Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. "The Gift of the Magi" is by O. Henry and on the public domain.
The Wise of These Days
This is all wrong.
Edward stirred lazily beside me. "What do you mean?" he murmured, the arm under my shoulders shifting as he rolled over to face me.
"Oh . . . they shouldn't have sports on TV on a holiday," I answered lamely, hoping my feeble cover-up would be convincing. "Or holiday eve. It just gives the men an excuse to sit and gape at the screen all day."
I had found that sharing my thoughts with Edward wasn't always a voluntary thing anymore — we had practiced our connection so often over the past few years that it had almost become too easy. Most of the time, I could control what he heard and when, but if I were feeling particularly vulnerable, like now, sometimes my control slipped and he was able to pick up on my more forceful thoughts.
Edward was staring curiously at me. "You used to say the game was a blessing, because it meant Charlie had something to do besides hover over you all the time."
I sighed. "All right, yes, I did say that. I didn't . . . what I meant was, it's wrong that we're here and . . . they're not."
He knew who I meant, of course, and it wasn't Billy and Charlie, who were currently helping Jacob scarf down my hors d'oeuvres in the living room, their eyes glued to the TV. I had missed them terribly before we came. Now that we were here, I was suffering from what I could only describe as Greener Pastures Syndrome — I missed everyone else.
Edward had to have sensed my dilemma, and yet he seemed taken aback for all that. "You wanted to come back here," he said, bewildered. "You've been so homesick. We all thought the trip was exactly what you needed."
"I thought it was. I mean, it was. It is. Oh, whatever," I snapped, hopping up off the bed — my old bed — and throwing myself into the rocking chair instead. "But I guess when I was feeling homesick, I was missing the way it used to be, with all of us here."
Edward smiled sadly at me, but before he could speak, we heard the pitter-patter of little feet coming up the stairs, and a tentative rap on the door.
I sighed. "Come on in."
Renesmee nudged the door open and stole softly into the room, her little hands gripping a china plate where a sandwich lay untouched. "What you got there, Ness?" Edward asked.
She frowned. "Grandpa made it for me," she said, her nose wrinkling. "Do I have to eat it? Couldn't we go hunting?"
"Oh, sweetie, we're only going to be here two more days," I said gently, picking her up and setting her on the bed. "It's just not a good idea."
"Because we're not supposed to take the chance of being seen," Edward answered her before I could form a response. "You know that, hon. What would people think?"
"I miss Grandma and Granddad," she grumbled. "In Vancouver, we didn't have to worry as long as I didn't get to know anyone too well." She picked at the crust of the sandwich with just two fingers, the rest splayed out so as not to become contaminated. "I wish Grandpa and Poppa could have come to see us instead."
"Darling, Grandpa's the Chief of Police," I reasoned. "He can't just pick up and leave around the holidays. Who would be here in case of an emergency?" I reached out and tousled her hair. "Next year, maybe we can all come down here to visit, instead of just the four of us. If we plan well and try to arrive separately, that is."
"Oh, no. They'll see," my daughter said in a stage whisper, mocking our concern that our family would be noticed if we all came into town together, not looking a day older than when we left eight months ago. Or, in Nessie's case, looking five years older than the age she should have been by now if that cockamamie adoption story were true.
Nessie gave a long-suffering sigh and picked the detested plate back up. "I guess if this is the best there is . . ." I listened to her footsteps as she went back downstairs, probably to pour out her tale of injustice to Jacob.
"Why did we have to leave in the first place?" I wondered aloud, my face aching the way it did sometimes when I found myself crying without tears. "It was so perfect before. Everyone was so close by, and we didn't have to make these choices."
Edward's fingers brushed my hand. "I know, love," he murmured. "I know how sad it made you to move. But Mom and Dad were right. It was time. Staying any longer would have been dangerous."
I jerked my hand away in a childish gesture of defiance. Of course, I knew Edward was right, just as I'd known Carlisle and Esme were right even when we were having the argument back in the spring. But agreeing with them didn't mean I had to be happy with the decision to leave Forks.
I remember that day as though it were yesterday. Granted, my memory has improved a great deal since I was changed, but even if I had been human, I think I would carry every word, every expression, every agonizing emotion from that conversation with me forever.
I had known something was up when the two of them announced a family meeting after Nessie had fallen asleep for the night. We had them on occasion, and it never seemed to be good news. As I took my seat next to Edward on the sofa, I started to feel panic rising from somewhere deep within me, despite having no real cause for it yet. The feeling came on so abruptly and forcefully that it took Jasper several moments to calm me down. I was still fighting back the butterflies as Carlisle walked into the room, stood with Esme by the fireplace . . . and proceeded to destroy us.
"There's really no easy way to say this," he began, exchanging a glance with Esme and taking her hand in his before continuing. "But I think you all knew this day would be coming eventually." I waited, unmoving. "We've decided it's time for us to leave Forks."
There are a lot of dead silences in our house, but with Jacob sitting on the floor with his heart pattering away like a distant drum, this wasn't quite one of them. Still, it was a full minute before anyone spoke, and that someone was me. "We're moving?" I squeaked, wanting it to be a joke. But I knew Carlisle and Esme didn't play jokes. Emmett was the jokester.
Carlisle looked at me and nodded. "Indeed."
"But . . . where?"
"Well, your mother and I have been talking about it," he said, "and considering we've been here so long, I realized I can't exactly use Forks Community Hospital as a job reference. I'd still have to say I was thirty-seven, so there wouldn't be much point in moving."
"Are you going back to school?" Jasper asked, looking eager. "Does that mean we can all go to school? College?"
Carlisle grinned back at him. "Yes, son. I think we'll all do best by pretending to be college students sharing a home, though Esme and I will still be husband and wife."
"And you and Edward, too, honey," Esme broke in, addressing me. "The cover story we used here — that Renesmee is your niece — will work just fine. Though, of course, we'll say she's . . ." She looked to Carlisle for help. "What did we say, ten?"
"Twelve. Small for her age," he responded.
I listened, horrified, as they explained the shattering of our lives as casually as they might discuss the principal exports of Tanzania. "Twelve?" I whispered. True, Renesmee looked ten now and would probably look twelve in about eight months, but . . . I had only just begun to accept that my baby wouldn't be my baby for long, and now they wanted to steal even more time from me. "But . . . I asked you where we were going. You didn't answer me."
Carlisle shifted uncomfortably, shooting another glance at Esme. "Bella, what you have to understand — "
"Please, just tell me where," I interrupted, not caring how rude it sounded.
He gave me a warning look — come to find out, both Carlisle and Esme actually take the parenting thing pretty seriously, and rudeness towards them isn't typically tolerated — but answered without comment. "Vancouver."
For a moment, I couldn't speak at all, and when I did, I could only stammer, "That's . . . that's . . ."
"It's only about four hours, Bella," Emmett interjected. "Alice and Rose go shopping there sometimes. It's not a lot different from a drive to Seattle at human speeds." He gave Carlisle an admiring look. "That's brilliant, Dad. A big city where we won't have to worry about looking weird, back to Canada where probably no one's alive that knows us, but still close to Charlie and the Wolf Pack."
"Funny," Jacob grumbled, stretching his legs out in front of him. "I assume I'm coming with you, or you would have asked me to leave while you talked about this."
Esme looked shocked. "Of course you're coming, Jacob! We wouldn't dream of separating you from Nessie."
All the while, Edward's arm had been around me, his hand stroking gentle circles on my wrist. Now he spoke for the first time. "Bella, you must have known we couldn't stay here much longer," he murmured. "It's a necessary evil. You want Nessie to have to hide all the time?"
I ignored his cheap shot about Renesmee and appealed to my sister. "Rosalie won't want to move, will you, Rose?" I knew that Rosalie had been pissed when Edward dragged them all to New York years ago, so I expected her to pitch a fit and nip this nonsense in the bud.
But my sister surprised me by shrugging noncommittally and answering, "I don't care. We have been here a really long time. I guess it's time to move."
"It would be nice to live in a big city," Alice chimed in dreamily, "so we'll be near all the good stores."
I rolled my eyes. It didn't matter to Alice that there were so many nice things online these days — at half to three-quarters off the retail price, even new. She still preferred to browse the shops in person, and felt that a higher price lent some elusive authenticity to her purchases that couldn't be obtained in any other way. We could be the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust and have to start from scratch like those people in the Ember books, and all Alice would care about would be the sudden lack of shopping opportunities.
"I just don't understand," I wailed. "I tried so hard. I haven't slipped, not even once. And with Charlie and Billy both knowing . . . well, enough . . . I thought that meant we could stay here. What changed?"
"Sweetheart, we don't have any other choice," Esme tried to reason with me. "We know how hard you've been trying, and we're so proud of you. This has nothing to do with that. It's just that everyone is going to wonder why all of us just keep on staying here. Jasper, Rose, and Emmett were supposed to leave for college. How do you think it looks that we're all still living tucked away in Forks?"
"But you gave us the cottage," I protested, trying not to let my voice tremble. "That beautiful cottage. It's . . . perfect. What was the point, if we were going to have to abandon it again three years later?"
"Oh, honey, we can fix up a cottage just like it anywhere you like," Esme cajoled, sliding in next to me on the couch while Carlisle remained standing. "You can go there on school vacations. It isn't the end of the world."
"Bella," Carlisle broke in, his tone gentle but authoritative, "I do not wish to leave, either. But honey, this is a small town, and it has been hit hard by the recession. Many are out of work and struggling. And when people have nothing to keep them busy, combined with being very unhappy, they are far more likely to notice — and resent — anything out of the ordinary."
"Bella, look at it this way," Jacob broke in before I could protest. "If we stay too long, not only will the people start getting suspicious, but they'll wonder why your Dad and Charlie aren't. Next thing you know, those ugly Italian jackasses will be all over us."
"Thank you, Jacob, for making my next point so eloquently," Carlisle said dryly. He looked at me with such compassion in those golden eyes that all of us, sans Jacob, shared in common. "I am sorry, Bella, but surely you understand that this is necessary for everyone's safety, including your father's."
Ignoring Carlisle for the moment, I addressed Jacob. "I can't believe you're going along with this!" I hissed, whirling around to glare at him. "Don't you understand? You'll be leaving Billy, and your sisters, and the pack!"
Jacob didn't seem concerned in the least, and I knew his thoughts were with Nessie, asleep upstairs. As long as he had my daughter, he didn't care that our world was falling apart. "We're not moving to Mars, Bella," he said lightly. "We won't be any further away than typical college kids."
Having appealed to everyone and found no support whatsoever, I gave up and fell silent as the rest of them discussed our plans: when to depart, what to take with us, whether J. Jenks could do Canadian documents. Nobody tried to include me, and I didn't volunteer anything, just sat like a statue next to my Judas of a husband.
What upset me most about the whole thing was that Carlisle and Esme had already made the decision before calling the family meeting. By themselves. When they gathered us for a 'discussion,' they weren't asking for a vote — the thing was as good as done. And though I wanted to push further, I didn't, because I was afraid someone would finally voice aloud the thing I was most afraid I might hear: that I was too new to this life, and had no say in family decisions.
I could feel Charlie's eyes on me the whole time I was peeling the apples and mixing them with cornstarch, cinnamon, and sugar. The late hour notwithstanding, I just felt better having something to do with myself besides brood away in my old room. And even though I never ate anymore, it still gave me pleasure to cook Charlie's favorite foods for him. One thing about my marriage to Edward that made me sad was the fact that there was really nothing I could do to take care of him.
Well . . . nothing outside our bedroom, anyway.
Unfortunately, Charlie was more perceptive than I'd given him credit for. He knew I was unhappy, despite the fact that I'd donned a cheerful mask and thrown myself bodily into the holiday preparations. Before long, he came up next to me as I was laying the crust, leaning his elbow on the counter and addressing me in his gruff voice. "Bella, you don't have to pretend for me, you know," he said. "I can see you're miserable without your family."
"Dad, you're my family," I protested, laying my hand on his arm in an uncharacteristic gesture of affection. Charlie and I weren't typically the touchy-feely types. "I'm really glad to be here with you. I . . . I just wish we could all have been together, that's all. I know Esme's probably heartbroken about being away from us on Christmas. But if I were back home, I'd miss you just as much."
"Look, it isn't such a big deal. You spent Christmas Eve here, and you can spend Christmas Day with them. It all works out."
I felt such a rush of affection for my father that I was glad vampires weren't able to cry. That wouldn't have gone over well with Charlie. "There were so many Christmases I didn't get to see you, Dad," I whispered. We all struggled with this 'need to know' bit with Charlie, but I knew my father wasn't stupid. If he hadn't already put a name to what we were, he couldn't have missed that in the just under ten years he'd known my new family, nothing had changed. Not even a hairstyle. "And . . . we won't necessarily have many more."
Charlie scowled. "I'm not a doddering old geriatric yet, Bells," he retorted. "There'll be plenty still."
I gave him a small smile. "Well, I know . . . but it just seems like time's going too quickly. Renesmee's growing so fast." It caused me another pang when I thought of how much more she might grow before she got a chance to see her Grandpa again. "Dad, you know I didn't want to move, right?" I asked softly. "You know that we had to, and that I fought tooth and nail to stay even though I knew it was no use?"
He looked uncomfortable. "Yeah, of course I do, Bells. I . . . I don't claim to understand exactly what the deal is with you folks, but I have my suspicions. There was always something off about them, even before you came to live here. I knew you weren't going to be able to stay here much longer." Charlie's smile looked forced, but again he urged me to go ahead. "Go on home, Bella. It's just four hours. You can visit some other time."
I didn't ask if he were sure, because I already knew the answer: no. But just like he always had, Charlie considered my happiness more important than his own. The right thing to do would have been to say that I would stay. Yet . . . leaving, so that Esme would have her whole family together on Christmas, was also the right thing. Wasn't it? But how could both be right at once? It was so confusing. "I'm so sorry, Dad," I whispered, looking down at the floor. I tried to offer a bright side. "Next year, you're coming up to see us. You and Billy. No excuses, all right? I don't want to hear that you have to work."
"Yeah, well, we'll see," he murmured, looking apprehensive, as though afraid I might try to hug him or something. So I did. I hadn't hugged Charlie in years, and I think it made both of us a little uncomfortable. But I wanted him to know how much I appreciated his willingness to put me first, no matter how little I deserved it.
"I feel horrible for doing this," I admitted as we sped along 101 two hours later, fiddling absently with the strap of my purse. "But at the same time, I'm really excited about going back. I can't wait to see the look on Esme's face."
"You know there are no surprises in this family," Edward answered with a wry smile. "Alice knew the moment Charlie got up from the couch."
I gave him a wicked smile. "Ah, but that's the beauty of it. She can't see either Jacob or Renesmee, and since we're all together, I reckon she hasn't been able to keep an eye on us since we left for Forks. Why do you think she keeps calling to check in?"
Edward frowned. "Actually, now that you mention it, none of them have called since this afternoon."
"Well, they were probably afraid to interrupt the g — that is, family time."
"Since when has Alice cared if she interrupted?" he teased, and we both laughed. Edward was right; Alice never cared whom she inconvenienced, feeling that her ability gave her not only the right, but the obligation to push in at any time. If we hadn't heard from her, it wasn't out of a sense of delicacy. Her phone had probably died, or she and Jasper were . . . never mind.
After another few hours, we had barely merged onto I-5 when Edward snapped at me to sit still. I hadn't even realized that I was bouncing gently in my seat from excitement. "But we're almost home!" I cried happily. Edward only sighed as he reached over and rummaged through the glove box for our passports.
"A few years ago, you just needed a birth certificate," he grumbled. "Now there's all this security. Do they think a terrorist can't get a fake passport?"
"What's the big deal?" I asked him, stung by his attitude. "Either way, you still have to break out ID. Is the passport too heavy?" Edward answered me with a glare and continued to sulk long after we had left the border crossing behind us.
It didn't surprise me that Edward was in such a nasty mood; he and Jacob had been fighting like dogs pretty much since we set out. As a general rule, it was important to avoid having those two in the car together unless Nessie were elsewhere, not curled up sleeping with her head resting on Jacob's arm. Since Jacob had flown down three days early in order to see his family and the rest of his old pack, the trip to Charlie's had been just fine. This was something else entirely, and I made a mental note to make better travel plans in the future.
"Edward, do you see the slush on the road? Are you blind?" Jacob's angry voice broke into my musings and I stirred, reluctantly turning from the window where I'd been admiring the snow-covered scenery.
"I know how to drive, Jacob," Edward ground out. "I have been doing it for better than eighty years, after all."
"You haven't been driving with Renesmee for that long."
"I've — you've never once driven the car with my daughter in it, you jackass," Edward retorted hotly. My husband always made it a point to drive at the relatively slow speed of 100 miles an hour when Renesmee was in the car. We were fairly certain she'd be fine in the unlikely event of a crash, but how do you test something like that? Still, Edward had admitted to me that sometimes he the phone poles went by so slowly that he felt like just getting out and running the rest of the way.
Just then, we came up behind a derelict RV that looked like it had been part of the set for the original The Day the Earth Stood Still. It probably wasn't chugging along at more than thirty-five. With one graceful swoop, Edward passed the RV, and within seconds, it looked no larger than an ant in the side mirror.
"Are you trying to get her killed?" Jacob hissed.
Edward slammed his fist onto the center console so hard that he left a huge dent in the armrest. "That's exactly what I'm trying to do!" he shouted. The engine roared as my husband stomped his foot on the gas, pushing us up close to 120. "This was all an elaborate plot to kill both of you so Bella and I can have your Nintendo DS and that stupid dream catcher you hung over Nessie's bed."
"That's it. Give me the keys; I'm driving."
"Out of my cold, dead hands, mutt," Edward snarled.
"Would you two please stop it?" I snapped, pressing my hands to my forehead. "I think I'm getting some phantom headache here."
It was a blessed relief when we made it through the city and began to follow the winding back roads towards home. Vancouver was a good choice for us. It meant that it really didn't matter what age or relation we all claimed to be, as city people are too caught up in their own lives to notice much of anything. Renesmee was growing too fast for us to risk having her seen in public, and as Jacob and Edward and I couldn't seem to function apart from her for long, this meant we could stay home and enjoy every second of our little girl's childhood. As much as I still grieved over our leaving Forks, I had to admit that it was nice to just relax and be ourselves all day long.
But as Edward guided the new Mercedes around the hairpin turns that signaled the approach of our driveway, I began to feel uneasy. We couldn't have been more than a quarter mile from home, yet I didn't hear a single sound. Well, there were some sounds — branches creaking against each other, and some animals scrabbling around in the snow — but no voices.
"That's odd," I murmured.
Edward, cursing the road, didn't appear to have heard. "What's odd?" Jacob asked from the backseat.
"I can't hear them," I explained. "Emmett and Jasper should be yelling at the TV. Rose ought to be yelling at Emmett for watching so much TV in the first place. Alice should be yelling out what happens next. Esme should be yelling at everyone to act their chronological age." I stopped, feeling bewildered. "I don't hear a sound."
"Maybe they went out," Jacob suggested.
Edward snorted. "To where, Tim Hortons?" he jeered.
"Don't start up with me again, leech. I'll rip your arm off and knock you silly with it."
But he fell silent as we reached the house, because it appeared that everyone really had gone out. It was pitch black in the driveway. I had never thought about it before, but despite the fact that none of us needed lights to see, the house always seemed to be lit up like a Christmas tree. At the very least, the tree itself should have been lit. Esme had labored over that monstrosity since Thanksgiving, scouring the forest for five days before she found the biggest out of three provinces. Together we'd procured a slew of bubble lights and forties-style ornaments from eBay, and topped off the affair by smothering the whole thing with strings of popcorn and loose tinsel.
Of course, Esme wasn't such a slave to tradition that she was about to wrestle with one of those godforsaken three-clawed screw stands, if for no other reason than that one tap with the vacuum would topple the whole thing ass over teakettle. So she ordered this awesome stand that you just slide the trunk straight into, one that rotates so you can see the whole tree.
For most people, whatever goes on top of the tree is the most important, whether it be a star, an angel, or a little flag. For us, it was what went on the bottom that ended up being our crowning glory. No machine-cut red felt skirt for Esme — the one she'd ordered consisted of yards and yards of icy white lace, hand-tatted by bored Amish and costing enough that even Carlisle raised his eyebrows. Wrapped cleverly around the stand so that it camouflaged the unnatural accessory but still allowed for the base to turn, it looked just as though the tree had never left the forest. Except rather than a solid snowdrift, it was like looking at hundreds of individual snowflakes that could be blown away with a single breath.
Anyway, I knew that tree was Esme's pride and joy, and even when we went out, she left it on so it would always be twinkling at us through the front window when we came home again. For Esme to go out and turn the tree off first . . . well, that meant she didn't plan on coming back for a long time.
We four sat in the driveway for a couple of minutes, all the while expecting Emmett to leap out of the darkness onto the hood of the car in a bedsheet or something, having avoided thinking — not such a gargantuan task for him — in order not to alert Edward. But the darkness and the stillness just went on.
"Maybe they really did go out," Edward said dubiously. "I guess there's places open to shop, or maybe . . . is the campus library open?"
"They wouldn't all go, dumbass," Jacob retorted, obviously still pissed from the long car ride.
"Look," I cut in, trying to stop the argument before it went any further, "it's not helping to sit out here in the car. Let's go inside."
We made an odd procession: Edward, still muttering under his breath; Jacob, carrying Nessie's backpack; Nessie, bouncing up and down at the prospect, however bleak it looked just now, of seeing her beloved grandparents after two whole days apart; and me, feeling very uneasy as I tried not to think about the reason why the house might look so cold and still.
After all, they couldn't have . . . Nah.
Despite Esme's cheery decorations in every room, the inside of the house seemed somehow even drearier than the outside. Even with the lights on, more for company than because any of us needed them to see, the house was still so . . . dead. The mirrored Christmas balls glinted coldly, like the metal in an operating room. The tree sat and glowered at us like a jilted bride. Worst of all, silence hung heavy as a shroud over the whole house, which was usually bursting with light and laughter.
When the phone rang, I actually hissed, in part because it broke into a very tense silence, but also because the sound was pretty unfamiliar. We hardly ever used the house phone, preferring our cells for easy communication. Even telemarketers had stopped calling, ever since the Automated Dialer Prohibition Act of 2010 had gone into effect. Who on Earth would be calling us at seven in the morning on Christmas?
Edward, who was closest to the kitchen extension, leaned over towards the lighted display, and a peculiar expression crossed his face. "Who is it?" I asked.
He didn't answer, but instead lifted the phone from its cradle and switched it on. "Charlie?"
I frowned, feeling a sudden onslaught of panic that was recognizable despite the absence of an increased heartbeat. Why would Charlie be calling here? Had something happened? Had he or Billy fallen ill, or had there been an accident? Oh, God, why did we ever leave? "What is it?" I hissed at my husband, going over to stand by him as he listened.
"I see." Edward didn't answer me, so I strained to hear what I could of the other end of the conversation. Whoever it was had to be speaking very quietly, for I could only make out the faintest buzz emitting from the receiver. Then it stopped. "All right, then."
Edward hung up the phone and stared at me for a long moment. His face was motionless and very hard to read at first, but just when I was about to snap at him to tell me what was going on, I saw the first signs of that lopsided grin of his stealing over his features. "Edward?" I asked, tentatively.
Edward gave me a wry smile and shook his head. He turned and lifted the car keys off the table, then started for the door, calling over his shoulder as I stared openmouthed at his retreating back.
"Jacob, I hope you can fit in the trunk, 'cause otherwise you're walking back to Forks."