I slammed the door to my truck and turned, hands on hips. "You promised," I said, frowning.
"I know," Edward grimaced, "but I kept thinking about you, in that ancient vehicle, on the back road to our house..."
"Okay, okay, I'll take your car." He surrendered the keys willingly. I scowled. "I don't see why we can't go together."
"You want to go look at Jeep parts for several hours?" Smiling, he kissed my forehead as he opened the silver Volvo's door.
"As long as we were together, I honestly wouldn't care," I muttered.
"I'll see you at five or six, all right?" He wrapped me in his arms, gently sqeezing. I inhaled the smell of his coat, savoring the scent.
"Five," I clarified, tapping his chest for emphasis.
"Five. I promise."
"Okay. Now," I sighed, "where's your escort?"
"Hey, Bella!" Emmett's enthusiastic call echoed all the way from the entrance to my driveway as he swerved into view, running at human speed towards us. "Ready to go?" he asked Edward.
"Ready when you are." Edward grimaced again. He caught my hand and held it. "Be careful."
"I will. Of course. This is me you're talking to, Edward."
Rolling his eyes, Emmett snorted. "Come on, bro, we're burning daylight here. See ya, Bella," he said, and vaulted into my truck. Edward kissed me one more time, then climbed into the driver's seat of my Chevy. "Ugh," I heard Emmett say, as they drove away, "this thing is ancient. I can feel every rut in the road."
For a minute I stared forlornly after them, wishing Edward was with me, getting ready to start up his Volvo, with me in the passenger seat. In a car like his, that was where I belonged.
I inched under the steering wheel, hesitantly setting my hands on its smooth, round surface. Because I hadn't quite worked up the nerve to put the key in the ignition, I sat there, breathing unevenly. How, how, how had I ever thought I could drive Edward's car? I couldn't even drive my dad's cruiser well-- not that I was supposed to drive the chief's car.
"Come on," I muttered to myself, "put it in."
With a deep inhalation I shoved the key into the ignition, twisted it, and the engine hummed to life. The dashboard lit up, and the Cd player picked up where it had left off in an album full of Chopin piano solos. By accident I stomped on the gas pedal as I tried to adjust the seat, and a loud revving sound made me freeze. Don't panic, I thought, it's just the engine.
Deliberately slow, I changed gears and backed ever so cautiously out of my driveway. The music helped calm me; it felt like Edward was in the car with me. Obviously the sensation wasn't complete. Edward would have been driving.
I drove through town going below the speed limit, slowing down a good hundred feet back from every stop sign. The over-sensitive pedals on the Volvo were throwing me off, I kept jumping and slamming forward alternately as I accelerated and braked. What was wrong, I thought, my nerves frazzled, with an old car that couldn't go 0 to 60 in no time at all?
All through town, people stared at me. It was like I had suddenly inherited Edward's gift of mind reading; I knew exactly what they were thinking. What was Bella Swan, the clumsiest girl in Forks, doing behind the wheel of her freakish boyfriend's extravagantly expensive car? The staring didn't help my driving skills one iota. In fact, I nearly ran a red light in my haste to get out from under one of Lauren's friend's rancorous glares.
Somehow, I made it to the Cullens' without having a ten-car pileup. There wasn't even a scratch on the Volvo's glossy paint. I was actually feeling rather proud of myself as I climbed out of the front seat like a veteran from war. Wiping the sweat off my forehead, I tucked the keys into my pocket and headed towards the house. As I got closer I noticed there were no lights on in the front rooms, just a flickering blue, like a tv screen. Now that I was paying attention, I realized there was no noise from inside the house, either. Vampires were quiet when they needed to be, but there was no reason for them to use stealth at home.
From where I was standing, it didn't look like anyone was there, but Edward had said Esme, Alice, and Jasper were home. Usually, Alice was waiting to meet me with her mouth already opened to start a conversation she was certain we'd have. Esme was almost always home, moving through the house happily, arranging furniture or studying blueprints for a new house project of hers. Most times, there was someone in the front rooms, or in the garage. But there was nobody there.
A sudden eery, icy feeling settled on me, seeping into my skin like rainwater. I tried not to shudder and dashed to the porch, slowing down when I got to the door. I knocked, listening for any answering noise from inside. No one came to the door. "Esme," I said loudly, "it's me, Bella." There was no reply, just an echoing from the eaves of the porch.
Unnerved, I tried the door, and since it wasn't locked, I peered cautiously inside. "Hello?" I breathed. Had the Cullens gone hunting, maybe? I stepped inside, glancing around the main room. Like I'd guessed, the news channel was playing on the tv, and the remote was lying on an arm of the sofa. Next to the remote, a fashion magazine was half open, one of its pages torn sloppily out of the middle. It looked like Alice and Jasper had been sitting on the couch together, like they should have the remote and magazine in their hands. My mouth went dry-- where were they?
That was when I heard the crying. It was so soft I could barely make it out over the news anchorman. "Esme?" I called, hesitantly. The crying didn't stop; it seemed to get louder, making me swallow in fear. I tore through the house, searching through the rooms, my heart pounding. Something terrible had occurred, and I didn't know who was in trouble or what had happened. Immediately my thoughts jumped to Edward, but I suppressed the idea. Edward was with Emmett, looking at car parts. He was fine, he was fine.
Finally, when I was at the end of my wits, I found them. I stopped dead in my tracks, just inside the doorway of the last room I expected to see them in.
They were in Edward's room, crunched into a huddle next to the couch. The sobbing sound was even more choked and heart-wrenching up close. I gasped when I saw what was happening.
Esme was on her knees, her shoulders hunched, a thin, white shape clutched in her hands. She was the one crying, her tearless weeping making my eyes fill up. I couldn't see her face, she was so doubled over. On the floor next to her was Alice, crosslegged, her hands clenched on her knees. Her face was twisted in an odd expression, and I didn't know what emotion it was until I realized her eyes held the most tortured look I'd ever seen. Alice was in pain, in desperate pain-- but was it physical or emotional?
Jasper was the one that disturbed me most. Since he had never seemed a very involved member of the family, kind of withdrawn, it was jarring to see him kneeling on the floor too, one hand on Esme's shoulder and the other on Alice's. By the tautness in his arms it looked like he wanted to make their pain go away by sheer force of will, or by his vampire strength. If it was possible, he was more far gone than the other two. When I walked in he didn't acknowledge my presence; he didn't blink, didn't even move his eyes from their wide, bewildered state. That was the message that came across from Jasper's posture: he was utterly dazed, too confused to do anything but freeze up.
It took me a minute to find my voice, and when I did it was barely a whisper. "What is it?" I asked, shocked by the three vampire's attitudes. "What's wrong?" No one answered me. "Alice, what happened?" I said, louder and more panicked. "Is someone hurt?"
"Oh," Alice whimpered, her face still skewed in pain.
"Somebody tell me!" I said, walking forward. "Jasper? Alice? What's wrong with Esme?"
I wasn't expecting Jasper to answer. "He's gone," he said, in a strangled voice.
I guess my face lost all expression, which wasn't a good sign of comprehension, so Jasper reached down and grabbed the top of the white shape in Esme's hand, lightly tugging on it. Esme refused to let it go, gasping in agony and clasping the shape to her like it was a lifesaver. "Esme," said Jasper gently, "Bella has to know."
With another sob Esme realeased the shape and Jasper handed it to me. I could see now that it was a sheet of printer paper, covered in neat handwriting.
Alice made a small, sighing noise, and Jasper squeezed her shoulder automatically.
Feeling numb, I read the paper.
I love you too much to write it down completely on paper,
but I couldn't leave without saying this: my life was
never full without you. I am whole only when I'm with
you. I'll hold your memory with me till the end.
Because I love you more than my own existence,
I can't tell you where I've gone. Just know I won't
disappoint you with what I'm doing.
Tell our family-- Bella included-- that I love them,
as well. Edward will keep you all safe. Stay together,
as strong as you always have been. None of you must
try to follow me. By the time you receive this I will be
out of your reach. And, though it hurts me to tell you
I will not be back.
I couldn't get past that phrase. I kept reading it, over and over, as the horrifying recognition of the letter's writer came over me. I knew who had written this love letter. But it couldn't be true--I read on.
I am so sorry, my love.
Please forgive me for what I must do to all of them, but especially you,
Esme, my life, my love.
"Oh, no," was all I could say, through frozen lips. "No, no, no."
"He left this morning," said Alice, quietly. "After eleven. And I didn't see--" she cut off, clenching her teeth. Jasper rubbed her shoulder comfortingly, his eyes now full of consideration.
"But, it can't--this--he wouldn't--" There was nothing I could say, nothing that would fit in my mouth, to aptly describe the feeling going through me. "He's...gone?" I asked, in blank disbelief.
"No," said Esme, groaning.
"Esme, Esme," murmured Jasper. "It's going to be all right."
I noticed Jasper wasn't modifying our feelings, meaning his pain was twice as great as everyone else's, since he was feeling the hurt of all three of us. "I don't understand," I said, faintly.
But I did, and they all knew I did. How could I not? The letter was proof, I recognized the handwriting. All I didn't understand was why he'd left the note...no, why he'd left.
It was then I noticed the glinting gold ring curled in Esme's fist. With a lurch I recognized it as the wedding band Carlisle wore at all times. Reality hit home, and now I knew the depth of Esme's pain.
Carlisle was gone.