DISCLAIMER: it goes without saying. Mrs. Meyer owns all.
author's note: this story will alternate between the year 2000 (which for all practical purposes is present day) and years past. This story is AU. You will see many characters from the Twi-universe, but the focus is the relationship btwn Edward and Bella. Rated M for adult/"heavy" situations. (If this were a movie, it would be rated PG-13.)
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This chapter is (for all practical purposes) present day...
Chapter 1 (January 2000)
"How was your trip, doll face?" This is how Alice answered her phone. I was not at all surprised. She had boycotted the colloquial and traditional hello, since her fascination with Ben Cheney in the eighth grade. At the time she claimed that since their song as a couple had been Lionel Richie's "Hello," she could no longer bear to utter the word. It was just one of Alice's many overly melodramatic moments, and though Ben Cheney had long since been forgotten her "anti-hello" bent remained, purely out of habit.
"I am looking at a beautiful Tiffany cushion cut diamond ring as we speak." I cradled the phone between my shoulder and cheek. My right hand was busy holding a steaming cup of coffee; and my left was extended in front of me to make my admiration easier.
"And where exactly is this ring? Bella, are you stalking jewelry web sites again?" Alice inquired sarcastically.
"Nope. No web site. Stalking internet shopping sites is your gig. I'm looking at the actual ring."
"Okaaaaaay?" She drew the word into four syllables.
"On my hand. My left hand that is. Ring finger to be exact."
Alice squealed in an octave high enough to shatter wine glasses everywhere. "You're engaged!" The sheer volume of the squeal so startled me it caused me to let the phone slip and fall down to the carpet below me.
"Hang on Al!" I yelled down at the phone. "Dropped the phone."
I sat my coffee on the side table, plopped down to the ground, grabbed the phone and brought it up to my ear again. Her squealing was still in full effect just as I expected, and she hadn't noticed I'd even dropped the phone. I held the receiver several inches away from my ear and waited. She eased up seconds later and transitioned seamlessly into a very classic Alice-style unintelligible tangent. "OhmygoshIamsoexcitedforyou!"
I closed my eyes and pictured the way I knew she looked as she spoke: her almost black eyes animated in utter delight, her rosy lips moving a mile a minute, and her shock of short black hair moving in time as her head bobbed along with the cadence of her words. It warmed my heart and caused it to ache at the same time. I missed my friend.
"You may be more excited than I am." I mused, only partially kidding. Wishing I wasn't. A very familiar gnawing sensation ripped through my gut as I spoke. I did my best to ignore it, because I knew very well what it was and it wasn't welcome.
"The word excited isn't enough." Alice rambled on breathlessly, making it a little easier for me dismiss the discomfort inside me. "I am so happy for you. So very happy. I wondered when good 'ol Mike would pop the question!"
Lucky for me, in most instances anyway, Alice had an emotional contagiousness to her. If she was happy, you were too. Period. This was true of my best friend, no matter where she was emotionally. And most of the time, it was a good thing to be in-sync with her emotionally speaking.
Her rambling abruptly ceased and it got really quiet on her end of the line. All I could hear was muffled sniffles.
"Are you crying, Al? You're crying, aren't you?" I felt a lump forming in my own throat and a sting in my eyes that let me know tears were but milliseconds away. Like I said, emotional contagiousness.
"I am crying. I'm just overwhelmed, Bells. No one deserves this more." She muttered through quiet tears. "No one. And you've been through so much."
"Don't cry, Alice." I pleaded, as moisture welled up in the lower lids of my eyes. "You're gonna make me cry, and I really don't want to. This is a happy time, right? We are supposed to be blissfully ecstatic."
"It is a happy time. We are ecstatic. I'm sorry," she squeaked, "but you know I'm an emotional person. When I'm pregnant it's like a bazillion times worse."
I intentionally squeezed my eyes shut in an attempt to stave off an all-out down pour of tears. They came anyway, freely flowing down my face and collecting in the corners of my mouth. I was crying in response to Alice's innately passionate response to my news. I was also crying in the joy of having such a good friend with whom to share it with. But there was so much more to my tears and I knew that; they were unmistakably from a mixed bag of emotions. And that mixed bag was responsible for the inescapable gnawing in my gut that was turning my engagement into nothing but a one-way ticket to an ulcer.
I bit my lip and swallowed, somehow managing to find a steady voice to use, "Speaking of being pregnant…"
"Oh my gosh! You're pregnant! It's a shotgun wedding? I never in a billion years would have pegged you..."
"Of course I'm not preganat." I snapped back, initially defensive. But then I couldn't help but giggle. How so very Alice was it for her to jump from A to Z in two seconds flat. "Could you let a girl finish?"
"Sorry." She sniffed. "Can I blame my overzealousness on the pregnancy too?"
"Not a chance." I said flatly. "You've been overzealous since the day I met you."
She exhaled loudly. "Can't argue that I suppose. Please go on."
"What I was going to say is that we have tentatively set the wedding date for June 15th. Which means you will be a very pregnant, but not too pregnant to travel matron of honor. That is, if you would like to be?"
This time Alice began unabashedly weeping into the phone. "I," sob, "would love," sob, "to be," sob. "What an epic honor, Bella."
"Oh, Al, I'm so glad." And I was. Though I was sure she'd agree to the role, I was still nervous to ask her for some reason. It felt like I was requesting she donate blood or make a contribution to a charity: a good thing that comes at a small price. "You'll be precious. Absolutely precious. And there is no one else I want by my side on that day."
In my mind's eye I could see the both of us on my wedding day and exactly how we'd look. I'd be the glowing bride and Alice would be by my side, ever the dutiful bridesmaid making sure my train was perfectly situated behind me. It was an image I'd stored in the recesses of my mind for many years. What we wore in this image had evolved with my taste over the years. And who was on the receiving end of my vows had changed a couple of times as well, though not as often as one might think. The very consideration of that brought the gnawing back with a vengeance.
"You're just glad to have me in your wedding because I provide you a one hundred percent guarantee that you will be ravishing next to Shamu the knocked-up bridesmaid." She was still crying, but there was levity through her tears.
"Alice, you are the tiniest person I know, even pregnant."
"You haven't seen me."
"I saw you with the twins."
"It's different the second time around. Your body has memory. It knows how to be pregnant and it pops right out almost immediately! Like I said, I'll be a dead ringer for Shamu."
"What if I promise the dress won't be black with a large white polka dot on it?"
"In that case, I'm in." I didn't have to see her to know she was smiling.
"I love you, Alice Brandon Hale," I murmured, meaning it heart and soul.
"What's not to love?" She announced boldly. It was her tag line of sorts, and hearing it sent a wave of console right through me.
We wrapped up our phone conversation by hammering out the details of my upcoming visit to see Alice and her sweet little family in Dallas. It would be my chance to shamelessly spoil her 2-year-old twin mini-me's, Emily and Evelyn. I would also use the time to scour the shops there for the perfect bridesmaid dresses. I figured that Alice, being the only one of my five bridesmaids who would be dealing with a seven month pregnancy bump, had the unspoken right to hand pick the dresses. Plus, she had amazing fashion sense; far better than mine.
As for my dress, I already had a plan for that. It was something I figured out years ago when my mom, Renee, showed me her wedding pictures. The dress she got married in was classic and reminiscent of something Grace Kelly would have worn. It was sleeveless with an empire waistline and very minimally adorned. It was simple and elegant; exactly my taste and just what I would look for if I were shopping for a new dress. Plus, my mom had been petite just as I was, so there would be very little, if any alterations necessary. There were no reasons not to use it, and many telling me I should. But aside from these reasons, the best thing about the dress was simply that it had been hers. She had picked it out, married my father in it and carefully boxed it up in hopes that her daughter might someday be interested in using it. Though she wouldn't actually get to see me wear it, I would honor Renee on my wedding day by donning it; and the hole in my heart that had been there since the moment she left this planet, just might not be so endlessly cavernous on that day.
Just thinking about my mother and her perfectly perfect dress made me want to see it. In fact, in that moment, nothing seemed quite as urgent as seeing the gown. Since the actual dress itself was boxed up and stored in a unit across town, I'd knew I'd have to settle for seeing it in a photograph. So I made my way to the guest room, which was actually the bedroom from my youth. I had transformed the space from a "Bella in high school" shrine into a room worthy of gracing the pages of a Pottery Barn catalog, a few years prior. This all took place, along with a complete, albeit slow, overhaul of the entire house when my father died and the home officially became mine.
I pulled a wooden desk chair into the closet and climbed up on it so I could reach the highest shelf. When the chair wavered the tiniest bit, it only briefly crossed my mind that my mother had crushed her elbow after falling from the same chair when she'd climbed on it to reach something in this very closet some twenty-five years ago. Since I was already missing her, had I spent more time ruminating over the déjà vu-ness of the moment I would have certainly started crying. And that was something I didn't want to do. Something I had hoped to avoid that entire evening; and had so far failed miserably at, thanks to Alice.
I was determined to be happy no matter what it took, because girls who are newly engaged to amazing guys are happy. They don't cry at the drop of a hat and they don't have a smoldering gnaw in their gut that let's them know in their deepest of deep parts that something...something that they refuse to face...is wrong. Completely wrong.
Up on my tiptoes, I was able to retrieve a box of pictures wedged on the very back of the shelf. I got it down using every bit of upper body strength and balance I could muster and sat it on the guestroom bed with a whoomph. The photo box was fourteen inches by seven and crammed to the rim. With a loud exhalation I turned it upside down and heaved the mass of pictures onto the bed around me. Thus began the search for a needle in the haystack.
At least five hundred pictures stared up at me, and they were snapshots of literally every part of my life. There was no rhyme or reason to how the photos were arranged, or more accurately thrown into the box. Because of this randomness, a picture of me at ten years old in the science fair, was juxtaposed with one of me in junior high orchestra and that one would be sitting on top of one of me from nursing school graduation.
"Yikes. This could be a long night." I said it out loud even though I was by myself. It was difficult to feel alone with all those faces looking up at me.
I gently stirred the picture mix around me with my fingertips hoping the one I was looking for -mom in her dress at her wedding reception- would somehow just jump out at me. Amidst the mosaic blur of colors and shapes, one photo, albeit not the right one, did catch my eye. Almost leaping out of the pile in animation. Two bright-eyed, still slightly cherubic faces commanded my attention. There I was eight years old with a big toothless grin standing shoulder to shoulder with a green-eyed boy; the boy next door to be exact.
"Oh my." I whispered. Nostalgia covered every inch of me like a heavy wool blanket, causing my stomach to tighten and contract as if I'd been kicked in the gut. The gnawing ensued with a greater intensity than ever before and tears pooled in my eyes. Despite my steely resolve, I could no longer deny my emotions. I couldn't have swallowed back the tears or ignored the gnawing within me had my life depended on it.
They were two innocent faces captured in a photo, and they instantly held me captive; wielding the power to release a thousand memories. I took in a deep bracing breath and bit my lip, overwhelmed by the stirring within me. Even with full knowledge that I shouldn't go there, that I should simply toss the picture back into the pile and continue my search; I drew the photo closer. I was literally incapable of taking my eyes off of it.
"Look at you, Edward Masen." I whispered almost inaudibly as a teardrop landed on the picture.
His face was dirty from a full day of summertime play. His crooked smile was mischievous as was a certain glint in his jade eyes that was detectable even in the graininess of the print. His brown-bronze hair was tousled and possibly even had a blade or two of grass in it. He had on his ratty over-worn Z-Up t-shirt. Though the picture was cropped at the waist, I knew if it hadn't been it would reveal his cut off denim shorts, tube socks with blue sport stripes and Fast Back Velcro tennis shoes. It was his warm weather uniform for all practical purposes.
Then I examined the image of me; so familiar but such a distant memory. My dark brown hair had sun kissed caramel-gold streaks in it that I had spent an adulthood trying to artificially recreate to no avail. It was pulled up into pigtails so tight my brown eyes should have been pulled back into slits, and several wisps of hair were plastered with kid sweat to my face. I had on my favorite Holly Hobby tee and though they didn't show due to the cropping of the picture, I was certain I was sporting my white two-strap leather sandals.
My little head was tilted in toward Edward's and he had his arm perched across my shoulders. We looked every bit the two peas in a pod that we were, so young and fresh with our lives ahead of us. Life hadn't been cruel to us yet. We were still the raw uncut versions of ourselves. The person you are before heartache and disappointment comes knocking and insidiously changes you.
"Where did you go, Bella?" I whispered, caressing the image, longing to once again know that little girl who had not a worry in the world. "I miss you."
The backdrop of the picture was a thick tree trunk; nothing that special to most, but of utmost importance to us. We were posed in front of the stately Sycamore that sat between our two houses. Our Tree, as we named it was really like a silent third player in the scenes of our lives. It had shaded us in the storms, allowed the sunshine to peek through its branches just when we needed a touch of hope, and made its huge green leaves dance for us when we were on top of the world. So much of my childhood was spent under that very tree and it had undoubtedly witnessed an inordinate amount of significant moments that were my life as I knew it. And more often than not, Edward Masen had been by my side in those moments.
I held the photograph in my trembling left hand and I found myself fleetingly glancing at my ring. Yet my eyes were drawn to the picture with a gravity I didn't understand. Every second that I allowed my eyes to rest on that photo, the past bubbled with increasing tumult just under the surface of me; as my engagement diamond in all it's brilliance simply faded into the background.
Impulsively I left the mess of photos on the bed and headed out the back door of my house clutching the picture tightly against my chest. When I got to Our Tree I lay down on the fescue in the very spot where the shot had been snapped by my mother twenty-two years prior on her favorite Polaroid camera. It was where I wanted to be; where I needed to be, and it was only there that the perpetual gnawing finally subsided.
As I laid there in relief over finding respite from the gnawing, time stood still for me. Holding that aged Polaroid offered me a calm I hadn't been acquainted with in months, and I was in no hurry to leave the strange peace I'd found. I laid there for so long that afternoon, the sun disappeared behind me and by the time darkness overtook the sky, my eyes were weary and sore; my vision blurry. I had scrutinized the photo until every minute detail of it was committed to memory. Taking the most care to study their sweet little eyes, which thanks to a couple of uninhibited grins had taken the shape of half moons. I stared at and studied their innocent faces, obsessively so, until I wasn't looking at them anymore, but rather through them to something I knew so well and that had shaped everything about me. I looked through them to their story.