golden eyes, its tail swaying lazily back and forth like the pendulum in a grandfather clock. As he passes in front of her white gate, it opens just a crack, as if beckoning him to enter. After only a slight hesitation, he reaches out and gently pulls it closed again.
There's no way of knowing if it's because it's the end of the week or if it's the unpredictable autumnal oddities popping up at random, but by his last class Friday afternoon, Edward's Physics I students are barely manageable. He sighs, brushing his hands together to rid them of chalk dust and glancing up at the slow sweep of the second hand on the clock above his desk.
"All right, everyone. Make sure you get all the reading done on Newton's Laws of motion and gravitation before Monday and complete the unit questions at the end of sections one through four." He gestures toward the door. "You are released."
He turns his back to erase the free-body force diagram he'd been only three quarters of the way through explaining when he noticed that more than half of his students were gazing outside rather than forward. He could hardly blame them: the sky beyond the windows is a brilliant, cloudless blue, the leaves on the row of trees beneath this wing of the building all the panoply of the autumn palette.
He watches as his chalk marks disappear beneath the swipes of the black felt eraser in his hand. It's one of his favorite parts of basic physics to explain: forces acting on a system consisting of a pair of interacting objects. It isn't until they're all laid out that a student realizes how many forces can be acting on an object at a given time–weight, normal, tension, applied, friction, air resistance. Teenagers tend to take things at face value; watching them become aware of the unseen is gratifying in a big-picture sense. Even if they seem to forget the broader implications the minute the chapter test is over.
Replacing the eraser in its tray at the base of the chalkboard, Edward steps away. It isn't until he's backed up enough to see the board in its entirety that he realizes that, beneath the visible sweeps of the eraser, a pattern has emerged. And it isn't until he takes yet another step back that he sees, from bottom to top, his chalkboard now looks like it's been underlaid with an entire galaxy of constellations.
Walking along Walnut Street half an hour later, there are still goose bumps standing on Edward's skin, and the hair on the back of his neck hasn't quite settled. It's far from his first encounter with the weird and wonderful in his hometown, but it's the first time since his return that it's been so pointedly in his immediate space. As if it were meant for him. Even though he teaches physics, not astronomy, and he's never been the type to wish upon stars or even spend that much time gazing up at them, it seemed purposeful, somehow. Even if general consensus among Birch Hollow residents seems to be that any attempt to find reasoning in the happenings is guaranteed to be met with disappointment.
As he nears the house on the corner, he spies the black cat still lounging on the porch, now basking in the afternoon sunlight. Again, it watches his approach, and it isn't until he's nearly at her gate that Edward spies Bella herself, kneeling on a foam pad beside a flowerbed, pulling weeds from the dirt.
"Hello," he says, drawing to a halt on the ash-gray sidewalk.
Bella looks up at him from beneath the wide brim of a black straw hat and sits back on her heels. "Hello." A pair of black jeans has replaced the peacock skirt from Tuesday, a charcoal-colored thermal shirt in place of the cardigan.
"How was the cinnamon bun?"
She smiles. "Probably not as good as the apple crumble."
He laughs. "Probably not."
She stands, a pair of clippers in her hands. "So you came to gloat, did you?"
He shrugs. "I guess so."
"How nice." But she's smiling, and that smile, combined with the memory of that crescent-shaped curl of steam, makes him feel a brand new kind of reckless.
"Actually, I'd like to take you out to dinner."
She taps the clippers against her thigh. "When?"
"I can't tonight. I'm volunteering at the Harvest Festival."
"Oh." He'd forgotten that was tonight, even though flyers for it have papered the town for weeks. "Doing what?"
"I work a table for the Sugar Shack, selling maple syrup and maple butter and candy."
"Well, do you need any help?"
Her head tilts to one side in a gesture he's already quite taken with. "People don't exactly queue up at the maple syrup table, Edward. One person staffing it is generally too many."
He feels as though he should be put off by the dismissal, but he's too distracted by the sound of his name falling from her mouth. He leans forward on the balls of his feet, resting his hands on the points of her whitewashed fence. "Can I come anyway?"
"It's open to the public."
"I meant can I come with you," he clarifies.
Considering him for a moment, she reaches up and pulls the hat off her head. Her hair, in the autumn sun, isn't as dark as he'd thought; in this light, he can see faint threads of deep red in it. "Why?"
She's dissatisfied with this answer, he can tell. He watches as she fiddles with her fingers, hidden by gardening gloves printed with black stars.
"You've been gone quite awhile, so perhaps you've forgotten some things."
"I've forgotten some things," he allows, "but I haven't forgotten everything."
She squints at him, and he can't tell if it's in consideration or in deference to the bright sunlight. "You've heard what people say."
"I have." When she says nothing, he asks, "Why do people say those things?"
"Because in every story, there's a modicum of truth." She pins him with a look. "You noticed the steam from my tea."
"But you didn't have to do that."
"Yes, I did."
"Because the truth is always the easiest thing."
It occurs to him, standing on a sidewalk with his pride in his hands, that his mother probably would have quite liked Bella Swan. The thought only makes him more intrigued. But he can see from the set of her jaw that she isn't inclined to trust him quite yet, so he simply nods and takes a step back from her fence. "Okay. See you at the festival."
She doesn't reply, but when he turns and walks away, he feels a strange flutter at the back of his neck, almost as if a butterfly's wings had whispered a touch against his skin as it flew by.
As he rounds the corner and walks the two blocks back to his own house, he barely takes note of the archway of amber leaves, or the way they turn the sunlight that filters through them a warm golden yellow. Instead, he tries to remember her in clearer detail, but finds that while he can remember little to nothing about Bella herself, he can remember the stories and the folklore that swirled around her–or, more accurately, around her family–slightly better.
The stories of her mother, and her grandmother, and the great-times-a-few-grandmother who was suspected of being Birch Hollow's very own resident witch, back in the era of the hysteria that gripped Salem, though Birch Hollow, nestled snugly in its little pocket of New Hampshire, never fancied itself quite that barbaric. Still, even as late as fifteen years ago, Edward can remember the wide berth given to Bella and her grandmother, the whispers that swirled around them like fallen leaves around an empty sidewalk.
He wonders, as he turns the corner of his own street, if the whispers are still the same.
. . .
Wandering around the wide field that has been the site of the Harvest Festival since even before his childhood, memories fall around Edward like autumn leaves.
He ambles past rows of artisans and foodies hawking their wares: kettle corn, hot apple cider and hot chocolate, caramel apples with and without nuts. A table has a towering display of soy candles in all the traditional scents of autumn: cinnamon and apple and pumpkin and nutmeg. A bakery table boasts an assortment of pies, from pumpkin to apple to pecan, as well as row after row of sugar-dusted cider donuts on a tray. An orchard table has bushels of apples of all varieties from Macintoshes to Macouns, plus apple butter and pressed apple cider. There are wool skeins and knitted masterpieces, handcrafted goat milk soaps, a greenhouse table with mums and all sorts of fall garden decorations, from gnomes to scarecrows, cornstalks to miniature hay bales. Edward is surprised by nothing except how nostalgic it makes him—he can remember wandering around the tables, sticky-faced from caramel apples and covered in pumpkin innards from the carving contest, a bag of kettle corn dangling from one hand and a half-eaten cider donut in the other. He remembers his mother, sitting behind one of these very tables, surrounded by her own crocheted pieces: scarves and sweaters and capes and mittens and hats that he would watch her coax into being from nothing but a ball of yarn. The memory hits him like a punch, but its sting is quickly soothed by the sight of Bella sitting, reading, behind a table lined with jugs of maple syrup.
She doesn't look up as he draws near. "I'd like three jugs of maple syrup, three tubs of maple butter, and one bag of maple candy, please."
When she does look up, she smiles behind her eye-roll, and he grins in response. "Nobody needs that much maple anything."
He pauses. "I have no idea. But I'm sure I can think of a reason."
Finally, she laughs, setting her book face-down on the table beside her elbow, which holds boxes of maple candy shaped like tiny maple leaves. "Save your money." She pulls a folding chair out from beneath the table and stands it beside her own.
When he arches a brow, she gestures toward the chair with an exaggerated sweep of her arm, then shrugs. "I feel like I owe you an apology for earlier."
"You don't," he says, settling in beside her.
"I was borderline rude."
"I was. I know I was because I was doing it on purpose." Edward doesn't know what to say to that. "I do that."
At that, she laughs. "If I had a nickel…" Her amusement fades. "I wasn't very gracious about your dinner invitation." He has no rebuttal to that, so he stays quiet. "I'm flattered. Really. I just…" She's interrupted by the appearance of two women in search of maple butter. Once she's handled each of their transactions, she returns to the seat beside him, stretching her denim-clad legs out in front of her and tapping the toes of her black, heeled boots together.
"You were saying?"
"What was I saying?"
He smiles. "How flattered you were by my offer of dinner. I'm pretty sure you were leading into how that flattery meant you were going to say yes."
"Oh." She picks at the wrapper of a piece of maple sugar candy. Her fingernails, he notes, are the same deep purple as the scarf from Tuesday. After a beat, she looks up. "May I be frank?"
"Men who date the resident witch expect a degree of kink that I'm not particularly inclined to provide," she says, and color floods his cheeks.
"I'm not—I mean, I wasn't—that's not—"
She laughs, popping the candy into her mouth. "No, but now you're curious."
He stuffs his hands into the pockets of his corduroys and tips his chair backward, balancing it on two legs. "Well, can you blame me?"
She squints at him, her mouth working around the sweet. "I suppose not."
After a moment, he lets the front legs of his chair thump back to the grass. "That's not why."
He's surprised to find he doesn't have an answer. Finally, he shrugs. "Why not?"
Again, she's quiet. Under the scrutiny of her dark eyes, he feels as though he's being assessed, so he, too, remains quiet, tipping his chair back again and folding his hands over his quilted vest. He watches festival-goers pass by with bags of kettle corn and steaming paper cups of spiced apple cider and caramel-covered apples on wooden sticks. He can see the smoke from the campfire set up on the far side of the ground and almost thinks he can smell the faint sweetness of roasting marshmallows beneath the sharper smell of smoke. There's a bite in the air that heralds the arrival of fall with even more clarity than the festival in its honor.
He's so lost in the moment, he nearly misses her question. "What do you know about me?"
When he turns to face her, those dark eyes carry the hint of a challenge. Or…not quite challenge, perhaps. Not quite defensiveness, either. Something somewhere between the two. Wariness?
"Nothing, really. You like apple crumble better than cinnamon rolls. Earl Grey tea, if my olfactory sense is to be trusted. You're a pretty ace gardener. And you look fantastic in a pair of heeled boots."
The tiniest of smiles pulls at her mouth. "Okay. What do you remember about me?"
Definite hint of challenge this time. "Not much," he says honestly. "I remember some of what people used to say about your family's history. But that's about it." When she doesn't say anything, he leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Why don't you tell me about yourself?"
There's the tiniest lift of her eyebrows, followed by the slightest widening of her smile. "My mother died when I was five, and I was raised by my grandmother. I'm the seventh generation descendant of Birch Hollow's historic witch. I never knew who my father was, and I never knew who my grandfather was. The men who fall in love with the women in my family tree don't tend to stick around."
When she stops talking, Edward's shoulders lift. "And?"
She frowns. "And?"
He shakes his head. "That doesn't tell me anything about you."
She's quiet for a long time, watching him. When she speaks, it's still not about her. "I'm sorry about your mother."
He fights to smother his surprise and the jab of grief that piggybacks it. "Thank you."
"She was one of the few people in town who was always genuinely friendly to us."
An odd flare of pride flashes in his chest, warming him like a memory. "That doesn't surprise me."
"So are you the apple?"
"That didn't fall far from the tree?"
"Maybe," he says, mildly flustered by the intensity in her eyes but at the same time satisfied that she seems to be taking him seriously now. "Or maybe I'm just the guy who really likes the way you look in those boots."
She smiles, then sighs. "You're going to be trouble for me, aren't you?"
He grins. "God, I hope so."
. . .
The piano is nearly glowing in the blue-white moonlight, and the silhouette of the not-yet-bare oak tree outside the window stretches across its smooth black top. Edward drums his fingers against his thigh as he stands in the doorway, watching the gentle sway of the braches' shadows through the moonlit darkness. The piano is one of the few nonessential pieces of furniture his mother left in the house, which was all but cleared out before she left it for hospice. Beds, tables, chairs stayed; artwork, linens, decorative elements were gone. But the baby grand remained.
"I've signed you up for piano lessons, Edward."
"Because I'd like to hear what the song in your heart sounds like when you have a way to let it out."
He'd been surprised by how much he liked it. By how easy it became to slip into the space between bench and instrument and feel as though he'd slipped into a glass cocoon, separate from the world. He remembers learning Chopsticks, then playing contemporary things – "Piano Man," "Eldeberry Wine," "Imagine" – as his mother lay upstairs, slowly losing a battle with an invisible adversary.
Remembers hoping the chords would rise through the floorboards with all the love he couldn't seem to find the words for. All the reassurances he was too scared, at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, to offer aloud. He let Joel and John and Lennon say them for him, and when he climbed the stairs and offered her toast or tea or soup and she requested Clapton instead, he knew she understood.
She'd always understood him. He wonders if it makes him selfish, that this is one of the things he misses the most: having someone in the world who just knew him that well. Someone who thought he was magic.
He settles onto the bench and closes his eyes, and almost immediately, he's assaulted by the smell of the banana oatmeal cookies his mother used to make, the nutmeg and cinnamon tickling his nose and his memory.
But the minute he opens his eyes, the smell is gone, and he has no idea whether its appearance was due to the strangeness of the Birch Hollow autumn or simply the power of missing her.
. . . . .
The first thing he notices when he steps through the white gate and into the rectangle of Bella Swan's front garden is that the air seems to warm ten degrees. There's a swarm of bumblebees hovering around a mulberry bush in the corner to his right, and to his left, a tangle of wisteria tumbles down the fence posts. The concrete walkway to the front porch is clear of weeds, and the stairs themselves are a gleaming white, unscuffed by shoes and unmarred by dirt. As he climbs, a soft breeze picks up, and a glass wind chime to his right tings softly. The door itself is black, with an ornate iron knocker. He considers it for a moment before noticing the much more modern-looking doorbell attached to the doorframe. He presses it once, and takes a step back from the door.
When she answers, it's with a warm smile and an equally warm waft of spice and scent.
"Hi," she says, and swings the door wide, stepping to the side.
"Hi." He grins, stepping into the entryway of her home and shrugging out of his jacket. "It smells amazing in here."
"Yeah, I've got the cauldron on." When she sees his look, her serious expression melts into a laugh.
"That's messed up."
"Sorry," she says, but the smile remains. When he doesn't say anything, she speaks again, her voice soft. "I don't…have many people to joke around with. About that." She pulls the cuffs of her cardigan sleeves lower on her wrists. "It's…sort of nice." He beams, the chill from outside melting away in the warmth of her home and her smile. "I'm making soup. Do you like soup?"
"Generally speaking, yes, I like soup. With a few exceptions."
"What are they?"
"Ugh. Cold soup is disgusting. It defeats the entire purpose."
"My thoughts exactly."
"How about apple butternut squash soup?"
"Never tried it, but it sounds amazing."
"Good. Then you may stay."
She turns, and he follows her through the small foyer that leads into the living room, and then into the kitchen. The house is much airier than he'd have imagined. Crisp fall sunshine spills into each room from massive windows, and the décor is minimal but comfortable. He has the entirely unexpected and entirely foreign sense of never wanting to leave.
In the kitchen, the smell of the soup is stronger, complemented by the yeasty aroma of bread and a sweeter hint of vanilla that he guesses is coming from the cream-colored candle flickering in the center of her island countertop.
"Jesus!" he yells as something hits him full-force in the shoulders and then runs down his arm, leaping to the floor and slinking a few yards away before turning and gazing at Edward with a look that can only be described as defiant.
"Padfoot!" Bella shouts. Then, "Sorry. My cat. He's sort of a tiny tabby terrorist."
Edward returns the cat's wary gaze from earlier before turning his gaze back on Bella and smirking as he leans against the counter. "Padfoot?"
"Crookshanks seemed a bit on the nose."
"Because he was a cat, or because…"
She shrugs. "Both. Besides, Padfoot always seemed a better name for a cat, anyway."
"Good point." He watches as she turns and retrieves a long wooden spoon from a spoon rest in the middle of the stove. "Who's your favorite witch in literature?"
"What?" She lifts the lid of the pot and stirs the soup.
"Some of my students are reading Macbeth in their literature class, and it made me wonder. Your favorite literary witch. Who is it?"
She thinks about this for a moment, resting her hip against the lip of the counter by the stove and watching Padfoot eat tiny bits of American cheese from his dish. "Is Hermione Granger too easy an answer?"
"It's probably a tie. Her, or Agnes Nutter."
"Agnes Nutter? From Good Omens?"
"Never read it."
"Oh, man. You're missing out. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Agnes Nutter was a witch who was burned at the stake, but who foretold her own fate, and so she packed a bunch of explosives in her luggage and blew up her executioners right along with her."
"Sure was." She grins. "I like that question."
"I like your answer."
Her smile widens. "I think this is ready." She turns the burner off and points to the two soup bowls stacked on the edge of the counter. Obediently, he hands them to her and steps closer. He can smell the soup–apple and squash, plus undertones of cumin and coriander and ginger–and he can smell her–lavender and lemons and, unexpectedly, the sea. "Could you grab the bread?" She points to a wicker basket with a burgundy cloth napkin folded over to obscure its contents, then glances around at the counters. "Shoot. I left the butter in the fridge."
"I can grab it," he offers, pulling open the door to find a small violet plate with a stick of butter resting on it. He extracts it and, halfway to the table, she stops him with a hand on his arm.
"Wait." She reaches out and touches two fingertips gently to the edge of the plate; against his skin, he feels the porcelain warm to room temperature. Conversely, his own skin goes cold. "Okay. Go ahead." But she's watching him, and the momentary chill is replaced by a surge of something warmer, more electric. He grabs the basket of bread on his way past and sets the two in the middle of the small table sitting in the nook surrounded by enormous bay windows. A single unlit cream-colored candle stands in the middle of the table, and two plates and sets of silverware sit expectantly across from each other. He glances up to see Bella approaching the table with the two bowls; gently, he takes one and places it atop one of the plates. She does the same with the other and then gestures toward a chair. "Have a seat."
He does so, then watches as she leans forward and gently rubs the wick of the candle between her fingers, letting go just as a small flame catches and flares. As she settles in her seat, she eyes him with a look he can't decipher.
Over dinner, he's surprised by the way the conversation turns to typical small talk: she tells him that she got a degree in botany from a community college an hour away, and he tells her about losing his mother and staying away from Birch Hollow until he grew dissatisfied with Boston and, frankly, couldn't think of anywhere else to go. When his old mentor from Willowbrook called him to tell him a teaching position had opened up in the science department, he found himself unable to turn it down.
She tells him about her work at the Birch Hollow Nursery, advising people on what flowers and shrubs to plant and helping to coax damaged and dying trees back to life. He tells her about teaching physics to teenagers, and how despite the drudgery of the administrative side of teaching, watching the light of discovery illuminate in the eyes of largely disinterested kids is thrilling in a way he hadn't quite expected.
He watches as her cheeks go pink and she shrugs out of her cardigan, and suddenly he realizes the discrepancy. When he sees her out in public, she chooses wardrobes like costumes: the loud, peacock-print skirt; the wide-brimmed black straw hat; the gardening gloves with black stars. But behind the closed doors of her own home, she wears jeans and thermal shirts and fleece socks. Soft woolen cardigans with cuffs pulled low over her wrists and ponytails with wisps of hair struggling to break free.
"What?" she says finally, and he realizes he's been frowning at her.
"You put on costumes. When you go out."
Surprise flickers across her face, chased by amusement. "You're very observant."
"I'm a science geek. Observational skills are kind of my thing."
He fingers the crust of his slice of bread as he considers her over the flickering candle for a moment before shifting his gaze to the flame itself. The flame she'd coaxed into being with her bare fingertips. "Science tells me that none of this is possible."
She takes a last spoonful of soup and then puts her spoon down and licks her lips. "Are you sure?"
"Are you sure that's science talking? Or is it something else you've mistaken for logic but which is actually demonology?" He's stunned silent; she props an elbow on the table, resting her chin in it. "What's the first law of thermodynamics?"
To his credit, he keeps his surprise from manifesting in his expression. "Energy cannot be created or destroyed."
"Right. But it can be manipulated."
"So that's what it is? A manipulation of energy?"
"In part." He frowns, and she gives him a patient smile. "You're not a man who's used to not understanding things."
"That must be a very reassuring way to live."
"Sometimes." The pebble of truth, though, is surprisingly near to the surface, and he finds himself speaking it before his mind has even reached the end of the thought. "But it makes it even more disorienting when something seems incomprehensible."
"Like loss?" she murmurs, and the U-turn from talking about her to talking about his mother jars him out of the drifty headspace he'd been lost in.
"Yes. Like loss."
"There are a lot of things in life that are 'seemingly incomprehensible,'" she says. "That doesn't mean they're impossible."
The phantom of his mother still lingering in his periphery, he thinks of the sign above her sink, of her amusement at the autumnal oddities in Birch Hollow. Everyday magic, Edward.
Misreading his pause for doubt, she leans back. "It's okay if this is too much for you. If I'm too much for you, or if the potential for complication is too much for you. I'm used to that, actually. No hard feelings." She retrieves her cloth napkin from her lap and balls it up, resting it on the table beside her now-empty bowl. "We can be friends. I'm actually always in the market for friends. Especially ones with high weirdness thresholds." She gives him a warm smile, and despite his utter discomfort with ambiguity, he knows he doesn't want to leave her warm kitchen or her warm presence. And that he doesn't really want this burgeoning thing between them to stop at friendship. He's attracted to her, sure–she's beautiful, and her smile it its own kind of magic–but he also likes her. As a friend and a person and…and it feels like something he's never known sits waiting at the point where all of those things merge to make something enchanting.
"Would you like to go for a walk?" he asks, voice rough.
She's surprised for a moment, but then she nods, scooting her chair backward. "Sure."
They don outerwear, and Bella loops a wool scarf the color of a plum around her neck and tugs black knitted hat over her head, pulling her dark hair out of the collar of her coat. As she reaches toward the top hook of her coat tree, Edward spies the mark on her wrist.
"What's that?" he asks before he can consider whether or not it's rude to.
Following his gaze, she pulls the cuff of her coat–and the sweater beneath it–back. On the inside of her left wrist is a small, dark mark in the shape of a crescent moon with what looks like a trail of dust swirled around it.
She shrugs. "Birthmark."
Off his surprised stare, she holds her wrist out toward him. "It's actually gotten darker as I've gotten older."
He reaches out, slipping fingers around the fine bones of her wrist and feeling a crackle like static electricity as his skin meets hers. "It's…really pretty."
To his utter surprise, she blushes. "Thank you." Then, she shakes her arm jerkily to bring her sleeve back down and slips her hands into a pair of mittens the color of mustard seed. They step out onto the porch, Bella pulling her heavy front door closed behind them.
The night air is chilly and damp, a clear signal that fall is well and truly here. It's always been his favorite season, and sometimes he wonders if it somehow makes him a bad person, to love the season his mother died. The season of soups and scarves and pumpkins on porches but also hospice and funerals and goodbyes.
When they get to the sidewalk, the street is empty, but at the bottom of Walnut Street, where it intersects with Main, they can see a handful of people bustling about, the last-minute errands people tack on the end of a workday before they head home for dinner. As they turn the corner and begin wandering up the main road, the townspeople who notice them give him friendly smiles that turn wary as their eyes shift to the woman beside him. Edward feels himself bristling, even as Bella barely seems to register it.
"Hello, Cora," he says pointedly to the older woman who seems to be staring a bit more shamelessly than anyone else, but then he feels a mittened hand come to rest on his forearm, and he glances over to see a tiny smile twitching at the corner of Bella's mouth like the tail of a cat. She doesn't say anything, but the unspoken signal is enough. He falls quiet, and watches her interact–or not–with the people they pass. She says hello to a handful–some more warmly than others–and nods to a few more. He's relieved to see that she doesn't seem outright uncomfortable around anyone, but he realizes with a clarity he never would have earned without witnessing it firsthand that there's a comprehension of her town and the people in it that she's honed over the course of years. And probably generations.
"It really doesn't bother you, does it?" he says after a little while, utterly enchanted by the blush that the crisp autumn air has infused into her cheeks and the very tip of her nose.
Her open face tips up toward his. "I'm not typical, Edward. And I'm fine with it. I've always been fine with it. But some people aren't fine with it, and I try to respect that. This is my home, and I'm not leaving it behind or sequestering myself away from it simply because my family history makes some people uneasy. But I don't need to rub anything in anyone's face, either. I just exist. And I let them exist."
"Don't you get lonely?"
Her eyebrows lift. "I do have friends, you know."
She looks mildly insulted. "Rose Hale."
Edward's lips twist into something resembling a smirk. "She's got her own style of witchcraft, if rumors are to be believed."
At that, Bella laughs, and he feels the threads of nervousness and uncertainty that have been wrapped around his guts loosen slightly. "Like I said. A kernel of truth in everything." Then, she sobers, bending to pick up an enormous maple leaf that, inexplicably, is bright red on one side and a deep, cerulean blue on the other. "I spent a very long time trying to figure out how I felt about who I am. There were a lot of people trying to tell me how to feel–my grandmother, telling me to embrace it and be proud of it, other kids, telling me to be ashamed of it, well-meaning friends, telling me to just…subdue it. It took me a long time to decide how I felt about it, without any outside influence."
"And how do you feel about it?"
She shrugs. "It's who I am. It's always been who I am. It's who my mother was and who my grandmother was and who my great-grandmother was before her. It's in my blood. I can pretend otherwise all day long, but it's there. It will always be there. But it isn't the only thing about me, either."
"What else is there about you?"
Bella's face cracks into the widest smile he's seen yet. "I really, really, really like cooking shows. And I love to crochet. And I love to write letters on stationery; I hate e-mail and text messages and the Internet in general. I don't even own a computer."
"I didn't know you could survive in this day and age without a computer."
"Well, you can."
"I like cheesy rom-com movies. You've Got Mail and Hope Floats and The Notebook." He grimaces, but she's on a roll and doesn't notice. "I hate horror movies. That one always makes people laugh. I don't like scary movies or bloody, gory ones. I don't like violent ones or emotionally stressful ones." Her voice softens. "I'm alone a lot, but I'm not lonely. Ever, really. Except when I have a moment like this, with someone, and then it ends and I go home and I think about how nice it would be for the night not to end." Her honesty makes his heart kick up to a gallop in his chest, and he knows immediately that he's never known a woman like her, and it has nothing to do with the fact that she can create a spark of fire out of seemingly nothing. Her voice lightens again, and she bumps her shoulder into his bicep. "What about you?"
"I just gave you the equivalent of a dating profile. You could at least tell me what type of movies you like."
He laughs. "I…actually don't watch a lot of movies. But I do like documentary-type things. Historical, scientific, biographical…that kind of thing." He falters momentarily, racking his brain. "I teach science. That you know. Um. I play the piano?"
At that, she looks surprised. "Really?"
He nods. "My mother made me take it up, and as it turned out I loved it, so I stuck with it."
"What's your favorite piece to play?"
He thinks back, to John and Joel and Lennon and Clapton, but they're all eclipsed by one he'd found later, after his mother had died, and it had made him cry simply for the beauty of the number itself, instead of the memories it brought with it. "It's a piece by a Korean pianist named Yiruma. Not very well-known, but beautiful."
"I'd love to hear it."
"I'll play it for you sometime."
She beams up at him, and he grins back down at her. After a beat, she looks down at the leaf she's been twirling between her fingers. With a fleeting glance back up at him, she lifts it between them and holds it still, other hand shaking out of its mitten and rising to touch one of the points on the red side. Before his eyes, the red spreads, overrunning the blue until the entire maple leaf is the deep burgundy of a regular autumn leaf in any New Hampshire town. He feels his breaths coming shallower, not out of fear but out of expectation, the way they do before a first kiss. Or after one.
He leans forward, as if to confess a secret. "I like that you do that stuff in front of me."
She grins, a swirl of relief and delight. "I like that you don't ask me to." Then, she reaches up and pokes the stem of the leaf through his buttonhole.
He peers down at her, and suddenly, he has to ask. "Is it you?"
"Is what me?"
"Doing all of that? Is it you?"
Her head tilts to one side. "Sometimes energy needs to be manipulated. But sometimes…sometimes it just needs something to spark it."
Over the week that follows, Edward learns just what she means by that. She bakes him a batch of banana oatmeal cookies that taste better than any cookie he's ever tasted. They walk along every street in the main hamlet, and each time she passes a burnt-out light bulb, it springs back to life with an audible hum. She informs him that it's going to pour as they're packing up a picnic lunch, even though there's nothing ominous about the sky overhead, but the minute they pull into her driveway, the heavens open.
And when she kisses him, he has no idea if his lips tingle because she's a witch or because she's Bella.
. . .
Fifth period is his lunch period, but the sugar-and-anticipation-fueled chaos that is Halloween has exhausted him already and he can't bring himself to brave the hallways in order to reach the teachers' lounge, so he sequesters himself in his classroom with his brown paper sack and red pen. He smiles slightly to himself when, at the first stroke of his pen on paper, the ink comes out not teacher-red but a deep, goblin green.
"Mr. Cullen? Is it true?"
Edward looks up from the labs he's grading to see Bree Tanner standing just inside the classroom doorway, shifting from foot to foot. "Sorry?"
The girl hitches her bag higher on her shoulder as she comes closer, drawing to a halt in front of his desk. She's a small girl, and a brilliant one, the only freshman in a class of mostly juniors. "Is it true? That you're dating Bella Swan?" He's surprised in the same moment he realizes he really shouldn't be: if there's one thing that will never change about small towns, it's the wildfire speed with which news—and gossip—travels. Still, he hadn't quite expected any of his students to care, let alone to ask him about it. He thinks about equivocating, but there's a firm set to the girl's face, a piercing determination in her eyes that gives him the impression this is a question to which she needs an answer.
He drags his glasses off his face and drops them to the top of his wooden desk, resting his elbows on top of the papers. "I am." I think I am, he amends. What's the official determining factor of "dating" these days, anyway? He's kissed her a handful of times and been over to watch Hope Floats on her sofa—terrible movie, but he'd been pleasantly distracted by the not-exactly-short make-out session they'd had on the couch somewhere in the middle of it—and he talks to her every day, if not sees her every other.
He frowns. "I'm sorry?"
The girl blushes faintly, but soldiers on. "Why? People…say things. About her."
Bree huffs out a breath, frustrated. "You just…don't care?" There's a maelstrom of emotion in her expression—disbelief and skepticism and confusion and disapproval and bafflement. Yet underneath it all is the one that takes him the longest to pick out but once he does it's the most glaringly obvious of them all: hope.
"I just don't care," he confirms. He hopes he isn't reading this incorrectly, but if he is…well, fuck it. "Bella is different. Unique. Special. And I really like all of those things about her." The smile slips over his face involuntarily. "They're actually the things I like the most about her."
Bree chews on her lip as she considers this. "Do you…I mean…I'm sorry. I know this is probably inappropriate."
"It's okay," he says, gentle.
"Do you think you could love her?" The minute the word falls from her lips, his heart gives a sudden lurch in his chest, and the light bulb immediately over his desk chair explodes with an audible pop and a burst of sparks. Edward wonders, suddenly, if Bella's ability to manipulate energy could possibly seep into him, like radiation into the body of an astronaut in orbit.
Bree's wide brown eyes find his, and he swallows before clearing his throat. "Bree, what's this about?"
"Nothing," she says immediately, shaking her head, but the combination of vulnerability and self-recrimination and wariness reminds him far too much of another brown-eyed, brown-haired girl who holds people at an arm's length as much for their own good as for her own. "I just…wondered if you could love her. Even though she's…"
He's quiet for a moment before replying gently, "Not 'even though.'"
"Not 'even though.' Because."
Her eyes widen, and there's a reason she's a freshman taking an upper-level physics class. "Because," she echoes, the word barely more than breath.
"Because," he says firmly, and after a beat, she nods.
"Thank you, Mr. Cullen."
"Thank you, Bree."
She vanishes back through the open classroom door, and when Edward leans back in his chair and lets his head fall back to rest against it, the light above him buzzes steadily, as if the pop and the spark had never happened at all.
. . .
On the walk home, Edward passes the rows of storefronts decked out in their Halloween finery: cotton-wisp spiderwebs at window corners, scarecrows and mummies in place of mannequins, orange and purple fairy lights framing the windows themselves. The occasional straggling dead leaf skitters across the concrete in the faint breeze, and as he passes a few open doors, motion-activated vampires and ghosts startle him with recorded wails and deep-throated evil laughter.
In his memory, the peculiarities tended to wane as October crawled toward its end and were all but gone by Halloween, or at least mostly eclipsed by the hullabaloo surrounding the holiday itself. But as he passes the post office, he notices that his own reflection in the large, tinted window appears to be glowing slightly purple around its edges. And as he draws nearer to his own house and hears what sounds like the scrape of leaves against the sidewalk behind him, he glances over his shoulder to see a funnel of autumn leaves following him, cycling and spinning lazily on the breeze without losing the form of a languid tornado.
When he unlocks his own front door, the brass handle is as warm as a radiator despite the cool autumn air, and as he steps into his foyer, the air smells like sugared pecans. He doesn't know why there is so much magic concentrated in his own space, but something about it makes a tingle slide down his spine.
Once he's changed out of his workday clothes and into the comfortable corduroys and Henley he favors, he wanders into the kitchen and sees it: there, above the sink where his mother's Houdini sign had once hung, is what looks like a scuff mark on the wall. It isn't until he's stepped closer, so close he's standing directly beneath it, that he's able to make it out. There, where his mother's quote about magic had once been, is a dark spot in the exact shape of Bella's crescent moon birthmark.
He fills the biggest bowl he can find with the bags of miniature candy he's purchased and sets it on a small table on his porch before shrugging into his puffer vest, dragging the front door closed, and locking it behind him.
The streets of Birch Hollow are peppered with the earliest trick-or-treaters: a tiny, barely-walking parade of toddlers dressed as various television and cartoon characters and babies being pulled in wagons disguised largely as farm animals and insects. Edward can't help smiling at one tiny girl with bottomless eyes and long dark hair wearing a pointed witch's hat and dragging a broom behind her. He remembers being a kid in Birch Hollow on all the Halloweens of his childhood: as a tiny baseball player, then a magician, then an astronaut. At the apex of his Halloween efforts, Sir Isaac Newton. (That one, sadly, had been widely misidentified.) As he edged closer to the teenage years, and then well into them, he made only a passing effort at costumes – a Phantom of the Opera mask, a bandit mask, a vampire cape and plastic teeth. One of the wonderful things about tiny towns was that they never attempted to dissuade teenagers from going door-to-door in search of sugar; the unspoken agreement in town seemed to be that sugar was probably the most ideal thing they could hope for their young adults to go looking for, considering the potential alternatives. He recalls amassing a small sack of candy and meeting his friends in the cemetery on the edge of town to engage in an entirely disorganized shaving foam battle, and dragging himself and an already-depleted candy supply home, whatever rags of his costume left utterly pasted with white foam.
As he makes the turn onto Walnut Street, he glances down at the concrete beneath his feet to see it shimmering slightly, as if it's been inlaid with a sprinkling of silver glitter. When he looks up into the sky, there's a ring around the moon, and while his scientist's mind knows it can be attributed to droplets of water high in the atmosphere diffusing and reflecting the light, his new grasp of the charmed makes him wonder otherwise. He speculates in passing just how much of the enchantment of the everyday he has missed, over the years, because he's answered it away, correctly or otherwise, with empirical data. As he has with increasing regularity since returning home, he wishes his mother were here. Esme would have loved to see him setting aside his commitment to science and picking up the possibility of something more mystical.
"Hi," Bella says when she opens the door, wearing a pair of jeans and a violet turtleneck overlaid with a long black sweater shot through with sparkling silver threads. He can't help the smile—it's the real her with only a tiny tip of the hat to what people expect—and he wonders for the first time whether anyone but him will ring her doorbell tonight.
Stepping inside, he can smell popcorn and pumpkin. When he asks, she grins. "I popped a batch and made a pie. Also." She vanishes into the kitchen for a moment before returning with a small paper bag tied with a black ribbon.
"What's this?" he asks, trying to peek inside without untying the bow.
"It's a caramel apple." One of her eyebrows arches. "It's sort of a tradition. Family recipe." He remembers that long harvest table and the rows upon rows of apples just waiting to be plucked up by tiny, treat-seeking fingers. For the first time, he feels a sharp stab of guilt.
"I wish I'd had one before now," he says, and she doesn't miss the truth of what he's trying to say.
"Things happen when they're meant to." Her gentle smile turns faintly devious. "And honestly, you probably couldn't have handled it as a wide-eyed, naïve little science geek."
He laughs. "You're probably right about that." As he shrugs out of his coat, he spies the bowl of popcorn—more than enough to feed five people, let alone two—sitting on the coffee table. "What are we watching?"
"I found a documentary I thought I could probably make it through without falling asleep," she replies, only partly kidding. "On Houdini."
He stills, shiver sliding down his spine again, and his mind flicks back to the mark on his kitchen wall. "Why Houdini?"
If she notices his mild discomfiture, she doesn't acknowledge it. "Intersection of magic and science. There's got to be quite a bit of physics involved in that straitjacket thing."
"Right," he says, and now she slows in her movements.
"Everything all right?"
Finally, he looks at her. At her wide eyes, her small smile, the tiniest little specks of freckles like stardust across the bridge of her nose. "Everything's brilliant."
When the doorbell rings about two-thirds of the way through the film, Bella bolts upright, head swinging toward the door. When she turns back to him, her eyes are wide; it's the most surprised he's seen her look since he met her.
"Is that a trick-or-treater?" she asks, as if she'd thought they were a myth.
"Well, I'm not really a betting man, but—" He's interrupted by her launching herself off the couch and sliding toward the door on her socked feet, reaching down for the basket of apples beside her foyer table. Amused, with the faint tug of something deeper and more complicated tightening his chest, he follows her and feels his own eyes widen as he recognizes the person standing on the doorstep wearing, sandwich-board-style, a piece of cardboard designed to look like a smartphone.
"Bree!" he says, surprising even himself with his enthusiasm.
Bella glances at him, wide-eyed, before turning back to her first trick-or-treater of the evening. "Hello."
"Um. Hi." Bree's hands tighten around the straps of the canvas bag in them. "Trick or treat?"
Bella beams, holding out the basket. "If you don't like candy apples, I also have chocolate bars."
"Candy apples are awesome. Thanks." She reaches out, taking one by its stick, the cellophane around it crinkling as she pulls it from the basket.
"I like your costume," Edward says, surprised to find he's actually a bit disappointed by it. "Smartphone?"
"Oh." Bree turns, showing them the back of it: the entire thing shimmers and shines beneath Bella's porch lights, and it isn't until he leans in that he sees the back side painted like a specific type of candy bar.
"Oh!" he yelps, laughing. "You're a Milky Way Galaxy!"
Bree beams and Bella frowns. "A what?"
"She doesn't do smartphones," Edward explains, waving a hand in her direction. "Galaxy is a smartphone."
"Oh!" Bella grins. "Very creative." She gestures in the space between them. "Are you a student of Edward's?"
"Yeah. I mean, yes. Physics."
"Bree is in my physics class as a freshman," Edward adds. "Pretty sure she could teach it, if I ever have to call in sick."
The girl blushes, but a pleased smile stretches her face.
"I'm so glad you came to my door," Bella says. "I haven't had a trick-or-treater in such a long time!"
Bree smiles, and dips her head toward the basket Bella's still holding. "I'll tell my…friends," she says haltingly. "They'll definitely come if they know you're giving those out."
"That would be great! We have tons!" Edward is surprised by the undeniable thrill that shoots through him at the casual "we." We're a "we," he finds himself thinking, tiny smile tugging at his mouth as Bella pushes the door closed on Bree's retreating back. "She seemed very sweet."
"She is," Edward agrees. "Very bright."
Noticing his hesitation, Bella says, "But?"
He shrugs. "Bit of a loner. Partly the intelligence factor, I'd imagine. Partly the introvert factor."
"Introvert factor?" she echoes, but Edward simply shrugs again. Bree's hesitation on the word "friends" alone rather confirmed his suspicions. They make their way back to the sofa, and, as he had sort of expected despite hoping otherwise, Bree is the only one to have rung Bella's doorbell by the time the street empties of trick-or-treaters. Still, her enthusiasm at having had even one is undeniable, dark eyes sparkling and mouth stretched into a wide smile.
"This is the best Halloween I've had in years," she says softly, her head propped against his shoulder as the television screen flickers, Houdini's life playing out before them in flickering showreel and sepia-toned photographs.
"Me too," he replies, skating his hand up and down her arm. At one point, the tips of his fingers grow cold, and when she envelops his hand in hers, they warm immediately. He doesn't pretend to know if the heat comes from her or from him.
. . .
He wonders what it says about how easily they've slipped into this thing that when she turns off the television, it doesn't even occur to him to consider going home. When she blows out candles and turns out lights and simply takes his hand in hers, an arc of something—static or magic—sparks between them, and for the first time in his life, he has no interest in exploring the phenomenon in deeper detail to unearth its secrets.
"Do you want to stay?"
"Yes," he says without hesitation, and there it is again, that same smile from before. Surprised, elated, beautiful.
Inside her bedroom, she turns on a small wall sconce, and he squints in the sudden brightness. Her fingertips brush against the glass fixture shade, and the intense light dims to something softer and barely there. He glances around—at the deep purple bedspread, the row of pillar candles on the wall ledge above the headboard, the floor-to-ceiling bookcase jammed with paperback and hardbacks and—he barks out a laugh.
"You have a crystal ball?!"
Following his gaze, she echoes his laugh. "That was a birthday gift from Rose Hale. She said if I was going to be the resident witch, I should at least make some money off the intrigue." She shrugs. "Never quite went there. But I like it. It's pretty."
His eyes find hers. "Very pretty."
Her smile turns soft, but unexpectedly wary. "You're very charming."
"I'm really not." He rocks back on his heels. "You're very beautiful."
"I'm really not." But a small, pleased smile tugs at her lips.
"You really are. And…" He recognizes the guardedness, and he's suddenly desperate to stamp it out once and for all. "You'd be magic to me even if you couldn't do what you do." Stunned is the best way to describe the look on her face. He's fleetingly worried that he's made a misstep, so he does what he always does when he's doubting himself: he plunders on. "I mean. What you do is amazing. But…I just…who you are is amazing. How you understand people even when they don't make an effort to understand you, and the way you talk about things you like, and how you make everything around you come to life, and…and you make really great soup."
Whether it's the inanity of that last one or the undeniable sincerity in his rambling, she visibly softens and her eyes go warm and it seems like every last modicum of defense and doubt that was hovering around her edges vanishes in a swirl of glittering dust. "Family recipe," she says lowly, watching him closely, and he recognizes it as the last warning she's going to give him.
"Sign me up," he murmurs.
Crossing the room, she kneels on the bed with her back to him, gently fingering the wick of each pillar candle until the entire row is flickering, transforming the room from silver-blue moonlight to a dancing display of golden light and shadow.
Then, to his utter surprise, she turns to face him and removes every stitch of her own clothing and stands beside the bed, watching his face with one eyebrow arched. A flash of heat and a swirl of insecurity rocket through him as he tugs his shirt over his head and drops it to the floor. Unfastening and unzipping his corduroys, he watches as her face as she watches his hands, and his self-doubt melts away as her cheeks grow faintly pink. When he's as naked as she is, their eyes meet, and his chest tightens at the bottomlessness of her dark eyes. He steps toward her, and her head tips back as she keeps her eyes trained on his face. This close, he can feel her warm breath swirl over his chin and collar bones, and the hairs on his arms and chest stand on end, as if reaching out to touch her.
She's breathtaking—candlelight flickering over her curves, eyes dark in the night, hair loose and curling over her shoulders and around her breasts.
And her breasts, Jesus.
There's a current of something running through Edward's blood and his body, and his hand is lifting before he's conscious of the movement. He runs a single, gentle fingertip over the hollow of her throat, and down to the skin just between her breasts. He's just marveling at the thump of her heart beneath her solid breastbone when the light bulb in the wall fixture behind him explodes, and the room is thrown into moonlit near-darkness, save the golden flicker of the candles above the bed.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, slightly breathless. "I haven't…done this in a long time."
The true confession is there on his tongue—I haven't done this ever—but he thinks that probably at least one of them should pretend. "It's okay," he murmurs back, replacing his fingertip.
When he ducks his head and sucks her nipple into his mouth, the window on the far wall swings open and a single gust of wind makes the ghost-white sheers billow, the row of candles above the bed extinguished in one single sweep. "Edward," she gasps, threading her hands through his hair and tugging gently.
Banding his arms around her lower back, he propels them both onto the bedspread, parting from her only to watch the play of moonlight across her skin. There's a bare-branched tree just beyond her window, and it throws long shadows across the floorboards and her bedspread and her torso. Her face, when she peers up at him in the darkness, is white and ethereal in the moonlight. "Okay?" he checks, and she beams up at him.
"Yes," she whispers, and he nods, ducking his head to press his mouth to hers.
When he pushes inside her, the candles above the bed burst back to flame, as if the wicks had held a banked fire just waiting to re-ignite.
When she comes, clutching at his shoulders, head tipped back against the pillow, hair a dark tangle against the pillowcase, the glass globe on her bookshelf illuminates a faint, neon purple and the glowing red numbers on her bedside alarm clock morph to green. The pencils in the cup on her small roll-top desk levitate. The glitter in the snow globe atop her dresser lifts and swirls around the glass orb. The balls of yarn in the basket beside the dresser unravel themselves, making a tangled, inseparable knot of wool, then braid into a thick, interwoven rope.
And when he comes, shuddering and gasping only seconds later, the wooden floorboards beneath the bed undulate like a rolling sea and the mirror on the back of the bedroom door clouds over with a glittering, swirling mist of silver.
Edward and Bella notice absolutely none of it.
. . .
The very next October, there's a table of apples on the porch for the first time in years. There's still only one girl who rings the doorbell, grinning up at them from behind moon-silver face paint, fidgeting with the Styrofoam planets encircling her torso. But slightly behind her, looking doubtful, is a classmate, shifting her feet and watching Bree warily, eyes only jumping to Bella and back when she thinks she won't be caught. Bella still beams like that one trick-or-treater is a hundred, and Edward squeezes her shoulder as he stands just behind her.
But when Edward glances over Bree's shoulder, he sees the long table with three perfectly lined up rows of cellophane-wrapped caramel apples gleaming beneath the porch lights. And at the end of the first row, closest to the porch steps, there are five apples missing.
He grins to himself, and when he presses a kiss to Bella's hairline, the porch light flickers, but stays steady, an echo of what his own heart does in his chest.
Happy Halloween! Hope this little bit of fun finds you well. What's your costume this year?