Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. "Downy flake" quote courtesy of Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Chapter title from "New York Minute" by Don Henley.
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Hope Springs Eternal
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
- Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733
The heating unit was old, one of those freestanding metal types that are covered in flaky white paint nine times out of ten. Some genius had decided it would be best situated right under the window. Even on the highest setting, it wasn't powerful enough to do much more than wheeze consumptively, offering a perfunctory cloud of warm air that didn't extend more than a foot or two into the room.
James was in the shower, and the bed was quickly growing cold without him, so cold that I finally wrapped myself up in the blanket like a mummy and tiptoed over to the vinyl-padded chair next to the heater. But being near the window meant that I was sitting smack in the middle of a draft, which often overpowered the pitiful puffs of warm. I curled up as tightly as I could and let the scratchy fabric ride up over my chin to cover my mouth and nose.
I traced my finger gently along the frost crystals that turned the glass into a glittering white forest. It was snowing. Through the pattern of icy swirls and branches that were somehow clear and opaque at the same time, I could see the occasional snowflake brush the glass before falling like a feather to the ground below. The shower wasn't running anymore, and without the rattling pipes, the room was so quiet I could almost hear the flakes hitting the window.
The only other sound's the sweep . . . of easy wind and downy flake.
James stepped out of the tiny bathroom, shirtless and still damp from his shower, but already wearing his faded jeans and halfway through another cigarette. It hurt when he'd spent four dollars on the pack of them but wouldn't let me have the last sandwich.
"I'm taking your jacket, 'kay? It's getting cold as a librarian's bed outside," James told me, reaching for the huge parka I'd been wearing for three winters now. I guess I was supposed to grow into it, though I don't think anyone grows much after sixteen.
"What about me? Who's going to warm me up?" I answered, trying to sound playful. It bothered me, these midnight runs for beer or cigarettes while I sat alone in the motel, checking the door every five minutes and wondering what I'd do next morning if James never came back at all. It was only because he knew the owner that we were able to stay here in the first place, because God knows neither of us had any money left.
"You know I don't like being nagged, babe." He was smiling, but his voice was cold as the window glass under my hand. "I thought we understood each other. The whole point of coming here was to get away from the constant nagging. If I wanted to listen to it, I'd go back to my stepmother. At least that woman can cook." He slipped into his sneakers without bothering to tie them or pull up the backs over his heels.
"Do you love me?" I thought I said the words out loud, but perhaps they were only in my head. They must have been, because James didn't answer, only stubbed out his cigarette in the glass ashtray and slipped a lighter into his shirt pocket. "I'll be back later," he told me, picking up the truck keys and my parka. "Don't wait up."
"Where are you going?" It felt better to be saying something, just so I could hear his voice responding to me. I hardly needed to ask. Jack Spatz's, Murphy's, who even cared which one? And he'd come home smelling like beer and cigarettes and pass out next to me on the bed, not holding me or anything, and he'd snore like a freight train, and I'd feel more alone being with him than I ever did when I was by myself.
"Out." The door slammed, and there was a muffled click as the lock engaged. A few stray snowflakes had snuck in and now fell against the carpet, melting so quickly it was hard to believe they'd ever been there in the first place.
I felt my nose itching and willed the tears away as I berated myself for needing reassurance — nagging, as James would say. I pulled the scratchy blanket tighter, feeling the cold air seeping through anyways. The door had been open just long enough to render the heater's paltry progress worthless. My feet were numb.
Do you love me? It had been a stupid question. Of course he loved me, or he wouldn't be with me. He could have asked Heidi to come with him when he left Seattle, or just moved on alone. But it was to me that he confided the problem with Laurent. It was me that he'd asked for help in the first place, though it made him ashamed to do so.
"You know I don't like to ask for money, Bells," he'd said, staring straight ahead out the windshield as his cigarette glowed in the darkness. "A man doesn't like to admit he can't handle his own affairs. But I think you and me are in this for the long haul, and I can't get us started if I have to leave town over that cheap dime-store hood."
It made me feel important, and I was thrilled to think that James was shaping a future in his mind that included me. So I gave it to him. A hundred and sixty of my own, that I'd put away from babysitting, and ninety dollars from Arthur Nylund's secret stash in the sideboard. He gave me that smile of his, the one that other girls find creepy because they don't know him like I do. And that night he made love to me gently, not fast and brutal like the other times.
Then it all fell apart. Laurent said he'd never gotten the payment, though James swore up and down he'd left it with Randall at the bar. And Arthur noticed the missing money from the sideboard and immediately blamed me for it. And I got kicked out. Eleven o'clock at night, and he didn't even give me time to do more than slip my shoes on before I was staring at the heavy oak front door inches from my nose, and my coat and everything I owned in the world — which, not counting my textbooks, could fit in a medium-sized duffel bag with room to spare — still inside the warm house, where the lit Christmas tree mocked me from a window I was now permanently on the wrong side of.
James wasn't a foster child, like I was, but his stepmother absolutely hated his guts. And his father was so head-over-heels in love with her that James's needs took a very distant backseat. Everybody treated him that way, and Laurent's little game was just further evidence that life wasn't going to give him a break anytime soon. I was the only one he could trust. So James said, "Apparently, this town's not liking either of us, baby. Let's you and me show them our back tires."
My stomach growled. We only had a few dollars left at this point, and James always held onto the cash. We were both going to get jobs, of course, but it being right after Christmas, hardly any of the stores were even open. It was unlikely there'd be anything in Forks even when business started up again, but we could always commute to Port Angeles. Obviously, gas money would be a problem . . . but it was only because of James being owed a favor by the motel owner that we weren't sleeping in his truck.
I got up reluctantly, shedding my little cocoon. Shedding my bedding, as it were. I found my clothes and dressed, quickly so as to get warm, my fingers numb as they did up the buttons on my shirt. Then I went through the pockets of my backpack, running my fingers down into the creases, wincing when my fingernails caught on the fabric. My efforts turned up sixty cents, and in the pocket of James's folded khakis I found a dollar bill, worn out from going through the wash but still perfectly legible. That would be enough to get something from the vending machine and ease my cramping stomach.
The night I got tossed out, I ran to James's, slipping and falling several times on the wet sidewalks until I arrived a sopping, frozen mess at his house. James had a little room in the finished basement, and I'd tapped at his window until he'd opened it and helped me slide in.
When the Nylunds left for work the next day, James drove us over and broke one of the glass panes in the back door so he could unlock the deadbolt, as my key was still in my jacket pocket in the foyer. Together we loaded up my backpack (minus my textbooks, which I left stacked on my desk) with my few clothes and personal things, plus some food from the pantry and the two hundred dollars in the fake soup can in the basement. I'm not saying a burglar would be fooling around with the canned goods in the first place, but seriously, you'd have to be blind not to notice that thing. Since I was always the one to put the groceries away, I knew what the game was even if I'd never foreseen eventually turning burglar myself.
As I pocketed the key card to the room and bent to lace up my sneakers, I suddenly wondered what my dad would have thought of James. I was too young to be interested in boys when he was killed, but I had a nagging feeling that Charlie would have taken one look at James and shown him the door. But then again . . . if Charlie hadn't died, I'd never have been living in Seattle in the first place, and very likely wouldn't have ever met James. And maybe if Charlie'd been around to help me pick, I could have found someone who'd make sure I had enough to eat before he spent money on tobacco.
But there was no one around to care what I did now. I could cry all I wanted over my dad dying, but no one cared about that, either. You got one mother and one father, and if your mother got sick of you and your father got killed, that was it. No second chances. Just a bunch of motel rooms that the state paid for and called foster homes, without checking to see if the motel skimped on the meals and locked you out halfway through the month but kept collecting the rent. Over and over again, until you turned eighteen and became your own problem instead of theirs, and no sense crying when there are thousands just like you and plenty of children starving across the world on top of that.
"Jesus H. Christ."
I cracked one eye open, but the light was too bright, and it only made my head throb. I wished they hadn't woken me.
"Isabella? Isabella, can you hear me?"
Who ever called me Isabella? Even my caseworker didn't, though that's how I get listed on all the files. Maybe I was dead, and that was why there was so much light, and why I was getting addressed formally as 'Isabella' . . . except there shouldn't be so much pain. How can you feel pain if you're dead? I opened my mouth to correct him, to tell him that it was 'Bella,' but no matter how I tried, I couldn't make my heavy lips get out of the way.
"There's so much blood. How is her heart still beating?"
Blood, yes. The scent was all around me, the horrid odor that smelled the way pennies tasted when I put them in my mouth as a kid, before Charlie told me I'd die from the germs. It tasted like pennies, too, or like oysters, those times I'd had to suck on cuts or mosquito bites to make them stop bleeding after I'd picked the scabs again. I thought it was horrible then, but the taste was worse when James would hit me in the mouth, because then the inside of my cheek was all cut and I could feel the raw skin against my tongue as the blood started to flow into my throat.
Then there were hands on me, on my head, and I cringed away from them, thinking he had come back already from Murphy's and was going to hurt me some more. But the hands were gentle, and the voice even more so, and the face that suddenly blocked out the bright light so it shone around his head like a halo had to be God. No one else could look so kind and so beautiful and make the pain seem suddenly less important.
"Not yet, sweetheart," he told me softly, smiling as he tapped a syringe, its needle glinting menacingly in the brightness. I cringed in anticipation of the sharpness piercing my skin, but the sting never came. Perhaps I just couldn't feel it over the ferocious waves of agony that were threatening to split my body in half. But as the hours passed by, or perhaps only seconds, I found that I was suddenly becoming very tired. The man's
kind face began to blur. "It's just something to make you relax," I heard. "We're going to fix you up. You can sleep if you want to."
His one hand was up near my throat, the other raised so he could check his watch. Probably he had somewhere to be, and I was holding him back. My eyes pricked with tears at the thought that he might be impatient with me. But the hand on my neck was gentle, too, and his thumb was softly feathering against my chin. After a moment, his eyes moved from the watch back to my face, and he smiled again.
"Sleep," he chided.