Childhood's End

Extinction.

After the last star has burned out.

After the last black hole has evaporated to nothing.

After everything, there is only …

nothing.

Is it a moment?

Is it forever?

And then my senses come rushing back to me. From infinity light years away. So vivid. So intense. I hear birds. Hear leaves rustling. Hear the worms inside the earth. Smell the earth. Smell the trees. Smell the air. Yes, air has a smell. And a million other things. There is light outside my eyelids. I am being held.

My eyes fly open. It's Edward.

It's Edward!

I turn in his arms and half jump on him. Knock him over on the rug.

"It worked! IT WORKED!"

I keep saying that over and over, and his name. I'm all over him. He struggles to sit us both back up. And then I realize we're not alone. His whole family is here.

"You're all … You're here! You're all ok! Oh my God, it worked!"

It worked.

We're in some kind of a cabin. Like literal log walls. I smell iron and old char and ash. There's a really old fashioned, pot-bellied wood stove in the corner. Inert, dusty, and cold.

They all look sad.

I'm not really paying attention because I'm still twisted around in Edward's lap, gripping his arms, and …

"You're … you're warm! You're warm! And … you're not … You're not all hard!" I snuggle into him. It feels so good. So right. So … home. My stone child in the rainbow cloth. Stone no more. Cold no more. I have warmed him.

"You're … human now?" I ask … or exclaim … or maybe both. Not just alive, but back to himself. My lost beloved journal boy. His eyes are such a beautiful brown. Like a chestnut horse.

I feel life opening up in front of us. To pick up where all was once cut off.

Mrs. Cullen makes a choking noise and turns her face into Dr. Cullen's shoulder. Rosalie slams out the door. Again. Like that night with the iron puzzle and the rain pattering down from the eaves. Emmett follows her. Again.

What did I say?

Edward holds me closer. "Oh, Bella." His face is in my hair. And I realize that somebody's cleaned me up and changed my clothes. Not the blue velvet dress, but … not my clothes either. I look for Alice. She's there. Holding onto Jasper. Her eyes are sad. And golden.

Wait.

They all are. Except …

Wait.

Edward's eyes … didn't he tell me that they had been green when he was human …?

Edward's eyes … not green. Chestnut brown … kind of … red.

"You're one of us, now, Bella," Alice says.

I have a sore throat.

… … …

… … …

It's … really sore. Like … on fire. Or like I'm dying, literally dying, of thirst. And yet … I don't … don't seem to care as much as I ought to. As if I've been shot full of morphine, which, according to … someone? … my mom? … lets you feel the pain but you don't really care. I'm trying to sort through what's wrong with me …

Edward is holding me, cradling me, saying my name, rubbing my arms. Jasper steps forward.

"Miss Bella," he says. "Let's take you hunting."

Oh.

All my reference frames shift.

What I have become, and what that means — all the consequences awaiting me — takes sudden, fully assembled shape and color and sound and smell and THIRST in every molecule of air that I breathe. And now I'm scared. I remember what Edward told me about being a newborn, about slips, about the years he went off the rails, about Jasper's past, or even Alice's, about …

You have no idea what you would be asking for.

I guess, now, I'm about to find out.

They all are around me. Dr. Cullen is speaking. Maybe I have to start calling him Carlisle now?

"Don't worry Bella. We shall be with you. We will keep you safe. Keep you from hurting anyone."

Alice is on her cell phone. "You two need to come back now. We need you. Meet us on the north trail."


Running with Edward is … magic. It's joy. It's wonder. He's holding my hand and I feel filled with the electricity of his hand in mine and mine in his. I'm flying. We're all flying. All eight of us. Defying the laws of physics. Slipping through the trees like swallows. Like errant thoughts. Every scent and color and sound and pine needle and softness of loam under my feet … it's so intense. As if the whole forest is coming into me … inside of me. I feel so strong and perfect. I could run like this forever. Yes, I'm thirsty, but who cares.

Until suddenly I DO care. Very, very much. And my body makes a bee line for the tickle I smell afar off. Edward still has my hand. He keeps pace with me. The others are kind of in my dust. I glimpse the deer. A doe and her tiny fawn. I've never experienced anything like this before. I know that everything happens in less than an instant, because I see their heads barely turn, their ears barely swivel toward me and I'm already making a mess of the two bodies. But to me it's all happening in ultra slow motion. My hands reaching and grabbing their necks, the jerk of my momentum snapping bone. Stuffing the nearest pulse points into my mouth. Tearing, sucking. My teeth bulldozing through two carcasses. One grown. One, so very, very small. Every nanosecond, every motion, crystal clear and sharp and real. The ripping. The breaking.

The wet.

The rest of them have caught up by now. Edward is beside me. Keeping his hands on me. I can feel my face and hands and most of the front of me are all covered in gore. And it's not enough. Now I'm REALLY THIRSTY. The scent and taste are in me now, and I'm questing it. There has to be more. I don't wait for anyone. I'm away.


My last kill is, of all things, a porcupine. The quills, like the rest of the poor creature, lie broken all around me.

I'm probably wearing more blood than I've drunk. And who knows how much got sprayed onto leaves, soaked into ground.

Every moment, every detail, every death is crowded inside of me now. The white spots on the fawn's coat. The bunching of the elk's haunch muscles that never fired, because I was on its back before it could spring away. The clumps of wolf fur that I had to spit and spit and spit to get to the blood.

This trail of carnage I've made through the deep woods.

I had no idea what it would be like. To be so hollow with thirst that I cannot stop myself; that nothing can stop me. To be filled with so much grief and horror, right in my face, and I can't erase it, or even ease it. Wailing … it doesn't help like tears do. They must be the magic ingredient that lets the pain out.

My eyes have lost the recipe; and will never find it again.

What have I become.

What have I become.

Edward is holding me. Plastered to me. Rocking me. Blood and gore and all.

"It gets better," Alice is saying. "It won't always be like this. I promise."

Jasper must be doing something again, because I'm feeling that strange numbness, or distance, or softness. Again.

Again.

Mrs. Cullen … Esme … steps forward. Takes my hand. "Let's find some water."


I'm still in the creek bed. It was weird, washing my clothes in the running water. I guess that's how people did, back in the day. Alice was telling me about it as she rubbed and scrunched and shook each piece in the stream (because I can't be trusted with something as flimsy as denim or flannel - not yet anyway.) How people used to have these wooden paddles and they would lay and fold the cloth on a rock and pound it with the paddles until the water ran clean.

Alice is full of stories, actually. I think she's trying to distract me from thinking too much about how many lives I've taken, in just this one, first, afternoon.

Each of them warm, breathing, beautiful. And then not.

My clothes are all hanging on branches waiting for the air to dry them. However long that will take. No one's in a hurry here. We've got nothing but time. And Alice is telling me a story from India, about a god named Krishna, who stole the clothes of the cow herding girls when they were bathing in the river, and hung them up in a tree out of reach. Something about they had to trade him some favor in order to get their clothes back.

I feel like I've heard this one before. Feels like a pretty standard trick that boys in fairy tales like to play on the girls. And now it's my clothes hanging up on the tree branches, and me naked as a jay bird in the creek.

I'm the selkie.

And the worst part of it is … I'm thirsty again.

If I pay attention, I can find exactly where that tickling scent is coming from. Promising that my throat will feel so-o-o much better if I just …

I lay myself down in the stream, let the water run over me, submerge my face so my nose isn't in the air any more. I don't want to go running after any more blood today. Alice squeezes my hand and gets up out of the water. Esme … whose hair looks like my mom … comes and takes her place. I think they are running it in relays to keep a hand on me. Baby-sit me. I guess they know what they're doing. They've been through this a few times before.

Esme is different from Alice. She doesn't say anything. Just sits close enough in the stream that I can feel how the current shifts and narrows and runs a little bit slower between her hip and my elbow, hear the soft, slightly tumbling rush of the water over the cobbles and silt underneath the tiny gap, and all around us.

I lift my face back into air again, just long enough to speak. "Where's Edward?"

"He's close by."

I do know that. They all are close by. Their scent is everywhere. It's like how their house smelled that one night that I was there with them. I'd thought it was incense or flowers, but now I can pick out each individual one. All making harmony with each other. And with the forest around us. But I also hear them — very soft murmurs between Alice and Jasper, small rustles as one or another of them shifts position. Actually, Emmett is clowning in a tree, trying to turn Rosalie's frown upside down. And what sounds like … a page turning? Does Dr. Cullen … Carlisle … does he keep tiny books in his pockets for times like these?

But Edward is very silent. So I'm not quite sure exactly where he is.

"Is he hiding?" I ask. Because he had to get buck naked too. His clothes were as bloody as mine by the end. Holding me. I rubbed off on him.

I've submerged myself completely again — eyes open, the world through the ripples of moving water like looking through wavy glass, dusk falling fast and hard and dark among the trees and over the bank — but I can hear Esme perfectly well. With the running creek in my ears, her voice sounds musical and burbling. And the trees whisper. And the little bugs crawl in the cracks of their bark.

"He's grieving. For what has become of you. He feels … responsible."

My face breaks the water again. Like a dolphin taking breaths as it skims through the waves.

"How is he responsible? He didn't choose to be killed! None of you did."

Esme is silent for a very long time.

"He loves you Bella. Loves you so much. He can't bear to see you suffer."

"Alice says it will get better. … And … the worst is past."

Except, I guess, that it isn't. And never will be. Edward had told me about that. How once you become a vampire, your memory seems to exist outside of time. Everything is like it just happened. Any time one calls it to mind …

"I couldn't just … just walk away."

Esme's hand finds mine. "Oh, Bella."

I lie back flat in the stream. I know the water is cold. It has to be. It's barely into April and we're up in the mountains. This water has to be snow melt. Rushing down over a bed of smooth round stones. Glacier remains. That's what we learned in Earth Science class.

The sun is long down now, too — the sky clear, dark, and full of stars, twinkling and peeking between the tops of the trees. It's all conifers here, rising up tall, making black cut-outs against the speckled sky. The deep fir and spruce scents seeping through. Not so much cedars though. It's a different forest from the one I came from. With no sun, no light, only night and shadows, the water must be pretty close to freezing, but … it just feels … wet. No chill at all.

The dark doesn't seem to bother my vision either. I can see everything, although it is mostly in shades of charcoal. Shimmering through the moving lens of water, every shape and line is still as clear and sharp as crystal. Such a strange kind of vivid, that I've never experienced before.

The creek runs endless over me, and I lie as still as the stones beneath. They don't hurt or poke me. It's like we are one. A white, person-shaped stone among all the others. Lying under the water like a secret. A guardian spirit of the waters. From the mountain to the sea.

Is that what I can be … ?

Is that possible? Can it be the balance to all the life I rip and destroy? All that I will take from this world, until the sun burns out … ?

I remember how Edward cried — there among the cathedral of trees — when I told him that eating me wouldn't be a sin. That the circle held us both — and all that we did in order to live — even if we were different.

Now I wonder … who was right about that? Was it him? Or was it me?

I imagine myself lying here until morning, until the sun slants in through the boughs, and I sparkle like the water. Like some kind of elemental being.

Esme is squeezing my hand. "We stick together Bella. Stick up for each other too. We'll always be here for you. And for Edward." She sighs. "That boy. He loves you so."

They're all rustling now, behind the screen of the dark, dark trees. The clothes must be dry. Or dry enough. Even with the air so crispy and snow-smelling.

Will we go back to the cabin now? Or deeper into the wild?

And how much time (how many miles) do I have … before, once again, nothing can stop me from savagely taking my next red tribute of blood?