"SORT OF BEAUTIFUL CHALLENGE" Entry
Title: Do You Remember?
Your pen name(s): LJ Summers
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Official Disclaimer: All trademarked characters and situations, familiar quotes and lamentations are the intellectual property of Stephenie Meyer. I have just enjoyed obsessing!
It was another game of Do You Remember. We played it often during our lives together, she and I. I held her tiny body against my own large one and relished the heartbeat I could feel beating between us, the subtle motions she made with her limbs, the soft, warm breaths that moved the air over my skin. I relished her humanity, in all its manifestations. I remembered too clearly that, long ago, that humanity had been close to being taken from her. How many times? But she had chosen life. She had chosen me.
"Do you remember the truck I built for you?" I murmured over her hair, wisps of it moving with my breath. "The old Chevy?"
Her lips skimmed my skin. "Yes... It smelled like peppermints, inside. Like you were maybe trying to hide some other kind of smell." She lifted her head a little and grinned up at me through her lashes. "I never did want to ask what it was!"
I laughed lightly and she settled back against me again. "Probably fish," I told her. "Your turn."
Her fingers traced small circles on my ribcage. I waited patiently for her to pick through her favorite memories, wondering if I could guess which she would choose first. The time she climbed too high in a tree the winter we were engaged? Our first backyard barbecue after our honeymoon?
The births of our children? Those. I would bet on those.
As always, though, my Bella surprised me. "Do you remember when I went cliff diving the first time?"
I frowned, unbeknownst to her, at the top of her head as we rocked gently in the hammock. It was a huge hammock, with ample reinforcement. "The first time you went without me or the first time I jumped with you?" I asked.
Her fingers kept tracing patterns, now figure-eights, on my skin. "When I went without you."
I stilled her hand with my own and pressed a kiss to her hair. "I will never, ever forget that day, Bells. I think I aged fifty years trying to get you out of the water."
She looked up at me again, her eyes laughing. "That explains the worry-lines in your forehead!" She slid one hand up my chest, caressing my throat and jaw before her pale fingers reached my forehead. Her voice was soft and warm and as young as it ever had been when she whispered, "You're still sort of beautiful, you know. You always have been."
I grinned at her with my whole heart. "I think we need to get you some glasses, Mrs. Black."
"Nope," she countered, a sudden yawn taking over half her face. "Pardon me," she said with a soft blush. "I guess I'm more tired than I thought, sweetheart."
"S'okay, Bella. Go to sleep."
Making a slight side-to-side rocking motion with my hips, I set the hammock to a smooth swinging pattern. My Bella was asleep almost immediately, her soft murmurs moving over my skin. With the ease of much practice, I managed to scoot out from under her half-body embrace and get first my left foot then the rest of myself off the canvas and rope hammock.
"My Jacob," she murmured with a bare motion of her lips. "Mmmmm..."
I smiled and bent over her to place a gentle kiss to her forehead. "My Bella."
I relocated to the long, broad picnic table a body-length from the hammock. My laptop was there, and I was able to check on my e-mail. The kids kept in touch, that way. Our oldest two grandkids, too. Even those who still lived on the Rez – not too many, these days, but a few of them – used electronics to communicate instead of just dropping by.
Well, I didn't blame 'em. Not really.
Mom and Dad - Hey! The new horse foaled and we've got another breeder! Pictures attached. Show Mom the one with the baby in the saddle; you know she'll freak out!
Call you guys soon! Love, Bill
Dear Grandpa Jake and Grandma Bella - The first week of school was fine, thank you for asking. I don't like the bus. It smells funny. Like burnt marshmallows or something. Our driver is a big guy with brown hair and yellow eyes. Have you seen yellow eyes before, Grandpa? Dad says not to stare and Mom says to keep an eye on him. I will do both.
Love, Princess Buttercup (you know it's me, Melly!)
Dear Jacob - Please pardon my intrusion.
The first line of this last e-mail had me double-checking where it had come from. Huh. EAM at longtimenosee dot org. Right. It had been decades since I'd been mad enough to break furniture, but I could feel a near-helpless, almost instinctive anger vibrate bone-deep within me.
The feeling did not diminish as I stared at the first line and debated with myself whether or not to read the rest.
"Hell," I muttered under my breath. "It's been, what, thirty years since the last time he pulled this? Fine. He's behaved himself. I guess I can, too."
Please pardon my intrusion. It's Bella's birthday in a couple of days, as you are no doubt aware, and we wanted to wish her a happy sixtieth natal anniversary. If it would not be overstepping, might we come by in person to do so? The whole family has scattered somewhat over the past decades, but we planned on gathering to celebrate this milestone of one who will always feel like one of our family.
If this is not possible at this time, we would like to send gifts, if that is allowable. Surely enough time has passed, even for you, for this not to be perceived as anything other than a friendly, familial gesture.
Please respond as soon as it is convenient so we can make our arrangements.
Thank you for reading and for your anticipated answer.
Sincerely, Edward Cullen
My first instinct was to delete the damned thing. I didn't. I didn't because, as the violent fury softened into a more manageable irritation, I happened to glance at my beautiful Bella. Her skin was as soft as it had ever been. Pale and clear and nearly wrinkle-free, in spite of the years that had passed. Good genes, she had said often. My mother-in-law, Renée, almost eighty, looked to be in her late sixties herself. Bella's hair was braided down her back, the rich mahogany threaded beautifully with striking white segments. My own hair was white, though the rest of me looked more or less as a man in his forties might. Good genes ran in the Black family, as well.
It wasn't her petite frame or the hollow of her cheek or the slight softening of her jawline that made my wife look fragile. It was the lost light in her eyes. Those lovely, rich brown windows into her heart and soul. It wasn't as easy for her to find her way to the present, from wherever it was her spirit resided. So we played our game a few times every day.
Did I want the Cullens to see her like this? Would it hurt or help her? I couldn't ask her. If she remembered Edward Cullen from her late teenage years, well and good. He would appear exactly the same...
Stupid lightbulb that went off in my head decided for me. As the late autumn sun set over the house and the small insects that inhabited the coastal communities started to buzz in anticipation of their next meals, I stared at my computer screen and wondered how best to put this to him. And all the rest of them, too.
Long time, no see indeed. Very funny.
So you celebrate Bella's birthday? Well I am sure she would be touched. Me, I think that sounds strange, but then I'm not – not in your league.
This is the thing, Edward. I am not entirely sure Bella will know you if you come to see her. She has not celebrated her birthday since the kids moved out – she never has liked it, thank YOU very much, and only relented in the past so that our kids could celebrate it. Additionally, she hasn't remembered her birthday in at least a couple of years. At least, not on her birthday. As a cloudy memory of something she hates, yes. But not as a specific event.
She has been losing her memory, Edward. Her doctors initially claimed Alzheimer's Syndrome, but the latest tests have concluded it isn't quite that either. In any event, as much as we try, we lose a little more all the time.
If you come, she might not remember you. This might upset her a lot. I mean, a LOT. And if it does, you'll have to leave immediately, no questions, no farewells, nothing. None of you. I won't have her upset more than she tends to be already. No mention of her birthday, either. Not at all. She won't have it and I won't have her upset.
If you come and she does remember you, she might still be very confused. Please do not ask her for more than she volunteers. I am only allowing you to visit because it might help her to have such a solid evidence of her memories.
If these are not circumstances and conditions that you want to deal with, then don't come. Just let me know if you are, so I can prepare Bella.
"Right here, honey." I smiled into her eyes and was happy just to see the light in them. The sunshine that shone just for me. I was her personal sun; she had told me more than once over the years. I hoped to always be worthy of that identity. "Just answering some mail. Bill's mare foaled. They've got a new filly."
She carefully balanced in the hammock until she was able to roll off it without falling. "Wonderful! Is there a picture?"
Encouraged, I pulled her to my lap and called up the picture Bill had sent us, of little Isabella in the saddle. "See? And the foal is right there."
Bella cocked her head and pouted. "Who's the baby? It's not safe for the baby. Who's that? Is that Melly? She shouldn't be up there. Tell Bill I said so!" Pushing herself off my lap, Bella huffed and moved to go back into the house. "I'll go make dinner. D'you want Harry Clearwater's fish fry, sweetheart? Charlie loves it."
As her voice slid into our house, I pushed my laptop away and buried my face in my hands. Then, and only then, did I allow my sorrow and fears overtake me to shake my shoulders and turn my elbows to butter. The gasping sobs that came from my throat could barely be recognized as human. The cracks in my heart were breaking open wider, wider every day or so...
"Oh, Bella... Come back to me... We're too young to be dealing with this. Please, honey... Come back..."
Charlie had been dead for fifteen years.
"Do you remember the first time you rode a horse bareback?" I wondered over Bella's head as we gazed into the blue-tipped fire in our hearth. The stone held and radiated the heat into the room and we listened in comfort to the pounding rain overhead. This fireplace was in our bedroom and she and I were nestled in blankets and surrounded by pillows this evening after sharing a bath that had reminded me why our first son had been born a mere seven months after our marriage...
Oh, Bella... She was my wife and was still the light of my life. Still the woman who made the blood pulse proudly within my body. Which was why I remembered that first ride we had taken together, so long ago.
She pressed herself up against me now, her body warm and relaxed against mine. "Did I do that? Me? I don't remember riding bareback. Just in a saddle with Billy." Her smile was vacant, now, and I clenched my jaw over her head. Clenched it against the pain that ripped through me. Each one of these precious, beautiful times was being stripped from her... And I couldn't do a damn thing about it.
I drew in a long, slow breath over the agony in my chest. "Do you remember last Christmas? When our granddaughter, Melly, made the hot apple cider?"
Bella leaned back to find my eyes with her own. "That sounds lovely. Did she do that?" Her face scrunched together as she tried to remember. Then, on a half-gasp, she sniffled. I caught a falling tear as she dropped her head. "Jake..." she rasped. "Jake...why can't I remember that? Why? Why are my hands like this? I don't remember getting so old, Jake..."
Her prior serenity was lost amid her fearful trembling and I trembled, too, my own cries silent. I wouldn't frighten her further.
"I don't know, Bells. But I know that I love you. I always have, and I always will."
Her heart tripped a little in her chest – I could feel it, since she was pressed tightly against me. Her breath stopped and started with a catch in her throat. "I love you, Jacob. I know that. I know that if I can't remember anything... I'll remember that. I – I promise..."
Then, my tears fell into her hair. She felt them, touched them, and turned on my lap to hold me, as if she would comfort me. "Jacob... Don't be sad. I love you. I have always loved you. Always."
I remembered the guests we'd be having in the morning and closed my eyes before burying my face in her strawberry-scented hair. "I've always loved you too, Bella. Always." Then I remembered our game and tried to get back to it. Away from the sense of loss that surrounded me like a lead blanket. "Your turn, Bells honey."
"My turn?" Her words were whispered to my collarbone. "For what, sweetheart?"
"The remembering game."
It was silent again. Silent for so long that I thought perhaps she had fallen asleep in my arms. A sensation at once so familiar, yet now so poignant. Her body stilled suddenly and then she laughed. A light laugh. A young laugh.
"Do you remember our wedding? I wanted to be barefoot, remember?"
I smiled wistfully and tilted her head back to kiss her tenderly on the forehead. "I do. You have perfect feet, you know."
She wiggled her toes in front of the fire, the orange glow casting shadows on the fair skin on top of her feet. "Amazing, you know, when you think about it. Did I ever break a toe?"
"I think you broke all of them," I told her with a chuckle. "At one time or another."
"I must have had a good doctor."
"You did." I remembered Carlisle Cullen. "He got on my nerves sometimes, but you have had at least one superior doctor."
"Do you know what today is?" she asked, her voice lilting and drifting like a stick on the waves. "It's Billy's birthday."
I swallowed thickly against the renewed pain. "Is it? He didn't remind me." He had died eighteen years ago, in a fishing accident.
At the time of Charlie's death, Bella had actually smiled at the funeral. "They're all fishing together now, wherever they are. Harry and Billy and my dad. I bet they will all catch one this big," she had said at the memorial, extending her arms out as far as they would go.
Everyone had chuckled with her. Even me.
"I should call him," Bella said now. "See if he wants some of those special cookies I made for him. The ones his doctor said were good."
"Not just now, honey," I whispered, resting my chin on her head. "Let's go to bed."
Suddenly, she was with me again. Her smile was bright. "Carry me?"
"Anywhere, honey. Anywhere."
My phone rang. "Hello?"
"Jacob? It's Edward."
I blew out a breath, wondering for the fiftieth time since the sun rose that morning if this was going to be a good idea or not. "Edward."
There was a pause and then, "We're about half an hour out. Will that – will that be all right? Have you told her we're coming?"
"I've told her some old friends of hers are coming by. She's nervous, but bustling around and smiling, so that's something." I only hoped it would last.
"All right then. We didn't bring her our presents," he said, and I thought I could hear him smile, "but you might be receiving some deliveries over the next week or so."
I snorted. "Yeah, okay. Thank you," I said with overt politeness so broad it bordered on rudeness. "See you in a few."
"Yes, and – and thank you, Jacob. This means a lot... to all of us."
Two cars pulled up in front of our home, the gravel grinding beneath them. Bella had been waiting on the sofa inside, watching out the window. She was wearing a long denim skirt and a colorful top with red and white designs, reminiscent of some of the tribal symbols of my people. A wolf – our tribe's totem – had been woven into the pattern at random intervals. It was warm and sentimental and perfect for this, her sixtieth birthday.
"Jake! Our guests are here! In two cars! Wow!" She hopped to her tiny booted feet and smoothed a stray ringlet back into one of the braids that fell over her shoulder. The braids were the latest fashion among all the women, young and old alike, at the Rez over the last several years. Bella liked to look as good as the next woman. Her eyes flew to mine, anxiety written all over her face as she bit her lip in a gesture as old as she was herself. "Do I look all right? Who is it?"
"Old friends from high school, Bells. We all used to...hang out, back then." Sure we did. Well. He tried. We tried. Then he left her again and it was just Bella and Jacob, same as it was supposed to be...
Her nod was short and sharp. "Okay. Okay. Let's go to the door, then."
I tucked her up next to me, in case she was afflicted with any painful memories that might upset her, and we opened the door together. "Hello!"
Anticipation and hope rushed suddenly through my body when I saw Bella's warm, welcoming smile. "Hello, hello! It's been so long," she said, extending her hands to the pale, golden-eyed figures that slid gracefully from their cars.
Edward reached her first and I had to blink a few times. Do you still read minds, Edward? I wondered in my head.
His nod was smooth, almost invisible as he focused almost entirely on Bella. Even though I knew he would be unchanged with the passage of time, it was eerie to see him so very much the same. Oh, his clothes were modern and well-made. They always had been, I remembered. The entire Cullen family wore pale colors that drew attention away from the extreme pallor of their undead flesh. But to see them all...so young-looking. I knew Carlisle Cullen to be over four centuries old, but he looked as youthful as one of my own sons.
We had legends, among our people. Legends that lived and breathed. Legends that had almost taken my Bella away from me, once. Legends that would soon be entering my own living room with their yellow eyes and graceful motions.
Edward accepted Bella's welcoming handclasp. "Bella. It has been a long time."
Her voice was determined and bright. "It has! Come in, all of you."
Slowly, tentatively they followed. Remember, Edward, she still hasn't said your names. None of your names. Please be careful. I'll have to introduce you in a minute if she doesn't remember herself.
Another nod. Edward did not let his gaze slip from Bella all the while, as she greeted the others, had them sit in comfortable chairs and on the sofas and returned to stand next to me.
Her smiles were a mask. I could feel tension vibrating in her whole body. Finally, she cleared her throat, a blush suffusing her skin. "I am sorry. I didn't get out a yearbook or anything and I can't seem to remember everyone's name."
Edward's eyes closed on a pain that I completely understood. Alice bit her lips against a cry, and I could see Esme grab Carlisle's hand.
Emmett, unsurprisingly, gripped Rosalie's and grinned at Bella. I held no animosity toward the largest man of the Cullen Clan. He was still smaller than I had been, back in the day. "Bella! I'm Emmett and this is my wife, Rosalie. We were seniors when you were a junior, back in Forks."
"Oh! You look like you could still be in school. Amazing! Are you living in Los Angeles, these days? I've heard they have some great –"
Rosalie coughed and laughed at the same time. "So have I! Incredible, aren't they?" Yet, in her gaze I saw longing. The beautiful girl's focus drifted about the living room, seeing the digitally framed images of our family. Four children and three grandchildren, with two more on the way. Pictures of our parents, pictures of all of us together. "You have a beautiful family, Bella. I'm so – so happy for you."
Bella blushed again and leaned more firmly into me. I heard her breath catch unevenly in agitation. She was frightened. The tiny vampire, Alice, and her mate, Jasper – he was a fighter, that one – spoke next. "So are we," Jasper said as Alice tried to get out a coherent sentence, but managed only to murmur something incoherent.
I had to remember that they were remembering Bella as a young woman. To see her so changed in manner and memory, and even appearance, had to be a shock. I had lived with and loved her for so long that the changes – though noted – were normal, for my eyes.
"I'm Alice and this is Jasper, Bella. Do you remember going shopping with me? We used to get into so much trouble! We had sleepovers..." Alice's voice dwindled in sad disappointment that she tried to hide.
Bella swallowed hard and gripped one of my hands in both of hers. She studied Alice and Jasper carefully, but shook her head.
Jasper cleared his throat unnecessarily. "We, ah, went to Phoenix together, the three of us, Bella. Once. Do you remember that?"
We could hear Edward hiss at him. I knew the story behind that trip and would have thrown Jasper out of my house myself –
– if Bella had been even remotely affected. She wasn't. Her focus slid over Edward, whose mouth opened as if he'd say something, but she didn't give him a chance.
"You," she said slowly with a nod at Carlisle. "You. I do remember you. In a hospital." She beamed proudly up at me. "He was one of my doctors, wasn't he?"
All of us sighed in satisfaction at this evidence of her memory. I dropped a kiss on her head. "Yep." Carlisle beamed at Bella. Can a vampire's chest puff out in pride? I think his did. Esme grinned at him, anyway.
"Bella, do you remember me?"
Edward's voice was velvet over steel, hope over tension, wistfulness over desperation. I knew each nuance of that voice because it echoed the thoughts in my head, the times I was all alone and knew it and could vent my fear and anger and frustration to the children. I knew that voice. I used to hate it; I couldn't anymore. No more than I could hate anyone that loved Bella. She was so perfectly lovable.
And she had chosen me.
Bella held very still as she slowly brought her focus to Edward's face. He looked like a marble statue at a museum. A Greek or Roman guy, maybe. But young. So young. I remembered being intimidated by him. Seemed silly, now. It was like a tree being mad at a rock. Two totally different types of creatures that didn't even breathe the same air. He would always remain a rock. Unchanging. I would grow and age and fall, someday. But which of us had really lived?
Now my wife frowned prettily, tiny wrinkles lining her forehead. "I feel like I should remember," she whispered, more to herself, I think, than to Edward.
He smiled crookedly at her and rose to his feet, crossing the room to take her hands in his. Her heart thundered in her chest, echoing into my body, and I felt myself tightening up – the old rivalry, I guessed. I made myself relax, my arm around my wife reminding me to be polite.
"You should," Edward agreed, a gentle hope shining in his eyes. "We were –" he paused, his eyes tightening at the corners before he continued. "We were lab partners in our junior year, Bella. And we had almost all our classes together for our senior year."
"We must have been friends, then. I'm so sorry..." Bella's gentle voice broke at last. She couldn't keep it up any longer. "I'm sorry... All of you... I – I can't remember... And you all look so — look so young. And I feel so – so stupid!"
She pulled her hands from Edward's and buried her face against my chest. Edward's jaw hung open for a few moments, his hands still poised in the air.
I told you, I reminded him silently. She doesn't remember any of it.
Pain etched each of his features as I wrapped my arms around Bella and tried to soothe her ragged sobs. "I'm sorry, Bella," Edward finally managed to say, his voice no longer velvet, but roughly edged. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"I just wish," she said, hiccoughing through her words, "I just wish I could remember being friends with you all. I wish I could! I'm so stupid!"
"Never," Edward and I insisted on the same breath.
At length, Edward sat uneasily again in the leather club chair he had occupied before. Bella recovered herself enough to turn to face them again and offer refreshments.
They refused, very politely, claiming they were on their way somewhere and had to go. I understood, of course. It was extremely difficult to know how to talk to someone you remembered but who didn't remember you. The pain was real. It was raw. It was something I lived with every waking moment and even in some of my dreams.
Esme kissed Bella's cheek as she left the house. This seemed to be some sort of signal that every single Cullen had to do the same thing. I could see each of them draw her scent into themselves. They still considered her a member of their family, Edward had told me in his e-mail. They had missed her. I didn't begrudge them a farewell embrace. Not any of them.
Not even Edward. My former nemesis and rival waited until the others had gone to the cars before approaching Bella again. She clung to my hand with one of hers, but extended the other to him. "I really am sorry," she whispered as he drew nearer to her. "I wish I could remember everything."
He smiled at her as he bent down to press a kiss to her forehead. It was longer than those given to her by the others, but I didn't say anything. He had nothing left of her. Nothing but memories she didn't even share, and this would likely be the last time he saw her. He heard my thoughts on this and caught my eye briefly, pain flashing from each feature on his face before he schooled his expression into a gentle smile once more. "You know what, Bella Black? I think I'm a little glad you don't remember everything," he said, trying to infuse his last moments with her with something light. Something friendly. Something pleasant. "Not all of our – adventures – were good ones."
Bella actually smiled a little at that. A genuine smile with real humor in it shone in her eyes. I breathed it in. "We got into trouble?" she wondered. "You and I?"
"You could say that!"
Glancing up at me for confirmation, she winked. "Well, I guess that makes sense. Jake has had to remind me I'm a danger magnet."
"Some things never change." He waited then, still holding her hand. "And you really don't remember."
Her sigh was melancholy. "I'm sorry." She bit her lip again and whispered, "I don't even remember your name. It's like... It's like you don't even exist, in my head."
Her words sliced through him, visibly shaking him so that he backed away. Jaw clenched, he almost stumbled to the door.
What? What is it? I demanded. Bella tried to follow him, terrified she had said something unforgivable. He shook his head and dredged up a smile.
"Jacob. Bella. It's been so long. It was – good, to see you both again. We all have missed you."
Bewildered, my wife followed him out the door and waved at the pale faces in the two shiny cars in front of our home. She waved as they drove away. And she kept waving until they were out of sight and even the dust from their passing had fallen back to the ground.
"Jacob? Do you remember when our old friends came by to visit?"
We were snuggled on the sofa, watching snow fall in late January. Bella's health had suffered extensively since November. She forgot to eat. Forgot to drink. Forgot so many basic details of living that she needed me or one of our kids around all the time, now. Her hair was in a braid down her back and she wore a flannel nightgown. "A granny gown," she had said when she bought it, laughing, two years ago. "Well it's about time I can wear one!"
"I remember," I told her now, feeling her fingers trace figure-eights on my forearms as the moon shone down through the window. "Your old doctor, best friend from high school, and – and an old boyfriend came by."
I don't know what possessed me to add that last part. Bella turned in my lap, surprise leaping in her eyes. "Which one was an old boyfriend? How could I have ever loved anyone but you, Jake? You're my sun! My personal sun!"
My insanity passed and I bent my head to brush her nose with my own. "I have no idea, honey. It was Edward."
"Edward? Was he the last one who left? The one who was so sad?"
I sighed softly, remembering. "Yeah."
She leaned back and studied my face. "He was a nice-looking boy," she said, working at her memory. "But you're – you're beautiful."
I drew her against my chest and sighed. "You too, Bells. You've always been the most beautiful thing in my world."
"I love you, Jake."
"I love you too, Bella. Now don't you forget that."