A/N- Hey gang! This chapter is surprisingly warning-free.
Sorry for the long wait, I recently started up at my seasonal fall job, and balancing it, my first job, and writing hasn't been easy. I hope this chapter, and Bella's growth is a sufficient apology.
Thanks to my sister for playing Beta. Despite not knowing the difference between a simile and a synonym, she is first and foremost a reader, so I think she did ok.
The next morning I felt absolutely sick to my stomach. Just the day before I'd set my mind to being good, being the meek and submissive girl that I thought would promise me safety. But I'd spent most of my life trying to be good, and I never felt safe. Even though it seemed somewhat logical, and even inspired hope, the idea of the danger and consequences I would be opening myself up to had me rushing to the bathroom to hurl.
There was a concept that my US History teacher loved to go on and on about. He said that in the creation of societies, there was a trade-off between the levels of freedom and security that citizens enjoyed. In an authoritarian government, if they somehow weren't corrupt, the citizens were offered higher levels of security, but very little freedom. In a society with high levels of personal freedom, the security of the society was compromised.
At the time I hadn't understood why anyone would choose a society with freedom but no security. For someone like me, someone who wouldn't make it in the world without protection, it seemed like giving over some freedom was a no-brainer.
But that had changed. I hadn't truly realized how much I was losing in exchange for that safety. But I hadn't even been entirely free from torment and danger. Even under the so-called protection of Phil, I was in danger, just mostly from him. I guess that's where the "if they were not corrupt" part came in.
He wouldn't have to be so cruel if you weren't so wicked. Don't forget that you deserve it.
I stayed bent over the toilet until my queasy stomach calmed, and though it didn't offer an active threat of an encore, it did seem to promise a reprieve… for now. I got up and rinsed my mouth out with cold water, splashing some on my face.
When I thought, with a slightly clearer head, about the potential for freedom I had never really tasted, a bit of excitement filled me. It was an unfamiliar sensation. I'd become much more used to viewing the future with anxiety, dread, or the calm peace I'd had when planning my house in the forest, and even that had been new. The excitement, however quietly it had appeared, was welcome. It had been a while since I'd really looked forward to something. The consequences I would face didn't scare me badly - I was used to it. Angela had said breaking the rules was worth it sometimes, and if I was getting the punishment anyway, maybe this was the way to live.
Ignoring my excitement, I decided to not do anything too crazy, except for maybe the party, but I told myself I would ask Charlie about it first. I needed to test the waters, with Charlie, with the world around me, as well as with myself.
I put on my usual full-coverage clothes, though this time the primary reason was the cold. The cold felt honest. I knew that when I opened the door to leave, the cold would only grow, not disappear like it had in Phoenix. It wasn't the artificial chill brought on by air conditioning, or fans. It was the real, persistent chill of the changing seasons. For the first time, I welcomed it, instead of just dreading it.
Despite the ever-present long sleeves, I felt so exposed. It felt like everyone was looking at me, even though I knew no one cared enough to pay attention to me. It felt as though everyone had gotten the same message this morning: Bella Swan going to pretend to be normal today, but don't let her catch you looking.
Everything I had learned in Phoenix told me to duck my head, to avoid eye contact and try to hide. But I wanted to give myself a shot. A shot at having a nearly normal life. So I made myself keep walking, not letting my head dip too low.
In my English class, Edward was already there, and he smiled at me while I was getting to my seat. I was too nervous to smile back, and just sat down instead. Class moved as quickly as it could with Edward sitting behind me. There wasn't much opportunity to be bad, but just letting go of the good girl already felt nice. I was still on high alert, and I still watched what I said, but I wasn't spending every moment trying to be better.
When Mrs. Martin asked a question that left her particularly desperate for an answer, so I raised my hand. It was the first time I was volunteering in class. The attention made me nervous, but the grateful smile from Mrs. Martin was nice. I spent the rest of the class period feeling tentatively pleased.
When I got to Spanish, Alice was again waiting for me, and I sat next to her, this time as more of a choice. She started her chatter up, and I tried to stay present, instead of trying to stay invisible. She asked how Phoenix was, and of course I lied, and prompted her to take over the conversation, which she did quickly.
Alice only stopped talking when class started, and before Señora could get too far into teaching, Alice nudged me, and quietly said "Bella, can I have your number? We have so much to catch up on!" She held her phone out for me, and I froze.
I had other people's numbers in my phone, but they weren't people I thought I could actually get close to. The texts Angela and I had exchanged so far revolved around clarifying some questions in our shared math class, and even that felt too tempting. I wasn't sure if Phil had the ability to read my messages or not, but they were the type of impersonal messages he wouldn't object to. Most days anyway. If Phil could read my messages, and if Alice tried to get too friendly with me, he would be furious. Knowing Alice, she could never keep things at arm's length. Though… I could always try to keep things safe, right? If Phil read my messages and saw me keeping her at a distance, he would be satisfied… right?
That loneliness sent a feeling of dread over me. I had resigned myself to near solitude a long time ago, throwing myself into reading, schoolwork, and surviving. But now, I was aching for someone to talk to. To really talk to. I wished I could be friends with Alice. If I couldn't make this work, make normalcy work, it would hurt so much more to have her ripped from me again.
Besides, even if you could be friendly with her, She's going to find out what you are eventually and leave you behind, she doesn't want someone like you around her. You aren't good enough, smart enough, nice enough, or pretty enough to be friends with anyone like her.
I swallowed thickly, trying to ignore my own thoughts. Because so what? If Alice saw the evil in me, then she would leave and hopefully warn others away. She had always been one to talk. If she saw me for what I truly was, then she would leave me alone anyway. I wanted to live as normally as I could, and I was ready to accept the consequences, right? Though this wasn't a consequence I had expected, I decided to accept it too.
I took Alice's phone from her gingerly, entering my number and returning it to her. She looked excited and tapped away for a moment before grinning and turning back towards the lecture that I was completely missing.
My phone dinged quietly from my bag, and Señora looked over towards us for the first time. Apparently not spotting anything suspicious, she resumed class.
My mind was swimming, trying to figure out all the other things I could have ripped from me, and because of it, class went by quickly. It seemed time moved a bit faster when I wasn't second-guessing every movement and action, trying to be better, a good girl.
When the class finally came to an end, I tried to mentally prepare myself for the biggest hurdle: Biology with Edward. Yesterday Mr. Molina had said that we would be doing partner work. I would have to talk to Edward. I knew that Phil wouldn't accept that excuse, so even by participating at all, I was breaking the rules, and it both scared and excited me.
I sat in my spot and worked hard to keep my head up, instead of hiding it in my notebook like my instincts were begging me to.
When Edward entered, I forced myself to stay relaxed. He's not your best friend anymore, but he still probably won't hurt you right now... Just be normal.
When he sat next to me, I gave him a small smile that he reciprocated. My heart leaped and I had to force it back in its place.
The class was a lab, as Mr. Molina had said yesterday. We would just be checking slides and identifying the stage of mitosis. Simple enough. It was something I'd done before in Phoenix.
When we were told to start, Edward took the lead, positioning the slide under the microscope. He ducked his head and adjusted the knobs until he said "anaphase" and pulled back. He began writing it on our worksheet, but I touched the microscope.
"Uh, do you mind if I check?" I didn't want him to think I didn't believe him, but I really didn't want to have my name on a sheet with wrong answers.
He looked a bit surprised, his eyebrows reaching for his mussed hair. "Sure," he said, pushing it towards me, seemingly as careful to avoid my hand as I was his.
Looking into the microscope, my instincts were screaming about turning from him, but I tried to ignore them. Of course, the telltale signs of anaphase were there, the chromatids lined up, but being separated from each other.
I turned back to him and nodded slightly "Anaphase" I confirmed and a corner of Edward's mouth lifted. I changed the slide, moving the new one under the microscope, and looked back into it, finding a slightly blurry, but still obvious image of a cell in metaphase. I adjusted the knobs, then looked back up.
"Metaphase," I said plainly.
In a slightly teasing tone, he said "Mind if I check?" and I felt a small smile forming just for him once again. If I wasn't so scared and wasn't so on edge, I may have outright laughed.
That's how the rest of the class continued. I found myself slowly relaxing, as though we were kids again, just quietly doing our tasks while enjoying each other's company. As we finished, Edward checked over our work before signing his name at the top.
He passed the worksheet to me, so I could add mine. In that brief moment, our hands touched, and I felt electricity in our contact. Before I pulled away, my body seemed to categorize everything about the moment. His hand was warm, and though it felt and looked strong, his skin was soft. The gentle smell of his cologne was suddenly at the forefront of my mind, and I tried to disguise my inhale of it as a normal breath.
As the contact broke, he smiled at me. Not like he had felt what I felt, but not like he was upset by it either.
I forced myself to concentrate, writing my name as neatly as I could next to his. The sight of our names together made me irrationally pleased. It seemed so normal, something that maybe no one else would have even noted, but I did.
It was like its own rebellion; my name next to his. If Phil could have seen it, I would have surely been berated at the least. But here, in a tiny school, on a normal sheet of paper, everything was completely normal.
After class, my better judgment couldn't overpower the urge to stay near Edward. I hadn't seen any cruelty in his eyes. Not even a hint of it. Surely it was too good to be true, that Edward of all people would really and truly be good, but I wanted to take what I could get, in this single moment.
My better judgment felt much safer as Alice joined us in the hallway. Her arm hooked itself in mine and I actually spoke to her on our way to the lunch room. It was small talk, mostly just about how Alice was happy that her history teacher had only shown them a video today. Like Edward and my names on our worksheet, this moment felt so overwhelmingly normal, perhaps even right. It was just like when we were kids.
At the cafeteria, Angela met me and again whisked me away to my regular table. A part of me wished to sit with the Cullens, but I knew I would probably be pushing my luck too far with that decision, especially since this was only my first-day breaking rules.
I spoke up at the table more than usual, the momentum of my day only pushing me to be bolder. Angela gave me a sly, and somehow approving look. I felt a real smile taking over my face. My cheeks felt nearly fatigued from the effort of keeping a smile affixed to me, but it didn't drop.
As I hopped in my car after school, I wanted to keep up my thrilling, albeit meager, rebellion. I started driving, but when I reached the house, I impulsively decided to pass it. I wasn't sure where I was headed, but I couldn't imagine just going back to the house, for fear that I'd fall back into my same rhythms.
It seemed only a peek at what could be for me. I wanted it badly.
I kept driving, making my way onto the highway, heading west and out of town. There was such a rush watching the land pass by me, and seeing the "Leaving Forks" sign made me want to push my truck faster, but any additional pressure on the gas pedal caused a sound from the truck that made me slow back down.
Turning down the window, I let my hand out into the cold air. My fingers very quickly froze in the rushing air, but I couldn't make myself bring my hand in. Before I knew it, I found myself pulling up to an empty beach.
I parked the truck and grabbed the emergency blanket Charlie insisted I kept in the cabin with me, and I found myself grateful. Though I was discovering that Phil's version of keeping me safe may not be entirely accurate, Charlie's advice seemed to pay off already.
I left my bag in the truck, but took my phone, and made my way down the long winding path to the beach. There were huge fallen trees, made smooth by the years of lapping waves. The tides were low, but the sounds of the waves were still the loudest thing around. Despite the raucous noise, something in me quieted.
My feet, usually so shaky and unreliable, were now steady as I was pulled closer in wonder. I'd seen the ocean, of course, I had, but it had never felt so…. Important. It had always been something that was just in the background of other memories, playing on the beach with my parents, or a forced fishing excursion with Charlie. Now the ocean was the main attraction. The sounds of the waves crashing into the rocky outcroppings made me feel instantly calm, at home.
I drew closer to where those tides met smooth rocks that had been there for longer than I had been alive. Longer than Washington had been Washington.
The sounds of the waves and the age of my surroundings brought an unbelievable sense of peace to me. The worries that had long plagued me seemed so far away, so small compared to the enormity of the ocean. There, it didn't matter that I was wicked, it didn't matter what I had done, and what I had the potential to do. The ocean didn't care. At that moment, neither did I.
Far to the left along the beach was a large outcropping with a hole clean through it, showing more beach on the other side. I thought that perhaps I could walk through it, but I couldn't bring myself to leave my spot. The wind and waves made up the breaths of the world moving around me. I found myself matching the rhythm with my own slow, deep breaths.
A breeze brushed past me, and even though it was cold, my chin rose to meet it, my hair blowing out behind me. I pulled the blanket tighter around me and as the tide came in, the toes of my boots got wet, like the ocean was greeting me.
I turned from it but didn't go too far, as one of the fallen trees was near.
I had to jump a bit to climb atop it. I wanted to be closer to the rocks and the water, but I felt myself grow weak, standing there, like the power of the sight before me was something I needed to physically brace against, but I wasn't strong enough. Not yet.
Adjusting to my spot I drew the blanket close, making sure my neck was protected from the biting cold. I let myself take it all in, my mind growing still.
In what felt like only a few minutes, I was shivering, and the sun was starting to creep below the horizon. I hurriedly checked my phone and saw that it was nearly seven. I hadn't realized how long I'd been here. It was as though the waves and I had been talking, the time getting away from us.
It would take me about an hour to get back to Forks, and I felt even more alien. I would be getting home right before the soft curfew that Charlie had given me. He had also said that I could stay out if I let him know, but it seemed like a boundary I would need to test later. When Charlie had initially given me the truck and brought up the curfew, I thought for sure that I would never have a reason to be out that late, that there would be no reason to be anywhere that wasn't school, home, or the grocery store. Just two weeks later and I was already a new person, living a new life.
I slowly stretched out my legs, cold and stiff, realizing that I hadn't moved in quite some time. After readjusting my grip on the blanket, I made the trek back to my truck, reluctant to say goodbye to the peace I'd found. I promised myself I would be back. I would need warmer clothes, but I would be back.
It wasn't until after, when I was nearly back to Forks, that I realized I hadn't worried about being found. I hadn't kept a portion of my consciousness on the lookout for danger. I had just existed. It was perhaps the most calm I had been since before leaving Forks at eleven.
When I arrived home, it was almost eight. In the long drive, I'd watched the time creeping closer and closer to my curfew, that familiar tension had come back. I wanted to be bad, to test my boundaries, test the reactions of those around me, but I didn't know if I was ready to break a rule. I'd decided that close to curfew was close enough. If it were Phil, utilizing my time before curfew would be bad enough, and would warrant a beating, and perhaps a lesson, if he thought I wasn't remorseful enough.
I turned off my truck and took a deep breath. Charlie already knew I was here, and I would get my answer soon enough if I was allowed to use the freedom he had given me.
Every step from my truck to the front door was forced, but I wouldn't give Charlie the excuse of actually breaking curfew, not yet. If there was a punishment coming, it would only make it worse.
Though, in a realization that was slowly becoming familiar to me, I found that Charlie wasn't upset.
"Hey Bells, good to see you home. I had dinner without you, I hope you don't mind." Charlie said to me, his voice calm as he took a sip of his beer. He was in his usual spot, with the usual sounds coming from the TV.
I waited for him to start hounding me about where I'd been, demanding for me to make excuses. But again, Charlie just stayed calm. It seemed he really wasn't bothered.
Since the truck's heater had only sputtered all the way home, the warmth of the kitchen began working to thaw me.
I heated some food and hung around the kitchen until it was ready, and I ate quietly while more and more bold thoughts jumped around my mind.
By the time my plate was empty, I'd recommitted myself to my experimental role as a normal girl. Before I could second-guess myself, I went back into the living room and stood before Charlie.
He looked up, seemingly surprised, but said "What's up Bells?". It was almost funny, the juxtaposition between Charlie and Phil. They both spent their evenings on the couch, drinking beer, and watching baseball, but they were in no way the same.
"Uh, Dad. There's a party on Friday, and I was hoping to go, but it would be after curfew." I held my breath as I watched him react.
He sat forward, setting his beer down and resting his elbows on his knees before looking up at me. "Ok Bella, I'm not stupid."
My heart stopped. I was waiting for this moment, but now that it was actually here, I found myself heartbroken, even surprised. Charlie sighed and looked at me seriously, making real eye contact for maybe the first time since I'd come back to Forks.
"Bella, you're a teenager, and I understand that. I know being the daughter of a cop might not be easy on your social life, so I'm going to try to give you some room. I won't ask any questions, but I'll let you know my rules, alright?"
I nodded wordlessly, confused about where this was going. It sounded like he was planning on letting me... go?
"Do you think you'll drive? Or will someone drive you?" There was a flicker of the familiar. The anger that Phil wore, but the words it accompanied didn't make sense with the context. Phil always wanted every detail of my whereabouts, but with something like this he wouldn't be asking any questions, he would just be berating me for thinking I could go anywhere, that anyone would even want to see me.
With his eyes still trained on me, I started, realizing I had to speak. "I think I might drive? I don't know if I will want to be there as long as everyone else." I said timidly.
"Alright, when you come home, you have to wake me up if I'm already asleep. If you don't wake me up, I'll assume you were drunk and I'll ground you. I'm going to make you take a breathalyzer. If you have any alcohol in your system, and you drive home, you will be grounded until you're 18, and if it's above the limit, I'll take you in myself, do you understand me?" His voice was so stern, it was as close to Phil as he had looked.
Under his stare, I couldn't make myself form words. I nodded silently, and he nodded back, apparently satisfied with how seriously I was taking his rules.
He continued "If you find yourself drunk, please please please do not get a ride with anyone unless you know for certain they haven't had a sip. I've seen too many instances where kids thought they were safe to drive their friends, and they all ended up dead. I won't have that happen to you, alright?"
I nodded again. There was something in his voice like he was getting… emotional. Was he really that worried about me getting hurt? I'd been confused about him, if he was like Phil or not. If he somehow really didn't want to hurt me, didn't want me hurt, why would he not just put his foot down? Take my keys and keep me on house arrest?
That's what Angela implied her dad was like, and though she said the rule-breaking could be worth it, I didn't even see how I would be breaking any rules, not with the way he was setting these rules out.
"Lastly Bella, if you've had something to drink, and you can't find a safe way home, call me. I'll come, I don't care how late. You won't be in trouble, neither will any of your friends. I'll come in my personal truck, not as a cop." I nodded again, still trying to make sense of what was happening when he got up. I tensed automatically, ready for this to be the moment, but instead of beating me or shouting at me, he hugged me.
"I just want you to be safe, Bells." His arms squeezed me tight, and he let go, holding me at arm's length and just looking at me. I looked back. He had never looked quite so old to me. The gray in his hair seemed lighter, contrasting with his dark brown hair. His eyes, which had small crows feet forming at the corners, seemed a little wet. Before I could examine him too deeply, he let me go and turned back to his game.
"Alright, well just remember what I said, I hope you have a good time." I nodded at him and grabbed my bag, ready to hide in my room and think for the rest of the night.
"I'll remember, thank you, Dad." And for the first time, the urge to call him Charlie was absent.