I held Bella in my arms the entire car ride to the hospital. I could hear her blood pulsing weakly through her weary body. I counted each and every frail heartbeat, determined I would never come close to losing her again. Her right leg was broken, braced awkwardly against a piece of wood Alice had salvaged from the studio. Some of her ribs were cracked, and at any moment the shards could puncture a lung. Every visible surface of her skin was covered in scratches and bruises, the worst being the venomous vampire bite on her left hand. Yet she was alive.
I cradled her closer to my chest, mindful of her many injuries. I thanked every god I could think of for her survival, and I directed all the blame for her suffering inward, at myself. A steady stream of lamentations weaved its way through my thoughts. If I hadn't taken her to the clearing…I knew they were coming... If I hadn't involved my inner demons in her life to begin with…
But I knew I could never have stayed away from her for too long. The incidents with the van in the school parking lot along with those bastards in Port Angeles had convinced me she needed my protection. And now look where my careful vigilance had gotten her; crumpled, broken, and whimpering in her sleep.
I took my eyes off her delicate features long enough to take in the scenery whizzing by outside the car. I gazed at the vegetation –or lack of it– nearby, the purple-tinged mountains and the dips of the valleys in the distance, and the miles of desert sand and rock between the two. I could feel the blistering sun through the tinted back windows of the Mercedes, its penetrating rays warming my face. It was all exactly how Bella described it to me. As we entered the suburbs Phoenix, I turned my attention towards Carlisle and Alice's discussion in the front of the car.
"…to the Phoenix Memorial Hospital. It's the closest one," Carlisle was saying. She'll need medical attention immediately. I hope they're not too crowded…
"After we get Bella to the emergency room, I'll go fabricate some evidence to support our story," Alice told him, looking at the small black VHS tape turning over and over in her hands. We had found the tape, along with a digital video camera, in the far corner of the mirrored room on top of the stereo. Alice had retrieved it before we left, unsure about what the images recorded on the video had in store for us. Carlisle, Alice, and I had stolen a car outside the airport, while Emmett and Jasper had followed the three of us in the Mercedes. After spilling enough gasoline on the floor of the dance studio and lighting a match, they returned to the airport to catch a flight to Seattle. They were heading back to Forks to check on Esme and Rosalie, and perhaps capture that female accomplice, Victoria.
I felt a stab of regret and fury, the combined emotions overshadowing my guilt. Regret for not dealing with the tracker myself, but instead handing him over to Emmett and Jasper so I could tend to Bella. Fury at the wretch for harming Bella in the first place. I would hunt Victoria, the remaining connection to James, to the ends of the Earth if it meant I could avenge what had happened to my beloved.
I leapt out of the car the second we pulled up to the sliding doors of the hospital. With Carlisle and Alice at my heels and Bella in my arms, I headed straight for the ER, ignoring the alarmed looks from the other patients and doctors.
"What exactly was the cause of the injury?" The receptionist asked as she filled out the necessary paperwork, slightly flustered under the gaze of the inhumanly handsome blond vampire before her. I wonder how old he is… I blocked out her inner voice as I carefully laid Bella out on one of the stretchers lining the hallway.
"She fell down two flights of stairs and through a window at our hotel," Carlisle explained evenly. He nodded in the general direction of downtown Phoenix. That would be Alice's next stop— paying a visit to the local Marriott to make our alibi more convincing.
"Oh my!" A motherly nurse exclaimed as she examined Bella's bloodied shirt and braced leg. I haven't seen this many injuries on one person since that terrible car accident out on the I-ten… She turned and beckoned behind her. Immediately, two orderlies emerged out of nowhere to cart Bella off for x-rays. I would have to wait here. I gently squeezed her undamaged hand before they wheeled her away. Watching until the stretcher turned a corner, I sat down to wait.
It had been three hours since I had last seen Bella, and I was growing more anxious with every passing second. Was she too wounded to be helped? Did our frantic rush to save her only postpone her fate? I knew these worries were irrational, yet I still felt panicked. From what I gathered from the thoughts of the doctors attending her in the nearby operating room, she was in a severe but stable condition. Then again, the immense confusion and chaos of the emergency room made it hard to determine an exact diagnosis. Once she had recovered, and I prayed to God she would, how would her mentality hold up? Would she resent me for this, hate and despise me for what I had done?
I tried my best to stunt the flow of questions through my mind, and spent the time leaning my head against the wall behind me with my eyes closed. I tuned out the ceaseless chatter of voices (the ones in the room as well as the ones in my head) by quietly humming Bella's lullaby to myself. The familiar melody and memories the notes conjured helped relieve the mental burden I carried. My breath came more easily, less strangled, and I could think more clearly. Alice's voice broke through my absorption.
"I located a VCR in one of the spare rooms…" She was eyeing the video tape that had appeared in her hand. Alice had returned from the hotel, confident all evidence of Bella's mishap was redirected from the studio to the Marriot instead. Bella mentioned something about this video…about my past…. She searched my face for any kind of reaction.
I rose wordlessly and allowed her to lead me to an empty room, the vertical blinds firmly shut to block the bright rays of the sun from reaching our skin. I sat down on the hospital bed while Alice slid the video into the VCR. The gentle whirring of the film rewinding was the only sound in the dark room. I heard a small click, and took a deep breath as Alice hit PLAY.
The film itself was grainy, the large room dim and sinister. I heard a sharp intake of breath. It was a moment before I realized that it was my own. I was too preoccupied with the heart-wrenchingly familiar face slowly turning to face the camera to make sense of the words spoken. I recognized Bella, her face paler than normal, her brown eyes wide with terror. Her breathing was labored, as if she had been running. I heard a questioning voice in the background, and her trembling answer directed at its source, beyond the reach of the screen. With growing horror, I took in all the details of her face and posture while the screen adjusted several times. The frame zoomed out until it was wide enough to include the wall of glass behind Bella's back, reflecting James' figure in the mirror image and doubling the obscenity of the picture. Bella took a step backward, her stare seeming to transcend the camera lens and pierce me with its intensity. It was almost as if she knew I was watching…
I finally took my attention away from Bella long enough to listen to their conversation, to comprehend the tracker's words.
"I'm sorry, but I just don't think he'll be able to resist hunting me after he watches this. And I wouldn't want him to miss anything. It was all for him, of course." I felt as if I were watching the transaction from far away, as if the words required more time to reach my ears than usual. The implication behind his polite tone took a couple seconds to sink in.
I felt my hands ball into fists, my teeth clench together to stifle the roar of rage and hatred building in my throat. No, rage and hatred seemed too mundane for the emotion I felt coursing through my long-dead body. I tried to focus, to bring myself back to the hospital room with the television and the horror playing across the screen. How much more of this will I have to endure…?
The tracker was speaking again.
"Before we begin…" He took a step forward. It took a huge amount of effort not to launch myself at the TV, to try and put myself between him and Bella. I closed my eyes, willing myself not to lose control. Bella's alive, she is safe…Bella's alive, she is safe….
"I would just like to rub it in, just a little bit. The answer was there all long, and I was so afraid Edward would see that and ruin my fun. It happened once, oh, ages ago. The one and only time my prey escaped me."
I saw Alice instinctively lean closer from her perch on the room's only chair, but I was too preoccupied to listen to her thoughts. I tried to concentrate on the tracker's words, what he knew, what he was planning…
"You see, the vampire who was so stupidly fond of this little victim made the choice that your Edward was too weak to make. When the old one knew I was after his little friend, he stole her away from the asylum where he worked—" there was no mistaking the tension emanating from Alice at the mention of the word 'asylum' "—and as soon as he freed her he made her safe. She didn't even seem to notice the pain, poor little creature. She'd been stuck in that black hole of a cell for so long."
I tore my gaze off of Bella's face long enough to glance at Alice. She was leaning forward, her blazing eyes fixed on the screen, her small hands gripping the chair arms tightly. I heard the metal crack from the pressure. The sound of Bella's voice, small and terrified, tugged my attention back to the video.
"Alice." She trembled with fear and shock.
"Yes, your little friend. I was surprised to see her in the clearing. So I guess her coven ought to be able to derive some comfort from this experience. I get you, but they get her. The one victim who escaped me, quite an honor, actually. And she did smell so delicious…"
I watched, my muscles frozenand eyes locked on Bella, as James' outline came into view of the camera. He stepped toward her and raised his hand toward her face. My hands unfurled as I automatically made to rise off the bed. I instinctively reached toward the television, wishing to seize James's wrist and stop him from harming her. He caught a lock of her sable hair and lifted it to his face to inhale. Though his back was to me, I knew the expression in his eyes as he breathed in her heady scent; it was a feeling I experienced whenever I allowed myself to be that close to her. Was I no more a monster than he was?
He gently replaced the strand of hair and brushed his fingers against her throat. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought it was a lover's caress. I read the emotion in her eyes, saw the paralyzing terror as he stroked her cheek, and wondered why she never felt the same way when I moved to touch her. I was no better than this tracker; I had put her in danger, I had hurt her. And now I was going to see first hand exactly what my selfishness had done.
"Well, I suppose we should get on with it." James's tone was suddenly businesslike. "And then I can call your friends and tell them where to find you, and my little message."
It felt as if someone had shoved an anvil into my stomach. I was winded; I somehow couldn't get air to pass. I forced myself to watch James sink forward into the recognizable predatory crouch. If my heart hadn't stopped beating ages ago, I'm positive the sight of James bearing his teeth at my love would have rendered it silent.
I saw Bella stare at him for a couple seconds, and then bolt for the door. James was a blur as he moved in front of her, his movements too quick for the camera to pick up. He brought his foot up and dug his heel into Bella's collarbone. She flew backward, her head breaking through the mirrors a few feet behind her. I hadn't realized I was on my feet until I felt Alice's restraining hand on my arm. I twisted out of her grip, still fixated on the screen. The mirrors broke on impact, their shards flying in all directions, catching the light from the open doorway as they fell. Bella lay silent, and I hoped that was all I would have to see.
"That's a very nice effect," James commented politely. "I thought this room would be visually dramatic for my little film. It's perfect, isn't it?"
I felt sickened by his show of civility and the evident amount of thought he put into this massacre. My stomach plunged as I realized he was nowhere near finished his little game.
He stomped down hard on Bella's leg as she tried to crawl to safety. I heard the bone snap, and a wave of revulsion similar to nausea washed through me.
"Would you like to rethink your last request?" He prodded her leg, twisted at an odd angle. Her scream of pain struck a chord deep inside my long-dormant heart. I felt her agony in every sense of the word. "Wouldn't you rather have Edward try to find me?"
"No!" Bella yelped at the camera. I moved forward. "No, Edward, don't—"
She was cut off by a blow delivered to her head. She was sent reeling backward by the force of it, into the broken glass pieces. My face crumpled in pain as I watched the pool of crimson blood seep out from behind her scalp and soak her shirt. I couldn't believe that she still meant to protect me when it was her lying close to death on the floor, a bloodthirsty vampire mere inches away. Still she worried about what would happen to my family, what would become of me. As I watched James move in to feast, I tried to understand what could have possibly driven her to strive so hard to ensure my survival. Didn't she know my continued existence was pointless and unbearable without her?
A wide path of bright light fell across Bella's motionless body and threw James' full profile into view. I saw him sink his teeth into Bella's soft skin before another hand —one I recognized as my own— caught his shoulder and jerked him backwards. An enraged growl echoed through the room. I remember whipping him around to face me, seeing the thirst burning in his eyes, before I threw him across the room to Emmett. My anger at not being able to punish him myself was quickly forgotten as I knelt over Bella's still form. I saw my expression on the screen, the pain and anguish in my eyes, as I took in Bella's injuries. I imagined I had a similar look on my face now.
"Oh no, Bella, no!" I watched myself cry out in horror, afraid that I was too late, that I had already lost her. "Bella, please! Bella, listen to me, please, please, Bella, please!"
I looked away from her long enough to call to Carlisle over my shoulder. Then I broke down in dry sobs. I was telling her to hold on, not to leave me, and at the same time trying to keep a hold of my own sanity. I remember how the pain, the emptiness, had racked through me. I remember kneeling there beside her, thinking she had died, and wondering how soon I could follow after her. How much longer would I have to live before my suffering could be put to an end?
During the endless car ride to the studio and in the moments that I had knelt over her lifeless body, I had conjured up a hundred different ways of ending my own life in case James had already ended hers. Seeming to act of its own accord, my mind had considered and discarded large heights, starvation, nuclear weaponry, even assistance from my family members. I had finally settled on the Volturi, though I hadn't the faintest idea whether they'd agree or how long I'd have to wait. The rational part of my mind told me to focus, to save her. To listen to Carlisle as he examined her with a doctor's precision.
"She's lost some blood, but the head wound isn't deep." Carlisle continued his composed assessment while I glanced up at him in wild desperation. "Watch out for her leg, it's broken."
The Edward on the screen cried in anger, and I fought back a similar response that bubbled to the surface now as I relived the memory.
Bella murmured something, and I bent my head over her to answer, "You're going to be fine. Can you hear me, Bella? I love you."
I love you. The words seemed like such an understatement for what I felt for her at that moment, and now.
"My hand hurts," she tried to tell me urgently. At the time, I wondered why she would pick that injury of all her others to notify me of. I quickly found out why.
"My hand is burning!" Her eyelids flickered open. "The fire! Someone stop the fire!"
The Edward on the TV looked around anxiously, searching for the cause of her panic. "Carlisle! Her hand!"
"He bit her."
Those three words had hit me like a ton of bricks, were I human and those bricks had any effect. Every horror I refused to allow had come true. Bella was hurt, it was my fault, and now she was about to enter the terrible world I was determined to protect her from.
"Edward, you have to do it." Alice tried to brush the blood from Bella's eyes. The Alice next to me nodded in agreement. You'll need to eventually, Edward. I pushed her thoughts away.
"No," I muttered through my teeth as the video Edward bellowed the word.
"There may be a chance." Carlisle said. "See if you can suck the venom back out. The wound is fairly clean."
"Carlisle, I…" I watched myself deliberate the action that would either spare her life or possibly destroy it. I felt the internal battle raging as I saw myself trying to work my way out of the nightmare. "I don't know if I can do that."
"Alice, get me something to brace her leg!" Alice disappeared from Carlisle's side as she went to scavenge something from the room. "Edward, you must do it now, or it will be too late."
I saw myself pause, then grip her bitten hand between my fingers and bend over it, pressing my lips to her skin. After a minute, I pulled away. The movement looked so simple on the video tape, so ordinary. To anyone else, it would look like I was merely kissing her hand. It was hard to tell by just watching the colossal effort I had put into the gesture, how hard it was to pull away. The feel of the warm, saccharine liquid flowing through my mouth and down my throat was as appalling to me as it was heavenly. Her blood tasted even better than I imagined, marred only slightly by the addition of James' venom. Taking her blood was something I had sworn never to do, and yet here it was saving her life. The sweet taste of her blood still lingered in my mouth.
The immense joy and elation I felt in saving her from death's close encounter threatened to drown me. I was giddy with relief; relief that I had saved her in time, relief that I could do something to help her. I watched Bella's breathing steadily slow on the screen, drowsiness coaxing her eyelids closed.
"Alice, the video — he knew you, Alice, he knew where you came from." Bella tried to put some importance into her words, but she was too tired to make them sound convincing.
The Alice on the screen looked around, trying to determine what Bella was talking about. Her eyes met ours as we watched, and she moved forward, towards the camera. A look of horror quickly replaced her look of confusion as she realized the video tape's purpose. I saw myself gather Bella into my arms in the background while Alice reached hand out towards the frame. There was a small beep, and the screen filled with snow and white noise before it went blank.
The hospital room was very quiet, the silence dragging on endlessly. Alice and I stared at the empty TV, unsure of what to do next. I could hear Alice mulling over all she had learned from the tracker, the wheels of her mind spinning furiously as she processed the information. An asylum…visions as a human would explain my gift now… a dark cell…is that why I don't remember?
The video ejected itself, and numbly Alice took it out of the VCR, her thoughts still miles away.
What should I…?
"Destroy it." I said, my voice sounding flat and far away to my own ears.