A/N: To all my readers who've stuck with me. Please know I appreciate every single one of you.
Real life is spiraling out of control right now. Hubby has developed more health issues. My mom was diagnosed with Follicular Lymphoma back in April and has been in and out of the hospital for different procedures while the oncologist comes up with a game plan to attack this disease. On top of this it looks like my own health is coming into question now. For me, I don't think it will end up being too bad, but I still need another doctor visit to determine this.
Taking care of everyone and working full-time is kicking my ass big time, so I hope you can understand and continue to be patient for updates.
Thanks always to the wonderfully, talented MarchHare5 for cleaning up the mess I make of each chapter. Thank you also to Roxymar for prereading.
Warning: No tissue needed, but it is a bumpy ride. I swear Bella isn't suicidal, but if you have any triggers read with caution.
Edward stayed through the night and into the morning, helping me get my shield to go down and stay down. It took me putting my trust in our bond to finally get it to stay down long enough that he felt confident leaving me alone. Alice had called, saying he was needed at home and that she could see me just fine again.
I still didn't understand how my gift, as he called it, fully worked. I hadn't been aware of its existence before now. I certainly couldn't control it, and I had no idea where the "on" or "off" switch was, but it appeared to have a lot to do with my emotional state.
The best understanding I had of it was that my shield was like a bubble surrounding me that nothing could penetrate. It was a defense mechanism to protect myself from emotional pain or, evidently, supernatural abilities. I'd already proven I could hide from Alice's visions. When my focus was on Edward and my feelings for him, then my bubble stretched to include him as well, and it allowed his gift to flow between us, thus we were able to communicate silently.
Edward explained that Carlisle suspected what was done to me as a child, combined with the minute amounts of Edward's venom I'd ingested each time we kissed, had caused it to manifest even though I was human. Since Alice had had no trouble seeing me in her visions before, he figured it had lain dormant until we kissed that first time.
He told me Carlisle was waiting for Renee's flight to get in since she was my mother, and he felt she had a right to know everything as well. I didn't necessarily agree with her need to know anything about me, but I was outvoted by my dad. He was also waiting for someone he knew to arrive later today to help explain everything in more detail. Since Carlisle didn't know how his original failed experiment had evolved, he could only give conjecture and not facts. We all needed answers from this other person—vampire. I wanted answers as much, if not more so, than anyone, but I wasn't looking forward to having it laid out for my dad, Renee, Edward and his family what they'd done to me.
I was there.
The nightmares had never gone away, and now I knew why.
Knowing those black-cloaked figures were real and one of them was coming to town terrified me, but on the heel of that terror another thought played in my head as well, one I kept to myself and hadn't shared with anyone, not even Edward. If my nightmares were real, the black-cloaked monsters were real… Was my imaginary friend really just a figment of a child's imagination born of a need for protection?
Did I make him up, or was he real, too?
My thoughts churned trying to regurgitate a lifetime of memories. The dog was always somewhere in my nightmares. I'd listened to his cries for years, searching for him, hoping somehow together we'd be strong enough to fight whatever was causing his and my pain.
The more I thought about him the more uneasy I became. Last night while I lay in my bed, devastated at the thought of losing Edward, I'd called out for my imaginary friend, and he'd answered. He'd been there for me, though I wasn't exactly asleep. I wasn't dreaming. I was hurting and alone inside my head, or bubble, but I'd sought him out while I was awake, and he was there.
How had I included him in my bubble, but kept Edward out?
I dug deeper into my memories and thought about the fights Dad and Renee used to have. They tried not to fight in front of me, sending me outside to play or waiting until I was supposed to be asleep. I'd heard Dad's pleas for her to stay away from the reservation, accusing her of cheating and not caring about our family and how it might affect me. Renee crying and yelling that she was doing the best she could and that he couldn't begin to understand how she hard she was fighting the pull, offering to divorce him and set him free. Dad refusing, because he didn't want her to take me with her.
During the worst of the fights, I remembered crawling inside my head to block out their words. Was that my shield working even back then to hide me from the pain of knowing my mother didn't love us?
Pushing past the painful memories, I thought about the happier times in my childhood, but I didn't remember him being in my head during those times. So maybe he was invented by my imagination, and he'd just become so much a part of me that I'd made him seem real.
Torn from my train of thought, I looked up from the mutilated meatloaf, potatoes and green beans on my plate and gave my dad a weak smile. His eyes dropped to my uneaten food and then back up to meet my gaze again.
"You need to eat, Bella," he coaxed, worry evident in his frown. "You haven't eaten anything that I know of in two days. That's not healthy."
"I have too eaten. I can't help it that I'm not hungry right this minute. I've got a lot on my mind okay?"
I thought back over the last few days and tried to remember what I'd eaten, then realized I couldn't. I couldn't remember anything since before my date with Edward.
Deflecting his concern, I snapped at him. "I don't keep a diary of what I eat, and I bet you don't remember everything you've eaten in the last two days either."
Guilt quickly overrode my irritation when the wrinkles in his brow deepened with even more worry. I scooped up a bite of meatloaf and potatoes with my fork and glared at the ground mush like it was the enemy. Fighting the shudder of revulsion, I forced myself to put it in my mouth and swallowed quickly without chewing. The smell alone was making me nauseous, which was surprising since the meatloaf was my own recipe and normally one of my favorite meals. I closed my eyes to shut out the sight and smell and swallowed another bite, then forced a smile onto my face.
"See? Eating. Happy now?"
Dad continued to watch me silently, like a bug under a microscope, like he was waiting for something to happen. I viciously stabbed several green beans this time; the screech of my fork against the stoneware echoed in my ears. I swallowed the green beans just as quickly, trying not to let them touch my tongue on the way down. My stomach rolled, and I jumped up from the table, knocking over my chair in my dash to the bathroom down the hall.
I barely made it in time to relieve my stomach. Dad handed me a damp washcloth to wipe my face and mouth, to which I mumbled a quiet "thank you." I flushed the toilet and leaned back against the wall, still sitting on the floor, and wiped my face before looking up at him.
"I guess I picked up a stomach bug somewhere," I suggested.
He ignored my comment and gave me his hand, pulling me to my feet, and then enveloped me in a tight hug.
"I didn't want this for you," he mumbled against my head so softly I almost didn't catch his words.
I hugged him back, feeling guilty for getting angry about his concern. "I'm sorry."
He squeezed again and then stepped back; a half-hearted attempt at a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, making him look that much more sad. "I'll give you a minute to clean up then come into the living room."
Dad was sitting on the sofa when I joined him in the living room; a photo album lay open in his lap. I sat beside him and looked at the photos with him. Time stretched as we reminisced about events captured on film: fishing trips, birthdays, holidays, school activities, my life immortalized in film. He'd started at the end and was turning back the pages as though he could turn back time itself.
After several pages, other photographs mingled in with the ones Dad had taken, and I knew the photographer, though I couldn't see the person behind the camera. The locales were different, no longer the lush green backdrop and ever-gray, rain swollen sky of my home. These photos were filled with arid sky, red rock and cactus from when Renee lived in Arizona. There were dirt and blue skies from when she lived in El Paso, Texas for a short time. The last of these alien pictures and the only photograph taken in Florida, showed a younger me sitting in the sand, my head tilted back, smiling at the person behind me.
I reached over and grabbed the album out of his lap, slamming it closed and then tossed it onto the coffee table in front of us.
"I don't know why you put those pictures in there. She's not part of our family," I grumbled, ignoring the old hurt those photos made me feel. "I don't understand why you even called her. Why is she coming now? She certainly hasn't cared enough to be bothered to come see me before."
Dad leaned forward, flipping open the album again, and tapped the beach photo with his finger.
"Bella, you can't look at that picture and tell me your mother doesn't love you. Anyone can see it." He turned to me, seeing the stubbornness in my face and sighed. "Bella—"
"No," I yelled, standing quickly and clenching my hands into fists. "She left us! She left you, and then she left me! How can you defend her? That's not love! You would never do what she did. She could win an award for the worst mother ever! She's nothing but a worthless bitch!"
Dad stood and grabbed me by the shoulders forcing me to face him.
"Isabella Marie Swan, that's enough!" he yelled, halting my tirade. Dad rarely yelled at me, mainly because I did my best not to make him that angry. "You watch your mouth, young lady. I won't tolerate that in my house. Now, you're going to sit down and listen. Is that understood?"
My nails bit into the palms of my hand as I fought the overwhelming urge to fight my dad. It scared me how swiftly my own anger rose to the surface and threatened to bubble over.
"Sit down, Isabella," Dad repeated, this time, wariness in his tone as he took a step back. "Take a deep breath and think about your actions. You don't want to lash out and hurt your old man do you?" He chuckled nervously in an attempt to ease the tension.
I blinked, and the red haze that had washed over me left just as swiftly. Swallowing my confusion at the overwhelming need to attack my Dad, I sat back down. I noticed he didn't sit down again but instead moved to stand closer to the hall.
His grimace of apology only made me feel worse. "Sorry, kiddo. Just want a head start in case I piss you off more."
"What do you mean?"
He tugged on his mustache and then settled his hands on his hips. "Edward explained a little to me while you were resting. Evidently you're beginning to show signs of—"
He began pacing the entryway, clearly agitated by what he was about to say.
"I didn't want this. You were supposed to fall for a nice, normal boy and live a normal life. Now you're changing, and I'm so far out of my element with this. I'm the father; I can handle this. It's what I do."
He scratched the back of his head roughly while I sat there watching my dad have a mini-meltdown right before my eyes. "Maybe I should have insisted you live with your Mom, gotten you out of this town, away from all the supernatural crap that goes on around here."
He shook his head, still muttering to himself, though I could clearly hear every word he said. "No, your mom would have just found some way to parade a pack of dogs in front of you until some bullshit hocus pocus spell made you lose all sense of reason, and you were panting to have his puppies."
"Oh, my god!" I shouted, totally freaked out and embarrassed by his comments. "First off, ew! I cannot believe you're talking about me having puppies of all things. And second, what are you even talking about? Who's changing?"
He had the good sense to flush with embarrassment, freezing in his tracks and sheepishly staring back at me.
"Heard that, huh?" At my stunned nod, he continued. "Sorry, Edward mentioned your hearing was improving, too."
Now I scratched my head, clearly annoyed. "What does my hearing have to do with anything? And while we're at it, what are you talking about? You're making absolutely no sense, talking about dogs and puppies. I don't understand."
His shoulders slumped, defeated; he sat in an armchair near the doorway, still unwilling to venture any closer to me. Leaning forward, he braced his forearms on his legs and clasped his hands together in front. He took a deep breath and began.
"Okay, you know Edward's coven—or family as they call themselves—are vampires, and you understand what that means, right?"
I rolled my eyes in reply. He sighed, accepting my non-verbal reply to the obvious.
"Right, okay then. Well, then you also get that all of them used to be human. When a person is—" He paused, mumbling under his breath again. "I swear I'm having flashbacks to our talk about the birds and the bees right now."
His shoulders shuddered in memory. I didn't know whether to shudder with him or laugh out loud. "When a person is bitten by a vampire, the venom will either kill them or turn them into a vampire. They—"
"Wait," I interrupted, shaking my head. "Edward didn't bite me. I'm not a vampire. I'm still just as human as you or anyone else is."
Dad's eyes turned glassy as he stared at me. "No you're not, Bella. You're not a vampire, but you aren't wholly human anymore, either. You're somewhere in between. It's subtle, but you're changing. You haven't eaten, and when you do, food makes you sick. You heard me mumbling from across the room. Edward said you tried to bite him when you—"
He cleared his throat, unwilling to finish his sentence. "He said you also attacked Alice today when you got upset."
"That doesn't mean anything," I scoffed. "So I got carried away in the moment with Edward. Lots of people go nuts in the throes of passion. Maybe I'm one of them."
"What about attacking Alice? That's not like you either."
Unconsciously, my fists clenched and a snarl filled the air as I thought back to why I'd gotten so angry. "She tried to imply that Edward wasn't really mine since I'm human and can't mark him like vampires do when they claim a mate. Edward is my mate. He showed me that I'd bit him over his heart. I didn't even know I'd done it. It was instinct, but I did. I bit him the same as all vampire women do to their mates."
"Bella, you realize you just proved my point. You admitted yourself that you're changing," Dad stated, cautiously.
It wasn't that I didn't want to be with Edward. I loved him, and I knew he was my mate. My stubborn refusal to believe the truth stemmed more from my fear of change of any kind. There was comfort in the familiar. Change never brought good things. Change was my mother walking out on us. Change was every time I got used to seeing her in a new setting and reconnecting with her, she moved again. Change was finally seeing my mother settle and then turn her back on me.
That was what change meant, and I was terrified that if I changed, Edward wouldn't want whatever I became. If I changed, maybe my dad wouldn't be able to love me anymore, either.
"No!" I shouted. "I'm not changing! I'm still me, and I'll prove it to you!"
I ran, and he stood to try and stop me. I pushed him to the side without thought and ran into the kitchen. I yanked a sharp boning knife from the wooden block on the counter and then rushed back into the living room.
Dad was still rising from the floor, using the chair as leverage. He froze when he saw the knife in my hand.
"Bella, put the knife down. You don't want to do anything you'll regret later." His tone of voice only agitated me further.
"I'm not one of your criminals, so don't talk to me like that!" I snapped. I held the knife in the air in front of me. "I'm going to prove I'm still human to you."
"Oh, God, Edward, I hope Alice can see this, and you're on your way," Dad muttered, frantically. He held up his hands in front of him, turning one palm up as he slowly eased toward me. "Please, Bella, just give me the knife. I love you, baby girl, no matter what you are or become. You'll always be my little girl."
I backed up, shaking my head. "I'm not changing. See?"
"No!" he screamed as he lunged for me.
The sound of glass and wood splintering drowned out my own cry of pain. Cold arms quickly surrounded me, and everything was a blur as I was rushed to the kitchen. Voices shouted and crowded my head so I couldn't make out the words or who was yelling at first.
Slowly the haze disappeared, and I became aware of being held in Edward's arms. Carlisle was pressing white gauze that was quickly turning red to my forearm, and Alice stood in the background, attempting to comfort my dad, who looked like he was at the end of his rope.
"I don't think she cut anything vital, but she's going to need stitches," Carlisle was explaining.
"What if her shield had been up? Alice wouldn't have even seen it happening. Eleazar needs to get here soon so we can understand what's happening to her," Edward demanded. "Alice, you have to see what's happening to her. Is she going to be all right?"
"I told you, Edward. I see your wedding. It's still firmly there. That doesn't change. Bella is your mate that you've been waiting for all these years. Trust and believe in that," she insisted. "Charlie, I'm sorry. I know it's frightening, but I promise Bella is going to be okay."
Dad didn't say anything in response, only stared at me with so much pain in his eyes. I needed to fix the mess I'd made.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to freak you out. I wasn't going to stab you or anything. I just wanted to prove I was still the same."
I tugged my arm out of Carlisle's hand, pulling the gauze off in the process. My lip curled up in disgust seeing the ugly, jagged cut on my arm. It was still seeping blood steadily and the sight made me want to gag.
"Well, that wasn't my intention either," I muttered.
"What did you intend?" Carlisle questioned, placing a fresh padding of gauze over the cut.
I huffed, irritated that everyone was thinking I was a candidate for the nut house now. "I only meant to cut my palm to show my dad that I was still human. He said I'm not—"
"I said you're changing, Bella. I didn't say you weren't still you," Dad interjected.
I waved my hand in the air, accepting his correction. "Fine, whatever. The point is I wasn't trying to attack you or kill myself, so if that's what you're all thinking, just stop."
My action caused the new gauze to fall to the ground, and I held my arm up for closer inspection. "It's not that bad, and it doesn't even hurt."
I caught a faint whiff of something in the room. I couldn't tell what it was, but my stomach growled, reminding me I still hadn't eaten, and I was hungry. I turned my wrist, fascinated by the small rivulet of blood running down toward my elbow.
"Let's get that cleaned up, and then I'll give you a local so I can stitch it up."
Carlisle reached for my hand, and I snarled at him. "Mine!"
Shock froze his hand long enough that I brought my arm to my face and quickly licked the blood away before anyone could stop me.
End Note: Good news is I already have 1300 words written for the next chapter so I'm off to a good start.