A/N: ...It has been awhile, hasn't it? Well, first and foremost, thank you for your incredible patience. I could try and explain about countless hours lost in numbers, algorithms, and various diseases, but I think you'd rather get to the chapter, so I won't bother with excuses. Please know that I'm doing my best to update more frequently. Again, thank you for sticking with me. Your reviews, comments, and PM's mean more than I could even attempt to express.
To my betas EchoesofTwilight and KristenLynn - the work you've done with the chapter was large, daunting, and your honest words make me a better writer. A huge thanks goes out to them, since this never could have been accomplished without their assistance, time, and dedication. You two deserve more than simple words of gratitude, but thank you is all I have. To lexiecullen17 for her pre-reading, support, and always picking me up when I feel the words barely whisper rather than scream.
To my girls in the LoD - These words would have never been written if it wasn't for your constant encouragement. I love you all, and all that you do.
Disclaimer: I don't own Twilight. Never have, never will.
When the Words Scream - Chapter Three
"A Dream With Eyes Open"
And on the bus I could have sworn it was all a dream,
And it didn't happen to me.
And then I felt the scrapes,
From the slippery subway grate.
Oh how you laughed,
At my complete lack of grace.
But I could not recall,
A more perfect fall,
Cause when I looked up into your eyes
It didn't hurt at all.
Be Still My Heart – The Postal Service
September 13th, 2009
I registered the weight of morning before my eyes opened. The sun was blaring, yet I saw nothing but reds and oranges spaced in a million dots, dancing and sliding on the backs of my eyelids. My face was warm, and I felt my lips turn up in a contented smile; I woke up older today. Physically, my body didn't feel different, but mentally I knew the number sixteen now held a new meaning. Another day, another year.
My body was heavy with sleep, and my muscles argued with a desire to exercise their stiff posture. Stretching my hands above my head, I yawned, unfolding tendons, and realigning ligaments following their state of rest. My positive thoughts were short lived, however; the images from last night's dream littered the streets of consciousness as my mind crawled out of its sleeping haze. I remembered the faces of my mother and father first, my familiarity with that particular portion of my nightmare was experienced and common; I had no trouble recalling those details. It was the events that followed those scenes that left me confused, scared. I knew it had something to do with Edward, and it took a moment for me to remember.
The science room.
Edward on the floor with pleading eyes.
"Oh, God. Edward." My voice was agonized. I shoved the heels of my hands against my eyes as tears fell, my mind replaying every terrifying second of my nightmare, featuring my one and only star with perfect clarity. "I'm sorry."
"For what, B?"
I shot up in bed as my eyes snapped open. Edward was seated by my hip, the air around him glowing from the sun streaming through my window. His face was shrouded in a light shadow, the defined attributes stood out in carved edges, his every prominent and etched in concern.
"It's nothing," I said, waving a hand in the air to dismiss the words. It was a nightmare, and I didn't want Edward to think I was being childish. The events from the night previous still ran in fast-forward, a montage of fear, loss, self-loathing, and failure.
He moved closer and placed his hand on my knee, rubbing his thumb in small circles over my blanket and skin-covered bones. My body burned, and my heart ached with the knowledge that he was alive and unharmed and here. With a refined grace, his upper body leaned in closer, and I felt the pressure of his weight. The arm on my skin was a welcomed pain, jolting my system into awareness of his presence – inviting and concerned.
"You know you can tell me anything," Edward whispered, looking directly into my eyes.
Reaching over, he pulled one of my hands into his unoccupied one and squeezed gently. My pulse soared, and my skin burned with hot flames at the recognition of my sense of touch. It was this response that brought me back from the ledge of distorted reality I stood upon after my dream. This was real. He was really here, and the events of the early morning would soon be nothing but a distant and unpleasant memory. I smiled at him, feeling lighter than I had since my mind roused me from the terror of my subconscious.
"I know. But it's nothing," I replied, and his smile soon matched my own.
"Okay, good. Just as long as you know."
I looked at the clock – it was just after eleven. "Hey, what are you doing here? I thought you were coming to get me at two."
Suddenly, I was overly aware of my appearance. I had been crying and had just woken up; I must have looked awful. As I pulled the blanket higher up my body, Edward moved away slightly, and I immediately felt the loss of his proximity. I wanted him to stay close, for his body heat to warm my being and remind my senses of what was real. With Edward close, there was tangible proof and overwhelming comfort.
"Well, I was, but I wanted to know if I could enjoy a birthday breakfast with you." His smile faltered when I didn't answer right away. "I mean, we've done it for the past three years, and I should have mentioned it before, but I was so caught up with Stanford and the meet, then you called me and I was asleep…I thought maybe, I don't know, maybe you'd want to do it again this year..."
"Edward," I said quietly, reaching out my hand to place it on his. "Can we still go to the Original Pancake House?"
His eyes lit up like a flipped switch when I smiled at him. "Of course! But first, I need to give you your birthday presents."
"Presents? As in, plural?" I was nervous, and removed my hand from his to lean back against my headboard, being mindful to keep myself hidden beneath the blanket.
"Yeah. One is practical, and the other because I felt like it. Is that okay?"
"How can I tell you if it's okay if I don't know what they are?" I teased.
"Let's find out, shall we?"
Looking down towards the floor, I noticed Edward's attire for the first time that morning. His feet were encased in canvas flip-flops, his calves were bare, and as my eyes traveled further up, I saw black swim trunks. The material was pulled tight over the strong muscles of his thighs, the edges of fabric hanging like cliffs over the sharp edges of his knees. Lime-green thread was sewn in nonsensical designs up his thigh, disappearing under the bulky red sweatshirt with "LIFEGUARD" written across his chest. "MASEN" was etched in white block letters over the wide expanse of his broad shoulders.
"Edward?" My gaze turned up to his face, but he was reaching toward the foot of my bed, grabbing two boxes by my feet that I hadn't noticed earlier.
"Yeah?" His breath was strained from stretching for the packages wrapped in shiny paper with miniature birthday cakes and lit candles. One box was a large rectangle, and the other was a much smaller square; it would fit in my palm.
"Why are you wearing your trunks now? It's September."
His laughter filled my room, and it rang in my ears. The sound was joyous, light and carefree in tone, but was heavy in its confirmation of reality. Any remaining nerves from my dream still residing underneath my skin were silenced, put to rest by his bright smile. The apples of his cheeks pushed the skin around his shining eyes upwards, nearly aligning his upper and lower eyelids. When Edward smiled, a true smile, he did so with his entire face. My heart leapt in my chest at the knowledge that my words were the cause.
"Well, we are going swimming this afternoon." He arranged the boxes in his lap.
"It's September," I reiterated.
He just stared at me.
"In New Jersey," I stated.
"And? I'm wearing a sweatshirt!" he exclaimed loudly, pulling on the red fabric to emphasize his point.
I raised an eyebrow, and my expression was incredulous. Waving my hands in his direction, I waited for a reasonable explanation and smirked when none came.
"Just, open your presents, B. I want pancakes."
I sucked my bottom lip into my mouth – attempting, but failing to contain my smile - and I released it with a quick, "Okay," then reached for the smaller box.
"No, open this one first," Edward said quickly as he thrust the larger package into my hands.
Opening the paper carefully, I removed the cardboard box and set it on my lap before placing the wrapping on the floor. I lifted the lid and saw what looked like several long sleeved shirts made out of bathing suit material inside. Taking a dark blue shirt from the box, I inspected the white floral design and stitching along the seams. It was gorgeous.
Before I could ask him what it was, he answered my unspoken wonder. "They're called rashguards. Surfers wear them so they don't get cut up on sharp reefs or rocks. And, I know that you always swim with clothes, so I just thought this could be an alternative…make you more comfortable."
I was awed by the thoughtfulness he showed in the gift. He was right; I never wore just a swimsuit outside of a meet, and was often teased by others for my attire. I just wasn't comfortable in my own skin. Not only was I younger than almost all of the people I spent my time with, I'd also suffered over the past several years watching their bodies mature around mine while I remained the same. Unchanged – at least on the outside.
"Thank you," I whispered as I fingered the fabric before placing it on the bed next to me and inspecting the other ones. My eyes bored directly into his, and I hoped that my gaze could express what words could not begin to attempt. A stare filled with gratitude and, as always, there was the crushing weight of unrequited adoration. "Really, Edward. Thank you."
Pulling a dark green rashguard from the box, I admired the skull design framed by white stars on the back, and I decided I would wear that one today. I told him so.
He laughed. "That one's my favorite of them all."
I cleared everything but the green rashguard off of the bed before looking at Edward as he scratched the back of his neck roughly. With a nervous smile in my direction, he handed me the small box.
The box was incredibly light in my hands, and I used care when opening the packaging again. When I finally got through the paper, and another box, I held a telltale velvet case in my hand. I looked to Edward with wide eyes.
I started, but he interrupted with his hand in the air, his palm facing me. "Edward—"
"I know you normally don't wear jewelry, B, because you're afraid of losing it, but I asked the guy when I bought it if it was safe to go in water, and he assured me it was. So, you don't have to worry about taking it off," he said in a rush of words. "Or wearing it at all. It's okay if you don't like it."
Giving him a disbelieving look, I opened the box in my hands and gasped when I saw what was inside. The black background made the blue and white stone stand out like a lit beacon on a dark ocean. And that's exactly what the stone looked like. The dark, grey-blue of a stormy ocean with waves cresting into the night sky, all held together with woven silver.
I removed the necklace from the box with shaky hands, and I felt ridges along the back of the stone. When I flipped it over, I found several words engraved in the hard surface.
"It says, 'Ons swem deur elke oseaan tesame,'" Edward recited in perfect Afrikaans.
Edward's grandparents had moved to the States from South Africa with his mother during her adolescence. When they arrived, they barely spoke a word of English. Even though they had all eventually learned the language, only Elizabeth lost the accent, and when Edward was born, they refused to let him grow up without learning Afrikaans. Over the years, I'd learned a few words here and there, but I didn't know what the phrase on the necklace meant.
I softly stroked the gorgeous stone, holding back the tears threatening to fall; I'd never been given a gift like this before. My voice was choked with heavy emotion when I asked, "Edward, will you put this on for me?"
"Of course," he answered quickly, his words framed with a true smile. "So you like it?"
"Very much," I whispered as I unclasped the necklace and handed it to him.
He stood, and I moved forward to make enough space for Edward to fit behind me. Slowly, he knelt on the bed, his knees on either side of my waist, and my heart thrummed in my chest as I felt his shirt against the back of my neck. I heard the sounds of clothing shifting, and then his breath was at my ear.
"Could you move forward a bit more?"
I eagerly complied, excited to wear the stone around my neck, yet nervous to have him so close to me in my bed, the place where I knew nothing but fear. With Edward's presence, I hoped he could exorcise whatever dream demons were left behind by my subconscious and rid my room of terror. I wanted the comforting scent of Edward on my sheets – chlorine and apples and safe. He shifted, bringing his leg down to mirror the length of mine over my blanket. His other leg remained bent at the knee with his foot flat on the floor, his thigh almost pressed against my hip.
I took a deep breath, my nerves alight with hot flames licking my skin as his arms raised over my head. Feeling the bottom of his biceps against my shoulders, I leaned back slightly, trying to lean my back to his front.
"Is this okay?" I asked. My voice sounded strong despite the vibrations of my heart in my chest.
"Could you lift your hair for me?"
"Oh, yeah! Sure!" I exclaimed nervously and complied.
As he clasped the necklace, I felt his fingers against my skin, and I held my breath, willing my pulse to slow in my chest. I was worried he would feel my quickened heartbeat with how close he was, but as soon as his fingers were on my skin, they left. Their absence left a distinct change in temperature from the area surrounding, and I bit my lip from crying out at the loss of his heated touch.
"Let me see it." Edward stood once again, and moved back to his place on the bed by my hip. "Wow, it looks great! Do you really like it?"
"I love it," I said as I toyed with the stone out of nervousness. Several quiet moments passed between us. I wanted to hug him, but my choice of pajamas the night before left me fearful to stand before him without the shield of my blanket.
"Well, it's already after noon. We should go soon," he said, looking at the clock.
Biting my lip, I thought about how my bathing suit covered less than my tee-shirt and shorts, and I rolled my eyes. I tossed the blanket off of my body and hugged him around the waist.
"Thank you, Edward. Really. I love it."
His arms wrapped around my shoulders, and he kissed the top of my head. "You're welcome, B. I'll go wait for you downstairs."
As he pulled out of our embrace, I glanced at his smiling face once more before walking toward my dresser to pull out my clothes.
"Wait!" I exclaimed when he reached the doorknob, and he turned around. "What does it mean?"
His face faltered for a moment before he smiled again. "It means, 'we swim through every ocean together,'" he answered softly, and my heart swelled. I watched him walk through the door towards the stairs.
He was right. We would.
"California, here we come!" I cried out. His laughter sounded from the stairway.
I grabbed my clothes, including my new rashguard, and I made my way to the bathroom. Looking in the mirror, I admired my necklace once more.
Whispering to my reflection, I smiled through the word, together.
The crunch of stones beneath the tires of Edward's Subaru WRX filtered through the open window beside me, the sound like muffled firecrackers as we pulled into the parking lot of the swim club. Our breakfast had been a rushed affair, filled with overly-stuffed mouths, fingers sticky from sweet maple syrup, and joyous laughter. Both Edward and I were eager to get to the latter part of the afternoon, and our conversation was mainly comprised of chewing noises along with the occasional exchanged word.
Edward – and Emmett – had been exceptionally tight-lipped about then plans for the day; they'd both just been promising for the past few weeks that I was going to enjoy myself, and our time spent in the water outside of practice. This past summer had been filled with countless hours in the pool, but it was designed to make the team better, faster, and to prepare us for the meet yesterday. So when Edward finally pulled into a parking space next to Emmett's Jeep at the outdoor swim club owned by his parents, I could hardly contain my excitement. It may have been September, but the weather was oddly warm, not that the temperature would have stopped us anyway. We weren't here to do laps or training exercises, we were here to have fun - cold water be damned.
"You ready?" Edward asked as he switched off the engine and turned in the seat to look at me.
"Definitely." The smile on my face strained my cheeks.
"Great! You go ahead…" He gestured toward the trunk. "Let me just grab the stuff."
I excitedly unfolded myself from the car and ran to the steps only to find Emmett seated in his trunks and flipflops, his hands on his knees, waiting with a huge smile.
"Guppiella! Happy birthday!" Emmett shouted, running over and enveloping me in his large arms, lifting me so I was a few feet off the ground.
With my hands on his shoulders, and my knees pressing into his abdomen, I laughed. "Thanks Emmett! Can you thank your parents for me? It was really nice of them to let us use this place."
Emmett still held me in the air as he ran down the steps to meet Edward by the trunk of his car. Edward was shaking his head, a huge smile on his face as he watched the two of us.
"You bring everything, E?" Emmett asked Edward as he leaned over and nearly dropped me to the loose stones beneath my feet.
"Emmett!" I cried out. "Don't let me fall!"
His grip on me tightened further, and he tossed me over his shoulder, my hips balanced next to his neck, my head near the ground.
"How's that? Better?" My arms wrapped around him from behind.
"Damn it, Em! Put me down!" I hit his back repeatedly with closed fists, and I hadn't moved an inch when I saw the outline of a bicycle tire next to the bumper of Edward's car through Emmett's legs. "Edward, why do you have a bike?"
I heard his laughter combined with Emmett's as he managed "Don't worry about it," before turning back towards the car.
I tried to shoot him a look, but the expression was wasted on Emmett's back.
The trunk slammed closed. "Enough standing around, let's get inside! We only have a few hours before I have to take you back for dinner with your parents," Edward said, and both Emmett and I nodded.
Emmett rearranged my position on his body; I felt more like I was climbing on a jungle gym rather than getting a piggyback ride from a friend. I simply smiled, locking my legs and arms around his waist and neck. We waited for Edward to collect the contents of his backseat before we made our way up the few steps and through the massive open-air structure.
I looked down at Edward's hands: one was guiding a bike along the small walkway, and the other was holding a Slip 'N Slide. Two heavy bags hung from his shoulder – his and my own.
"Need help with that?" I asked, sticking my chin out in his direction.
"No thanks. It's your birthday. I'll be the pack mule for now."
We walked through the entrance, the swinging wooden door slamming into Edward after Emmett and I passed through. With a grunt, Edward punched Emmett in the arm, and his hand brushed my thigh as he pulled it back. My arms tightened around Emmett's neck, and I felt him chuckling, his body vibrating beneath me.
"Need to breathe, Guppa. Let up will you?"
"Sorry," I mumbled, loosening my grip, and I looked over his shoulder to avoid meeting Edward's gaze. Blood rushed to my cheeks, lighting the skin aflame with surprise, excitement, and embarrassment.
"So Guppa," Emmett started, then paused as he hitched me higher on his back, and my legs gripped harder around his waist. "How does it feel to be a special pick?"
"What?" I asked. "What's a special pick?"
"An ITL," he answered, and I could hear the grin in his words.
"Emmett," Edward growled. At the sound, I looked over with a confused frown.
"Can one of you explain what the hell you're talking about?"
Emmett laughed, but my eyes remained unmoving from Edward's clearly uncomfortable stance. As he met my gaze, I shot him an angry look, but Emmett was the first to answer.
"An ITL is an 'Intro to Legal.'"
"But I'm sixteen. Not eighteen."
"What Em means, B," Edward started with a huff and his eyes broke contact with my own. "Is…well…it's…damnit. He's talking about your age. In New Jersey, at sixteen, you're at the age of consent. You can date someone older, as long as you say it's okay."
"Edward, it's got nothing to do with dating, it's all about doing the nasty," Emmett said after he laughed.
I removed one of my arms around Emmett's neck to smack him in the back of the head. Edward still glanced at the ground, his ears pink and his eyebrows furrowed.
"Emmett…you, Edward, and I all know that no one my own age, let alone someone older, wants to date me, so why does it matter?" My need to roll my eyes at their ridiculousness was overwhelming; I was barely a blip on the radar screen for people in general, and even the thought that a male would desire my attention was ludicrous.
Emmett took a deep breath and started speaking, but Edward cut him off by dropping everything in his grasp, grabbing me, and pulling me away with one arm under my back and the other under my knees. Staring directly into my eyes, he gave me a crooked smile while my arms went around his neck to help support my weight. "Emmett's just saying that to make himself feel better about staring at young girls. Don't worry about it. Now, ready to celebrate?"
I nodded. Edward then spun us around in several circles, the world moving in blended swirls of light and dark, and I felt weightless in his arms. Squealing loudly, I held on tighter as we turned around faster, yet his sure footsteps did nothing to dispel my fear of slipping out of his grasp.
"Stop, Edward! I'm going to fall!" I shouted as my fingers lost their grip around his neck.
His hands pressed noticeably harder into my skin, bringing me closer to his chest, and he leaned his head down to my ear. "I'll never let you fall. Trust me." His circular movements stopped, yet the world was still spinning.
The tone of his voice washed over me in waves of calm, the vibration from his chest against me was a lullaby, softly soothing my nerves. I buried my face in his shoulder for a moment, taking in his intensified scent, breathing in his words and their meaning before letting my head drop back. With my eyes fixed toward the sky, the gorgeous blue freckled with white clouds and the green tips of trees, we started to spin once more, and I saw the world through a kaleidoscope – the images and outlines changed, and yet the colors remained the same.
The main area of the swim club was comprised of a large "T" shaped pool, split into three sections with buoys tied on ropes spanning from one length to the other, creating even squares ranging in depth from three to five feet. A large diving well was further back, the sides spattered with two one-meter diving boards and one five-meter platform, decorated in honor of my birthday. The bars of the diving boards were covered in balloons, and the platform had a small trampoline fixed to the end. In the trees surrounding the pool deck, there were balloons, streamers, and a "Happy Birthday Bella" banner. Beneath the decorated branches were brightly wrapped gifts. Not only did Edward and Emmett plan this special celebration, they had invited several members of the team to take part as well.
After we stopped spinning, and Edward had finally put me down, I stumbled for a bit before regaining my footing, slowly returning to earth. Mike and Tyler approached and wished me a happy birthday, then grabbed the small bike and Slip 'N Slide to bring them to the diving well. I watched in equal parts awe, excitement, and horror as the plastic mat was fixed to one of the diving boards, and the boys took turns sliding into the pool.
Turning to Edward, I watched as his eyes danced with what I assumed to be the anticipation without the presence of adults hovering and claiming our antics to be dangerous. I chuckled to myself, unzipped my bag, and took out my board shirts before I made my way to the locker rooms to change.
As I walked out in my new rashguard and board shorts, I saw that more people had joined Edward by the entrance in my momentary absence.
"Hey Bella!" Edward called to me, grabbing the bags from the ground by his feet and starting to walk up the stone path toward the main pool. "Jessica and Kate just got here. Ready to have a little fun?"
I smiled. "Hey Jessica, Kate. Thanks for coming you guys," I spoke softly as I finally caught up to them, and we continued walking.
"Well, when Edward called and told me about this little get together, I couldn't say no," Jessica answered, keeping pace with Edward, her shoulder bumping against him as they made their way around the pool in front of me.
Kate fell into step with me and said, "Happy Birthday Bella. How's it been so far?"
Fingering my necklace, I bit my lip slightly and felt a hot blush creep up my cheeks, remembering earlier. "Great. Thanks for making the trip here. I appreciate you driving all the way up."
"Jessica insisted we join you guys. And who am I to turn down time in the water?" She turned toward the rest of the crowd and ran off. "Tyler! Emmett! Mike!"
I watched as she leapt into Tyler's arms. Without warning, he tugged her bag off her shoulder and waddled over to the diving well, jumping in. Her shrieks carried over the tops of the trees.
I was so distracted by Kate and Tyler that I hadn't noticed I'd passed by Edward on my way to the lawn chairs scattered across the grass surrounding the pool. My breath caught in my throat, and I would have jumped into the air if it weren't for Edward's hands on my shoulders. "Should I do that with you?" he whispered in my ear.
"Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Are you going to get in?" One of his eyebrows lifted as he smirked.
"Of course I am. I just need to see how cold the water is first."
Dropping my stuff onto an unoccupied chair, I made my way to the edge of the diving well, and slowly dragged my foot through the water. I had expected it to be cold, but I wasn't prepared for the frigid temperature that glided over my submerged skin. Taking my foot out of the water, I planned to head over to the steps to gradually adjust, but as I turned, I saw Edward was dressed only in his boardshorts, giving me a wide, maniacal smile.
"Edward," I warned as he started stalking toward me, coming closer with every sure-footed step. "Don't."
"Don't what, Bella?" He took several more steps in my direction, moving like a snake preparing to strike.
When he reached my side, he dragged the back of his hand against my cheek, and his features shifted to that of complete innocence. I didn't believe it for a minute. All of my muscles prepared to move should he make any attempt to get me in the water.
"This?" he shouted as his arms quickly wrapped around my waist, his grip so strong I could do nothing but scream and hold on while he jumped into the rippling cold, blue glass.
Even with the countless pinpricks of cold temperatures hitting my skin, my mind focused on the warm, muscled torso of Edward against me underneath the surface. I was furious, but the tension faded as his strong arms grabbed me tighter and pulled me back to the oxygen-rich air above the glassy wall of water above us. Laughter from the other members of today's celebration carried over to us, but I couldn't look away from the sight of Edward next to me. Even though I had seen him in this position many times before, I didn't think my eyes would ever become anything but a slave to the sight. Using only our legs to keep ourselves afloat, his hold on me never relinquished, only adjusted so his hands were directly atop my hips as he looked directly into my eyes.
"Sorry?" He looked surprisingly sheepish.
"I could kill you. Why would you do that? I told you I'd get in!"
My arms moved from around him and waved in the air frantically, trying to restore the blood flow to my heart. If I was being honest with myself, I couldn't distinguish whether or not my heart momentarily stopped from the feeling of his body gliding against mine in the water, or if it was from the shock of the temperature.
"Yeah? And you took too long." My body shivered as his breath washed over my damp face and neck. "Cold? Jesus, I'm sorry. Come on, let's get you out and moving around. That'll help."
I felt a distinct loss of warmth when Edward's hands left my body and we swam toward the wall. Before I could climb out on my own, Emmett's large hand reached over and he hoisted me out of the water.
"Dude, that was priceless," he said to Edward. "You beat me to it."
Edward laughed and shook his head. "Better now that you're out of the water, B?" he asked, and I nodded, watching trails of water glide down his bare torso like wax from a candle, dropping in puddles by his feet.
"Yeah, I think it was just the initial shock."
"That's good," Emmett answered for him. "Ready?"
"Ready for what?" I asked, my brows furrowing in confusion.
They stalked toward me, my cold limbs protesting movement as I held my hands out.
"Grab her!" Edward shouted.
"No! No! Please! Don't!" I cried out, Emmett holding my arms, and Edward holding my ankles so I was suspended parallel to the ground.
"One… Two… Three…" the boys counted simultaneously, swinging me back and forth, gaining momentum, and coaxing squeals of protest from my throat.
By "three," my body was soaring through the air, back toward the frigid water of the diving well. Loud laughter rang in my ears before the water rushed in, dulling out the sound, and I was blessed with a moment of silence.
The lifeguard chair that sat perched above the deep water of the diving well was cold and hard against my back, but the height granted me a sense of peace from the chaotic afternoon. Hours spent laughing, swimming, and ultimately jumping great distances from the diving boards had me tired, and in a dire need of some time away from the crowd. No one questioned me as I ascended the ladder to the lifeguard chair - none except for Edward, and after my pleading look, he left me to join the boys for a while.
I had been watching them all in awe as they each took turns flying through the air from the platform with the aide of a small trampoline. Emmett and Tyler had grown up around competitive diving, and while Tyler was still a part of a team during the summer, Emmett had given it up to focus solely on swimming. The two of them had been fighting about who completed a forward three and a half better when Edward's voice carried from the platform over to me.
"Hey B? Could you settle this before I throw them both in the damn pool?"
My shoulders shook with laughter within the comfort of Edward's oversized sweatshirt. He had handed it to me when he realized I was shivering from the cold air against my skin after I climbed out of the pool earlier. The fabric provided a warmth, not only from the brief gusts of wind around me, but from the memories that flooded my mind upon recognition of the scent stained in lines of thread. The smell that always surrounded Edward and was amplified when his arms wrapped me within his embrace.
Pulling the collar of the sweatshirt down from its perch upon my nose, I yelled back to the boys on the high platform. "It was all about the splash, and Emmett, your Incredible Hulk-looking ass barely left water in the pool. Tyler won. Now stop fighting like a bunch of girls!"
The crowd surrounding the pool – and the boys on the platform, with the exception of Emmett – broke out into hysterical laughter. Craning my head in the direction of the lawn chairs, I watched as Kate and Jessica's bodies danced with their chuckles in string bikinis, and my laughter died as my confidence diminished. I pulled Edward's sweatshirt more tightly around me, as if I could borrow self-assuredness from the material. Tucking my knees into my chest, my feet perched atop the hard plastic of the lifeguard chair, I stretched the sweatshirt over my legs to hide myself from the view of others. As my mind compared my body to the girls below, I shrank deeper into the unearned pedestal I sat on above the waters beneath me. I tried to feel normal - to feel entitled - and included within the company surrounding me on a day meant to recognize a coming of age. Again, I leaned my head down, taking in a breath of Edward, inhaling feelings of confidence; I never doubted Edward's belief in me.
With a resigned sigh, my attempt at self- acceptance failed with the dying light of the sun in the sky as it fell towards the horizon. As if reading my thoughts, Edward's voice broke through my inadequate haze.
"What time is it, B?"
Pulling my phone from the large pocket stretched over my knees, I shouted back, my voice straining over the blowing wind as twilight approached. "Almost six!"
"Okay! Time for one more and then we're outta here!" he yelled back, climbing down the platform and running to the grass behind him.
I could only watch in horror as Edward once again ascended the stairs of the platform, only this time, he carried the small bike on one of his shoulders.
"Edward? What are you doing?" I asked loudly.
"Bella, you've never seen him do this before?" Jessica asked, walking over to the bottom of the lifeguard chair. "I saw him do this earlier in the summer. You weren't there?"
"I guess not," I mumbled, her tone making me uncomfortable, even with the knowledge of my clearly established friendship with Edward. My fingers dug into the material gathered by my ankles, grasping at my hold on a piece of my friend, grounding me, and fighting off doubt. I shook my head and laughed quietly at my own ridiculousness.
"Guppiella!" Emmett bellowed, bringing my attention back to the platform. "You've got to watch this!"
Tyler was doubled over, clutching his waist, and gasping for air around his laughter. I watched in horror as Edward sat atop a small BMX bike with a wide smile.
"You're insane!" I shouted to Edward, and he flashed me a huge grin and a wave. "Don't do it!"
"Don't be such a baby, Bella. He'll be fine," Jessica drawled dramatically.
"Here goes nothing!" Edward yelled. He took off, feet pushing on the pedals, speeding toward the edge of the platform high above the water below.
I watched, mesmerized as the last remaining rays of sunlight bounced off the metal on the bike, and Edward's bare torso as he plummeted toward the deep depths of the diving well. With a giant splash and one last excited cry, he hit the water, the front tire hitting first, his body propelled forward and plunging in with an audible smack.
His audience groaned collectively, and I knew everyone was staring at the swirl of white water. The shallow waves rippled outward, eventually slapping the walls while I held my breath, waiting for Edward to resurface. All I saw was the distorted and fragmented images of silver and alabaster below the broken surface. He still hadn't come up for air.
"Shit!" Emmett called out from above, but I didn't move my gaze.
"Edward?" was shouted repeatedly from the crowd now standing at the edge of the pool and platform.
Ripping the sweatshirt over my head, I jumped from my position in the lifeguard chair, and only at the last second did I see Edward's head emerge from the water. I heard laughter as I hit the still-choppy surface. My concern dissipated, and water flowed into me in its place; my nose, my ears, and mouth drowned in wet and chlorine before I kicked to the surface once more.
Coughing and sputtering, I roughly rubbed at my eyes, attempting to clear the chemicals that stung the sensitive nerves when I saw Edward treading water next to me.
"You jerk!" I yelled as I splashed water and he cowered playfully.
"Sorry! I didn't mean to get you upset! My damn shorts got stuck on the handlebars!"
"Still, Edward! You could have gotten hurt! And you're the only fucking lifeguard here! What the hell would we have done if you actually got hurt?"
The conviction in my tone took him by surprise as his face went from amused to ashamed in mere seconds.
"But I didn't. I'm fine," he paused for a moment, and swam toward the edge of the pool. "I'm sorry."
I followed. "It's fine, Edward."
"I told you he would be fine, Bella. You didn't need to be so dramatic," Jessica said in a huff as she hung over us from the ground above.
"I know you did. Can we just forget I jumped in now?" I could feel my face flush with embarrassment.
"B, I'm sorry. But I appreciate the heroics. Sure you don't want to be a lifeguard?" Edward asked with a crooked smile. I couldn't help but laugh.
"Not right now," I replied, as I pulled myself from the water.
"Just one more thing, B."
I stopped when I heard the amusement in his voice. "Yes, oh, dumb one?"
"It looked pretty fucking cool, huh?"
"You're an idiot."
With those parting words, and a roll of my eyes in his direction, I walked away to gather my things in order to leave.
With a wave to Edward in his car, I went inside and noticed all of the lights were off. I shrugged, figuring my parents were running late, and I made my way upstairs where I dropped my bag in my room. Since I was alone, I didn't bother bringing anything to change into with me to the bathroom.
Turning on the water, I held my hand under the still-frigid spray as I prepared to wash away the scent of chlorine and—I realized with a small frown—the lingering scent of Edward as well.
After I showered, I returned to my room, clutching my towel close to my chest as I checked the window to ensure the blinds were drawn, blocking out the reflections of light given off by the streetlamps scattered along the street. Only the lamp on my desk and my laptop shed light into my bedroom, giving my skin an eerie glow. I dropped my towel to the floor to change into my clothes for dinner. Even when I was alone, the idea of any inch of myself uncovered made me uncomfortable, as if the world was staring at me with thousands of magnifying glasses, each one trained on both my external and internal imperfections. My mind recognized only inadequacies, the outer shell I lived within, a thinly shielding veil, one that all could see through, and every stare penetrated its fabric. Each pair of eyes left puncture wounds in the exterior, leaving my fragile self exposed to the elements, harsh words as gusts of wind, biting and clawing at my sense of confidence.
Quickly pulling my undergarments from my dresser, I laid the items on the bed before walking to my closet to pick out clothes for dinner with my parents. I looked at the clock and realized I had little time before our reservation at the restaurant, and I knew they would be back soon. The house was painfully silent in their absence, and after the haunting experience of my nightmare earlier this morning, I was uneasy with only my own movements creating noise in the dense quiet.
I opened my closet doors to retrieve the one dressy outfit I owned from within, and I stroked the soft fabric of my blouse with my eyes closed. When my mother and I purchased these clothes, she explained that wearing items such as these would help me feel strong and confident, but I always felt the opposite. Just like an actor on the grandest of stages. Beneath the costume, I was nothing more than myself - an inadequate embodiment of the character I was meant to portray.
With a resigned sigh, I grabbed the hangers from the closet and walked to my bed, placing the items down and grabbing my undergarments. I carefully stepped into my underwear, pulling the fabric over my small, boyish hips before reaching for my bra. Adjusting my miniscule chest in place and clasping the closure behind my back, I walked to the mirror to stare at myself.
My body looked nothing like how Jessica or Kate did today when they wore outfits similar to what barely clothed my figure. I resembled a piece of clay after you grasped it within your palm, the bumps, cracks, and uneven lines obvious in lopsided form. Running my hands down my skin, I noted the imperfections with a heavy breath, wanting nothing more than to find skeletal turpentine to fade marks and scratches on the canvas in the mirror staring in front of me.
"Bella?" I heard my name called out from the other side of my bedroom door.
Scrambling to get my clothes on before my mother or father could walk in, I stumbled around while covering myself with fabric. "Yeah?"
"Why must you always make things difficult? Stop moving so slowly, you're wasting my time. You're always wasting time."
I froze at the words.
The tone of voice was feminine, so I assumed it to be that of my mother - the difference in pitch could have been attributed to the closed door between us - and yet the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Words like dull knives, I was confused at the intent behind the barely hidden insults. Had I done something to upset her?
Glancing at the clock, I noted that I still had time before it was necessary to leave for dinner. I didn't want to argue with my mother on my birthday, so I opened my bedroom door and stared into the darkened hallway.
The house was still and silent, and if I thought back to the events proceeding the words I'd heard, I didn't remember hearing the alarm alerting me to another's presence within my home. It was possible that my mother was waiting in the kitchen; the area wasn't visible from my place in the doorway.
"Mom, I'm sorry. I didn't mean t-," I started, but I was interrupted. The noise made my skin tighten and my heart stop.
The chiming bell sounded three times from downstairs and cracked the tense air of my bedroom. Both my mother and father's light-hearted voices traveled up the stairs, and the sound seeped into my ears.
They weren't home when I heard the words before.
I has been alone.
"Bella?" My mother called out.
I remained silent and unmoving. Shaken to the core, I was frozen in my spot, feeling the blood drain from my face and pool at my feet, the sensation like cement blocks tied to my ankles. Shackles of fear.
"Bella? We're here to pick you up! Are you ready?" My mother cried from downstairs. "Bella? Are you here?" I heard the rustling of movement. "Charlie, call her cell phone. We're going to miss our reservation."
"No," I croaked. "I'm here! In a minute, Mom!" I shouted, my tone shaking with nerves.
"Well, get down here already, we need to leave!" My father's amused voice carried from the lower level of the house.
"Did you miss me, Bella? We had so much fun last night. Did you really think I'd miss your birthday?"
I didn't move. I didn't speak. That voice, those words, came from behind me, within the confines of my bedroom.
The only people with the ability to communicate through speech were currently on the ground floor of the house. I was the only thing in my bedroom with a voice.
"Bella! Come on!" Someone shouted from downstairs, and I couldn't be bothered to figure out which parent it belonged to, as I was focused solely on the words sounding from behind me. I refused to turn around and confirm my singular status.
As I somehow knew they would, words dripped in my ears like hot wax down the side of a lit candle. The meaning slid in fast, burning indents of comprehension then hardening in reality. And yet, their owner was invisible.
"Happy birthday, Bella. Enjoy it with the knowledge that it will be your last."
A/N: Thank you all so much for your encouragement and continued support for WtWS... I'm in awe. When it came to responding to reviews, I know that I am behind, but I wanted to make sure that I wrote the actual chapter, and will be doing my best to get back to each and every one soon. Again, I cannot begin to express how blown away I am by the alerts, words, and PM's for this. Thank you.
If you feel inclined, let me know what you thought.
Until next time...
- L -