I drove toward Forks, alert to everything around me while my mind raced three ways at once: first, to Bella, safe in the mountains with Carlisle and Esme; second, to the picture from Alice's mind of the place I was supposed to crash the car; and finally, to Charlie and Renee. It was a wet snow, still flurrying, but the temperature had not dropped enough to make the road slippery. I could still feel my tires gripping the road as the speedometer pushed toward 90. I tested the engine a bit more, wistful that this would be my last chance to drive my Volvo. I had a lot of good memories of this car.
I saw the spot up ahead and pulled over to survey the area. The snow was slush beneath my boots – I wouldn't have to worry about leaving footprints for very long. I found my target just where Alice had said – an old tree, not quite rotten through but with a soft spot in the core, ripe for collapsing on top of the car. I walked around its base, picking the right spot and judging the distance from the road. A clear shot. I smiled – well done, Alice.
I ran back to the car and took the wheel. My watch read 12:16. It was time. I looked over my shoulder, just in case, but I didn't detect any haze from oncoming headlights for miles, so backed onto the road, giving myself plenty of room for the approach. All of our props were in place. I put the car back in drive, avoiding the gas pedal, and stepped out quickly, closing the door behind me. I took a deep breath as I patted the hood of the car -- I was truly sorry to be making such a sad contribution to Volvo's safety statistics.
Quit stalling, I thought to myself. You have a job to do. I didn't have time to waste; the car was starting to slide. I gritted my teeth and smashed my arm through the glass in the driver's side window, completely shattering it, then pulled my arm back out. No more worries about the fire not having enough oxygen. The sleeve of my leather jacket was shredded, but that was a mild annoyance compared to everything I was about to go through tonight.
I made my way to the back of the car and leaned into it, gripping the rear bumper. Poised like a sprinter, I gave myself my own countdown and began running, pushing the car ahead of me. The road was a blur, but I could still make out my surroundings. With half the distance closed, I began to twist the car body to initiate the spin. I rooted myself in the center of the lane, a cold tornado with only one purpose: to save Bella. When I felt myself giving in to gravity, I let go, hurling the car like a discus toward the tree, flicking my wrist slightly to upend the car. Spent, I dropped to my hands to my knees and watched the car sail through the air, performing its odd little ballet. It flipped over itself three times, hitting the tree upside down with a boom that echoed through the woods. Almost instantly, a crack like thunder resounded as the tree collapsed. I watched it crush the underbelly of the car and counted out the silence that followed.
One. Two. Three.
A holocaust of flame licked the night sky as the gasoline ignited. Even from the edge of the road I could feel the heat and I realized with horror that I couldn't even see the car through the inferno. The Volvo would be completely consumed; it might not even be recognizable once this was over. That wouldn't help anyone. I groaned and ran over to circle the fire, looking for a way to repair the situation.
Wedged against the tree, I could just make out my license plate. It was sticking out at an odd angle. I might be able to twist it off.
Without any further thought, I plunged my hand into the flames and gripped the hot metal. I heard a sizzling sound as my cold flesh protested the searing heat. Ignoring it, I tugged at the plate, working it back and forth to break the screws. It flew from my grip, arcing against the night sky. I snatched my hand back from the fire and turned it over to inspect it. Nothing. Maybe it would blister later. I sighed with relief and walked over to inspect the plate. It was still readable and had landed someplace where investigators would be sure to spot it.
We had hidden extra gas deep in the trees, but there was no need to stoke this fire – let's see the boys at La Push top this with their puny bonfires, I thought smugly. I could smell the leather seats morphing into overcooked meat and the melting plastic from the front panel. So much for the 'real' burlwood in the dash, I noted dryly.
I looked at my watch – my allotted ten minutes were running out. I checked the area to make sure I'd left no traces. The flurries had gotten thicker, blanketing my footprints and covering most of the tracks that crisscrossed the road; even lower odds they would pursue an investigation. Satisfied, I prepared myself for the wait.
A tall, thick pine only a few yards away looked like the perfect perch. I ran hard up the tree, using the branches for leverage until I reached the ideal spot. I could nestle into the green pine and stay hidden without sacrificing my view or my ability to read the minds and hear the words of the rescuers.
I touched my face and felt warm flesh. It was cooling rapidly, now that'd I'd left the fire, but it was there. I sighed, thinking of Bella and the first time I'd felt her body warming mine. A crack from the tree burning down below snapped me back to the present. I realized with shame that we hadn't really thought about the risks of the fire spreading. The tree was a bit isolated from the others, but if the wind picked up it would be easy for the flames to jump. I'd need to keep an eye on that.
Across the town, I heard the sirens. Someone had seen the fire. The die was cast.
Two fire trucks and a squad car appeared on the scene within ten minutes. I focused on the squad car, trying to single out the thoughts of the policemen within.
Whoa, get a load of that. Is that a car? Bad luck with that tree – it probably blocked any way out.
There's no way anyone could have survived that.
A strange mixture of disappointment and relief flooded me as I realized Charlie wasn't with them. In the back of my mind, the firemen's thoughts and shouts registered and I mechanically sorted through them, looking for anything of concern.
"Where are we going to hook up?" Maybe the snow will just put it out eventually.
Lucky the wind is low tonight.
"Dumb ass must've been in a hurry. You can barely even tell it's a car." Idiot. Probably a tourist, driving so fast this late. Maybe even a drunk. At least no one else was around to get hurt. God, I wish we didn't have to be out on a night like this.
"See if you can use the chemical sprays instead, try to keep it from spreading." The crew circled around the burning carcass of the Volvo, watching it more than anything else.
A draft of wind carried the metallic afterburn of gasoline up to me. The smell was nauseating. Thank God the humans couldn't detect it, it was a dead giveaway.
I looked at my hands and saw how white my knuckles were. If I wasn't careful, I'd snap the branches. I closed my eyes, trying to relax my muscles. We'd never had to be so cautious before. We'd been close to discovery once or twice, but it was an easy thing, especially back then, to fake an accident. Sometimes there wasn't even a fire department or anything more than a lone constable to look into it, anyway, and there certainly weren't the kinds of technologies that could sort through ash to find leftover teeth and type them back to dental records. The fact that people cared about Bella also made it dangerous. True, people had cared about Rosalie, and we'd been extremely vulnerable for a while, but her bastard fiancé had reason to not look too hard and that had worked in our favor. Emmett's large family had loved him, too, but they had known he was hunting for the bear that had been stalking their mountain town. The scene from which Rose had borne him away had been grisly enough that no one doubted the bear had been the end of him.
No, despite our advantages, we were depending on luck and the emotions of the humans to work in our favor this time.
"Look at this!" A fireman gave an excited shout as his boot kicked up the license plate. "Looks like we're in luck. Can one of you guys run these numbers?"
"I'm on it," answered one of the policemen. His voice sounded familiar. Had he been at our wedding? I bored into his thoughts.
Hmm. Local plates. Wouldn't have guessed it.
I was forced to listen to mindless prattle as his partner called in the numbers and they waited for the dispatcher to drone back my identity. This is the most excitement we've had since those bear attacks a while back. How long ago was that? A year maybe? Yeah, a year. Maybe I should move to Seattle. I bet there's a lot of crime there. Maybe I could find a girlfriend, too. His partner sang tunelessly to an old pop song on the radio. I tried to drown it out with some Gershwin.
The static on the radio stopped as the dispatcher came back with answers. I perked up to listen.
"Joe, the registration on your crashed vehicle is coming back for Edward Cullen. He's a real local, lives just outside of Forks. Hey, guys, didn't Charlie's daughter marry some Cullen kid this summer?"
Joe, yes. I recognized him. He had been at the wedding. He was a thirty-something man with the start of a spreading middle. He had come alone.
Oh shit. Joe's thoughts cut through my own. "This is the same guy, Rob. I'm pretty sure of it. Charlie keeps talking about her having a baby." Oh no. No. That can't be right. That's just tragic. "Let me see that."
There was a pause. No denying it. That's him all right. I wonder if Charlie would want to be the one to tell his daughter? Aw, this just sucks. Right after Christmas, too.
"Maybe we should call Charlie," the other officer offered tentatively.
"No," Joe said slowly. "It could still be a mistake. Stolen car, maybe. Or someone else driving. No sense waking Charlie up in the middle of the night until we know for sure." Joe's thoughts were full of doubt. "What's the address on the registration?"
He stepped out of the car and walked back to the fire, which was starting to die down. "Guys, looks like we've got a true local. We're going to head out to the domicile, notify the family." He looked around. Shit. They trampled everything. I guess I should have secured it in case Charlie wanted a full workup of the scene.
Joe continued, taking on a more authoritative tone. "We've started our accident report. Looks like its going to be hard to make much out of this. Can't even see tracks on the road from all the snow. You finding anything fishy?"
"Nope," answered the man who appeared to be the crew chief. "Looks like a whole lot of bad luck. See right here?" He walked back toward the tree, pointing to the collapsed rear end of the car. "Completely breached the gas tank by the looks of it. That's what started your fireball. We'll check out the interior of the car after it cools but with that much flame, we'll be lucky to find a few teeth."
Joe nodded. Breached the fuel tank? Sounds like he knows what he's talking about. "Got it. You guys make sure you do your paperwork right. I think this one may end up getting a lot of attention. I'll call you at the firehouse tomorrow so we can coordinate."
I leaned back against the trunk of the tree, relief flooding my body. They were buying it, and their own inexperience was working for us as they trampled and overlooked anything that could have made them suspicious. Even if someone did decide to give it more attention, there'd be nothing left to see. But I didn't have time to think about that now. By the looks of things, the firemen would be here for a while. I needed to figure out a way to get down unobserved so I could hear the policemen's conversation back at the house, and see what they decided to do about Charlie.
It was a funny thing, working without the rush of adrenaline. I didn't miss its advantages – I had all the strength and energy I would ever need in an emergency. And I certainly didn't miss its downsides – the muddled thinking, the precipitous crash once the danger had passed. I plotted my escape from the tree with cold efficiency. I could easily jump from tree to tree, dancing across the treetops undetected, as long as the men were preoccupied below. Even if someone happened to look up at the right time, they'd only see a blur and chalk it up to their imagination. When I finally dropped from the canopy, I was far away from the lights and noise, with only a short run separating me from home.
The cold was exhilarating. The temperature had started dropping, making the snow crisp underfoot. I dodged the flakes of snow that still fluttered down, moving silently between the trees until I started to see the glow of the house lights through the trees. I slowed then, listening for the sounds of the squad car. Still far away. I had enough time to hide myself in the garage.
They're coming. Alice channeled to me the image of the two men driving down the driveway. A few moments later, the crunch of snow under their tires grew loud. They parked right in front of the porch.
Charlie always does this part. The thought was more panicky than sad.
"Joe, should we practice?" Officer Rob's voice was shaky.
"Nah," said Joe, blowing out a big breath. "It's going to be hard no matter what we say. I'll do the talking, you just follow my lead." I was with Charlie after all those bear attacks; I'll just say what he said.
They rang the doorbell. There was the perfect pause, just the right length, before the porch light turned on and the door opened.
Whoa. Check her out.
I remember her from the wedding. The sister. Doesn't look anything like him, but she sure is pretty…. Uh oh, where'd he come from?
Jasper had taken his spot behind Alice. You didn't think I'd let such a pretty little thing come to the door in the middle of the night by herself, do you Mr. Policeman?
I smiled despite myself. Jasper had a suspicious nature.
"Can I help you gentlemen with something?" Jasper's voice had just the right irritated edge of a man interrupted from his sleep.
"Um, sorry to disturb you, sir, miss. Is this the residence of Edward Cullen?" I am such a dumbass, ogling the sister right before I break the news. Stupid.
"Yes, it is. Is he in trouble, officer?" Alice was playing the concerned sister to the hilt. I could see her upturned face in Officer Rob's mind. Flirt.
"We're not sure, miss. Do you know his whereabouts this evening?"
"He left a while ago to take his wife to the emergency room. She may have been going into labor."
Oh, no. There is no way… This is worse than I thought.
"Have you heard from him since he left? Or from anyone at the hospital?" His voice was almost pleading. Please, please, tell me you have.
"No, not a thing. Why?" Alice was playing it perfectly.
Maybe the car was stolen from the hospital lot? No, it was going the wrong way. But maybe. We could call around…
Jasper's thoughts interrupted. They're panicking. Afraid to tell us the news, afraid of what it means to Charlie. We can't let them drag this out.
"Listen, fellas," Jasper began, a slight edge to his tone. "We appreciate the social visit and all, but if there is a point to your dropping by, we'd appreciate knowing. Otherwise, it is a tad on the late side." I saw the men flushing in response in Jasper's mind and knew he had hit his mark.
"We're afraid we have some bad news," Joe began stiffly. "We found your brother's car, crashed alongside the route into town."
He paused, and in my mind's eye I saw him taking off his hat and working his forehead between the fingers of one chapped hand. The other officer just stared dumbly at the floor, unable to move beyond his state of shock and unsure what to do. Joe looked up. His eyes were rimmed with red.
"Are your parents here?" Joe said kindly.
"No, sir," Alice whispered in response.
How can I tell them this? They're just kids themselves. They shouldn't be alone when they hear this.
"I'm really sorry. The car was totaled. There was a fire…They were trapped inside by a fallen tree." Joe let the news sink in while he fought off his own imagination, which had spun a spontaneous image of us struggling to get out of the blazing vehicle.
"What are you saying?" demanded Jasper, whispering hoarsely. All I'm picking up is sheer despair, Edward. It's working. But we have to hustle them out of here; I can't take much more of this.
Joe choked on the words. "It was impossible to survive. We had rescue workers on the scene as soon as we could, but they had no chance. I'm so very sorry."
"No!" shouted Alice. Joe's mind was filled with the image of her flinging herself into Jasper's arms, sobs shaking her body. If I focused, I could see all of their thoughts and it was like I was right there with them. Joe felt sorry for Alice and Jasper, but his mind quickly turned to Charlie. How close are they to Charlie? I wonder if they will want to tell him themselves?
Jasper forced the discussion, looking gravely at the men over Alice's head. "Does Bella's father know?"
Joe shook his head while Rob kicked the toe of his boot back and forth on the floor. "No," Joe answered. "We wanted to be sure your brother was really in the car…. And that was before we knew Bella was with him." I heard him exhale. He was exhausted by emotion. Maybe they will tell Charlie after all, he thought hopefully. I sure don't want to be the one. It will break his heart. That's all he could talk about, is how those grandkids of his were going to be so spoiled.
Jasper took over as he made a show of guiding Alice to sit down on the entry bench. Joe's mind displayed the whole scene for me. "You'll find Charlie at Forks Community. He was waiting for Edward and Bella to come in. I'm surprised he hasn't called here looking for them, in fact." Jasper gripped the door frame and made a tiny motion toward closing the door. "We appreciate you coming here with the news, officers, but if you don't mind we need to track down our parents and brother and sister."
"Of course," responded Joe, floundering to regain his professional authority. "We may need to talk with one of you tomorrow, see if you can make some identifications, but, frankly, I'm not sure there will be much to identify."
Officer Rob jerked his head up, shocked that his partner would be so blunt. I can't believe he just said that. Must be getting tired. "No offense, sir," Rob mumbled apologetically. "We are very sorry for your loss."
Jasper's eyes softened. "Thank you," he mumbled, closing the door in their faces. Follow them, Edward. Make sure it goes as well with Charlie.
I sighed. None of us wanted to bear witness to Charlie's pain. But I was conscious it was the only way we would know if we were truly safe – at least from the local humans. I slipped out of the garage once the cruiser had pulled away and began my run. The exhilaration I'd felt earlier had faded and had been replaced by dread. Bella had explained to me how her running back to Phoenix had laid Charlie low before, and why. Would he ever be able to recover from this? It was especially worrisome given the high he'd been on lately, relishing his impending status as grandfather. His mind couldn't stop reveling in the news, and when we had told him it was twins – I actually thought he was going to have a heart attack, he was so excited. I had seen his misery every time he'd worried about losing her, and I'd felt his anger toward me when I was the cause. It bothered me more than a little to know he'd hate me forever, thinking my recklessness had lost him his daughter and his grandchildren.
And Renee? I shuddered. At least I wouldn't have to watch when Renee got the news. I assumed Charlie, or these officers, would be the ones to handle that.
As long as Charlie believed, we were free. That was all I needed to worry about. Resigned, I ran harder.
The hospital shone brightly in the night, its fluorescent lights reflecting off of the dusting of snow. The cruiser was just pulling in. I lingered behind a dumpster, sifting through the restless and drug-addled dreams of the sick; the worried prayers of watchful families that waited in discomfort in lounge chairs and at cafeteria tables; the impatience of the night nurses, tired of the doctors' egos and needy patients. I was looking for Charlie.
Why aren't they answering the phone? Did they go to Seattle instead?
He was the only one waiting for someone to arrive, easy to pick out of all the thoughts longing to go home. Poor Charlie.
He soon noticed he was not alone. What are they doing here? Can't leave me alone for one night, can they? Must be about those sirens I heard earlier. Throw them something tough and they always come running for advice. I guess that's all right, though, that's how they learn.
I couldn't bear to hear the bumblers themselves, so focused on Charlie's thoughts.
Why would I want to sit down?
Thank God they were so close. Where is she? I need to see her.
We can't tell her that, not in her condition. She's too fragile. Don't they remember what it was like when he left her before? This will be much, much worse. I have to protect her. She is not to be upset, don't you understand?
You're wrong. There must be some mistake.
The rest was incoherent, just pure rage and hurt and loss. I clutched my head, dropping to my knees. Image after image of Bella flew through his mind: Bella as a baby, cooing and laughing in response to Charlie's tickling; Bella as a child, shy of her father on her annual approved visits; Bella, a sullen teenager, sulking at being forced to spend time with him; Bella, offering him a ray of hope when she delighted in the old truck he'd picked out for her; Bella, destroyed by my lies; Bella, beaming up at me, captured in black and white as a lovely bride; Bella, Bella, Bella.
A thought of a future Bella, balancing a little boy and girl, one on each hip, laughing.
A thought of Renee.
I waited for a long time. Eventually, I allowed the other officers' thoughts to infiltrate the silence.
Should we get a doctor?
I've never seen him like this. He's always so…in control.
I'm fine. It seemed like he was trying to convince himself. Even in his thoughts, his voice was rough. He sounded old and tired. I'm fine. But I need to see it for myself.
I don't care what you say, damn it! I cannot go see her mother and tell her we have lost her unless I can say I have seen it with my own eyes. Oh, God, Bella. I knew he was no good for you. I knew it.
Guilt stabbed me through. What if he was right? I thought of Bella and all the danger she was in; how horribly I'd hurt her in the past. And now this – all the anguish we were visiting upon Charlie and Renee. Had we made a horrible mistake?
I closed my eyes and leaned back against the dumpster. For the first time that night, I felt cold. I'd been outside long enough, and the temperature had dropped low enough, that my body was no longer isolated from its environment. It was a jolt, a jolt of recognition that I was connected to this world, no matter what I was. And at that instant I realized that all my fears didn't matter anymore. We had chosen our path, and it was up to us to see it through.
I ran until I was within two miles of the crash site. I knew Charlie's mind well enough now that I didn't need to get any closer.
Oh my God.
What is this cold? What is this wet?
How did I get on the ground?
Oh, Bella. My little girl.
I couldn't bear the guilt anymore. I left him there to mourn in the snow while I ran back to Bella, knowing that now we were one step closer to freedom, and praying that I hadn't taken a first step toward driving her away.