I tumble gracelessly into alertness, tripping and tugging myself away from the gruesomely premature ending of Lauren and Jessica's lives.
Living through it once was hard enough, but my subconscious seems determined to drudge it up again every few weeks to make sure I don't forget what I saw. As if I ever could.
I wake out of breath and horrified, as usual.
But it is the unevenly lit predawn sky that greets my frantic eyes rather than the blunt, eclipsing ceiling I am so accustomed to. For an instant I wretch away from the ground and reality itself seems to tip on its' side. Then a bone chilling touch to my ankle of all places sends me reeling.
The dream was not a nightmare from the past. It was a premonition of things to come. It is happening now. Right now.
I begin to kick at the invasion without any care for the consequences.
"No!" I hear myself shouting, "Leave them alone! They don't know anything!"
It is not the heartless voice of the female vampire I expect that responds, "Leave who alone?"
But it is without a doubt a vampire.
The freezing steel fingers clamp around both of my ankles with unbelievable precision; stopping my attack single handedly. I wretch from the ground a second time as my own voice rises about five octaves higher in distress.
"Jessica! Lauren!" I squeal, their names soaring far above the tops of the trees.
I sit up and pull my legs inward as I strain my eyes toward the vampire's face. He releases my ankles without a struggle. Recently acquired memories of the last week of my life are rapidly resurfacing and I am beginning to realize what I fool I've just made of myself.
Sure enough, my vision focuses in on the angular, inhuman features that are slowly starting to become familiar to me.
"Edward," I sigh, relieved.
I don't mean to say it out loud, but it slips off my tongue before I can stop it. The impulse to clasp my hands over my mouth like an embarrassed child is harder to ignore than I would have thought it'd be.
Edward tilts his head gradually to one side. There is a slight change in his expression, but it's still too dark for me to see.
"You do listen," he says.
"Hmm…" he considers carefully, and then, "I thought so."
I rest my chin on my knees. A soft chorus of tweeting from the morning birds plays across the vacant air. I look up and watch the shadow of one of the feathered singers as it flies over us. My head moves with it until it disappears again into the cover of the woods.
When I look back at the vampire, he is staring at me. I think of the night before; of the mill worker and my decision to talk to the vampire who pulled me from the depths of hell. I take a deep breath to settle my queasy stomach as I debate verbalizing the silly question on my mind.
"Do you…" my voice cracks; I clear my throat, "Do you like birds?"
The vampire tilts his head in the opposite direction. He releases a small gust of air that blows across my face. His breath has the same shockingly wonderful scent as every other member of the undead populous. I am briefly stunned, then scoot away to put a few more inches of safety between the two of us.
"Birds," Edward repeats dubiously.
He watches me squirm backward with transparent disappointment. To his knowledge, he did nothing to repel me.
"I find them ornery."
"I like them. They're nice to wake up to," I tell him, feeling a little bit bad for letting him down with my unexplained withdrawal.
I stand up to stretch. While I reach my arms above my head, I remember Edward having one of his completely torn from his body. My eyes dart to his shoulder- to discover both limbs perfectly intact.
I gasp, and the vampire smiles.
"I went home while you were asleep. I didn't think I would be of very much use to you, damaged as I was."
He rises and holds the reattached arm out for my curious observation; flexing his long fingers in demonstration. The now-very-apparent sunlight catches on the knuckle of his pointer finger and reflects off it like a gemstone, though I am positive he isn't wearing any jewelry. The diamond effect the sun has on vampires was something I'd heard about, but never saw.
I blanch at its' bizarreness as Edward tells me, "The break was easy to fix with Carlisle's help. I was able to return within an hour."
His dark eyes are closer to black than burgundy. A dangerously thin ring of red around the outside is the only color I can detect. The blackness seems to swallow me piece by piece as he searches me, his voice shifting to a lower tone than I am used to.
"Your nightmares are very violent, human. It makes me wonder what torments you so."
I twist my hands together and look down.
"Did you bring breakfast?" I ask, unsubtly changing the subject without reverting to silence.
"I didn't, actually. I'm sorry. Worrying about human food is still so strange for me," he purses his lips thoughtfully for a second, then suddenly grins at me, "Who are Jessica and Lauren?"
Flashes from my memory stir and sour any hope I had of being in a good mood. I turn, walking to the closest tree I see and pretend to be very busy with the task of peeling the bark from the trunk.
"They're dead," I say bluntly.
"Ah," Edward responds from a much nearer place than I was prepared for.
He had followed me.
The bark does not leave the tree easily. It catches on my increasingly dirty fingernails, and several break from the strain. I don't mind. It only adds to my already gross appearance. Maybe I'll become so disgusting I won't even appeal to the bloodthirsty predators prowling the forest at all anymore.
I free an especially mossy chunk and run my fingers over the softness. It's thick enough to be carpet. I can almost imagine-
"Would you like to come home with me today, human?"
The fragment of nature slips between my fingers and lands on my exposed toes-briefly sending a vision of Edward's arm, shirt sleeve and all, lying just inches from my feet in the grass. I shake it off and twist my neck to gape at the vampire. But I don't turn any farther because, once again, he is much closer than I anticipated.
The look in his eyes, which I could swear have grown blacker than they were even just a few minutes ago, is sinister…devious. I tell myself that I could be misinterpreting it. I tell myself the face of a vampire would probably seem sinister and devious to me no matter what. But I have seen that look too many times to convince myself of any of that.
"Surely you would appreciate a hot shower," he says, an offering in his voice, "Fresh clothes, perhaps? A bed to sleep in?"
I try to be outwardly neutral, but inside I'm at war. Of course I would love a hot shower, fresh clothes, and, most of all, a bed. It sounds so wonderful to me right now, there's no way it can possibly be true. And that's just the problem. With vampires especially, when something sounds too good to be true, there is no question that it is.
A surprising pang of hurt tightens my chest as I take in Edward's clearly predatory stance. Though I didn't know it until this very moment, some part of me had believed we were past this. Despite what he'd said about killing me last night, and despite what I was deeply aware of on a conscious level, my subconscious had had other ideas. Other hopes. Other dreams.
Maybe I wanted to believe Edward was good. Maybe I wanted to believe he really was as different from the others as he had always seemed. Maybe I wanted to believe he meant what he said: he doesn't want to be a monster. Maybe I wanted to trust him. And maybe, more than anything, I wanted to believe he was willing to sacrifice himself for me because I amounted to something in his eyes.
But I am an idiot.
I'm a valueless piece of cattle that just happens to have something the vampire wants. And he is going to bribe me with the luxuries of his home to get it.
Edward is waiting for a reaction to the images of paradise he has just intentionally laid out in front of me.
I loosen my jaw with effort, "What about your family?"
My tone is stony at best. Not exactly what he was aiming for.
"They are on their way to Mexico," he explains with a furrowed brow; I have confused him, "There was an outbreak of sorts when Rosalie and Emmett were preparing to leave, and they all thought it would be beneficial to vacation together."
He spoke with put on lightness, probably trying to make me comfortable again. Or as close to comfortable as I could ever be around him. Regardless, I have a sense that the 'outbreak' had left him none too happy with his coven.
Well, good. I hope they confuse him just as much as he confuses me.
"They wanted me to come along, but I told them I'd rather stay behind."
He gives me that searching look from earlier, the one that pulls everything it crosses into it, like a black hole, "There are a lot of windows at the house. I could open one for you, so you can still wake to the song of the birds."
I put forehead in the palm of my hand and shake my head. There is no getting out of this. Of course there isn't.
"And you will be safe there. No mill worker-"
"What do you want in exchange for letting me stay there?"
Edward's mouth opens, then closes again. Usually, I would never dare to interrupt a vampire, but there is nothing usual about any of this.
He gazes at me in an odd, admiring way. I think he is impressed.
"I want you to continue talking to me," he murmurs as he cautiously advances toward me, "Not only through the cadences of your voice, but through the restlessness of your living body. Help me to understand all you represent. Let me learn you."
I breathe conscientiously through my nose. It is safe to say no one has ever spoken to me that way, and more than likely no one ever will again. The poor, overworked muscle in my chest is thumping louder in my ears, and I don't know if it's out of nervousness at his proximity or something else entirely.
My subconscious hopes and desires, all of those things I had wanted so desperately to believe, leak into my brain like a toxin. That pleasant sensation, the same one I'd gotten in the pit of my stomach when I first encountered Edward and realized my attraction to him, arises in a warm rush which heats my skin all over.
A smile blooms on my face, unwilling to be wiped away.
And then I tell him, "Okay."
And I am ecstatic. And I am an idiot. And I am an ecstatic idiot.
Edward takes in this seemingly bizarre transition just as he has taken in every other this morning, but, oddly, the change that is the strangest to me appears to make the most sense to him. His answering smile to my decidedly stupid one reeks of knowing cockiness. Obviously, this is reaction he can work with.
I know this, but my restless, living body isn't listening.
"Alright," the vampire says in the smooth, compelling way he'd used once before, "But before we go, there is one more thing I want."
I wait, making no effort whatsoever to avoid his eyes.
He raises one of his own hands and glares at it for awhile. The way he peers at it, so hatefully, almost makes it look like it is something foreign. Like it has been bewitched by a distinctly evil entity and is no longer under his control.
Then, at last, as if he were pleading, he says, "Let me touch you."
Now it's my turn to glare at his hand.
"I know it will be difficult for you," Edward sighs, "It will be difficult for me as well, given that I would like you to survive it, and I am thirsty. But I need this of you."
He has touched me before. To take me from the mill, to get my scent, and when he was hunting me. Nonetheless, I understand this is a different kind of touching, if only because he is asking my permission first.
I ring my clammy hands together, preparing to object. After all, what would be more satisfying than being able to say 'no' to a vampire? I have never been in a position, let alone had the opportunity, to deny them anything. Yet they have denied me everything.
I inhale deeply…
And then I nod.