Disclaimer: Stephanie Meyer owns everything Twilight. The original plot and characters belong to me.
WARNING: The warning posted at the top of the first two chapters will remain in effect for the entire story.
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I inhaled sharply, stung by my inability to see this coming. Before I had a chance to process my next move, the present spiraled out from under me...
I was six, bare legs dangling off the chipped linoleum counter of the motel's laundry room. My body flinched at the harsh clank of the coin slot ejecting to bare its emptiness. The washer's hydraulic hum reverberated through my body, causing my teeth to clatter as I watched water fill the front loading machine.
The Russian accent rolled thick from his tongue, edges soft yet laced with arsenic. Not for me, but them. He was beckoning, not demanding, me to pick. "Eenie, Meenie, Minie or Moe?"
My fingers twitched in response, my favorite choosing game forever tainted like my innocence. He knew it, we both did. I was a barely balanced seesaw teetering on a precipice, too young to comprehend and too old not to.
My gaze stayed pinned in place, unable to look away from the milky froth of detergent rising from the washer's depths. Like a tidal wave cresting over a ship's portal, its purity quickly surrendered to a murky sea of color as the clothes began their lackadaisical dance.
I didn't answer. He understood. He was my father. My protector.
My eyes shifted focus taking in our forms reflected in the window of the washing machine. I was a pale echo of myself, blurred, out of focus. He was vivid, sharp, crisp with intent. He stood strong, opposing in height, his lithe frame commanding and lethal, not toward me but them.
He was suddenly foreign to me; something else he understood.
The back of his hand ghosted over my cheek, silently telling me this was his natural order of things. He wanted me to know his actions would solidify our bond, make it thicker than blood.
The razor curl of his accent dulled, "Close your eyes. Don't watch, Rabbit."
My stomach churned in response, expelling onto the cracked cement floor. He patiently waited, biding his time. When I had finished, I pinched my eyes closed, knowing we would walk out of there and the other two men wouldn't.
Although fleeting, the memory rung loudly through my mind. Its stifling alarm reminding me of another promise broken. I'd sworn my son would never have first hand knowledge of a gun. He'd never feel its powerful glare, fear its deafening connotation or experience its deadly judgment. Yet there we stood, another silent promise broken. FUCK.
I wanted to run, carry Matthew away from this - this woman, this place and every bad decision I'd ever made. But, I couldn't. We'd run out of options. We needed help and right now this was it. She was it.
"I'm Ward Masen and this is my son, Matthew."
On instinct, I rested my hand atop Matthew's head, thankful that his shyness had him hidden in my shoulder. Seconds felt like hours as I steeled myself to ignore the threat, wait her out.
Her slight frame curled fearlessly around the shotgun. Her stance was unwavering, brown eyes hedging on black, screaming blatant distrust. They shifted between Matthew and I, focusing on our details, appraising our presence, and scanning the area behind us before resting back on me.
Her voice was calm and polite but calculated. "Bella. Where's your car?"
Matthew fussed a little, rolling his head to the side. I kept my hand over his face, blocking him from seeing her. His hand reached up to pluck mine away but I wouldn't budge. He grunted in disapproval before letting his hand curl into his body.
I forced a cordial tone for her. "About a mile east of here. I saw the chimney smoke over the tree line. Do you think you could—?" I nodded to the rifle, silently asking her to lower it.
Her long hair tangled beneath a bulky men's turtleneck. Her eyes darted between Matthew and I once more. I could see a flicker of internal debate but it was quickly suppressed. She met my gaze and shook her head, holding her ground. "What's wrong with it? Your car?"
It took everything I had to force a calm voice. Not for her sake but his. I didn't want him to know there was a gun pointed at us. "It got stuck in the mud."
Her eyes narrowed, grip tightening on the twelve-gauge as if I'd just given something away.
"Thought you said it broke down?"
"No, I said, we had car trouble."
"Car trouble implies mechanical failure."
"It implies a car in need of assistance. I believe being wedged in two feet of mud is needing assistance."
"I suppose." Her eyes flitted over Matthew's shielded form. Doubt consumed her pale features as she looked back, searching me for some unknown truth. Our eyes met once more, daring me to speak, to challenge, to confess, to beg, to - I didn't know. She was a pit bull, unwilling to let go. "It's a bad night to be driving these roads. What were you doing, sight seeing?"
"I took a wrong turn. It happens. My son and I are on vacation." I took a deep breath to quell my rising irritation.
Was she serious? My entire body bristled. I ground out my exasperation. "In October."
I'd had it. I was done explaining. What I'd said was either good enough or it wasn't. I wasn't saying another word. So, we stood there, Matthew drenched and limp on my hip, staring each other down. Both demanding yet neither of us willing to speak, tension growing thicker by the second.
Matthew gasped loudly, stiffening in my arms as if he'd finally figured something out. In a yelled whisper, "Dad? Does she have the cooties?"
Her head whipped back to him, realization flooding her face. My cold, wet five-year-old wasn't a threat. He was just a defenseless boy needing her help. She took a shaky breath and lowered the weapon.
I gave Matthew a reassuring squeeze and whispered in his ear, "No, Buddy. She's cootie free."
He nodded; trying to peek through my hand but that wasn't going to happen. Not until I knew she wouldn't change her mind. "Just a minute, okay?"
He released a heavy sigh but didn't fight.
There was a shift in her demeanor toward me. It seared with unspoken judgment but was clear, as much as she didn't want to; she was going to help us. "Come in. I'll get some towels."
We followed her into the cabin, closing the door behind us. I briefly glanced at our surroundings - an open living room and kitchen, a short hallway beside the fireplace where I assumed were a bedroom or two, a storage closet and bathroom. It looked safe, secure and most of all dry. That was all I cared about.
We'd finally caught a break. I felt a bit of the tension I was holding onto leave my body. I'd been panicked we'd be turned away. Staying here wasn't ideal but we'd be safe until morning. A few hours to decompress was all I needed. I'd bury all my other shit until we were settled somewhere else.
I didn't focus on the finer details. I didn't want to know this woman - how she lived, what she loved, her day-to-day. I just wanted to get Matthew through this awful night, have the car towed and leave. No more dirt roads. Tires to asphalt. The monotonous drone carrying us far away from this place, the encroaching past and things better left behind.
She motioned us toward the fireplace while she discretely emptied the shotgun, pocketing the shells and securing it in an otherwise empty gun rack. She opened a closet door and pulled out a stack of towels, setting them on the arm of the chair. Quickly, without a second glance, she opened one of the hallway doors. I caught a glimpse of a double vanity and claw-foot tub before she shut herself inside.
Matthew had begun to shiver. I needed to get him out of his wet clothes. I wasted no time setting him down, removing his soaked jacket and grabbing a towel.
I sighed, realizing she'd just locked herself in the bathroom and it's where I knew I should have been doing this. Matthew's teeth had begun to chatter, highlighting a deep purple tinge to his lips. I couldn't risk waiting. I knelt down, wiping at the wet. He ballooned his face, jutting it out to help, unaware of what I was about to make him do.
I unzipped his jacket, tugging it from his soaked sweater and tossing it on the floor.
If this was going to happen, I needed to be gentle but firm. He wasn't going to like it. I lifted his jaw so our eyes met.
"We have to get you out of these wet clothes."
His eyes shot-wide before darting toward the closed bathroom door. He violently shook his head, panic plucking at his already tight voice. "No. No, daddy."
"I'm sorry, Matty. We'll do it really quick. She won't see. I promise."
He made to step away from me but I swept my arm around his back, gently holding him in place.
He was trembling now, not from the chill but what I was about to force him to do. "Jus' the top, daddy, 'kay? Jus' my top."
He no longer fought to pull away. His eyes pleaded, tears brimming. I wanted to give in but I couldn't. Every second was a lifetime too long.
I bit my inner cheek to stave off my own tears. I needed the puncture of molars through flesh to ground me in this moment. That searing pain to keep my calm facade in place. I focused on removing his shoes and socks.
I heard the squeal of rickety pipes and unmistakable spatter of water against the ceramic tub. She wasn't coming out anytime soon. I cursed under my breath at her rude behavior but was at least thankful that we'd have privacy for what I was about to do.
"She's running a bath for herself. We'll wait to take off the bottoms until we hear the water stop. Then we'll know she's in the tub and not coming out."
His attention strained back to the foreboding door, the gurgling rush of water taunting him. His eyes were pensive, small brows pinching tighter with every moment.
I took advantage of the distraction, pulling his drenched sweater and t-shirt over his head. His small frame was masked in goose bumps and bluish blotches. His chest racked with panicked breaths. I swiftly wrapped a fresh towel over his shoulders, both shielding and warming him as I used a second towel to scrub the wetness from his hair.
The muted rattle of old pipes calmed as the water turned off. Silence emanated from the closed bathroom door. Then I waited. Matthew would let me know when he felt comfortable. I had to be patient or his fight to stay clothed would destroy the tentative peace between us. After a few moments, Matthew realized she would not be coming out.
He turned back to me, still so fearful but ready to be brave. He gave a quick nod.
"Do you want me to help? Or, do you want to do it on your own?"
"You do it." His eyes still worried on the bathroom door.
"Alright. When you're ready, grip the ends of the towel and stretch your arms out wide."
Matthew quickly shook his head, afraid to expose himself.
"It'll be like a curtain behind you. Just in case she comes out, then she won't see. Okay?"
There was a flash of relief behind his eyes, liking the idea. He quickly did as he was told. He was still trembling but his coloring was coming back. The bluish tinge of his skin was blossoming into a friendlier pink.
"You tell me when."
"Dad, you don't look either, 'kay?"
"I won't. Just removing your jeans and Spongebobs."
I had seen his scars more times than he had yet he was still ashamed of them. They were a burden he'd always wear. When he was older we would explore options to have some of them removed but the bigger ones and his limp would always remain. I'd give my life to go back in time, erase the mistakes, protect him the way I should have.
I had his jeans unsnapped, unzipped and trudged down to his ankles in a flash. He'd just shimmied his feet free as the bathroom door flew open. Her voice shattering our trust. "I've run a hot bath for Matthew—"
He yelped, pulling the towel haphazardly around his body and unknowingly stumbling away from me. His terrified eyes too focused on her sudden appearance to realize he'd left his leg partially exposed.
Her eyes locked with the multitude of scars that branded his innocent flesh. There was no shame in her gawking. She didn't look away; instead she seemed to be studying them. That sent Matthew over the edge. It was what he feared the most, why he pleaded for me to not remove his pants. He didn't want her to see his scars. He didn't want to see the look she now possessed. The pitied, almost disgusted stare that weighed more than any child should bear.
I shot a piercing glare at her praying she'd feel it and meet my eyes. But she didn't.
Matthew tucked himself behind the sofa, a sad whimper escaped. He was humiliated by this woman and she seemed completely oblivious to his plight.
I cleared my throat, in an attempt to break her trance with my son. In a moment I wasn't going to care if we had to sleep in the cold rain.
Then, as if residing herself to something, she moved to his side. They were having some sort of silent stand off. She knelt down to get a better look. "Please, don't hide."
Matthew was near terrified but stood still. He was being brave, wanting her to like him.
My heart broke. He was so desperate for acceptance that he was willing to let her look at what he always hid.
I knew I should stop this but it was what he wanted. I'd already taken so much from him. I needed to give him this.
She gave Matthew's scars a closer inspection then met his tentative gaze. Her reaction surprised us both. She shrugged it off, making it seem like they were no big deal. With a challenging raise of her brow, she pulled her bulky turtleneck over her head to her tank top underneath, revealing her own history.
My breath caught as I tried to make sense of the myriad of scars that marred her pale complexion. There were distinct lifesaving scars – A small incision at the base of her neck from where she'd had a tracheotomy. Below it, a long scar disappeared beneath her top, between her breasts signaling her chest had been cracked open at one point.
What threw me were the other scars. They were pale but angry and told a much darker tale - A wire thin scar puckered across her throat, not quite reaching from ear to ear. Several inch-wide pitted scars resembling puncture wounds scattered about her upper chest. A jagged scar wrapped thick around her shoulder as if her arm had nearly been severed. She'd been through hell and was lucky to be alive.
Matthew's eyes had grown huge at the site before him. She didn't move or flinch away from his rapt attention. Instead she calmly let him take everything in. She held no fear of rejection.
That's when it hit me. She was doing this for him. For my son. She wanted him to feel as comfortable with his scars as she did with hers. To see there was no shame in them. Could she do that? Give him something I'd never been able to?
My heart pounded, stomach churning with the possibility. I was in awe of what she was doing but didn't trust her. I was terrified she'd hurt him.
Matthew's hand raised, eager to reach out and touch. I quickly found my voice. "Matthew, we don't just touch people."
He quietly nodded and unabashedly asked her, "Can I touc-?"
I cut him off. "No, Matthew. Do you like when people touch yours?"
He shook his head. He got it, his mind working through the comparison. He sucked in his bottom lip, thrusting his scarred leg out to her. "You can touch mine… If you want. I won't get upset. Promise."
I blinked back a flood of tears, stunned by what he'd done. He'd always thrown tantrums, allowing no one but me do this.
Matthew trusted her. She was like him, his kindred spirit and instinctually, she knew this. A warm smile flitted across her lips. "Thank you. You can touch mine too."
She shifted toward him, allowing for his short reach. She waited for him to make the first move then followed his lead.
He marveled at her shoulder scar, the way it bubbled in a crude fashion. "Mine don't hurt no more. Do yours?"
"Nope." Her hand smoothed over his various scars, mindful not to focus on one over another.
He moved on to the puncture scars across her chest. "You have more than me."
"Some are really big."
She let out a small chuckle. "Yep."
Her hand moved over his scars once more. "You should be proud of these."
Matthew halted his inspection, confusion and doubt coloring his face. His lower lip trembled as he shook his head, no.
SHIT. The last thing he'd ever be was proud. What the hell was she thinking? He'd be depressed for days now.
In two strides I was between them, scooping Matthew up and away from her. He tucked himself into the safety of my chest. Contempt rolled off me in waves. I swung around to gather our things to leave but she stepped in front.
Her expression was venomous as she shot her hand out, demanding I give her one more moment.
Not a fucking chance. Whatever twisted mind-fuck mothering she thought she was doing was over. We were leaving. NOW!
Her sudden action brought me up short. One of her hands ran over Matthew's scars while the other lovingly cupped his cheek, imploring him to trust her. "Yes, Matthew. You should be very proud."
He studied her, uncertainty laced with hope tumbled from his mouth. "Why?"
"They show your strength. Your courage. Like mine do, for me."
There was an underlying excitement in his tone. "Really?"
"Really. Your scars are nothing to be ashamed of. They're beautiful. Don't ever let anyone tell you different." Her voice was full of conviction, a certainty that Matthew had never heard before.
There was a slight shift in his posture. He seemed taller, lighter. The weight had been lifted. He believed her, echoing her sentiment. "I won't."
She swept a lock of damp hair from his forehead. "Good. Now, I think there's a bath with your name on it."
She did it. She'd just given him what I'd never been able to.
I should have thanked her but I couldn't. I didn't trust myself. A chaotic jumble of emotions had torn through me over the past forty-eight hours. Joy. Hatred. Gratitude. Self-loathing. Rage. I was raw, needing time to process, compartmentalize. I had to get my head on straight before I tackled the gravity of what just happened. Step by step. First thing first.
Matthew looked up at me. "Dad, did you hear that? They're not bad. They show how strong I am. My courage!"
I gingerly kissed the top of his head. "I heard."
I finally noticed she'd moved to the hall. All the warmth she'd shared with Matthew evidently cast aside. She'd flipped a switch, cold façade back in place.
"You'll sleep on the sofa. I'll put bedding and sleep clothes out. The washer and dryer are in the bathroom. Feel free to use them. If the phones aren't up by morning I'll ride my bike into town and arrange a tow. Good night."
Finality filled the air as she abruptly turned and entered a door at the end of the hall. We'd been dismissed.
A/N: Please accept my sincerest thank you for reading my story. I apologize for the obscenely long wait between updates. For a multitude of unexpected RL reasons I wasn't able to post until now.
Huge thanks to Jessica and Rach. You two keep my world on axis! I don't know what I'd do without either of you. Truly! I bow down to your greatness.
Special thanks to forbidden-fruit81 for recommending TAoB to her fabulous readers. MENS REA is one of the best fics out there. It's intelligent, well crafted, sexy and has a mystery guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat. Check it out! LOL – Even though most of you found my story through hers.