Written for my father, for my dear friend's mother, and to all those who have lost someone to cancer. Also written for Alex's Lemonade for childhood cancer.
For my sweet friend Mary, who is the most beautiful woman I know. I love you forever.
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters are not my own.
"Are you all right?"
Bella looked up, startled. No, she was not all right, and she figured sobbing against a wall in a hospital hallway was fairly indicative. She also thought there was some sort of code against speaking to crying women in this tomb of Keds shoes and linoleum. But apparently, the watery male she was staring at didn't know these rules. Didn't know, or didn't care.
"Do I really have to answer that?" Bella asked, her voice scratchy from the wailing she had done all morning.
The man clutched the styrofoam cup in his hand and shuffled his feet. "No. That was a stupid question."
She wiped her nose on the tissue she had been clenching. It was as sweaty and damp as her palm. "Yeah. Look, I really…"
"…would like to be alone." The stranger smiled a bit. "I'm sorry. I don't know… I just, thought you might want to talk."
"Not really," said Bella, getting agitated. "Being left alone and talking aren't of the same mold."
"Right," said the man. Bella's eyes were adjusting to a sight beyond tears, and she noted the purple bags under his eyes and auburn scruff on his face. His clothes were wrinkled and his whole body put off an air of exhaustion. "I'm sorry. I hope… I hope you feel better."
Bella nodded, watching the strange man walk down the hall. It didn't occur to her to call him back. She felt no pull, no strange tingling in her marrow from the strange conversation. She could only let her mind wander back to why she was crying in the first place.
The tears came again.
Bella, at twenty-two years old, was a college senior and at the prime of her life. Yesterday, she had been at her student teaching job when she had received an urgent call from one of Charlie's colleagues, telling her he had collapsed mysteriously at the police station.
Charlie had been taken to one of Seattle's hospitals for further tests, and they had heard the results earlier that morning. It was called Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes.
Explained at a high cost. Chemo. Radiation. Hospitals. All words she had been lucky not to have any knowledge of, until now.
"It'll be all right, Bell," Charlie said after the doctor left with a few words of encouragement. "We'll do tons of research on this, and get ourselves educated on what's gonna happen. You heard the man… I still have years and years in me, probably."
"How're you going to pay for all this, dad?" she asked.
"Well… when I first signed up for my insurance, years and years ago, I signed up for a cancer policy." He gave her a bushy smile. "I tell you what, I've moaned and groaned about the extra money each month since I've done it… But the Lord, or someone, was really watching over me on that one. I must be psychic. Time to play the lottery, eh?"
Bella breathed out a small sigh of relief at her father's foresight. "I'll buy you some tickets tonight," she smiled, so proud of him for his good humor in the face of tragedy.
A nurse came in then, to take Charlie's vitals, and Bella needed to free herself. "I'm going to grab a bite to eat in the cafeteria."
"Try some of that fried chicken for me," he called after her. "I hear it's pretty good."
She waved in recognition. In truth, she wasn't going to the cafeteria – she could smell the green beans they were cooking from all the way up on the fourth floor, and that mixed with the medicinal smell made her nauseas. Instead, she rode down to the first floor and followed the signs to the "garden."
Really, it was just a bunch of weeds with a few aptly placed benches. But it was outside, in fresh air, away from voices.
She whipped around and saw the man who had talked to her in the hallway sitting on one of the benches, drinking a coke and smoking a cigarette.
"Hello," she whispered. "Following me?" She sent him a small smile.
He laughed. "Hardly. I'd be much more secretive."
"Dropping out of air vents, rolling behind nurses stations…" She laughed with him. She hadn't been able to be silly all day.
"With Bond music playing in the background, that's the spirit." He sucked in a long drag, and then flicked the cigarette into the bushes.
"You are ruining the aesthetics of the garden."
"Probably." He shrugged. "Want to sit? That bench is all wet," he pointed to the opposite one, "but I could maybe make room over here."
"Well…" She hedged.
"Have some place better to be?" He was plainly teasing her, staring up at her with dark eyes.
"I promised Charlie – my dad – that I'd go try the fried chicken…"
"Perfect. I'm starving." He stood up and stretched his legs. He was very tall, much taller than she had previously noticed. "Unless you wanted to be alone, like last time."
"I kind of did." She didn't know why she was being so dismissive of this perfectly nice stranger, but she was barely holding it together and didn't want to fall apart in front of someone she didn't know.
"Fair enough." He gave her a little bow, straight from the waist. "I shall try to follow you again later, when you are in much better spirits."
"How can one be in good spirits when your father is dying?" she blurted out, her hands tugging at the fleece scarf around her neck. It was November, and it was very cold.
"Because it is what we do," he answered back. "We guard our pain to make sure there's isn't too much to bear." He shook his head. "I bet the fried chicken is awful, but here's hoping."
She watched him walk away again, and this time she had the desire to call after him.
An hour later, she found herself in the cafeteria, poking at greasy fried chicken and lumpy mashed potatoes. She felt like steel wool was caught in the back of her throat, so she kept sipping her water, hoping what was caught would slide down into her belly where she could digest it and move on.
She had also been staring at the auburn head of the man for about twenty minutes. She was being rude to him, and it wasn't his fault, and he seemed nice enough, and oh Bella, just do it!
She stood up, walked over to his table and cleared her throat. He looked up from his book, surprised.
"The chicken tastes like the bottom of my shoe."
"They usually offer basic soups by the salad bar. They do a pretty good chicken noodle."
She couldn't tell if that was a dismissal or a kindness. "Okay. I'll just… go try that then."
He nodded, and then went back to his book. She bit her lip, and then stalked over to the salad bar. She filled a ceramic bowl with the hot soup, and then walked back over to his table.
"I don't want to be left alone right now."
He looked up at her again and smiled. "Then sit. I've read this book too many times, anyway. Grisham doesn't get any more interesting, no matter how many times I read him."
She sat, balancing her soup as she scooted over the bench to sit opposite him. "You seem to be pretty well-versed in hospital food."
He folded down a page in his book and set it to the side. "Well, I'm here everyday. I've learned what isn't able to be digested and what isn't too bad on the stomach."
She picked up her spoon and dipped it in the broth. "I'm trusting you with this."
He held up three fingers in scouts' honor.
She sipped the soup. It was warm and just salty enough, and the noodles were chewy and perfect. She moaned in appreciation. "You just saved my life."
His eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. "Something is to be said about trusting strangers, then."
She took another spoonful, and then introduced herself. "I'm Bella."
"Bella," he repeated. "Is that Italian?"
She shook her head. "No, just short for Isabella. My mom saw it in a newspaper ad right before I was born."
"I'm Edward," he offered, "and I had no choice, because I am a fifth generation Edward."
"Edward the Fifth," she laughed. "Sounds like a king."
"Yes, I am a king of my three-bedroom, two-bath domain." He yawned and scratched his already disheveled hair.
"Do you go by a nickname? Ed, Eddie…"
"No," he said shortly. "Just Edward."
She laughed at his quick answer. "Got it, Just Edward."
He rolled his eyes. "Are you from Seattle?"
"Well, I go to UW, but I'm originally from a little town called Forks. It's about three hours away."
His eyes bulged. "Are you really? Some of my family lives in Forks. The Cullens?"
"Doctor Cullen?" At his nod, she continued. "I was good friends with his daughter, Alice!"
He sat back. "That's so odd. She's my third cousin, or something like that. The world is so unbelievably small."
"Are you a Cullen?"
He shook his head. "My last name is Masen. We're related by marriage, not by blood. I was born in Forks, but my parents and I moved to Chicago when I was really young. I only just moved back to the Pacific Northwest about three years ago, because my wife is from Alaska, and she missed the coast."
"Do you miss Chicago?" she asked, a little deflated. Of course he was married. She hadn't even noticed the gold band on his finger until now.
"Of course," he said. "But I'm happy here."
"What do you do? Are you still in school?"
He laughed. "Do I look that young?"
She was a bit taken-aback. "How old are you?"
She turned seventeen shades of purple. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean…"
"It's okay. I'm cursed with a baby face."
She was about to tell him it was a very nice face regardless, but decided to keep it to herself. Flirting with a married man was shameful.
"So what is it you do?" she asked.
"Well…" He looked a bit uncomfortable. "I'm a professor at the community college, which I love. But currently I'm not working, because I'm here all the time. But I can do that because…" He shrugged. "I'm a bit of a trust fund baby, I suppose."
She made a hoity-toity gesture. "Well, well, well. Chicago's finest, right before my very eyes."
"Shouldn't you be using more silverware than that?"
He flung a crumpled up napkin at her. "Be quiet, back woods. You're just jealous of my cultured lifestyle. Did you ring the neck of the chicken right before you ate it, or did you have them all stored in your cellar from the winter?"
They traded insults back and forth for a while, and Bella forgot she was in a hospital until Edward's cell phone rang. It startled her, and she drew back quickly.
"Hi, honey," he said into the phone, and Bella made to get up. He held out a hand to stop her. "I'm sorry, I've been talking to someone I met today and forgot the time. I'll come up there right now."
Bella noticed how he told her the truth, instead of saying that he was reading or walking or something else that implied she was a secret truth in his heart. But then she took in the second part of what he said.
After hanging up the phone, he stood and smiled sadly at Bella. "My wife was diagnosed with heart failure six months ago. She was at home until about three weeks ago…" He shrugged. "She has to be on constant oxygen. We're praying for a transplant any day now… they have her on the beeper… she… " He shrugged, at a loss for words.
"My dad was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma this morning," she offered, walking alongside him as they made their way back to the elevator. "You're the first person I've told."
"Your mother doesn't know?"
"It wouldn't be extremely relevant to her life. They're divorced, and she's remarried. She lives all the way in Arizona. I'll call her tonight… but it's only Charlie and I, really."
"I know this is so cliché and probably something you don't care to hear, but your father is extremely lucky to have you."
"Well…" She looked up at his tired face. "Your wife is extremely lucky to have you."
He smiled, and she wished it reached his eyes. "Oh, Bella… you will see, that some days it is so easy to love them, but other days… you wish you could rip the love from your heart and walk away from the pain loving them brings."
For some reason, tears came to her eyes at the bitterness in his voice. "Do you love your wife?"
"With all my heart. She is my other half."
"Then any pain is worth one second of love. My father could die tomorrow and I would not regret any time I spent loving him, because there are people in this world who do not get a father at all. And my father… he is the most amazing man…" She started choking up. "I just… your bitterness, I'm sorry, I'm sorry for the pain that caused it. But I can't look at it that way. Maybe I'm young and maybe I'm not accustomed to this sort of life yet, but… I have hope. And I always have love." She turned away from him.
"Bella – "
But she was beyond hearing him, and she walked off towards the stairs so she would have time to cry in peace.
The next evening, she sat in the garden grading addition and subtraction papers. Her second graders were just learning regrouping, and the teacher she was student teaching for had very little patience for grading. But Bella enjoyed the meticulous process, loved the big red pen in her hand, and especially loved putting the different stickers that said 'great job!' or 'excellent!'
"Are you a teacher?"
She shrieked and drew a giant red line across poor Karen's paper. "Don't do that!" she demanded.
Edward chuckled quietly behind her. "I'm sorry. I figured you heard me coming up and were just artfully ignoring me."
"No. I was accidentally ignoring you. You scared the shit out of me."
He scrunched his nose. "Messy."
She glared at him before returning to her papers. "What are you up to this chilly evening?"
"Wondering why you're grading papers outside. It's forty degrees."
"I'm warm enough. Plus, it's quiet out here."
"What's with you and quiet?"
"What's with you and talking all the time?"
He grinned. "Oh, touché." He held out a hand. "Come on, it's much warmer inside."
"I don't want to go inside with you."
"You are such a charming person, Bella."
She looked up at him. "Why? Why do you want me to go inside with you?"
"I think you're very interesting."
"You're married," she spat at him.
He took two steps back, like she had slapped him. "Of course. God forbid I just try to be friendly to a scared little girl – "
"I'm not a little girl! I'm twenty-two!"
" – who looks like she could use a friend in this big scary world of sickness. Of course, because I am a man, you would automatically assume I was coming on to you while my wife lays dying three floors above. It makes perfect sense." He turned his back to her.
He stopped with a loud sigh. "We've known each other for twenty-four hours and you've barely taken the time to stop insulting me. I'm not sure if I want that sort of friend in my life."
"I'm sorry," she said, wounded. "I haven't had the time to build up this tough skin, like you – ugh." She balled up her fists, crumpling a test paper on accident. "I'm just… on the inside, I'm screaming, and it comes out in the form of sarcasm. Please, you're the only person who's not treated me like I'm a poor, poor dear this whole time."
He turned and held his hand out to her again. This time, she took it, her small white hand molding into his large paw. She smiled at their hands and at him, and he smiled back.
"So your mother took it badly, I'm guessing?" he asked, letting go of her hand once they got inside.
Bella shook the chill off of her bones. "No, not really… she just acted like Renee. Told me I could go to Arizona to get away from it all – like I would leave my dad! She just… she's not really the familial type. She doesn't really get it. She's sorry, of course. She just… doesn't know what to do. She's much better in Phoenix."
He shook his head, but didn't offer any advice. "I was talking to Tanya about you last night."
"My wife. She wants to meet you. Are you comfortable with that?"
"Oh," said Bella, clutching her papers to her chest. "Um, I guess so. When?"
Bella swallowed and tucked her hair behind her ear. "Okay."
"Bella, if you aren't comfortable…"
"No. It's fine. I just don't really know what to expect, nor why she would want to meet me."
"She… well, she wants to meet the reason I had a smile on my face all yesterday. You have no idea how long it's been since I've had someone to talk to."
"You? Mister Rudely-Interrupts-Crying-Women?"
He scoffed. "I told you. I never do that. Just something about you tugged at my heart strings."
"Careful Edward, your valiance is showing."
He made a face at her. "Anyway, she's on oxygen twenty four-seven, like I said, so she's all hooked up. It's hard to understand her, because she talks very quietly… it's an effort. And her fingernails are blue. She'll be the first to show you."
"Blue? Did she paint them?"
He laughed. "No, she's a clear coat sort of girl. It's the oxygen deprivation… it turns the usual pink of your fingernail beds blue."
Bella looked at her gnawed-on nails. "Really?"
"Come on," Edward said, gesturing her forward.
When they finally reached Tanya's room, Edward hedged in carefully, quiet as a mouse. "Sweetheart?"
Bella peered in at the frail woman on the bed. Her strawberry blonde curls spilled over the pillow, and she could see that even in her sickness, she was beautiful.
Tanya's eyes fluttered open. "Hi," she said quietly. "Where did you go?"
"I went to find Bella," he answered.
"Bella," Tanya repeated, a smile gracing her lips. "Your girlfriend?" she teased.
Edward blushed. "Can it, woman."
"Did you find her?"
"I did." Edward waved her in. "Bella? Don't be shy."
Bella walked in, feeling severely out of place. Edward stared down at his wife like she was a most precious artifact he had scavenged the world to find. It made her heart sore.
"Hello," Bella said quietly, shuffling over to the bed.
"Hello, Bella," said Tanya, reaching out her hand. "It's so nice to meet you. I'm so sorry about your father."
Bella shot Edward a look. He mouthed 'sorry.' Tanya saw the exchange and laughed a bit. "There are no secrets among the ill, I'm afraid. Your hair is so beautiful. Do you dye it?"
Bella touched her long chestnut hair. "Oh, no. I don't. Brown and boring."
"Your nail beds are so pink! Edward, have you seen these?" Tanya's cool hand reached out for Bella's and brandished it in her husband's face.
"I have. Delightfully pink."
"You're making fun of me," Tanya accused, smiling.
"Maybe a little."
They continued on like this, losing themselves in an easy banter, and Bella wanted out. She resented Edward for taking her to meet his beautiful wife, and then forgetting about her, just like he was bound to do when this was all over and they all went home.
"I'm going to go see Charlie," Bella said quietly. "It was nice to meet you, Tanya."
She heard Edward call her name, but she ignored it.
Bella heard her name being whispered as she made her way down the hallway towards Charlie's room. She stopped and looked around, but saw no one but a few bustled nurses walking down the hallway. She shook her head and continued walking, but then she heard it again.
She whipped around and saw Edward gesturing wildly at her, like he was landing a plane. She hadn't seen him in nearly a week. She'd been avoiding him like crazy since meeting his wife, beating herself up for maybe even sort of combating a tiny bit of feelings for a married man. She had only known him for a day, but there was just… something there for her.
"Hello," she said quietly, teetering on her toes.
He stopped waving his arms. "I'm gesturing madly at you, and all you give me is a 'hello?' Should we try this again?"
She cracked a smile. "I'm sorry, I just…"
"Would like to be alone? Need to go see Charlie?"
"I just went by there. He's asleep."
"Are you stalking my father to make it easier to stalk me?"
"Like I would admit to any of that." He held out his hand, and as always, she looked at it tentatively. "When are you going to learn to trust me, Bella?"
"When you aren't doing creepy things."
"Listen. I have found Atlantis. You don't want to miss out."
Sighing, Bella followed his retreating figure as he nearly skipped down the hallway. "Where are we going?" she hissed as he took down a series of turns.
"Have you ever been surprised in your life?"
"Yes," she panted, trying to keep up with his pace.
"Then you'll know that's not how this works. Come on!"
She jogged finally with a resigned sigh, trailing his loud footsteps. Then he abruptly stopped in front of a room giving off quite a chill.
"Shhh!" he insisted, putting a finger to her lips. She startled back from the touch and he dropped his hand and turned away. "We are at the precipice of a great discovery, Isabella. Are you ready?"
She smiled a bit, getting caught up in his excitement. "Go forth, valiant knight."
Edward opened the door very slowly, stopping the progression every time it creaked. When the entrance was finally revealed, all it appeared to be was a giant kitchen.
"Where are we?"
He gestured her inside and closed the door behind her. Then he grabbed her elbow and steered her to the corner where a giant freezer sat.
"Behold," he said dramatically.
They were in front of a giant freezer… full of ice cream.
"Really?" she asked, arching her eyebrow. "All of this pomp and circumstance for some Rocky Road?"
He looked crestfallen. "The fair lady doth not fancy my discovery?"
"If you could have a career in guilt trips, you'd make millions of dollars."
He smiled, pleased. "You know you want some ice cream. Vanilla, chocolate, mint chocolate, cookie dough…"
"Chunky monkey?" she asked hopefully.
"You must smile before you get any ice cream."
She scoffed. "You're irritating the shit out of me, do you know that?"
He stared at her for thirty seconds when she broke down and cracked a grin. He grinned back and that made her giggle. He giggled back and that formed a laugh within her. He laughed with her and they made a spot on the floor and ate ice cream until they were sick.
"Got any threes?"
"Ugh." Bella grabbed a card from the pile on Charlie's bed.
"Got any Aces?" Edward asked Charlie, who grimaced and threw over his Ace of spades.
Edward grinned triumphantly and put down his pair. "Got any fives?"
Bella was about to nastily tell him to go fish himself when his cell phone went off in his pocket.
He stood up to get it out and looked at the screen. "It's Tanya. Gotta go." Edward tugged on Bella's ponytail and held his hand out to Charlie. "I'll see you later, Chief."
Charlie nodded and they both watched Edward leave. Then Charlie turned to Bella.
"My girl, what are you doing with that married man? You gone insane or something?"
"Dad, please," she protested, grabbing all the cards and shoving them back into the drawer. "I'm not doing anything. He's my only friend here."
"Isabella Marie, I may be old but I'm not blind. I see the way you look at him. My heart, it is a lost cause. That man is crazy about his wife – you can see it in the way he talks about her. What do you think you're doing? No matter what, you lose."
Bella hunched over and grabbed at her stomach. It hurt to even imagine losing him. "Dad – "
But then Charlie started coughing. At first, Bella just watched him, used to his coughing spells. But it became more violent as the seconds went on, shaking the bed with the force. Sweat broke out on Charlie's forehead, and Bella leapt up.
"Dad? Daddy? What's wrong?"
He pounded his chest and shook his head, still coughing. He gave a particularly harsh one, and when his hand came back, there was blood.
"Dad!" she screeched, moving away from the blood, helpless.
"Get a nurse," he wheezed.
Much later that day, Bella was found in the small chapel the hospital provided. She wasn't sure what to pray and who to pray to, but if she ever had a reason to pray, it was now.
"I'm so angry," she whispered to the man she felt behind her.
"What happened, Bella?"
"He lied to me. God, I do not need to be angry with him right now… but I can't help it!"
Edward sat down on the pew, next to Bella. "Tell me what's wrong."
"He's had Non Hodgkins for years." She hiccupped and a fresh wave of tears flowed down her cheeks. "He's been keeping it from me ever since my freshmen year of college. Not that it was difficult… I barely made it home. He's been dealing with cancer alone for the past four years, Edward!"
"Why is he back in the hospital now?" Edward asked. "Why has he decided to tell you finally?"
Bella turned away, and Edward knew.
"He's dying. He has maybe a month to live, Edward… he's too weak for chemo. It would kill him faster than the disease. God, how could he just not tell me! I've wasted so many years… he told me it was for my own good, so I wouldn't see him any differently… that old man's pride, I swear to God!" She swiped at her tears angrily. "How could he do this to me? How could he make me so angry at him when he's only got weeks left? I should be loving him with all I that I am but all I want to do is smack him!"
"I'm so sorry," he said finally. He touched her hand, and she grabbed onto his fingers like a drowning man would a life jacket.
Then he had her in his arms, and she was showing him her raw, broken heart as her angry tears soaked through his worn cotton t-shirt. But he just drew her closer to him, trying to absorb some of her pain.
"I've quit my internship," she announced a few days later when Edward plopped down across from her in the cafeteria. "And don't you dare tell Charlie."
"I'm sure he'll figure it out," he said, taking a big bite of macaroni and cheese. Then he made a face. "Ugh, it tastes fuzzy."
Bella shot him a look before she continued. "I'm sure he will, too. But I just can't concentrate on a bunch of eight-year-olds when I know my dad could… you know… at any second."
"It's not that dire, is it?"
She sighed and played around with her salad. "No. I just… do you understand? I want to be able to practically live here before…"
He raised his eyebrows. "Of course I understand. I quit my job and have been haunting these hallways for the past month at least."
Bella nodded. "It seems like all we ever do is talk about Charlie. How's Tanya?"
Edward shrugged. "No better, of course. It all seems kind of hopeless at this point. Everyday I get closer to facing the death of my wife, who I've been with since high school."
He nodded. "We were high school sweethearts. Went to the same college… blah blah blah, it's all very adorable, isn't it? Then one day, she's fainting halfway up the stairs. She just completely blacked out because she was exerting so much… just walking up the fucking stairs, you know? Something went wrong with her heart. The doctors say sometimes it just happens. The muscle just weakened over time and now she can't even walk. It's just… it's… how do you explain it? You read these weird cases in the newspaper and think 'oh that's so tragic' but you never give it a second thought until you're the weird case in the newspaper, begging for anyone to understand."
"So… no news on a transplant?"
Edward shook his head. "She's still not a top priority, and the list is miles long. Plus, her blood type is A. Most people have O, you know… so it's just a whole pile of shit."
"Yeah, Charlie is an A, too… so I know how you feel. And Renee was a B, so… I'm AB. Even rarer. I'm such a gem." She laughed, needing to see the lopsided smile on his face.
He chuckled. "Yes, you are. Quite the little diamond."
He looked up at met her stare. He had beautiful green eyes, but they held nothing but sadness. "Yes, my dear?"
"I'm so glad I met you. I think I would have gone insane by now."
He smiled. "I know how you feel. I can't… I can't help but feel guilty somehow, for it all, though."
She crinkled her brow. "What do you mean?"
He sighed. "It's just… when I get too exhausted to be around my wife, I go to you, and you bring my spirits up instantly. I shouldn't…"
"Edward," she whispered, as he closed his eyes and shook his head.
"Never mind, Bella. Forget I said anything."
She told him she would, but she never could.
"In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am."
"What verse is that?" Charlie asked, opening his eyes.
"Highlight that for me, will you?"
In the week that had passed, Charlie had become progressively weaker. His heart was still beating strong, sustaining his life, but he was in constant pain. The morphine pump by his bed hummed loudly.
Bella highlighted that particular passage, and went to read again when Charlie stopped her.
"Does your mother know?"
Bella looked up. "No. I didn't tell her."
He nodded. "Good. I'd hate all the pomp and circumstance."
"She'll be furious at me for not telling her."
"I'm furious at you for not telling me."
"I know, my girl. Please try to understand that it made sense in my senile mind."
"Dad, you're forty-five. Enough with the senile. I just… I wish I could understand. No, I do understand your rationale. I wish I could understand why you felt that rationale was necessary."
"You're my only daughter, Bella. The pride of my life, my legacy. You should be out there making your life instead of tending to your old man."
"No one should ever have to go through something like that alone. Especially when the pride of your life was three hours away, squandering time like we had forever. It's been just you and me against the world since I was seventeen, Dad. I thought…" She choked around the huge lump in her throat. "I just thought I meant more than your pride."
"Bella – "
"I'm sorry. I can't talk about this right now."
"Then let's talk about Edward."
"I don't want to talk about Edward."
"You need to. Bella, you're growing dependent on him – "
"We're growing dependent on each other!"
"And what, my girl? You think that once his pretty little wife dies, he's going to find solace in your arms? Do you want that for yourself, Bella? A half love? A pity love? A comfort love?"
"I didn't want to fall in love with him!" she screeched, and then every single air particle in the room stopped as she realized she was in love with him and yelled it to the world at the same time.
"You deserve so much more, Bella," Charlie whispered. "I want so much more for you. Not that Edward isn't… he's a fine young man. But he's a very taken, very broken young man."
"I'm through having this discussion," Bella gasped, her throat closing in on her. She stood up and handed Charlie the Bible. He took it, and Bella nearly ran from the room.
She wandered the corridors for thirty minutes before finding herself in the children's oncology wing. She was just about to back out when she heard a very familiar laugh to her left.
Curious, she followed it. It was mingled with peals of childish giggling, and it lifted Bella's heart. She finally found the source when she peered into a large window that opened up into a giant playroom.
Edward was in the middle of at least seven children, who were climbing all over him as he attempted to string together popcorn necklaces. Bella's heart caught in her throat and the suffocation made tears come to her eyes, and she clasped a hand over her mouth to stifle it all.
It would have been heartbreaking enough to see healthy children climbing all over him. But these were sick children, children who were bald or missing limbs or attached to IVs. And these children had the biggest, brightest eyes of any children she had ever seen.
Edward looked up then, and she didn't have time to guard the heart shining out of her eyes. He smiled sadly at her, like he understood, and she stepped back.
He shook his head and gestured she join them. Taking a deep breath and swiping at her tears, she stepped in.
"Arts and crafts," he announced as she walked in. Every child looked up at her with their beautiful eyes, and she gave them all a watery smile.
Bella loved children – she was in school to be a second grade teacher. But something about these children intimidated her, like they had knowledge of the world she would never learn.
"Everyone, this is my friend. Her name is Miss Bella." Edward introduced each child to Bella – Sam, Leah, Jacob, Emily, Paul, Jessica, Lauren – and then invited her to sit down and help.
"What are we doing?" Bella asked brightly.
"Making a mess," Edward answered, tickling Jessica, the little girl sitting in his lap. Jessica shrieked with giggles and Bella laughed along.
"Besides making a mess," Bella said.
"Eating popcorn!" shouted Paul, throwing up a handful.
"And making a mess," Edward muttered under his breath.
"I'm makin' a necklace for my mommy," announced Lauren, huffing and puffing. "And all of you are big stupid heads for eatin' the popcorn you're s'posed to use!"
"Lauren," Edward said warningly. "You know that's not nice."
"But – "
"Apologize. You know the rules."
"Sorry," Lauren whispered, barely audible.
Edward rolled his eyes at Bella. "We're making different stuff for their parents. Popcorn necklaces, popcorn animals, eating popcorn, making a mess," he tickled Jessica again, "with the popcorn…"
"How often do you do this?" Bella wondered.
"A couple times a week – hey! Jacob, popcorn goes in the mouth, not up the nose."
"But Sam triple dog dared me – "
Sam was one of the older boys. He was nearly eleven and had an air about him that he was too good for this stuff.
"Aw, Mister Edward, if he's dumb enough to do it, then you should just let him!"
"I don't know what's gotten in to all of you today, but I'll tell you what, I'm not impressed with you and neither is Miss Bella. Is this how you act when you meet a new friend?" Edward looked at all the misbehaving children.
"No," they whispered miserably.
"I didn't think so. Now let's have some fun, okay?"
"I wanna watch Little Mermaid!" Emily announced, leaning towards the big TV in the corner. "Pleeeeease, Mister Edward? No more stupid popcorn!"
"I'm inclined to agree with her," Bella said quietly. "No more stupid popcorn."
Edward reached out two fingers and poked Bella in the side, tickling her just as he had tickled Jessica.
"Let's take a vote," he said to everyone. "Everyone who wants to watch a movie, raise your hand!"
Every child raised their hand, including Jessica, who raised it so exuberantly she bopped Edward in the nose.
"Well, that's unanimous," Bella laughed as Edward rubbed his nose mournfully.
Ten minutes later, all the children were crowded around the TV as Ariel sang her blues about being under water. Edward and Bella had the task of cleaning up.
"I had no idea you did this," Bella said. "Why didn't you tell me? I love children."
He shrugged. "It was just kind of an escape."
That stopped Bella in her tracks. "I'm sorry I intruded."
Edward looked up from the black garbage bag he was stuffing bits of popcorn in. "Bella, don't be silly. Do you not know by now you're my favorite form of escapism?"
Bella sat back on her heels. "What's going to happen to us?"
Edward very carefully avoided her gaze. "What do you mean?"
"Is it only the hospital that brings us together? Or could we be friends in the real world, too?"
Edward wiped his greasy fingers on his jeans. "Bella…"
His tone said everything. "Forget I asked."
"No, listen." He looked up at her finally. "I've thought about this, too. You're a very real part of my life now. I've never gotten so close to another human being so quickly. But… if my wife dies, and I leave this place, I will not be in a state to be anyone's friend for a very long time. But if she, by some miracle, makes it out alive… I don't know how appropriate it would be to continue being your friend."
That was a sharp blow to her head and to her gut and to her heart. "Are you not allowed to have female friends?"
He smiled very sadly. "Yes, Bella. I'm allowed to have female friends."
Her chest twisted painfully in heartache and hope. "Edward…"
"Nothing can come of it, Bella," he whispered harshly. "Nothing."
"I… I know."
"I love Tanya. I love my wife. But when I look at you…"
She stared at him, waiting for him to continue. "When you look at me…"
"When I look at you, I see all the things I never knew I was missing."
Bella looked on through her fingers as they hooked up a catheter to Charlie. He was on permanent bed rest, and it wouldn't be long now. He slept most of the time due to the constant morphine in his system. He was becoming thinner and greyer by the day.
Fathers were supposed to be invincible, especially to a daughter. You went to them when you needed a leg up onto the slide. You went to them when you wanted a tree house in the backyard. You went to them when you wanted to be spun round and round their head like an airplane. You were supposed to be able to always count on your father for strength, for perseverance, for love.
Bella knew she would never be ready to let her father go, but she swore that it would be easier to let him go if he had lived a long life, if he had been able to walk her down the aisle, if he had been able to bounce his grandchildren on his knee.
But at forty-five years old, he was taking his last breaths.
She grasped his clammy hand in hers when the nurses were through. "I love you, Daddy," she whispered. She hoped that even if he couldn't hear her, he could feel her love seeping into his pores.
Charles Swan slipped into a coma three days later. Edward was by Bella's side, grasping her hand as she cried helplessly.
"They say he'll never wake back up," she sobbed. "My daddy, my only daddy…"
"His love for you was in every breath he took, Bella," Edward whispered. "He worshipped you, adored you, venerated you. You are the reason he could never regret marrying your selfish mother. That's so powerful."
"I know," she cried. "I know. I just… I just wish there was more time. I wish he would have told me years ago, that stupid man…"
"You'd never be ready. No one's ever ready to say goodbye, if they even have the chance to."
"I'm lucky," she whispered, her tears choking her, "I'm lucky that I get to sit here and watch him go. He was there when I first came into this earth, and I'm here when he leaves. It's only fair, isn't it?"
"It's a gift," he agreed. He scooted his chair closer to hers and put his warm hands on her face.
She tried to duck away, embarrassed of how wet her face was. He wouldn't have it. He wiped her cheeks with his scratchy thumbs.
"You have made my otherwise miserable time here so wonderful," she whispered to him. "I don't know what I'd do without you. I don't know what I will do without you. Everyone is leaving me, everyone…" That brought a fresh round of tears.
Edward had no words of comfort, but he drew her into his arms. She buried herself against him.
"I can't ever repay you," she whispered.
"I would never ask you to. You kept me sane, as well."
She was quiet then, letting the tears fall freely. His chest was warm and solid, and she thought about Edward's life outside of the hospital. He was very handsome with his tall, slender frame and his thick auburn hair and easy smile. He was a professor – she imagined many of his students had crushes on him. He was a husband and a lover – that thought made her blush, thinking of him like that – and the holder of a mortgage and a payer of taxes, but at the same time he was still Edward, her Edward.
"I don't know how to thank you," she whispered again, and he stroked her hair without comment. She listened to the steady beat of his heart against her ear, and that was when she knew.
That was when she knew how she could repay him.
Bella knew when Edward got the news. She was sitting next to Charlie, reading to him out of 1 Corinthians when the door banged open and Edward fell to his knees in front of her, sobbing.
"Bella, Bella, Bella…" he chanted, clinging to her jeans and burying his face into her lap. "You beautiful girl, how could you, how could you? Thank you, thank you…"
Bella dropped the Bible and clung to his shirt. His tears were soaking through her jeans.
"He doesn't need it anymore, and you do… you do. They did the tests before they told you, so your hopes wouldn't get up… but it's all okay… their weight is about the same and they have the same blood type, and oh, Edward, maybe this is why we met? I've been thinking about it nonstop, praying about it even, and I think this is why… I was meant to…" She couldn't stop crying. "I was meant to love you so much that it saved you."
"You saved me," he whispered.
Bella finally understood what it meant to love that day. She could love someone so much, she could give life to the thing that meant death to her happiness.
Tanya Masen would receive Charlie's heart.
Charlie Swan passed away thirteen hours later, and fourteen hours later, Tanya was put into heart transplant surgery.
Bella had no reason to stay. She had arrangements to make. She took one last look at Charlie's room, a place she had haunted for the past month and a half. Charlie was gone, and it held no sentimental value for her anymore.
Before she left the hospital, she stopped by the waiting room in front of the ICU. Edward was there, his head in his hands.
"Goodbye," she said shortly.
He looked up. "You're leaving?"
"There's nothing left for me here." She knew she sounded dead. She felt dead.
He nodded. "I understand."
"I hope…" She shrugged. "Well, you know."
"I can't ever repay you for this, Bella. What you've given me, what you've given my wife… our family…"
She held up a hand. "Don't. Just promise me you will live every day of your life like it is your last."
He nodded. "I promise." He swallowed heavily. "Bella, please, don't go…"
She grabbed the handle of Charlie's suitcase tighter in her fist. "I have to. I have to get away from all of this… from the smell of the hospital, from the nurses, from everything. From you."
"I don't want you to leave me."
"You said it yourself, Edward. There's no place for us outside of these walls. You know how I feel about you, and I know how you'll never feel about me. You've been given a chance to be happy, and that's…" She swallowed. "That's all I want for you."
"You are the most extraordinary – "
"Don't – "
He rose to his feet and she backed away. He grasped her tightly on her upper arms, not enough to hurt her but enough so she could feel him. "I will never forget you. Every day I have on this earth, I will think of you, and hope that wherever you are, you're happy, and someone is loving you and taking care of you like you deserve. And every time I think that, I'll feel so sick in my heart that it isn't me."
She swallowed. "Stop! God, just stop it – I've lost enough…"
"You deserve to know how I feel, Bella."
"Why? God, it doesn't change anything! I have to go, I need out – "
He let her go. So she turned and walked away, towards the automatic doors and out into the rainy Seattle afternoon.
The whole town of Forks turned up for Chief Swan's funeral a week later. Bella sat in the front, her hands being held by her best friend, Angela. People far and wide came to pay respect to the Chief, and Bella appreciated every gesture. She was thankful for Angela, who could warmly accept each condolence while Bella could only nod.
People began to file out after Charlie was lowered into the ground with the preacher reminding everyone of ashes and dust, and so Bella turned to thank everyone for coming.
That was when she saw them.
A handsome redhead in a dark suit, and his frail wife in a wheelchair, with her pink nail beds.
"No," she said to herself. "No, no, no."
After coming home that day from the hospital, she had screamed and cried and broken everything in Charlie's small house. It was an exorcism of sorts, ridding herself of Edward and death and the medicinal smell that was in her skin. She thought she was doing okay, but seeing him again with the woman that held her dad's heart in her chest…
It was Tanya who called her name, not Edward. Bella took a few deep shuddering breaths and walked forward towards the couple.
"Hello," she said shakily, refusing to look at Edward. "Shouldn't you be in bed, resting?" She knew she sounded sharp, but this woman better be taking care of her father's heart.
"I got a couple hours of leave," Tanya responded. "We wanted to come pay our respects."
Bella dipped her head. "Thank you."
Tanya reached forward and took Bella's hand. "No, you incredible girl. Thank you." She turned to her husband. "Did you bring them?"
Edward drew out something from his pocket.
It was a stethoscope.
"No," Bella cried, backing away. "No, I can't."
Edward wordlessly handed her the instrument. "Listen to the good you've done. Listen to the life you gave."
Bella took a deep breath and placed the hooks in her ears. Then she leaned down and pressed the drum over Tanya's left breast.
Her father's heart beat strong and true inside. "Daddy," she whispered.
"He lives on," said Tanya, her voice echoing inside Bella's head because of the stethoscope. "Thank you, Bella. Thank you so much."
They left ten minutes later, Edward looking at her like he very much wished to say something. She turned away before he had the chance.
When Bella got home, she took a good look around Charlie's house. Everything about it screamed of memories she was not ready to face.
It was time for her to move on.
Two Years Later
Bella Swan had disappeared. Edward had searched far and wide all over Washington for the beautiful, altruistic young woman he had befriended those years ago. She was no where to be found.
On a random urge, he signed into Facebook and searched Isabella Swan in the directory. There were hundreds, and he searched tirelessly through pages and pages of women. He was about to give up again when his breath stopped in his throat and he nearly fell out of his seat.
Edward booked the next flight out.
Twelve hours later, he stood on the doorstep of her apartment outside of Chicago, listening to a tiny dog yap over the sound of a top forties radio station. He had just rung the doorbell, and he suddenly heard her voice behind the door, bemoaning the dog to shut up.
She called the dog Charlie.
He didn't know if she looked through the peephole, but suddenly several locks were being undone and the door was open and the heat of her home was upon him.
His first thought was that she had cut her hair. It fell to just below her shoulders in attractive layers, rather than the nearly waist-length mane she had had two years previously. His second thought was that she was so beautiful he had to look away. Her dark eyes were staring up at him in total shock, and the dog in her arms kept barking.
"Flipping Christ," she swore, her hand going to her heart. "Edward Masen?"
Her eyes were more guarded than they had been when she was twenty-two. They had seen harsh realties of this world, and they squinted against anything too bright.
"Bella Swan, you are a difficult creature to find. Chicago?"
She adjusted the small white dog in her arms. "A friend once raved about it nonstop, and I needed a new place."
"The city suits you."
"Why are you here? Is Tanya okay? I just got a report that she's still going strong…"
He lifted his left hand and showed her his ringless fourth finger. The look on her face was pure fury.
"So that's it, huh? You come chasing after me after you ditch your wife? No thank you!" She moved to slam the door in his face.
"No, Bella, you've got it all wrong – "
"You think you can just waltz back into my life after I've spent the past two years trying to get over you and everything that happened in that hospital – "
"I've never gotten over it," he whispered. "Not ever. I've thought about you every single day, just like I told you I would."
She slumped, like all the fight in her left at once. "Would you like to come inside?" she asked tiredly. "It's rather cold."
He stepped in over the threshold and took in her tiny apartment. It was neat and crammed with books and pictures and paintings. It smelled like sandalwood and wine and whatever was cooking in the oven at the moment.
He never wanted to leave.
"I was just about to pour myself some wine… would you like a glass?" She gestured for him to sit down on the couch.
"Please," he said, taking off his coat and hanging it on the rack by the door. As he sat, she brought him over a glass of red.
She sat across from him in a big, comfy chair. Her hair fell over her eyes, and she looked so exhausted. "What are you doing here, Edward?"
He took a deep breath. "About a year after Tanya received the surgery that saved her life, she came to me and said she wanted a divorce."
Bella gasped. "What?"
Edward nodded. "Apparently, it's quite common… people who are given second chances at life want to truly live, as she put it to me. All I wanted to do was go back to our house, start teaching again and maybe work on a family? I don't know. But she wanted to sky dive and travel and go spelunking and all of these… you know, adventurous things. We couldn't… we didn't see eye to eye. It tore us apart. We were both so unhappy, and so confused why. She cried as she handed me the papers – we had spent over ten years together. But we just… we grew apart. The new life she wanted couldn't include me."
Bella's hands were shaking. "So it was all a waste. I gave her my father's heart for nothing!"
Edward shook his head, afraid she would see it that way. "Bella, no. No. You gave a woman who would have died too young a chance to live."
"But it was supposed to be for you, for your happiness…"
"But she stopped making me happy. That can't be helped. People grow apart…"
She sighed. "I know. I know, I'm sorry, that was an awful thing for me to say… I just. I never thought… you two were so beautiful together. And I thought… it just… seems…"
"What you did, Bella, was allow me to continue my life with a woman I was married to. You gave us a chance at a normal life, a chance I never thought I would have again. You gave us the chance to work on our love, and have it fizzle out naturally. If she would have died, I would have mourned for the rest of my life. I don't know if I could have ever gotten over the guilt of falling… for… someone else. You know? But you gave us that chance, and it ended, as most relationships do…"
"This is so much to take in. Especially the implications as to why you have sought me out." She took a deep drink from her wine.
That was the harder part. "The other reason why Tanya and I fell apart was because I fell in love with you over that month in the hospital and I've never been the same since."
Bella turned away. "Edward – "
"You don't have to say anything. A woman like you is probably dating someone, or engaged, or hell – even married. But I've missed you every single day. You changed me, Bella. You, this little child in my eyes, taught me so much about humor and hope and faith and most importantly… and most importantly, about love. The way you showed me love, I don't…"
Bella sucked in a deep breath. "This still hurts to talk about, to think about – "
"Believe me, I know. I've searched for you for the past year, and now that I have found you, I'm telling you that I expect and deserve nothing. I'm here to ask you if you still have the ability to love me, a thirty-year-old divorcee from a snotty upbringing, the way you did two years ago."
Bella didn't say anything for a very long time. She stared into her wine glass, and only looked up when the buzzer of the oven went off.
"Would you…" she finally said. "Would you like to stay for dinner?"
She wasn't asking him to stay forever.
But one day, if she did, he would.