Disclaimer: I own nothing publicly recognizable. No money is being made from this work, and no copyright infringement is intended.
A/N: Here be angst.
She stopped asking me to change her once she turned forty. Though I'd been relieved, I still felt a pang of something at the time. Ever since I'd met her, her birthdays were a sore point between us, and nary a one ended without an argument over her mortality. After forty, she just never mentioned it again. It was disquieting, but I welcomed it, and for once we had a birthday without a fight, though she did grumble a bit about the cake Alice had bought; Bella claimed she had enough mush around her middle without the added calories. I didn't see it.
Despite what Bella thinks, the years have been kind to her, and she has aged as gracefully as any beauty queen or starlet. Though she did invest quite a bit of her money in makeup—with Alice's help—she drew the line at plastic surgery for which I was glad. Bella is gorgeous at every age, and I make sure that she knows it.
She is eighty-five today.
I didn't have the heart to tell her it's her birthday. I reasoned that it wouldn't matter if I did; in ten minutes she'd forget that I ever told her anyway.
It started a few years ago, and it didn't seem serious at the time, or at least that's what I'd told myself. It was simple things. She'd lose her car keys or forget her shopping list. Once or twice, she forgot soup in the microwave. We'd joked about it, laughed about it even. Silly Bella.
I'd thought she was out at the store when I got the call that she was found wandering down the middle of the street. I picked her up at the local hospital, my shame at missing the signs and symptoms burning through me. I halfheartedly listened to the doctor talk about dementia, Alzheimer's and personal care homes, my eyes glued to Bella instead. She smiled serenely as she picked at the pilled hospital blanket, and I wondered how I could've missed the signs. And I'd called her unobservant. I finally paid attention to the doctor after he asked me what I'd decided to do with my grandmother. The glare I gave him spoke louder than words, and he'd left in a hurry. I took my Bella home and became her constant companion, never letting her out of my sight for a minute. It never bothered me to look after her, and I brushed off her complaints with distracting kisses.
It was bad then, but as the years passed, it got better. And worse.
I look over at her; she's slumped on the couch reading a book—Austen again. I wonder if she remembers reading it or if she thinks this is the first time. What I wouldn't give to be able to read her thoughts, as decimated as her brain is right now. I force away the images that flood my mind; the CT scans of brains with Alzheimer's, the research I'd read obsessively as I tried to find a cure for her, a way to help her, something. It all disturbs me on a daily basis. It pains me to know that Bella's brain looks like those CT scans, with holes dotted through like swiss cheese. Though I know it's unlikely, I can't help but think that for every hole in her brain, there's a memory missing.
I wonder if it's God's sense of justice, or if he just thought it was funny to make me remember everything and make her to forget.
She places her book down on the coffee table and grins at me. The corners of her eyes crinkle. "Edward, I didn't know you were coming. What time is it?"
I look out the window. It's nearly dark, and I immediately know what's going on. I wonder how old she thinks she is today.
"It's around five. Are you hungry?"
Her gray eyebrows raise. "Oh, no. Charlie said he'd be home at six." She tries to scramble off the couch, and I'm at her side in an instant, helping her up. "I've got to start on dinner."
"It's all right. He said he was going to order a pizza," I lie smoothly. I try to placate her, if only temporarily. If I tell her that she's eighty-five, that Charlie died years ago at the age of eighty-six, and that she's not allowed in the kitchen any more, it'll only upset her unnecessarily. I know that in a few minutes, she's likely to forget it all anyway.
"You're going to stay over tonight, right?" she asks. I smile at her, looking into her deep, brown eyes, really the only thing that hasn't changed over the years. They're my constant, my reassurance that Bella's still Bella.
I bring her wrinkled hand up to my mouth and kiss it gently. "If you want me to."
"I always want you to," she murmurs. She threads her fingers through mine and looks at our joined hands confusedly before looking back up at me. "Is Alice coming over? She said she bought me a dress for graduation."
I realize then that I'm talking to eighteen-year-old Bella, and I squeeze her hand a little. For all the insecurities and shyness she'd had at that age, it was my very favorite time of her life. She'd had her whole life ahead of her, and you could see the excitement shining in her eyes. I can see a glimmer of it now, a faint echo.
"She'll be over in a little while." In actuality, Alice hasn't been over in a year, not since Bella's last birthday. I'd half-expected her to show up today even though I know she's in Paris with Jasper and the rest of the family.
Alice's visits are always bittersweet. Though Bella cherishes them, they always end badly. Alice refuses to lie to Bella, and the visits usually end with me crushing up sedatives in Bella's applesauce.
"Oh, good. Charlie's been asking about her." She lets go of my hand and begins trying to hobble to the kitchen.
"Is there something I can get you?" I ask her.
She stops to turn around and answer me. "I'm just grabbing a coke."
In a millisecond I'm at her side. She gasps in surprise. "Edward!" Her hand flutters up to her chest, and I panic for a second until I hear the steady cadence of her heart. "What did I tell you about sneaking up on me?"
I give her a crooked grin. "Sorry, love. Now sit back down, and I'll get you your drink."
She rolls her eyes, but sits down without further complaint. I move at a human pace so as not to scare her again, and I hear her call from the living room. "I'm going to get fat if you keep waiting on me like this!"
I laugh as I walk back in and hand her the drink. "Never. You'll always be beautiful no matter what." I frown as I realize that this is the first complete truth I've spoken to her today. I do feel dirty lying to her so much, but according to all the research, it's for the best. She giggles.
The books call it Sundowner's Syndrome. The theory is that the darkness and shadows make dementia patients see things differently. For some, Sundowner's causes agitation or wandering. For Bella, it makes her regress to an earlier part of her life. Today, she thinks she's eighteen and planning for graduation. Yesterday, she thought she was thirty and searched for her briefcase. There's no rhyme or reason to it.
Sometimes I think that my lack of aging exacerbates her condition. Actually, I know it does, but I can't help but feel somewhat grateful for it. In these strange moments of dementia, she's the happy, hopeful girl that I met all those years ago. It sounds strange, it sounds wrong, but lately, I live for this time of the day; I live for twilight.
She sips at her coke, and I walk over to sit next to her on the couch. Though I move at human speed, it startles her, and the can drops out of her hand, spilling its contents onto the carpet.
"Oh!" she exclaims. She tries to stand up, but I place a hand on her shoulder to stop her. I smile at her warmly.
"It's all right. I'll get it." I return with a towel and begin mopping up the mess. Taking care of Bella is a full-time job, and I can't believe that some humans are able to do this for their ailing parents and grandparents without complaint. I have unlimited time and energy, and still it's exhausting, both emotionally and physically. It's truly a labor of love.
I stiffen as I hear a car pulling into the driveway. The engine silences, and I hear two doors open, then slam closed. Their thoughts bombard my once-silent mind.
"Hi, Edward. We're here for Bella's birthday. You'd better open the door," Alice warns.
Jasper is more subdued with a simple greeting of "Hello, brother."
I open the door before they get a chance to knock. Bella looks over and tries to jump up.
"Alice!" Bella grins as Alice and Jasper stroll through the front door. A feeling of unease sweeps through me, and part of me wants to turn them both around and show them out.
"Bella!" Alice dances over to Bella, embraces her, and gives me a hard glance over Bella's shoulder. I respond in kind. Jasper tries to defuse the situation by sending out a wave of calm. It only succeeds in annoying me, and he quickly stops.
Bella pulls back from my sister's embrace. "Did you bring the dress?" Bella asks.
Alice's brow furrows in confusion. "What dress, hon?"
"My graduation dress. You said you bought me one, and the ceremony's tomorrow."
"Alice," I say warningly.
"I won't lie to her," Alice thinks at me. "It's not right what you do to her. She deserves to know the truth. She'd want to know—"
"Alice has it in the trunk," I reply for Alice, knowing that in a few minutes, the calm in the house will vanish. I want to hold onto it for as long as I can. Who knows the next time she'll feel eighteen again? I hear Jasper sigh. He still stands in the doorway.
I feel badly for Jasper, and I don't understand why Alice can't see that the truth is harmful, not only to Bella, but to Jasper as well. Once Bella becomes agitated, only tranquilizers will calm her down. Jasper tries to help, but her disorientation affects him too much, and most times, he ends up waiting in the car for his wife.
"Let's sit down, Bella," Alice says, guiding her back to the couch. "How are you doing today?"
Bella runs a hand through her silver hair casually. "Oh, I'm good." She seems a little confused. "I only saw you yesterday at school. Is there something wrong?"
I glare at Alice in warning, but it goes unheeded.
"Bella, honey, you already graduated school. In fact, you graduated decades ago. Today's your—" I cut Alice off.
"Today's your day," I finish lamely. Now Bella looks really confused.
"My day? For what?"
"Er, nothing. Alice is just being Alice," I explain. I smile. "Alice, would you join me in the kitchen?" I walk forward without giving her a chance to reply, only looking back to nod at Jasper. He silently agrees to keep an eye on Bella.
I wheel around after I'm out of Bella's range of hearing. "What are you doing?" I ask without preamble.
"She asked. I won't lie to her, and you know that. Why can't you accept it?" Alice has her hands on her hips and looks taller than her four feet, ten inches.
"You'll only upset her like you did last year. You do remember that, don't you?"
Last year, Bella had hyperventilated and passed out after Alice had told her that Renée was dead.
"I admit, I made a mistake telling her that, but what you're doing is worse. You're lying to her—to your own wife—and you're only doing it for your own benefit."
I run a hand through my hair in frustration. "My own benefit? You know how she gets. What do you suggest that I do then? Lie to her selectively? Drug her? What?"
She shakes her head and looks at me with pity. "Just change the subject, Edward. Her mind is like a sieve."
I swallow hard as the memories from Bella's senior year of high school slam into me. Leaving Bella then had been the worst moment of my existence. I close my eyes, clear my mind, then answer Alice. "I know it's selfish," I murmur. "But it's all I have left." I look around the kitchen, taking in the décor. Bella had redone it herself years ago. I remember the look of pride on her face as she showed me the fruits of her labor.
"Edward," she begins gently. "You knew what you were getting into when you refused to change her."
"I did. But I didn't expect this." I wave my arm, gesturing to the living room.
"No one does, but it's part of being human." She pauses. "Do you ever regret it? Not changing her?"
I look down at the floor. I can see where the grout line is crooked between the tiles. "I'm glad that she lives." I raise my eyes. "I'm glad she got the chance to live—the chance none of us had." I pause. "But if I ever got to do it over again…"
"You'd change her," Alice whispers.
I nod once, clenching my jaw. Alice nods too, her face full of sympathy and understanding. She crosses the room and embraces me. I hug her back. Soon after, I hear Bella's shuffling steps coming closer, and I give Alice one last squeeze before stepping back.
"So, did you make me a birthday cake, or what?" Bella asks as she enters the kitchen. "You don't turn eighty-five every day, you know, and it may well be my last one… with my own teeth." Bella smirks.
Relief fills me, though I know that this moment of lucidity could very well be just that—a moment.
"Of course we got you a cake, birthday girl! Jasper, go grab it from the backseat." Alice smiles and begins grabbing a plate and fork for Bella.
I'm confused for a moment before I realize that Alice must have seen this. She winks at me and snatches a napkin from the holder.
Bella sighs as she slides into a chair. "Edward, could you grab me my cane? I think I left it in the living room."
"Of course." I walk over to her and lightly kiss her temple before slowly walking to the living room, not wanting to scare her. As soon as I'm out of the room, I hear her talk to Alice quickly, whispering.
"Alice, you've got to tell me. When?" I hear her sigh. "This is just too hard on both of us. Soon?"
"Enjoy your birthday, Bella," Alice says simply, but not unkindly.
Bella releases a whooshing breath. "Thank you," she murmurs.
I stand in the living room, stock still, not wanting them to end their conversation with my entrance.
"And Edward?" Bella whispers.
My hands clench into fists, and I'm thankful that I haven't grabbed the cane yet. The thought of Bella dying, even now, fills me with agony. I want to go to Alice and ask her when, precisely. I need to be prepared; I don't want to be more than a moment behind Bella. Alice, knowing that I'm listening, seems to anticipate my thoughts.
"We're here for more than just Bella's birthday," Alice thinks.
"Thank you," I whisper. "You'll tell Carlisle…?"
"He already knows. He sends his and Esme's love, as do Emmett and Rosalie. They understand."
Those two words: They understand. Warm relief fills me. My decision not to change Bella had created a rift between my family and me for years. Knowing that I will leave them in peace and love means all the world to me.
I pick up Bella's cane and stroll back into the kitchen, trying to disguise the fact that I eavesdropped on the grim conversation by smiling.
"Here you go, milady," I say, holding out the cane in both palms of my hands. Bella giggles.
"My gentleman," she says, grinning. She takes the cane from me and hooks it over the back of her chair.
Jasper walks into the kitchen, holding a large, white cake. 'Happy 85th Bella!' is written in pink, loopy frosting on the top.
"Now, no singing," Bella reminds us. Though over the years she's gotten more agreeable about her birthdays, she still refuses to let us sing Happy Birthday to her. She did let me play it for her on the piano once. Her 42nd, I remember fondly.
"No singing," I affirm with a smile. Alice cuts Bella a small piece of cake, and she digs in. I'm a little surprised by her gusto, but then I realize that she's taken Alice's words to heart. When she finishes, she sits back in her chair with a sigh. "Thank you Alice, Jasper. That was delicious."
"I should hope so—we got it at that new boutique bakery in Boston."
"You didn't!" Bella's aghast. She never did get used to us spoiling her.
Alice smirks. "Only the best for you, Bella." She plants a kiss on her cheek and whirls away to Jasper's side.
Bella rolls her eyes, and I laugh.
Alice clutches Jasper's arm. "We're going to go for a quick hunt, and we'll be right back," she says.
"See you later," Bella says as they leave. Alice doesn't respond.
I look at Bella, and I'm struck by how weary she looks today.
"Edward, do you think you can get me my blanket out of the cupboard? I think I need a nap after all this excitement," Bella says as she pulls herself out of the chair and shuffles over to the couch. She carefully sits down and I help her pull her legs up so she can lie down. I quickly find her favorite soft blanket from the cupboard under the stairs and lay it over her.
"Have a nice sleep, love," I murmur. She gives me a sleepy smile as I crouch down to kiss her spotted cheek, and I drink in her gorgeous brown eyes before she closes them. My stomach clenches and a lump forms in my throat.
I don't need Alice's gift to know that this is the last time I'll see her eyes.
I stay crouched and I stroke Bella's gray hair absently, remembering her life—our life, together.
Her lips part as she sleeps, and I remember the first time I kissed them. I remember the blissful agony I felt as our lips crashed together, and how delicately soft they felt against mine as I swallowed back my venom.
I hold her hand in mine and stroke the gold band on her left ring finger reverently, letting memories of our wedding day flash before my eyes. She'd been so beautiful, so nervous, as she walked down the aisle clutching Charlie for support. The smile that lit up her face as our eyes first met that day put all others to shame. She'd radiated pure joy.
Her eyelashes flutter and I remember the feel of them on my face during our honeymoon. Butterfly kisses, she'd called it as she blinked her lashes against my hard cheek. We'd giggled then, pulling the billowy sheets over our bodies as waves crashed in the distance and seagulls squawked.
"Edward," she breathes, and I'm reminded of her sleep-talking. Over the years, this had become my doorway to Bella's thoughts, and I learned almost as much about her when she was asleep as when she was awake and talking. She never knew it, but weeks before Christmas, she'd recite what she'd gotten me in her sleep. I'd have to grit my teeth to suppress my mirth.
I see her smile a little, and I try not to notice the odd color of her lips as I hear her breathing and heart slow. Her heart, my own personal metronome, grows sluggish, weak in its beats. The blood within her, which usually rushes through the valves and chambers like whitewater rapids, slows.
She stops breathing.
Moments later, her heart stutters and stops. I wait on tenterhooks as if expecting it to start again. I hold my breath, waiting, willing it to restart, to keep my Bella alive, to stave off the hideous waves of grief waiting on the sidelines to break me into a million little pieces.
All is silent.
I implode. Raw agony rips open my stomach and I let out a wail, a screaming cry that rattles the windows in their panes.
My Bella. Oh, my Bella.
I sob tearlessly, still clutching Bella's withered hand like a lifeline, unwilling to let go of her. It's childish and stupid, but I feel like if I let go of her hand, she'll truly be lost to me. I don't even realize I'm not alone until I feel a small hand squeeze my shoulder.
"I'm so sorry, Edward," Alice thinks. I hear her mewling sobs and feel her body shuddering as she crouches down behind me. The grief seems to overwhelm her small frame.
I can feel Jasper standing off to the side. He loved Bella in his own way, but he knows that she and Alice had a special friendship.
"Here. Now," I manage to get out between hitching sobs. "Tear me apart. Leave my hand in hers. Burn the house to ashes. Plant wildflowers—a meadow. The deed to the property is in my safe. Don't ever sell it."
"Of course," Alice thinks. "Anything."
I look behind me at Jasper, and he gives me a nod. With the magnitude of my sorrow, I'm surprised that he can stand to be in the same room. "Thank you," I tell him.
I kiss Bella's hand, and turn around. "You'll never know how much you both mean to me, how much this means to me. Send the rest of the family our love."
Alice wraps her arms around me for a quick hug, then pulls back, searching my face. I nod. It's time.
In a moment of cowardice, I close my eyes. Though I can feel my head separate from my body, I don't feel pain, only a strange vertigo. It confuses me when I realize that I can still feel Bella's hand in mine, and I don't have time to marvel at my strange physiology before the blackness of my eyelids becomes suddenly darker. I hear a dull crackling sound. Then nothing.
Slowly the darkness recedes until there's nothing but bright, blinding light. I can't feel my body; I'm not sure if I even have a body, but surprisingly, I don't seem to care. A beautiful peace that I've never known before fills me entirely, and there's no room left for fear or even curiosity. Gradually, the light dims. It's as if the sun has gone behind the clouds. I look all around me, but see nothing of interest. I calmly exist. Time passes.
Then, through the dimness, I see a shape in the far distance, a figure. It comes closer to me, its features becoming more distinct with each step, and joy floods me as I recognize who it is.
Bella walks towards me, her chestnut hair lightly ruffling in an unknown breeze. Her brown eyes shine, and she smiles. She's dressed in a long, flowing dress—her wedding gown.
"Didn't keep me waiting long," she says as she reaches me.
I'm not sure if I have the ability to talk, but I try anyway. "I told you a long time ago that I'd be following you." I'm surprised at my voice. It sounds different, less musical, and I realize that this must be what I sounded like as a human. I'd forgotten.
She holds her hands out to me. I take them in mine, and I'm momentarily startled when I realize that yes, I do possess a body here.
"My love," I whisper as I pull her into my embrace. "You were right," I murmur into her silky hair. It smells like the shampoo she used when I first met her, of sweet strawberries, and I can smell her very essence behind it, but no longer does the scent cause a burning in my throat.
She laughs. "Of course I was right."
I pull back from her slightly, gazing at her searchingly. "Are you mad at me?"
"For lying to you as you grew older." I pause. "For not changing you when you asked me to." My eyes lower, and I feel shame.
"No," she says. "You did what you had to do to keep me safe and happy. As for changing me, I thought about it for a long time. It took a while, but I finally realized that either way, we'd have eternity."
I crash my lips to hers, and we kiss for what seems like forever. When we're finally sated, we turn away from each other, clasp hands, and walk into the great unknown. Together.
A/N: This fanfiction is dedicated to the caregivers out there. Your selflessness, love, courage, and hard work are inspiring and appreciated, more than you'll ever know.
Alzheimer's can affect different people in different ways. Though I wasn't in nursing, I did work at an assisted living home for three years, and a good portion of my time was spent in the dementia ward. Bella's behaviors, while not completely 'textbook', are not unheard of.
For more information on Alzheimer's disease: www(dot)alz(dot)org/
Thank you for reading, and please consider leaving a review.