Charlie welcomes her home with more emotion than Bella expected. He grips her shoulders tight, pressing her against his chest – as if hugging her close will prevent her from ever leaving again. "How was your trip?" he asks, voice gruff.
Bella's lips almost reach a smile. "It was really good, Dad. Really," she repeats, wanting him to understand everything she cannot say. "I even went camping. It wasn't that bad."
He laughs, moving to clap Mike on the shoulder. "Never thought I'd see the day."
Mike gives a cheery smile and a wave, eyebrows knitting slightly when he looks to Bella. "Well, I should probably go grovel. My mom's going to murder me," he says. Bella holds her fingers up in a half-wave. "Call me, Bella. We'll hang out." His voice is cheery, as if he hadn't helped her run away from her own wedding three weeks ago.
God. Her wedding.
Bella feels like retching into the bushes again, but settles for pressing her lips into a firm line. She gives Mike a nod, and he leaves without further comment. Bella knows he's used to her by now. She shoulders her backpack, full of thrift store finds, and turns towards the house. She lets out a huge breath she didn't realize she was holding. She glances to the side, looking at Charlie. He's standing there staring at her.
"Yeah, dad?" she asks. She braces herself, but she's not sure what's coming.
Charlie just shakes his head, as if he were clearing thoughts from his hair. "Well, come on in Bells. I want to hear all about it." He takes her bag, holding the door open for her to follow behind. Bella feels like she's been punched. She knows he's asking about the trip, but she can't remember the last time she really told Charlie anything of substance. Even before she moved to Forks, she was glossing things over on the phone with a father she saw only a few times a year. It was always her mom that she'd talked to – her mom had been her rock, even when Bella had to do grown-up things like scheduling appointments and making dinner. Renee, somehow, had understood when Bella fretted over her lack of friends at school or her clumsy mistakes in dance class. She'd always felt awkward with Charlie, felt as if he were on the other side, an opponent – as if she and Renee were a team unto themselves. It's unsettling to realize that Renee had left her a virtual stranger to her father and worse to feel, just now, as if she should care.
She follows Charlie into the house, taking a seat at the kitchen table curling her shoes around the legs. "Dad, can I ask you something? I mean, it's really personal…"she starts, but trails off.
He sets her bag by the sofa and goes over to the fridge to grab a beer. "Sure, Bells." He looks wary and Bella can't fault him. She can't think of the last time she asked him a serious question.
"Why did you and Mom split up? I mean, I know she wanted to leave Forks. But," Bella pauses and begins to drum her fingers on the table. "I know there's more to it than that. I just – I'd like to know."
Charlie sighs as if all the air was escaping his body. "You mom, she uh, she didn't tell you?" His face is grim and Bella feels guilty for dredging up bad memories. He's never dated. She's always assumed he was still in love with Renee.
Bella shakes her head. "No. She always said she wanted to leave Forks." She can understand that, somewhat – but she doesn't understand the neverending production of moving, of never having a place, that was the cornerstone of Bella's childhood. Even when she was small, Renee never came back to Forks. Bella rode the plane by herself.
"It's complicated," Charlie begins, cradling the beer can between both hands. "I still don't – I don't think it was Forks. I think it was me." He takes a deep swig of beer and Bella bites her lip, twisting her shoes even tighter around the chair legs to the point of pain. She wants to throw out her hands and tell him to stop, wants to stop being the type of person who only causes pain.
"We met the Summer after she finished high school. I thought she was amazing," he says, voice hoarse on the last word. He clears his throat, taking another drink. "It was – very quick. I thought she was brilliant, really. She was so alive, so full of plans. And then she got pregnant, with you."
Bella swallows convulsively, mouth dry. It takes a few tries to force words through her lips. "I was a mistake?"
"No," Charlie barks, more force in his voice than Bella has ever heard. "Not to me, Bells. Never to me." He sighs again. "We got married. That was probably my first mistake. Did it to please her parents. I wanted to, though – don't doubt that. It wasn't because it was the right thing. It was because she was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen." His face is almost wistful at this point, and Bella fights to keep her mouth from opening in surprise. For all that Renee has never said a bad word about Charlie, she always gave Bella the impression of coldness. Bella thought their marriage youthful folly, at least not on Charlie's part. Renee was the one to be carried away by emotion. She thought she had something different with Edward.
"It was good, at first. I thought I could make her happy. But, she wasn't happy when I took a job with the force and she fought with her parents all the time. Liked to push their buttons."
"Grandma and Grandpa?" Bella asks, voice small. She'd never met them, assumed they were dead, the way Renee spoke.
"They passed away when you were ten, Bells," Charlie says, voice gentle. "They had a falling out with Renee about six months after you were born. Renee was like a force of nature, too big for anyone. I thought that I was doing the right thing, getting a job, providing for you both. It was good for a while. I do think she was happy, when you were born."
Bella thinks he's trying to convince himself. She feels like she's going to be sick.
"You were – you were amazing, Bella. The happiest day of my life was the day you were born," he says, and this time, Bella can see Charlie's honest. "But Renee wasn't happy. She wanted adventure. She wanted a bigger purpose than living with me. It wasn't Forks, Bella. It was me. I wasn't enough for her. She wanted things I never could give her."
He takes another swig of beer to cover the crack in his voice. "We fought about it for a long time. It was never actually something. If she'd just have given me something, some clue, some hint on what she actually wanted, I would have done anything to give it to her. Because I was in love with her, but I was just some Summer fling she was shackled to." His voice is bitter, and Bella grips the edge of the kitchen table, knuckles white. "So she left. Came home one day, and you were gone."
"Oh, Dad," Bella says, voice soft.
"Took off to California and left me a note. I got the divorce papers in the mail a few weeks later. I still don't – I still don't know what she was looking for."
"I don't know if she does either," Bella mutters.
"I guess I should have fought for you, Bells. Should have tried harder. But I – I don't know what I'm doing, Bells. You can tell," he says, with a shrug, looking down at his empty beer. "But I'm trying. And I don't want you making the mistakes we did."
Bella untangles herself from the chair and crosses the kitchen to put her arms around him. "I'm trying, Dad."
He pats her on the back a few times. "I'm glad you came to Forks, Bella."
It takes her a moment, but Bella responds truthfully, "I am too, Dad." Even if her life implodes spectacularly after this, in this moment, it's true. She missed having a Dad – having to settle for awkward phone conversations about science fair projects, and gloomy Summer vacations that left her tense and feeling like a stranger with him.
"I should probably unpack, Dad," she says softly, moving to grab her bag. Charlie nods, moving to grab another beer from the fridge. She feels like she should give him a few minutes alone to collect himself. She'll come back to fix dinner in a bit.
She trudges up the stairs, feeling drained. Bella knows she isn't an awful person, but she feels like, perhaps, she's a selfish one. She feels guilty for asking Charlie about Renee, feels guilty over a thousand things, if she were honest with herself. She wonders if she's any better than Renee, focused entirely on herself and her happiness. Bella knows she's being unfair to Renee, but all the little hurts from childhood have bubbled to the surface, and she wonders now what it would have been like to live with Charlie, rather than the production that was Renee. Bella knows her mother loves her, doesn't doubt that in the least. Still, a small part of her heart had always wished Renee had fought for her, insisted she stay – loved Bella more than Phil. She thinks of Charlie wishing he had fought, of Renee letting her go…of Edward abandoning her in the woods. She'd like to know why it's so easy to let her go.
She opens the door to her bedroom and Edward is standing there, the window flung open. Bella sighs and points to it. "Please just go, Edward."
It's her turn to do some abandoning.