SM owns Twilight, this story is mine. I lived it, I keep it.
Julian Schnabel's mixed media paintings, especially "The Patients and the Doctors" was the inspiration for this chapter. Schnabel is a best-known as the director of the film "Basquiat".
With the start of May the cooler and wetter season in L.A. had ended and the warmth and sunshine of spring had settled over the city. I lounged in the backyard Saturday afternoon, still in my pajama pants and camisole, smoking a cigarette and unable to contain the smile on my face. The world was lovely today.
My sketchbook lay open in my lap, but I didn't draw. I contemplated my middle-of-the-night conversation with Edward. We'd talked for over three hours, nearly until dawn. Even though I hadn't slept much, I didn't care.
He told me about leaving the ranch in Texas when the work eased off and he started feeling … too settled. He talked about New Orleans, and how he was working as a bar back in the French Quarter three nights a week plus doing construction during the days. The work was backbreaking as well as heartbreaking, trying to rehab houses that had been vacant for so long after the storm and flood.
He wasn't staying in New Orleans much longer, and was planning to head up to Chicago in a few weeks to visit a famous author his college professor had arranged for him to meet. And then … who could say?
He'd been writing. One of his college roommates had started an online magazine and invited Edward to write a weekly column. Like a blog about travel and the "life on the road" lifestyle. I'd laughed when Edward referred to his wandering as a lifestyle, and didn't feel the need to explain how it seemed more like he was looking for an escape rather than it being a conscious choice.
When he asked what I was doing, I ducked the question. "Same as before," I'd answered. "Painting, drinking. Sleeping. Repeat."
"Will you stay in L.A. for the summer or are you going back home to Phoenix?" I was impressed he remembered that detail.
"Um, neither, actually I'm headed to North Carolina," I admitted.
"What's there?" he asked.
I told him all about Penland and how excited I was to be working there.
He'd only asked one question: "What does Quil think about you being gone all summer?"
"I don't think it's going to bother him. We're not going out anymore."
There was a long silence and when Edward changed the subject, telling me about how he was looking forward to going up to Chicago, I could tell he was smiling.
When he started yawning I told him I was glad he'd called but that it was late and he should get some sleep. He didn't say goodbye, only "goodnight" in a voice so low and deep it seemed to vibrate through the phone line.
The afternoon shadows were growing long and blue when Alice came out of the back door and did a double-take at the sight of me.
"What the heck - have you been out here all day?" she asked, clearly aghast.
"Not all day. I only got up at two," I said, grinning at her.
"What are you doing home anyway? I thought you'd be at the studio." She came down the steps and stole one of my cigarettes. I lit it and she stood and smoked it, nervously tapping her foot.
"I didn't sleep so well last night, so I just slept in," I shrugged. I didn't feel like sharing about my late-night phone conversation.
"Well, girlfriend, you might want to get dressed. The art crew is going to start arriving in about thirty minutes and I need you to make a last-minute Trader Joe's run."
I frowned. "What? Why?"
"It's Jasper and Emmett's annual Cinco de Mayo party, remember?" I smacked my head. Of course. I'd been so busy avoiding Jasper and Alice I'd completely forgotten about the party. "You forgot, didn't you?" she stated more than asked.
My hand still over my forehead, I nodded.
"Well, get a move-on, Bella, unless you want all the fashion geeks to see your rubber ducky pajama pants."
By the time I got back with an odd assortment of pico de gallo, a bottle of merlot, and an extra case of Tecate there were nearly a dozen students lounging around the living room. Alice was holding court on the sofa with several design students I didn't know, while Jasper and a couple of sculpture girls were parked on the floor talking animatedly about the latest crit. Mike was sitting with them, and it surprised me to see him there, the only one of the painting department besides myself. He waved at me as I came in and turned back to the sculpture department discussion. Alice had Ricky Martin playing, her idea of ethnic music. She Bangs. I wondered if she was trying to get Jasper in the mood.
I carried the food and beer into the kitchen where I found Emmett and Rosalie facing off. Rosalie was saying "-you just don't get it -" but as soon as I stepped into the kitchen she broke off and just glared at him. The air was positively dripping with ice. As quickly as I could I put the bag on the counter, grabbed the corkscrew and merlot, and excused myself to the less arctic atmosphere of the dining room.
Then I realized that I'd neglected to get a wineglass. Rather than braving the kitchen again, I decided to make do with raiding Alice's ceramics class creations from the bookshelf. I picked out a medium-sized mug that was heavier than it looked and filled it with warm merlot. As I turned back, Mike was there, hovering over me.
I jumped a little and sloshed some wine on my wrist.
"Hi, Mike," I said warily, wondering what he was after.
"Hello, Bella," he said, and then he just stood there smiling down at me as I got even more nervous.
"So ... what are you doing here tonight?" I asked.
He shifted his weight a little before replying. "I heard Jasper and Emmett talking about the party, so I told them I'd bring beer. I thought it would be cool to see you again. I heard you'd changed."
Fucking Emmett and Jasper, always suckers for free beer.
"You know, it's really fucking strange: you look like Mike Newton, but I must be hallucinating, because the last time I saw him he grabbed my tit and called me a bitch."
He shrugged. "Good to know some things don't change: you still have a nasty mouth. Is it so bad I wanted to spend time with you? We had good times, the two of us."
"And I told you those days were over, Mike. What makes you think we're going to repeat that whole fucking episode?"
"I'm not suggesting we go down the road again. Can't we just hang out?" he asked. I was tongue-tied.
I jittered for a moment before sidestepping him and heading to the sofa, parking myself at one end, wedged between the arm and Alice so Mike wouldn't be able to sit beside me. He sat on the floor by my feet, which wasn't much better, though seemed strangely fitting as he stared up at me with big blue puppy eyes. I tried to clue in to the conversation with Alice's gang, but Mike wasn't giving up.
"So how do you think you're doing in Berty's class?" he asked.
"Oh, fine," I said, hoping he'd give up and toddle off.
"That's good. I'm just glad it's my last life class. After this, I'm free of all that academic figure bullshit," he said. I recalled Mike preferred abstract painting.
"Yeah, it's time to start getting ready for our senior thesis projects," I commented lightly.
"I can't believe it's so soon! It seems like we were just doing portfolio review. Do you remember..." and suddenly we were talking comfortably in a way we hadn't in months. I'd forgotten he could be nice when he wanted to. When he wasn't hitting on me or calling me a bitch. Or being pathetic. It was nice to feel like I was free of all the relationship bullshit: who wanted whom, who was going to sleep with whom.
I was laughing at Mike's impression of Berty when Rosalie swept through the living room and stormed out the door. Emmett was a few steps behind her. His face was grim, and even after he'd slammed the door behind him, we could hear his raised voice out in the yard.
One of the sculpture girls giggled, and I gave her the death glare. Jasper was up and halfway to the door when it reopened and Emmett was back inside, stomping to the kitchen. Jasper followed him and for a long and awkward minute there was no sound but a Ricky Martin song coming from the speaker. La Vida Loca, indeed.
Then Alice turned to a red-haired girl and asked her a question about class as if nothing had happened, and the beer and wine resumed flowing. Before I knew it, the party was back to its previous level of casual inebriation, and my wine glass was refilled again and again.
It was almost a surprise to realize people were leaving. Alice shoved Mike out the door, making sure that in my current state I wouldn't sleep with Clingy Mike again. She gave me a little wink. Alice always watched out for me.
Emmett was picking up beer cans with Jasper and after making a token effort at cleaning - eating the last few chips in the bowl - I slipped out the backdoor to have a smoke. I was drunk but not especially tired.
I hadn't gotten more than two puffs on my cig when a shadow moved and I nearly leapt out of my skin.
"Fuck," I cursed as I jumped to my feet, trying to dislodge the lit cigarette from my lap. The shadow chuckled and I realized who it was. "Mike! You scared the crap out of me! What are you doing sneaking around? I thought you left."
"Alice pushed me out the door before I got to say good night," he said and stepped in close to me. Before my wine-muzzy brain could process what he was doing, he'd enveloped me in his arms. "I've been watching you at the studio lately, Bella, checking out your work. You've been there all hours. I heard you're all on your own, now. Alone." He leaned in closer. I was still stuck on the part about looking at my paintings ... "Lonely." He was so close I could feel his breath fanning across my cheek. "I can help with that -" His lips touched mine, warm and soft and gentle...
And so wrong.
I knew everything I wanted to know about Mike: Where he was from, what he was doing in art school, the noises he made when he came. I knew the taste of him, and he was right, we'd had a good time, once. He'd been fun and energetic.
But I was done with him. When he kissed me, my body just went "meh". He was a stalkerish ex-boyfriend, and I wasn't going there.
Putting my hand on his chest, I shoved him away, and we stumbled apart.
"What's the matter, Bella? I know you're not getting any. Did you finally get interested in muff-diving?"
I wobbled, and I felt like the words spilling out of me were coming from a long way away.
"You're a real asshole, Mike. So you heard I'm solo and you thought you'd see if there was a vacancy sign on my ass? Charming. Just because I'm not fucking anyone doesn't mean I'm going to fuck you."
"Jessica was wrong, you're still a bitch," he muttered.
"Or maybe Jessica's right and it's just that you're still an asshole. Get out of here, Mike, before I get Emmett and Jasper to kick your scrawny ass all the way down Washington Boulevard."
I stomped up the concrete steps and had the back door open when Mike asked, "Can we just talk?"
I paused. "What's the point, Mike? I'm not going to fuck you, and I'm all talked out for the night. Go home and pull your pud."
I turned back to the door and Jasper was there, pushing past me to stand in front of Mike and glare at him.
"Sorry, man, I don't think this is a good night for you," he said quietly. I fled into the house, grateful to have a man in the house, even if it was partly his fault Mike had shown up in the first place.
The next weeks passed in a blur. I spent my days painting and working madly to get my class projects done so I could paint all weekend. As the month went by, my bedroom became barer, and boxes got moved into the garage where Alice was letting me stash my stuff until the end of summer. Jessica would be moving in at the end of May, right after classes ended, and I was headed to Phoenix for a week before flying to North Carolina. My mom didn't think the old truck was up to a cross-country journey, and I couldn't find it in me to argue.
About once a week, without any kind of warning, Edward would call, always late at night. When I asked why, he said he didn't have time during the day. It wasn't quite what I meant, but I didn't pursue it.
We talked about nothing particular, always skirting the important issues. I didn't repeat my professions of love.
With just five days before classes ended, he said he hadn't left for Chicago yet, but was considering coming back to L.A. for Emmett's graduation.
"Well," I said coolly, "you should. If you need a place to crash you can always stay here." I'd said the words without thinking. Even as they were coming out of my mouth, it I felt forward.
There was a pause before he responded. "Thank you, Bella. I appreciate it."
We talked about New Orleans. I laughed at his stories of the heat and humidity and was jealous when he told me about going to JazzFest and seeing Band of Horses and Kings of Leon and Tony Bennett all while eating Crawfish Etoufee and drinking Abita beer. He told me about seeing a rat the size of a small dog trotting down a street in the French Quarter.
"I don't believe it," I scoffed.
"It's true!" he laughed. "It had a little saddle for a cat to ride on its back."
I had a smile on my face for a whole day afterwards, thinking about his crazy stories.
The morning of graduation, Alice was rushing around the house in a panic, her high heels clicking on the wood floors as she sped up and back trying to get everything together. Jasper's parents were hovering in the living room, and her parents were expected any moment.
"Hey, cool it, munchkin," I crabbed as she swept into the bathroom for at least the twentieth time, disturbing my own preparations. "You'd think it was your graduation, not your husband's."
"Just don't say the word husband in front of his parents!" she hissed and sped out again.
"Aw, for fucks sake," I muttered. "Just get it out in the open already."
I was nervous enough, trying to look as decent as I could. Though Edward hadn't promised to show up, I still held out hope, so I carefully made up my face with some mascara and raspberry-colored lip gloss. The sundress I wore to Alice and Jasper's wedding seemed looser than it had just two months earlier, which was s surprise. I hadn't noticed that I was losing weight, but I hadn't been home much to enjoy Alice's cooking.
June gloom had turned up early, and the sky was an opaque shade of gray as we sat on the lawn and watched the SOFA graduation. Alice was so excited she didn't notice me looking around. After the ceremony I walked past where Jasper, Alice, and their families were congregated, and stalked over to Emmett, who was standing with a man every bit as big as he was. I figured it had to be his father.
"Hey, Emmett, congratulations. Is, um..." I looked around. "Where is Rosalie?"
"She's not coming. We broke up," he said quietly.
"Oh. Sorry?" I said, embarrassed. I hadn't talked to him since the Cinco de Mayo party, but I should have realized...
"Thanks, Bells." Emmett sighed, a deep sound that seemed to come from deep inside him. I'd never seen him so sad. Without even thinking I reached out and wrapped my arms around his thick torso. He hugged me back, and I felt completely wrapped up in him. Then I peeked over his tree-trunk arms and saw his dad looking away awkwardly and I stepped back.
"Is Edward here?"
Emmett looked confused and shook his head. "Not that I know of. Why?"
"The last time I talked to him he said he might be coming for your graduation, I just thought maybe -"
His father snorted. "He doesn't take any responsibilities seriously, that one," he muttered. I stared, feeling my heart drop.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Dad ..." Emmett said warningly.
Ignoring me, he looked at his son and said, "You know as well as I do that Tanya's parents had the whole wedding planned, and then that boy just hops on his Harley and rides off to break hearts all over the country. Tells her that the engagement is off. Broke her mother's heart. She was already having a rough time, what with the cancer and all, and then this."
My mouth was hanging open and Emmett put his hand on my shoulder, whether to comfort me or hold me back I couldn't be sure. I felt a mad urge to correct his father and tell him that Edward would never ride a Harley...
"Dad," Emmett repeated, "you always told me 'it takes two to tango'. Tanya didn't tell her family the whole story."
"I know what Tanya's parents told me," his father interrupted, still not looking at me. "That boy made promises to their daughter and she gave up years to him. Then he just throws her away. His parents are ashamed of him, turning down law school and dumping his fiancée to go gallivanting across the country pretending to be some Hell's Angel. Probably off with some floozy right now. Do you think anyone in Hope Ranch doesn't know about it?" His tone was heavy with disgust and scorn.
I couldn't take any more. I twisted out of Emmett's grip and walked slowly and firmly back to the parking lot. I texted Alice that she should get a ride with Jasper and drove myself home.
It wasn't that I didn't know about Tanya, or that I hadn't suspected that Edward hadn't really broken up with her, but to hear myself referred to as 'some floozy', the suggestion that I was one of a string of women across the country really brought it home. I was hurt, confused, and angry.
That night I turned off my phone. I didn't want to hear from him. It was almost worse when I turned it on in the morning and there was only one message, from Emmett. He apologized for his dad and telling me not to listen to his old man's bullshit. I didn't call him back. There were no other messages.
I tossed my summer bags and painting kit in the bed of my old pickup truck and drove to Phoenix. As I steered the Chevy up the ramp onto the Santa Monica Freeway, I felt I was closing the book on the whole year, on the whole episode. It would be a fresh start.
I realize some readers were worried I wouldn't complete ASC, but never fear. I'm slow but steady. There will be a total of 26 chapters plus an epilogue, and my goal is to have this story complete by New Years. I have grand ambitions.
Thanks to IrritableGrizzzly and MrsDazzled for being my wonderful and oh-so-patient beta readers. Thanks and love to all my fandom friends, to everyone following me on Twitter (and tolerating my banal ramblings), and most especially for everyone reading and reviewing this story. I sincerely feel I have the best readers in the fandom.
Happy Thanksgiving Day to my U.S. readers! And to those of you elsewhere, I send you a big slice of virtual pumpkin pie.