Until I arrived at my destination I hadn't really thought. At all. In previous lives I had been scolded for thinking too much, in my last I had encouraged thinking in girls and boys alike, but the power of thought had escaped me until now. My feet had carried me unbidden to where I most desperately needed to be and now halted, my sensible shoes clinging to the very edge of a cliff.
It was so beautiful. The bright summer grasses were tossed about in the lively breeze like the tresses of Mother Nature; where they abruptly ended formed a line of endless air so roughly perfect that a poet would have been proud. The sky was mottled blue and silver in a limitless panorama; the concealed sun lent the clouds a suggestion of gentleness and of other-worldliness. Below me, the rocks gave the grey a texture sharp and jagged, and the water lapped at their foot like a continual caress. To me, it spelt freedom, a freedom obtainable after just one tiny step.
They say when one is close to death, one's whole life returns to flash in the eyes and command remembrance. I was so grateful that my own memory was more selective, but how could my mind have the strength to present all of my twenty six years to me? Scarely could I recall the days and weeks before my tragedy. What I saw then, awaiting the breaking of a promise of life, were my own broken promises of previous lives.
"Now remember, when you come back in the fall, you won't be coming to my classroom. Tell me, where will you be going?"
"Mr Whiting's classroom," the class of six to eight year olds chorused, some more prompt than others. Nicholas Tompkinson failed to answer entirely, occupied as he was staring out the window. I didn't bother to admonish him, given the proximity of the end of the school year, and the child's obvious excitement.
The questioner was little Grace Stevens, a remarkably bright girl who nevertheless constantly doubted her own intelligence. With six boisterous older siblings, it was not hard to see why.
"What if we don't remember which one is Mr Whiting's classroom?" she asked, her blue eyes round with anxiety.
I smiled. "There are only four classrooms, dear; it shouldn't be too hard."
"But what if?" she persisted.
"Then ask someone else in the class. I'm sure most of them will remember," I added, a little pressure to ensure my expectations would be met.
"Can't we ask you?" piped up Ellen from the front row. The most timid child in the class, I was constantly surprised when she spoke.
"Well, Ellen, if I'm here then of course you can ask me. But I might not be here for the first few weeks of the semester, so you may have to ask one of your classmates, or another teacher."
"Because you'll be looking after your baby!" exclaimed redhead Benjamin Roberts, who, being an only child like myself, was ridiculously excited at the thought of his schoolteacher having a baby. Next to him, Peter Burton looked faintly disgusted, as the brother to a month-old baby sister.
Outside, there came the much-anticipated sound of the school bell clanging raucously, and I hurried to speak before the stampede could begin: "Enjoy your summer! Class dismissed!"
Only barely did I precede Nicholas rushing out the door with a hasty, "Goodbye ma'am!" flung out behind him. At least he had the semblance of good manners.
I knew I should be harsher on the children, and many a time my fellow teachers had advised me to give this child or that—usually Nicholas—a quick caning, but I couldn't. Not when I had been so punished myself for actions I didn't believe were wrong.
Turning to the chalkboard, I took out an eraser and removed all trace of the punctuation of compound sentences. I was glad that no other teacher had left the odd word at the top of the board, as I was now less and less willing to stretch up that far, my heavy belly pulling me down. I was eight months with child and should not have been in school at all but, truth be told, I needed the money. It was my only source of income and I had the rent coming up. I was fortunate that my due date fell in the summer so my time off work would be minimal, though I loathed the thought of leaving my baby at home to go out and teach.
"Mrs Evenson, ma'am?"
The sound of my name startled me, thought it no longer stung as it used to. It was my name now, not merely my husband's.
I turned to see timid little Ellen still sitting at her desk in the otherwise empty classroom.
"Yes, dear?" I asked, shocked that any child, even such as Ellen, would remain in school a moment longer than was strictly necessary in summer.
"What if... what if you die when you have your baby?"
This was the reason the poor girl was so shy; her own mother had died giving birth to a stillborn baby just last winter. She had been left to be brought up by her father, and although he had been a most amiable man and the town's most frequented shopkeeper, he had turned to drink after his beloved wife's death. His poor daughter was left to fend primarily for herself. His shop on the corner of the street was falling into disrepair and business was ever-slowing thanks to his drunken manner, yet he seemed not to care. People in the town said he was a walking tragedy, but I was more inclined to apply that label to the girl sitting before me in a dress that was at least six inches too short.
I bent down—a task rather more difficult than it had been a few months ago—to speak to her on her level. "Ellen, dear, I very much doubt that I will die. It's summer, so the midwife will be able to get to me quite easily."
She nodded fearfully.
"Now don't think on it anymore. Have a lovely summer."
Recognising the dismissal, she stood and made her way slowly to the door.
On an impulse, I called her back: "Ellen!"
She faced me silently.
"I shall come and show you my new baby when he is old enough. Would you like that?"
At this, a clear promise, she brightened considerably and nodded vigorously. "Goodbye, ma'am," she said.
"I'm sorry, Ellen."
I said these words out loud to let the breeze catch them and take them to a lost little girl in the dusty apartment above a corner shop to tell her that I had lied.
The first tear slid down my cheek, and I ignored it along with my responsibility to little motherless Ellen as well as the staff who would need a new teacher and the children whom I would have taught the following year.
These people were the only family I had in this life, the one that I had made for myself. Only days ago, I had been so proud of myself for making it, for climbing to the top of the proverbial apple tree, but everyone knows that pride must precede a fall, and I fell so hard, just as I always did.
It was time to stop climbing.
"I'm sorry, Dr Cullen."
The year was 1911, the time was late on an October evening and Dr Litchfield was out of town. My father complained bitterly about having to cart me into Columbus, especially so late, but it couldn't be avoided, so here I was in the hospital, waiting to be seen for my quietly throbbing broken leg.
I looked up from my penitent study of my dirty fingernails to see the most glorious creature ever sighted on this earth.
"That's her," my father said gruffly, indicating me with a jerk of the head.
I had quite forgotten to say anything in my rapture and I glanced down in shame and embarrassment. After only a second, though, I looked up again, unable to bear not seeing such beauty.
"I'm Dr Cullen, Miss Platt, and I fear it would be ridiculous of me to say 'right this way'."
I blushed, but he was smiling, and I could not keep myself from doing the same.
"I'll carry her," my father announced, standing.
Dr Cullen looked away from me and I felt the loss of his gaze worse than my broken bone.
"Ah, I'm sorry, you must be Mr Platt," he deduced. "It's alright; I can carry her to avoid jostling her leg."
Father looked down at him sceptically, for he was a lean man, unlike my father who ran our farm almost single-handedly, but Dr Cullen merely smiled and stepped toward me.
"May I?" he asked courteously.
What could I do but nod?
He picked me up with astounding gentleness and supported my weight in such a way that my leg barely hurt at all beyond the constant ache of the past hour or so. The reason, then, why I gasped was not pain but a dizzying sensation of shock at his cold skin and another feeling that I couldn't identify. I imagined it would be somewhat similar to being struck by lightning.
Too soon, he put me down softly on a hospital bed and began examining my hideous injury, writing notes and generally sorting me out. He muttered something to a passing nurse, who smiled at being addressed by him and hurried off to fetch some drug or other, and then he sat on a chair by my bed, opposite my father.
"Now, we're going to put you to sleep so I can set your leg," he explained to me. "Have you ever been under anaesthetic before?"
I shook my head dumbly.
"Never been in hospital before," put in my father.
"Well, it's nothing to worry about," he said kindly. "You'll be asleep before you can count to twenty."
I wished I could tell him that I wasn't afraid, that I was rarely afraid of anything, but I was terribly worried that I would say something my father would consider improper. As his sole heiress, he was always concerned over my reputation; he wanted me to marry someone who could keep the farm going, but also who would improve our social status. This was never discussed, of course, but I couldn't escape the knowledge; as such, I couldn't afford to appear foolish to a man of such standing as a doctor.
Privately, I thought it was all rather silly. Whoever I did marry would be marrying me, not the farm. I wasn't inclined to marriage, either; I would rather take my own job somewhere, and I couldn't do both. And surely it didn't matter either way what a man such as Dr Cullen thought of me; he wasn't going to personally seek out any suitor for my hand and tell them that I was a flighty, foolish girl with ideas too grand for her own head.
Still, I would rather he didn't that of me, so I kept my silence and didn't confess that it would have been impossible for me to be scared of an anaesthetic when he was the one administering it.
I remember little of the time immediately following waking up, partly because of the pain medication he gave me. I do remember that waking up was the most bizarre sensation I had ever experienced. I was drowsy, yet much as I tried, I couldn't fall asleep again as the anaesthetic wore off and I grew steadily more awake and aware of Dr Cullen working over me.
This was the other reason that I don't remember much of what happened after waking up; all I did was examine him. He was like a painting, a masterpiece, and I had the great fortune to be allowed to look on him. To begin with, I had been so struck by his beauty that I hadn't bothered to see why it was so, but as he worked I noted his pale, perfect complexion, his straight, strong jaw, his elegant fair hair and his eyes. Those eyes were the colour of rich honey and deeper than an ocean. I found myself trying to guess his age; he looked to be only in his mid-twenties but those eyes looked as if they had seen the turn of more than one century.
Abruptly, I realised that Dr Cullen was fully aware that I was awake and looking amused by my blatant staring. I blushed, and glanced to my father to see if he had noticed my immodest scrutiny, but he was looking to a wall clock in ill-concealed impatience.
Dr Cullen saw it too. "Mr Platt, if you need to return home, your daughter can stay in overnight."
It was now nearing ten o' clock, and Father stood immediately to leave before pausing. "I'll be needing to harvest tomorrow," he said, and made to sit down again.
I was not sure whether I felt disappointed about this turn of events or glad. On the one hand, I desperately wanted to spend more time in the presence of Dr Cullen, but on the other I was not sure whether to do so with my off-putting father absent would be entirely wise.
"I could take her home after my night shift ends," the doctor suggested. "If you don't mind," he added, but I couldn't be certain as to whom he addressed.
Normally my father would never have assented, but thanks to my injury he had already lost my aid with the animals in the morning and he was reluctant to lose any more working time than was strictly necessary. "Alright," he agreed, and quickly he instructed Dr Cullen on how to get to our farm.
"Esme," he said sternly before he left, and I bowed my head in anticipation. "I hope you appreciate what I fuss you've caused."
"Yes, Father," I murmured guiltily.
"Hmph," he grunted disbelievingly. "I'll be seeing you tomorrow."
Then he was gone, and I was left alone with Dr Cullen.
"I hope you don't mind my taking you home," he said. "I was going to ask you…"
"Not at all!" I said quickly, then realised I had interrupted. "Sorry."
He smiled. "Don't worry."
My leg had now been straightened out and Dr Cullen was in the process of binding it in place. I watched his long fingers as they moved over my skin, and almost wished it wasn't numb.
"Tell me why you were climbing trees, then," he suggested, concentrating on his work.
I blushed. "Father told you about that."
"It's standard procedure: I had to ask how you were injured. If it makes you feel better, he didn't volunteer the information," he told me.
I could imagine that Father would not have been eager to reveal my folly.
"I was being stupid," I said dismissively of myself.
He glanced up. "It was only stupid if you didn't have a reason," he told me.
"Even if it was a stupid reason?"
"Well, what was this stupid reason?"
He looked into my eyes and I looked into his, and somehow I found myself answering truthfully.
"I was watching the sunset. The tree—it's an apple tree that I can see from my window, and it always blocks the sunset. Yesterday I sat against it, but there were other trees to block the sun, so I thought I'd climb it. Stupidly."
"Did you see the sunset?"
He sounded interested. Why he should be interested, I had no idea. Perhaps he spoke to all his patients like this, to distract them from their injuries. If that was so, he was a marvellous actor. He sounded as though my silly tale were captivating, as though he were seeing the world afresh after decades of stagnancy.
"Yes. Well, I saw half, but then I forgot where I was and fell out of the tree."
He laughed softly, and although it didn't sound as though he were laughing at me, I still blushed.
Presently, he finished strapping me up and placed my leg oh-so-gently back on the bed.
"Thank you," I said politely.
"No need to thank me for doing my job," he replied, leaving me feeling slightly rebuffed, though I tried not to show it. "But you're welcome," he added, and my world brightened again. "And now, you had best get some sleep, and I shall see you in the morning. Goodnight, Miss Platt."
I beamed, quite sure I would not sleep for hours yet. "Goodnight, Dr Cullen."
The following day he had taken me home in a horse drawn buggy, and it had been then that I had become truly enchanted. From the way he lifted me to the very inflection of his speech, he was perfect. A perfect what; I wasn't quite sure, but I had no need to be. We talked incessantly for the long ride home, and though our conversations certainly began with pleasantries and trivialities, we quickly moved to discussing my deepest hopes and dreams.
"I would love to be a teacher, somewhere out West in a little town."
He had asked why, with genuine curiosity.
"Because I'd like to make a difference. My parents don't approve of all my reading, they think it's useless, but I would love to teach some other little farm girl enough that she could be a teacher, or a nurse, or something else educated."
Like Grace Stevens, who didn't even believe in herself enough to think that she would remember which in class she would be. Grace Stevens who no one ever listened to, who I had tried to encourage to speak up when she had an answer.
"But I know I can't. I have to stay and make sure the farm carries on; I have no brothers or sisters you see."
Like enthusiastic Benjamin Roberts, who was so excited about my pregnancy. Like poor, abandoned Ellen.
"Ah, but Esme, God gave you your intelligence to use. People used to tell me that I couldn't be a doctor because I was too young, or because I was new to the area, but because I kept trying, I made the life that I wanted to live. It's like you climbing your apple tree. You wanted to achieve something, so you made it happen. You climbed to the top of your apple tree."
I had wanted to laugh. Childish laughter which I would never hear again.
"But I fell out."
"So you got up again. Admittedly you needed help to o that, but in six weeks time you'll be quite able to go and watch your sunset again. You go out West, Esme Platt, and teach school, because you can climb that tree."
I did. When I had fallen the first time, when I had lost my first life as innocent Esme Platt and gained a new one as Charles Evenson's battered wife, I got up again and made the best of it. When yet another life began inside me, I ran and created the life that I had always wanted, that Dr Cullen had told me I could. I had reached the top of the tree only four days ago.
Today, after all my deliberation, all my determination that brought me to the edge of a cliff, I didn't jump. I fell.
My sudden pang of loss, the loss of everything I knew and loved and owned, threw me off balance and as I doubled over in pain, I lost my balance. My sensible school shoes lost their tenuous grip on the last life that I had known, and with a scream, I fell.
With the vivid imagination that my parents had sought to curb, I could imagine my body tumbling, flailing, breaking. I hadn't thrown myself clear of the rockface, so I hit rock after stone after ledge after boulder, breaking a new bone with every impact.
A/N: Welcome to Esme's story! A touch of clarification, first. No, she's not thinking about her son. She's trying oh-so-hard not to think about him. Of course I'm not going to leave it at that, but right now, Esme is. No, they didn't really discuss Carlisle back in 1911. He was trying to keep the conversation from him because he could see that she was interested enough to look him up in the future and furthermore he was genuinely interested in her. She wasn't monopolising the conversation selfishly.
The next chapter will be from Carlisle's point of view as a young woman is being taken to the morgue.