A/N: This story is set in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. Just because. :)
A good song for this chapter: "Miss Misery" by Elliott Smith.
Sneak peek: "We all take a tumble every now and then."
Choking everything back. Trying not to break.
The only sounds I hear are the pounding of my feet on the pavement and the driving rhythm of music pulsing through my ears as I try desperately to drown out the pounding of my heart.
Despite my best efforts, my mind flips right back to the very thing I'm trying to forget. A secure life. A clear-cut path. A guy who I love and who loves me no matter what.
Or so I thought.
I turn up the volume on my Ass-in-Gear playlist to drown it out again, but it's too late. Tears fill my eyes. My chest heaves, not with the effort of running, but from the struggle of trying to hold back. Stupid tears blur my vision, and once they start, there's no stopping them. My knees get weak, and I fall on the hard sidewalk, knees and palms burning from the sudden and violent contact of pavement to skin. I can't do it anymore—pretend I'm okay. My chest faults and cracks until it crumbles completely like a dam, and everything comes rushing forth.
It feels like I'm physically falling apart. Wrapping my arms around my chest, trying to hold myself together, I double over and rest my forehead on my knees. I sob so hard it hurts. But physical pain feels better than emotional suffering. I feel weak and stupid. At least there doesn't seem to be anyone around to see me at my worst. This sidewalk at the Battery in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, is unusually quiet at this hour.
I don't know how long I lie crumpled on the ground in my sorry state, but I eventually hear the familiar pounding of running shoes on the pavement behind me, followed by a man's voice.
"Hey! Hey, are you okay?" he calls out as his steps speed up and become louder.
I don't answer. I kind of hope I'll just disappear and he'll run right by me. Maybe if I concentrate hard enough, I'll melt right into the concrete below me.
"Are you hurt? Do you need help?" he asks, much closer now.
I open one eye to see him kneeling next to me. I shake my head and force myself to sit up, because aside from my scraped knees and palms, I'm not physically hurt.
"I'm okay," I manage to say, wiping tears from my cheeks. "I just… God, I'm sorry. I'm so embarrassed."
"What are you apologizing for?" His brows are furrowed. "We all take a tumble every now and then."
I nod and shrug. I'm not sure why—heaven knows I've got bigger problems on my hands right now—but I'm suddenly self-conscious about the tears on my face and my running nose. That's how my brain seems to work most of the time. Thinking about trivial shit to keep from feeling bigger things. "Do you happen to have a tissue?" I ask.
"Oh, shit," the guy says, looking around. "Hang tight, okay? Don't go anywhere."
I shake my head again, glued to the spot in mortification anyway. He trots off across the street and is back a minute later with a handful of napkins. I take them gratefully and blow my nose in a rather unladylike manner.
I figure I have no dignity left anyway.
"Here," he says, holding out a bottle of water. "Drink some of this. It'll help."
And it does help a bit. I feel the sip of icy cold water slide the whole way down to my stomach. It cools me from the inside, and I feel a little calmer.
"I'm Edward, by the way. I'd shake your hand, but…" He nods at my scraped and slightly bloody palms.
I sniff and breathe deeply, hoping my voice won't fail me. "Bella. And thank you."
"Don't mention it." He turns his gaze downward. "Your knees are bleeding." Taking one of the unsoiled napkins from me, he hovers with his hand over my knee. "May I?"
The way he looks at me is…sweet. I nod, and he gently dabs at the scrapes. "Doesn't look too bad. The cuts don't look deep enough for stitches, but you'll have some pretty gnarly bruises."
I admire the ease and gentleness with which he tends to my wounds. "You're too young to be a doctor. You're not, like, Doogie Howser or something, right?"
He laughs, and it's a brilliant, clear sound straight from his belly. "That would be a big no. My dad's a doctor, and he'd love it if I followed in his footsteps, but… I'm majoring in floundering undecidedness at the moment."
"So you're a student."
He nods and takes a fresh napkin to dab at my other knee. I wince at the sting.
"Yeah. College of Charleston."
"Oh? What are you studying?"
"Really?" he says with a somewhat surprised expression. I'm used to that look. A lot people give me that same look when they hear about my choice of study. "That's cool. So, you gonna work for NASA or something?"
I sigh and shake my head. "I have no idea what I'll do. I just find it interesting."
"Are the classes hard?"
Bless him for the small talk, I think to myself. "It's stuff I'm interested in learning, so…" I shrug. Silence falls over us, and from the corner of my eye, I watch him studying me.
I turn my gaze downward again, and Edward jerks his hand from my knee like he's been electrocuted. He clears his throat. "Are you okay now? I mean, does anything else hurt? Can you walk?"
I nod and wipe at my wet face with the backs of my hands. "Just need some peroxide and Band-Aids or something."
"Can I help you get somewhere? My car's just over there." He looks over his shoulder. "Can I drive you home or something?"
I'm not sure what to say. I certainly don't want to jog all the way back home with bloody knees and a snotty face. I actually don't think I can. But I don't know anything about this guy—Edward—despite the fact that he's been able to distract me and calm me down. I suddenly tumble back to reality, and I really don't want to be alone with my thoughts.
"I promise I'm not a freak or anything. I'll be a perfect gentleman."
I go for sarcasm, even though my eyes are still watery and my voice is still shaky. "I dunno. They tell me getting into cars with strangers is a bad thing."
"We're not strangers. I've seen you bleed and blow your nose. In some countries, that's considered a first date."
I laugh, and his features brighten. He's adorable. In any other situation, I might be intrigued by his warm smile and his sparkling green eyes.
"Crying to laughing. Definitely a step in the right direction," he says softly.
Maybe it's stupid of me, but I decide that I can probably trust him. "Sure, you can drive me home."
He stands to help me up, and as we walk the block to his car, he lets me lean on him. It's not even awkward, allowing myself to be supported by this stranger as I limp slightly from the stiffness in my knees.
"Would it be too forward of me to ask what happened?" Edward asks once we're in his car.
I press my lips together, draw in a deep breath, and shake my head. "Not really." I struggle to find words to explain without sounding like an idiot. Something about him makes me feel…safe. "My boyfriend—" I stall. He's not my boyfriend anymore, is he? What do I even say? My ex? That sounds weird. It sounds so dismissive. "Well, he's…been seeing someone else." I cringe at how juvenile it sounds. The words don't convey the reality of it at all.
"Yeah." I look down at my hands without elaborating.
"I'm sorry," he says, casting a quick glance in my direction. "I'm prying."
"It's fine. It's just…it's new." It hurts too much to talk about it. "Hey, what's this song?" I ask just to change the subject.
"Uh, I'm not sure. Sounds like Band of Horses."
"Oh." I don't really know what else to say. He must get the hint, because he lets it go.
When we pull up to the curb in front of my house, he insists on helping me out of the car and up the stairs to my front door. My apartment is on the third floor of an old Charleston single—the kind of house that's tall and narrow from the front and wide from the side. The three floors were converted by the owner into separate apartments with their own large porches connected by an outdoor staircase.
"Crap," I mutter, patting the pockets of my running shorts. "Forgot my key." I ring the doorbell, and my roommate Rosalie opens the door. Her open expression turns wide-eyed and panicky as she takes in my appearance.
"Bella! What the hell happened to you?" I can only imagine how desperate I look. She narrows her eyes and purses her lips at Edward. "Who are you?"
I roll my eyes. Rose is an over-reactor, and her dramatic tendencies can be downright annoying. If it weren't for her fierce loyalty and our nearly lifelong friendship, she would've gotten on my last nerve long ago.
"Rose." I shoot her a pleading look. "This is Edward. I fell during my run. He helped me out." I offer him an apologetic smile. "You'll have to excuse Rosalie. She's a bit of a drama queen. Theater major." I add the last part in a stage whisper.
"Standing right here," she scoffs.
I ignore her and turn back to Edward. "Thanks again for your help."
"It was nice meeting you," he says with something that looks like pity in his eyes. "I wish it had been under better circumstances." He sticks his hand out for me to shake, and I take it gingerly, being careful of my stinging palms.
"You too. Maybe I'll see you around campus."
"Hopefully. See you around." He hesitates for a second, then turns to leave. I watch him go down the stairs before I close the door.
"Spill!" Rose says, dragging me over to the couch by my hands.
"Ow! Give me a break, will you?"
"Oh, shit, you're all cut up," she says, examining my hands.
"It's nothing." I go to the kitchen to wash the abrasions on my hands and knees, but Rose follows me.
She stands on the other side of the breakfast counter, arms crossed and foot tapping away again. "I can tell you've been crying."
"Bella Swan doesn't cry over scrapes and bruises. What really happened?"
She raises her eyebrows and moves her hand in a circular motion, coaxing me on. "Jake what?"
"He cheated on me," I say plainly, detached. Her mouth drops open, and she stares at me in complete shock. "Wow. Speechless Rosalie. That's one I haven't seen before."
"You're taking this way too well," she says with a skeptical look. "When did you find out?"
I shake my head slowly, hold up my hands, and gesture to my knees. "Does this look like I took it well?" My voice shakes with emotion again. The short distraction Edward provided only managed to put a temporary lid on my panic. Now that I have to think and talk about it again, my heart races and my head pounds. "I found out this afternoon. He came over out of the blue. He just…sat there. Sat on the coffee table in front of me and told me there was someone else. He didn't think things were working out between us anymore. I didn't know what to say. I didn't even cry."
"Oh, Bella." Rose leads me to the couch and draws me into her arms, which only makes me feel worse, and the tears burst forth. "It's okay. You cry as much as you want."
She knows this is bad. She's right; Bella Swan does not cry. Ever. Well, maybe during Casablanca when Bogey puts Ingrid Bergman on the plane back to the States and doesn't go with her. Every time. But that's it. Other than that, I don't cry.
Rose rubs her hand up and down my back as I ruin her blouse with my tears. After a minute of indulging, wallowing, I pull away. "I'm sorry." My breath catches. "This is stupid. I'm crying over a boy."
"Bella, Jake is not just a boy. I always thought you'd get married and have a slew of kids and live happily ever after…" She trails off. "I'm sorry. That's not helping."
I can't do anything but nod. "I don't understand. Everything was perfectly fine, and then…he drops this bomb on me."
Jake and I were always the perfect pair. We grew up together, were best friends throughout school, and fell into intense love sometime after starting college. I can't even remember when it happened. It seemed like we'd always been together. Our relationship is—was—laughter and friendship, love and passion. What else could anyone ask for? According to Jake, a lot, I guess.
I drop my eyes from Rose's face to a wet spot on the shoulder of her blouse. "I'm sorry. I've ruined your top."
"Stop apologizing for everything. It's just a shirt. We have bigger concerns here. Why did he suddenly decide to tell you?"
"Guess he couldn't have it weighing on his conscience anymore." I sniffle and run my hands through my hair. "I made it so easy for him, Rose. He said his piece, kissed me, and left. I didn't even fight it. He broke it off without a care in the world. Didn't even—didn't ask me to forgive him or—"
"Forgive him? You would consider staying with him after he cheated on you?"
"You don't understand! You think you're going to be with someone forever, and then… I feel like my entire future has just… I feel lost. I'm not ready to give up." I dissolve into sobs again as my own words sink into my devastated heart.
She puts an arm around me and leans her head on my shoulder. We sit that way for a while as I calm myself.
"Ice cream?" Rose asks after a few minutes.
I sniff and nod.
She's back from the kitchen in a flash with a carton of Ben and Jerry's and two spoons. We sit facing each other, cross-legged on the couch, sharing the pint of Phish Food.
"So tell me about this dreamboat that brought you home. Yummy."
I force a laugh for her sake, but I choke on it. "There's not much to report. His name's Edward. He goes to C of C, and he seems really nice. You want me to try and find out his number for you?" I'm joking, but she shrugs.
"It's okay. I sort of met a guy a couple of days ago. I'm really into him."
"Oh yeah?" I say, grasping the opportunity to talk about something happy.
She hesitates. "Are you sure you want to hear—"
"Anything to distract me right now is perfect."
"Well, he's tall, dark, and handsome." She fakes a swoon. "A real gentleman. I met him at Kudu Coffee. He held the door open for me, and we started chatting in line, and he paid for my mocha. We sat there talking for almost two hours. Even his name sounds gentlemanly. Emmett Cullen."
"That's…an interesting name."
She nudges my foot with hers. "Shut up. It's cute."
It's been awhile since Rose met a really nice guy. She tends to go for the bad-boy type. They're either just as dramatic as she is or too complacent for her sensitivities.
"Are you seeing him again?" I ask, needing to keep her on this track.
"We're going out tomorrow night. So"—she shovels a huge bite of Phish Food into her mouth—"how about a little Casablanca?" Rose knows my weakness for Humphrey Bogart.
My stomach feels unsettled after just a couple of bites of the ice cream. And I feel like a disgusting mess. "Sure. Let me shower and change first."
She pats my hand before I leave the couch.
I go to my room and sit on the edge of my bed with my head in my hands. The picture of Jake on my nightstand taunts me. His wide, toothy grin. His short, dark, spiky hair. Those full, pouty lips. In a sudden fit of rage, I grab the frame and throw it as hard as I can across the room. The glass shatters against the wall, and the whole mess falls to the floor, twisted and broken. It looks like I feel right now.
Never in my life have I been one to feel sorry for myself. I've never indulged in self-pity, never given in to anger, because what use are those emotions?
But this is too much. I shed my running clothes and pull on a clean, oversized t-shirt without even bothering to shower. I don't have the energy or attention span for a movie. I know Rose will understand. Crawling into bed, I pull the blankets over my head and give in.
The door creaks open, and the mattress dips next to me. Rose lays her hand on my back. "Are you okay? Physically, I mean."
I nod from under the quilt.
"I'll clean up the glass. You go to sleep." She pulls the covers down a bit and kisses the top of my head. "Call me if you need anything, all right?"
I just nod again.
As far as I can remember, I've never cried myself to sleep. I guess there's a first time for everything.