This one-shot was written as part of the For the Love of Lisa team for Fandom Gives Back. Thank you so much to everyone who donated. The link to the photo prompt for this one-shot is on my profile page.
Thanks go to everyone who pre-read parts and helped with this, and of course, ElleCC for betaing. The title comes from "maggie and milly and molly and may" by e.e. cummings. It was WhatsMyNomdePlume's idea. There's also a smidge of "The Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock" in here.
This is for you, Lisa.
Ourselves We Find in the Sea
With my cheeks slightly burnt from yesterday's sun, I walk. My sneakers are soaked through, now a blend of muddy brown and their original light blue, and still I keep walking. The summer air clears my lungs. My skin is sticky and visibly damp with sweat, but for the first time today and the twentieth time this summer, I can feel my heart beating in my chest. My shoulders ache under the rough straps of my backpack. Bug bites spot my arms and legs, and I love it. I push a low branch out of my way, laughing quietly when the leaves tickle my forehead.
The forested shoreline of the Olympic peninsula has kept me company for almost a month now. My triumphant return to Forks after my freshman year turned out to be about as anticlimactic as I expected. My father, Charlie, greeted me at the train station in Port Angeles. We celebrated my year with cold pizza and minimal talk over a televised baseball game. It wasn't any more or less exciting than a typical night for me at school.
On paper, I have nothing to complain about. My grades are fine, GPA a respectable 3.70. My roommate and I got along fine during our two semesters together—a far cry from some of the horror stories I'd overheard in the dining halls. No one sick or dying. My life is fine. At school, I got good grades and enjoyed my classes, but I hadn't really made any friends. After the first weeks, my roommate drifted away from me toward a more social crowd.
Once I was home lounging in Forks, my isolation became too much to handle. Since I could remember, I'd been an independent person, but after a week of daytime television and afternoons spent reading old books in the backyard, I was bored. I was lonely. Even Elizabeth Bennett becomes lousy company after the tenth read.
The toe of my shoe catches on a raised tree root, and I stumble forward into the dirt, hands just barely managing to break my fall. Despite the sting just below my knee, I smile and roll over so I'm sitting on the cool ground. There's very little blood. My backpack slides off my shoulder, and I unzip it, pulling out a small first aid kid—a far cry from my first trip four weeks ago.
I don't know what it was that inspired me to drive out to the coast that morning. One minute I was on the couch in my pajamas, lazily spooning Cheerios into my mouth, and the next I was behind the wheel of my old Chevy truck, with the road stretched out before me. And even though I wasn't dressed for exploration, I found myself continuing on the road for a few miles after the turn off to familiar La Push Beach.
When I noticed a break in the trees, I pulled my truck just far enough off the road to hide it from oblivious drivers. My keys found their way into my left pocket, cell phone in the right, and without ever actively deciding anything, I made my way into the woods. In a pair of Bermuda shorts and a too-nice tank-top, I wandered in and out of the forest, along the isolated sands of the beach and over the rocky shores until my legs were scratched up and my short cuffs tattered. And once I eventually returned home, even though Charlie nearly had a heart attack when he saw my roughed up state, I fell asleep with a smile on my face for the first time since I could remember.
Of course I can't be spontaneous like that first time every time if I want to stay in one piece. Now when I explore, I'm more prepared. Rolling up the antiseptic wipe and the band-aid wrapper, I set them inside a plastic bag I use to hold my trash. I grab my notebook and a pen, and then zip up my backpack again. I'll have to hurry if I want to get to the shore before noon. There's something exhilarating about feeling the sun as its most powerful, freckling my shoulders and burning my cheeks.
While I trail through the forest, I map my route. I flip open my spiral notebook, dirty around the edges from my fingers, and turn to the page where I've taped a map of the Olympic coastline. If I've figured it out correctly, I will have the chance to wander over two entire beaches today, one just ahead and another hidden beyond a tall jetty a mile up the shoreline. When my foot slips on a loose rock, I stumble one more time, barely catching myself on the trunk of a hemlock. With my coordination, I should probably know better than to try to read and walk at the same time.
The trees thin out as I continue to move forward and before I know it, I can see sand. I smile and run the last few yards before stepping out onto the latest beach I'm going to explore this summer. This is why I do this. The sight of the water, the quiet murmur of the low tide, even the sticky scent of dried out mussels—loneliness fails to matter when you get to experience nature like this, all but untouched by human hands. I crouch down once I reached the water, dragging my fingers through the foamy sand, and laugh. Renee would keel over if she could see me now. My borderline hippie mother spent years trying to loosen me up. Apparently all she really needed to do was leave me alone.
Like I do every day, I take a moment to unlace my shoes and yank off my muddy socks, leaving everything but my notebook and cell phone in my backpack by the forest line. These shorts are a few years old, but they have pockets for my phone, and it won't be the end of the world if they rip. And then, just like every day, I start my walk down the beach, eyes catching the subtle things that made this beach unique, my hand scribbling down whatever comes to mind on a mostly blank page.
I walk for some lengthy period of time, moving toward the jetty and stopping frequently to flip over a rock or to rinse my feet off in the frigid water. Apart from a few ancient soda cans in the rocky crevices, there is nothing spectacular about this beach. I soon find myself walking faster toward the looming rock structure ahead. Coves are always a little more exciting, even if it's just for their tide pools.
I start to jog. My feet kick wet sand onto the backs of my legs, bobby pins steadily failing to hold my hair away from my face. By the time my hands reach the side of the jetty, I'm laughing outright. I'm laughing, though I have no idea why. I feel unsteady and fragile, like if I stop laughing I might burst into tears. I hold my notebook against my chest, free hand pressed against the stone until I catch my breath and my composure. I don't focus too hard on the why. This is the one time of day I let my emotions take over, let myself feel lonely or angry or deliriously happy. There's no one here to judge me.
Now for the tricky part. The easiest way to cross the jetty will be to climb over it, but my track record for balance isn't great. With my book in my hand, I lift my left foot and wedge it into a small break in the rocks. It's not comfortable, but it doesn't hurt my bare feet too much. My right hand finds another steady rock, and I pull myself up off the ground. Even without my left hand, I manage to climb to the top of the fifteen-foot jetty without too much difficulty.
"I might actually be growing out of this clumsy thing," I mumble to myself, smiling as I rest for a moment on a particularly large rock. A month ago, I never could have made this trip without falling. I look out over the now-visible cove, ready to see another part of the coast I haven't explored yet—and my jaw drops.
Most of the shoreline I've explored has been completely natural. Maybe there was some trash littering the sand or a few logs arranged in a circle around an impromptu bonfire, but none of that could prepare me for what I see here. Human hands shaped this beach. Twenty feet ahead of me, a pier is half buried in the sand, utterly ravaged by its environment. The only intact part exists a few yards behind the line of seaweed that marks high tide. But the pier is not what stuns me. Just inside the surf, obscured from the previous beach by the jetty but clearly visible from here, rests a carousel—old, broken, and possibly the most remarkable thing I've ever seen. The heads of a dozen plastic seahorses on rusted poles stick up out of the ocean water, partially shaded from the sun by the carousel's red and white striped roof. I jump in surprise when a seagull pops its head up through one of the holes in the roof, squawking into the air. Then I smile, leaning closer to get a clearer look.
It's at that moment that my foot slips.
The instant my right heel loses traction, my hands grab for the closest hold they can find. I cry out in frustration as my fingers lose their hold on my notebook, and it tumbles down the jetty into the waiting water below in a matter of seconds. I don't have time to worry about that, because the rock my right hand clings to is coated in algae, and I lose my grip almost as soon as I get it.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Slipping down to the next lowest rock, I feel the jetty cutting into my feet. Tears sting my eyes. My hold on this rock is slight at best, and I'm still a good ten feet above the sand, which is itself spotted with even more rocks. What the hell am I going to do if I break my leg? Crawl back through the forest? Pray that I have cell phone service this far out? I should never have pushed my luck. Why couldn't I just explore the woods behind my house?
I'm so distracted by my impending death that I don't hear the only other person on the beach until he's right in front of me.
"Hold on, hold on. I've got you."
My head snaps up at the sound of a voice, and I gasp when I find myself face to face with a pale boy with dark red hair. I feel a pair of hands on my waist, guiding me down onto the next rock until I'm seated, and I don't care why he's here or why I didn't see him before, because he's helping me. In a second, I latch onto the rocks beside me, cutting up my fingers but keeping myself safe.
"You got it?" the stranger asks me, keeping contact with my eyes. I nod. With more ease than I expected, he drops down to the sand again, immediately reaching up and sliding his hands underneath my thighs. Once he has a hold of me, I grab onto his shoulders and move even closer, and then I'm tightly hugging his neck as he lowers us both to the ground. I don't let go until my feet touch the sand.
Gasping for breath, I try to take a few steps back away from my savior. My legs are shaking so badly that I collapse to the beach. When I look up at him, he's pacing back and forth, his hands twisted up in his mess of hair.
"Jesus Christ, are you insane?" he yells, his voice echoing in the enclosed space of this cove.
I sit up straight and try not to appear frightened. "Excuse me?"
His green eyes turn sharply to mine, the bridge of his nose barely sunburned and freckled, and he jerks his hand toward the rocks behind him.
"Why the hell were you up there by yourself—and with no shoes!" His comment reminds me of how much damage I probably did to the soles of my feet, a good mile away from my first aid kit. But as long as this strange, angry boy is glaring at me, I can't worry too much about my cuts. He's frustrating the hell out of me. "Were you trying to kill yourself?"
I scowl, dropping my hands to the sand before remembering that they're scratched up as well. The stinging only makes me more annoyed.
"If I were trying to kill myself, I think I'd go a little higher up than a fifteen-foot jetty."
He rolls his eyes, laughing humorlessly. "All right. So you're just insane, then."
I've had enough. I came to these beaches to get away from people, to be by myself and to explore, not to be talked down to by someone I didn't even know. Rising gingerly to my feet, I try not to think about how much the sand stings. I take a deep breath to calm down my temper and look at him again.
"Listen," I say quietly, taking a few careful steps toward him. His eyes are a strange kind of green, the color of the ocean water lapping at my feet. "I really appreciate you helping me and everything, but if you don't mind, I'm going to go find the book that I dropped and go home."
Pushing past him, I try to ignore the pain as I again approach the jetty. The sand burns, but as soon as I step fully into the water, the salty water flushes my wounds, replacing the sand with a white hot pain that has me limping. All I need to do is fetch my notebook, and I can leave. I can find my way back to my sneakers and come back to this beach and its broken-down carousel another day.
As my steps become easier, I balance around the small but sharp rocks leading up to the large jetty, looking through the water for any sign of my notebook's brown cover. At this point, the water's up to my ankles. My toes will hopefully go numb soon from the cold. Seaweed brushes against my legs and makes it harder to see the smaller rocks hidden beneath the surface.
"Wait," the boy says, suddenly beside me. His hand grabs my arm, gently stopping me before I can reach the larger rocks. When I turn toward him, he guides my arm over his shoulder and leads me back toward the sand, his free arm wrapped around my waist. His back is slightly damp with sweat. His shirt clings to his skinny frame, and his body's warmth makes me feel overheated.
"What are you doing?" Despite my unease, I grip his shoulder. When I stand on my numb toes, the sand hurts less.
Though I'm watching ahead, I feel him glance down at me. "If you dropped your book down into the jetty, it's going to be completely soaked through by now." It's nothing I didn't know, but my stomach drops at his words. That book contains a month's worth of thoughts, of scribbled drawings and poetic nonsense. I look over my shoulder, biting my lip anxiously as I take one last glance at the water, and he sighs. "Just let me look at your feet. If you want, you can go back afterward."
For the first time, I notice the small pile of belongings resting on the edge of the broken pier: a messenger bag, a towel, and a sweatshirt, clumped together on the sand. The boy leads me to the towel, kicking it flat with his foot before helping me sit.
While he rummages through his bag, I take a moment to look at him. He's dressed simply, a pair of swim trunks and a black t-shirt, and all of his visible skin is a light tan from the sun. It's clear his natural complexion is much paler. He's handsome, I suppose, and there's something endearing about the seriousness of his face. But when he sits back on his heels in front of me, holding a water bottle and an extra t-shirt, watching the soles of my feet as he unscrews the bottle cap, it's easy to see how he could be dangerous to other girls my age. There's an intensity to his eyes that makes it hard to look at him directly.
"You're kind of like a boy scout, aren't you?" I ask as he pours clean water over my feet. The relief is instant, and I relax back on my hands with a quiet sigh.
His lips twist up into a smile. "You could say that."
Once my feet are clean enough to his liking, he holds onto the neck of the extra t-shirt with both hands, and my eyes widen as he rips the fabric straight through. For a short while, he doesn't speak as he shreds the white t-shirt into strips, tossing the smallest pieces back onto his messenger bag and draping the rest over his thigh. By the time he begins to wrap them around my damaged feet, the bravado that comes with being rescued is gone. I fold my hands in my lap, quietly watching him work while I count down the seconds until I can escape.
"I'm Edward, by the way," he says. His fingers are warm as they smooth out the makeshift bandages, tying a knot that's just tight enough to be uncomfortable.
"Bella," I reply.
"Well, Bella," he murmurs, running his hand one more time over the knots on top of my foot, a small scar on his ring finger the only thing marring his skin. "This isn't perfect, but it should help keep the sand out of those cuts for now." Once he releases me, I scoot back to the edge of the towel, pulling in my legs and making room for him. Edward sits across from me, and we're quiet again.
My face feels hot. The afternoon sun uncomfortably pricks at my skin, but this seems different than sunburn. After a few seconds, I realize I still haven't answered him. This is the longest time I've spent one-on-one with a person who was not my roommate or my father in months, even if this wasn't intentional, and I don't know what to do. I don't know how to behave, or how he expects me behave, and even the mystique of this beach isn't enough to keep me relaxed. I give him what I hope is a smile, already rising to my feet. My legs are aching to get away from him, to figure out the safest way over the jetty and back to my bedroom in Forks.
"Thanks for the t-shirt, and... um, helping me out on the rocks earlier. I owe you one." With a small wave, I move away from Edward and my discomfort. Short, quick steps. The cotton surrounds my feet like a sock, making it much easier to move across the sand, and I easily cross the distance to the jetty.
"Wait—" Footsteps sound behind me, and the confusion in his voice makes me uneasy again. "Where are you going?" I take a shallow breath and turn around.
"Back to my things," I say, laughing nervously, "I think I've seen enough beach for the day."
When the surf comes in I take a lurching step farther from the salty water, saving my poor feet for at least a few more seconds. I realize with a sinking feeling that I won't be able to wander along the beaches again until my cuts are healed. The thought of being stuck inside, without company, without anything unfamiliar, distracts me from my current company until he speaks again.
"And you're going to climb the jetty again?" I blink and refocus on Edward, whose eyebrows are raised, no doubt skeptical of my ability to make it over without killing myself.
I shrug, rocking back and forth on my feet. "How else do you propose I get back?"
"If you go about thirty feet into the woods, the rocks level out and you can just walk over."
Looking down at my wrapped feet, I think of pill bugs and mud hidden under fallen leaves, and when I glance up at Edward, he is looking at my feet with a frown, no doubt having come to the same realization. Confusion puts a small crease in his forehead.
"I don't think I'm prepared for the woods right now," I say with a small smile.
Edward nods, folding his hands over his chest. He's still looking at my mummified feet when he says:
"I'll carry you."
Immediately, blood rushes to my face, my hands tightening into fists inside my pockets. "What? I don't... Edward, I—"
"Well, the way I see it, Bella, you have two options." My face flushes again at the sound of my name on his tongue, warm and peculiar. He takes my silence as a sign to continue. "You can either climb back up those rocks and hope you get down the other side, probably making the cuts in your feet worse and maybe making those ones I can see on your hands bleed." When he gestures toward my scraped palms, I quickly hide my hands behind me, sliding them into the back pockets of my shorts. Edward smiles, a crooked smirk that lets me know he saw that. "Or you can let me give you a piggyback ride. You'll be on the other side in two minutes, safe and in one piece."
I don't know what to make of Edward. The way he's watching me, actually looking at me when he speaks, eye to eye, his attention on me instead of elsewhere—I don't know what he wants from me.
But a moment later, the tide returns, lapping against the side of my foot, and I know I don't have a choice. Pulling my hands out of my pockets, I give Edward a quick nod and try not to analyze his smile when he turns and ducks so I can hop on. Stretching up onto my toes, I drape my arms over his shoulders and jump while his hands find the underside of my knees. His neck smells like the ocean and the salt of summer sweat. I sigh. My chin brushes his shoulder for a moment, but it's too hot to keep it there.
Once Edward has a good grip, his palms against my skin, my chest against his back, he starts walking as if I weigh nothing. I feel dizzy. My heart flutters, like a bird with an injured wing, and I have to focus on my breathing because it's been months since I've been this close to another person, let alone someone of the opposite sex. It takes me a moment to realize he is not carrying me toward the shade and the forest, but instead, away from the jetty and toward the pier, half-buried in the sand.
"This isn't the way back," I say stupidly, dropping my forehead to his shoulder to hide my embarrassment. Edward only bumps me up, gripping my legs as he brings me toward the water. His fingertips brush the insides of my knees. It tickles.
"We're making a detour."
With every step, Edward takes me farther from my destination and closer toward the most fragmented part of the pier. His footsteps only splash for a moment before he's ankle deep in the ocean water.
"But my stuff..." I protest weakly.
Edward glances back, and his face is so close that if I leaned forward just barely our noses would touch. I crane my neck back to put some safe distance between us. Only then can I see that he's smiling. "Don't pretend you weren't eyeing up my merry-go-round earlier," he says. "I'd be a shitty host if I didn't at least show you around."
I find myself smiling back. "Your merry-go-round?"
He shrugs, and my arms rise up with his movement. "Well, no one else knows about it. Or at least I don't think anyone else knows. You're the first person I've run into here since I found this beach when I was fifteen."
"Does it have a name?" I think of the names I'd ticked off in my now drowned notebook: First Beach, Second Beach, Third Beach, Rialto, a handful of unmarked beaches I'd named myself just to keep track. When I get home, I want to be able to find this again, since my map is probably drifting farther into the Pacific at the moment.
"I don't know," Edward says, his voice thoughtful as if he'd never even considered it. "I've never told anyone about it, so I've never had the chance to ask." Then he laughs quietly. "It kind of ruins the excitement of a private spot if you tell your parents about it."
"I didn't mean to intrude."
Edward snorts, wrapping my legs around his waist to keep them out of the water. By now the surf is lapping against his knees.
Leaning toward his right shoulder, I turn and look at the side of his face. It really is a nice face. "Seriously, I'll go," I continue. "If you just bring me back to the sand, I can get there by myself—"
Sliding into a more comfortable position, I bite my lip. "Yeah, Edward?"
My face is burning. For just a moment, perched on his back, I'd forgotten how horrible I am at this, at conversing with another person and following their cues, but it rushes back to me with those two muttered words. I want to burrow into his shirt. I want to pretend I'm somewhere else until he's no longer annoyed with me, but before I can, he stops walking.
His hands let go of my legs to grab mine, shifting me from his back carefully until I am cushioned in his arms, facing him. To my surprise, he's not frowning. He's not smiling either, but his eyes make me nervous, lingering over mine well after I've turned my gaze to the water behind him. When he exhales, I feel his breath against my chin. I'm dizzy again. I might be trembling.
Then his hands find my waist, and in one strained movement, I'm lifted away from him and set onto the nearly black pier, scooting back on impact until my feet are safe from the salty water. When I look back to Edward, he is smiling again, almost as if that strange moment never happened.
"Just watch where you walk," he says, jumping up onto the pier beside me. "It's rotted away in a few spots."
Edward takes off with ease, stepping over cracks in the pier and occasionally dipping the tips of his sandled toes in the water. It takes me longer to recover. The water-soaked wood is spotted with green algae and rot, and it's longer than I originally thought, wrapping around the dingy back of the carousel. Even closer up, the merry-go-round looks no more real. Between the dried seaweed spots and fading red paint, it feels like a mirage, a product of exhaustion and summer heat.
"What is this place?"
Rising to my feet, I see Edward duck his head beneath the conical roof, standing on the back of a teal seahorse.
"There's an engraving on the carousel pole that says 1948," he says, his voice echoing under the tent. I take a few steps closer, watching my feet closely so I don't hurt myself anymore today. "The only other clue I've found is that scrap of poster stuck to the bottom of the roof," he continues. "All I can make out is the date and the word 'pier'. I think that might be a picture of a crab."
I laugh quietly to myself, muttering, "I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floor of silent seas." When I reach the carousel, feeling safe enough to look up from my feet, I startle. Edward stares at me, a peculiar look on his face as he holds onto the pole impaling his seat. My face reddens from the attention, but I move closer anyway, kneeling down to touch the face by Edward's feet. The horse's toothy mouth is curled up into a smile, chipped black pupils making me cringe and look away.
"What about you?"
I glance up, vulnerable and nervous under his focused stare. "What about me?"
Edward shrugs. "Anything. Everything." With one hand on the pole, Edward slides down until he's seated sidesaddle. The easy confidence he moves with, the complete lack of pretension in his smile puts me at ease. "Why are you here with me right now?"
"Because you lied and told me you'd carry me through the forest," I say, which makes Edward laugh. Crossing my legs, I sit on the edge of the pier and feel the sculpture of the seahorse's face—anything so I don't have to watch Edward watch me. "It's not an exciting story. I just enjoy exploring."
"Maybe I'm over-analyzing things, but I left this morning expecting to enjoy an afternoon away from everything on the strange little beach I've been coming to every summer for five years. Instead I find a girl, beautiful, sunburned like me..." I blush at this description of me, but even though his lips curl up at the corner, eyes following the line of my cheekbone, Edward doesn't mention it. "This strange girl seems totally prepared for hiking on the jetties, apart from her lack of shoes. And then after she slips and I get to play hero, which trust me, is exciting enough," he says with a laugh. "Anyway after I save her, and all but trick her into walking on the pier with me..." Edward waits until I look directly at him and his smile widens, "the first thing she does it recite poetry?"
Given what little I know of Edward, I'm not surprised he caught that. Immediately I drop my gaze to my feet, picking at the bandages absentmindedly.
"It's T.S. Eliot," I mutter. Edward laughs again.
"How is that not exciting?"
At once I'm am filled with a heavy frustration, not with him but with myself. I hate that Edward thinks I'm interesting. I hate knowing that the longer we speak, the sooner he'll be disappointed.
"If you knew me better, you wouldn't be surprised by the jetty thing." Glancing up, I take in the bizarre sight of this beach-side carousel again and smile wryly. "Besides, compared to this beach, a stupid girl getting herself in trouble should be... expected."
To my surprise, Edward shakes his head almost immediately. "No, the merry-go-round, I expected," he says. "It's here every time I come, but not you. You're something different." He frowns as he curls in his legs and rises to his feet, walking over to the next seahorse. "And I can already tell that you're not stupid, so cut that shit out."
As he moves around from horse to horse, the words bubble up inside of me until they finally escape with no semblance of tact or grace.
"Why are you being so nice to me?"
Edward snorts. "That's a weird question."
"I'm sorry," I say, scooting closer to the edge of the pier. Propping my feet on the head of the teal seahorse, I admit, "I just don't... do this very often. At all."
"What, hang out on weird beaches with a stranger?" Edward asks, making my answer sound even more pathetic when I say it out loud.
"Talk to people."
Edward pauses on an orange seahorse long enough to give me a look, for his intense eyes to make me feel even more self-conscious than I already do. When his eyes are on mine, I feel open, and somehow I know it would be useless to lie to him. I tell myself that I'll only have to deal with this for a little longer anyway. Soon he'll get bored, we'll move to the other beach, and he'll leave me alone like all the others have.
After an endless moment, Edward nods his head and continues his slow and careful rotation around the merry-go-round.
"That's a shame," he says.
And then he surprises me again.
"So T.S. Eliot, huh? I would have pegged you as more of a John Donne kind of girl."
When I return home later that evening, my feet hurt. Even more annoyingly, I have a headache. Spending time with another person, hell, holding a conversation for an extended period of time is tiring. It's even worse when it's someone as different from me as Edward. I don't understand him. And as I sit with my sore feet soaking in the tub, hissing each time the soapy bubbles find one of my cuts, I make a promise to the tiles that I'll find a new place to explore tomorrow. No beach and no company is worth this discomfort.
I fall asleep before I can crawl under the covers.
Despite my late night grumblings, the next morning when I wake up with the sun in my eyes, I feel relaxed. And just like that first day four weeks ago, I soon find myself driving down the road in my red Chevy. I make the same trek through the woods, strolling down the boring first beach and toward the ominous pile of rocks—all the while frowning at my feet for carrying me this way against my will. Keeping my backpack on, sneakers tied and in place, I easily move up the jetty until I reach the top. I look over this peculiar beach and feel my lips turn up into a small smile.
Edward is already there.
"You made it," he calls out. His t-shirt is wrinkled and wet, and when he pushes up to his feet and stands on the edge of the pier, he smiles, holding his hand over his brow to shield his eyes from the sun. "And you brought shoes this time."
With my sunglasses on, I can pretend I have bravado. The rocks give me a temporary height advantage, and at the very least, he can't see how easily he makes me blush. "I didn't want to risk getting hurt again," I reply with a shrug.
"You might not have risked your feet, but you still risked the possibility of breaking something on the way down." My smile fades with his teasing. Not that it's unjustified, given how we met, but still. "Are you good, or do you need me to save you again?
"I'm okay," I mumble, taking one careful step closer to the beach.
"Are you sure? I can come get you, no problem." I hear his voice get closer as I plant my foot on a flat rock. When I glance up, he's smirking again, lips twisting in a way that makes my stomach twist in return. "I'm kind of like Batman. Handsome, always there when you need rescuing—"
"And an asshole?"
Immediately after the words leave my mouth, I gasp. A bandaged hand flies over my open mouth while my face burns, and Edward's eyes widen. I haven't insulted another person to their face since I was in elementary school, and even then, the boy had to pull my hair to get me to call him "stupid." Before I can collapse into internal worry, Edward starts to laugh. Then he laughs harder.
"Well, damn," he says, "I was starting to think you weren't capable of comebacks."
Sliding down to the sand, I kick sand off my sneakers and frown. "I'm sorry. That was rude of me."
"Bella, it's okay!" Edward's quieting laughter gives me the courage to glance up. He's smiling that uneven smile again, raising his eyebrows while he looks at me. "I was messing with you; you got me back. That's how this thing works."
Even though I don't know what I'm doing here, talking with a stranger and violating nearly every safety lesson my police chief father gave me as a child—I know that Edward's right. This does work. Over the next two days, I gradually become accustomed to conversation with him. And for the first time in years, I am content to spend my days talking. Just talking with someone who is more forward than anyone I've ever met.
Every morning I head toward the same beach, and even though I quickly learn the less obvious abnormalities about the cove pretty quickly, I am never bored. Talking with him feels important and frightening, a new kind of exploration far less familiar than any beach on the Olympic peninsula.
The scariest part is that I like it. I like talking with him, too.
"I used to be afraid of the beach," Edward says.
"Why? Was it sharks?"
"No. I was afraid of the sand."
"It was my brother's fault really. He's a few years older, and when I was five or six, he told me if any sand got in my bathing suit, my dick would fall off. Of course he probably didn't say dick. Whatever it was, I didn't swim in the ocean again until middle school."
"I was an only child."
Edward doesn't reply.
"I was afraid of lizards, though. Still am."
"What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I'm just trying to figure you out, Bella."
"I'll let you know when I do."
"I don't think I've ever met an 'Isabella' before."
"It's kind of exotic for Forks."
"Isn't Edward a little grandfatherly for Forks?"
"Hey, leave me out of this. We were talking about you."
"My mother had been planning to major in history when she got pregnant with me. She told me last year that if I'd had a brother, he would have been named Ferdinand."
"Your poor non-existent brother."
There's a pause.
"Bella. Just Bella."
"That was the part where I awkwardly ask for your last name."
"You're not going to tell me?"
"Not right now."
"Why are you nervous?"
"How can you tell?"
"You're biting your lip again."
"I'm just not used to this much attention from one person," I say eventually. "I'm waiting for you to get bored and make some excuse so you can leave."
"I don't know, just why. Why wouldn't you get attention? Why would I get bored? I told you before, Bella, you're not an unexciting person."
"You barely know me."
"I know enough. I wouldn't be here if I was bored."
"Maybe you're just too nice to leave me here alone."
"Trust me. I don't live my life like that, passive and doing things out of obligation and guilt. Not anymore. Life is too fragile to waste time doing what you don't enjoy."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Let's talk about something else."
"John Donne. You said you thought I seemed like a John Donne kind of girl. What did you mean by that?"
"You're a romantic."
"I... I really don't—"
"I don't mean romantic as in love, though in a way it might be. I guess I just meant that I could tell you were a passionate person, someone who romanticizes things. Someone who gets caught up in the idea of exploring and the promise of nature and ends up stranded alone on a jetty..."
"You're not going to let that go, are you?"
"What would be the fun in that?"
There's a pause.
"If I'm a Donne person, then I'd say you're an e.e. cummings person."
"Because I'm weird? Unstable? Incredibly difficult to understand?"
"Because you're warm."
Three days after we meet, I find myself straddled on a pink seahorse while Edward sits on his teal one, the one that I've come to learn is his favorite. My bare and slightly scabbed feet rest in the water, sneakers waiting for me on the pier. The salt doesn't hurt anymore. I'm content and lazy, my cheek resting against the pole while the late afternoon sun warms my back like a blanket.
"I'm surprised you're here," Edward says, interrupting our oddly comfortable silence. I tilt my head up and feel a crease form in my lightly sunburned forehead.
While I wait for his answer, Edward kicks his legs over his seahorse, sliding off until he's standing waist deep in the water. His hands bunch up the bottom of his shirt. I can just make out his flat stomach, pale skin flickering blue from the ocean's reflection. For the first time today, I feel anxious, and I loop my arms around the head of my seahorse, something tangible to keep me calm.
"I really didn't think you'd show up on my beach again," he says before pulling his shirt up and over his head, tossing it away in one movement. It lands on the pier behind me with a wet thump. "You know, after that first day."
"After this week, I think I at least get co-ownership of 'your beach.'" I can hear the shake in my voice as I try not to think about the fact that Edward is shirtless. About the fact that he's pale and thin like I expected, faint tan lines bisecting his upper arms and a few faded scars hinting at ancient injuries, but with a leanness to his muscles that reminds me of clinging to him three days ago on the rocks. He's stronger than he looks. I know that first hand. Thankfully, Edward takes a step toward me, splashing some water and bringing back my focus. "Besides, you never asked me to come back."
Edward comes closer. I stay still. I take a deep breath, turning my head when he moves beside me and grabs onto the pole of my seahorse just below my hands. "If I had," he mutters, "you wouldn't have come." Then suddenly I'm no longer still as Edward pushes hard, propelling me and my seahorse forward. I stiffen before I realize we're moving at a near-glacial pace around the carousel. Edward laughs. "I scared the shit out of you."
Ducking my eyes, I smile, hoping it will hide my blush. He doesn't need to know that he still does.
My toes drag through the water as Edward pushes me around. He walks beside me as if he's leading the seahorse, the rusty grind of the merry-go-round nearly drowned out by the quiet waves. Occasionally his thumb brushes against my pinky fingers, and I fight the urge to move my hands up. The contact feels good even as it scares me.
"Bella, I want to ask you something," he says quietly. I feel his thumb again and let my pinky drop, our hands connected by the slightest amount of skin.
He sighs. "I'm worried you won't take it well."
"What could you possibly..." I hear a splash, and before I can finish my question, his thumb, hell, he is gone, walking the opposite direction around the carousel while I continue to slowly drift forward. "Edward?" My eyes follow him through his rotation. "What are you—"
And then I can't speak because he ducks his head and presses his mouth to mine, a chaste kiss that still has enough force to sway my body backwards. His arms circle my back to catch me. I release the pole to cling to him for a brief moment, pressing the pads of my fingers into the warm skin above his shoulder blades, feeling the sweat slip beneath my hands while my lips touch his, before I realize what I'm doing. I pull my head back with a gasp.
Edward releases me immediately. We're no longer touching me, but he's not moving away either. My heart pounds in my chest. He's no more than six inches away, and I can't seem to catch my breath. Why can't I breathe?
"That wasn't a question," I choke out.
Edward doesn't reply.
"I don't even know your last name," I add. Edward's eyes are different up close, leafy green with a faded ring of blue around the edge, framed by lashes a few shades darker than his hair.
I press my hand over his mouth so that the word comes out muffled and incomprehensible.
"Please don't," I plead. I feel him frown against my palm, and I shake my head. Everything I've been in control of for the last few days—the guilt and insecurity and crippling fear of people—rushes back in an instant. "I can't..." I start, shaking my head again, "if I know you, and you know me, then this will all be too real. And if this is reality, then this... whatever this is, it's going to fall apart really quickly, and I'm not ready for that."
When Edward exhales, his warm breath fogging against my skin, I realize that I'm still keeping him from speaking. My hands drop to my lap as I drop back against my seat. I would have thought the distance would give me clarity, but all I feel is unease, my body aching to move toward him again while my head runs in circles.
"Can't we just be? For just a little while longer? I don't—"
"Give me your hand," he finally says.
I've been so focused on his eyes and my thoughts that I startle when his hand touches mine, pulling it away from my lap before I have the chance to refuse. My throat is dry, and despite what I may have thought a few minutes ago, I really don't know this boy at all. I don't understand why he holds my hand in front of his face, and I don't understand what he's doing when he ducks his head, placing my fingers on his slightly damp hair. With his guidance, I feel over his head, and I still don't understand why.
"Edward, what are you..."
Right then, my fingers encounter a slight gap in his thick hair, so small that I can't even see it when I look at my hand. I frown, pulling my hand back and feeling over the gap again. The skin there is raised and when I explore to either side, I find that the strip of bumpy flesh extends from just behind his ear to the crown of his head. It hits me in an instant.
This is a scar. The kind of scar you get from major surgery.
"Oh," I breathe out quietly. My mind feels fuzzy, and my hand slips from his hair to his shoulder.
"Car wreck," he whispers, answering my unasked question. "I was fourteen and got hit up by Port Angeles." I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out but air. For the first time since I've met him, I understand something about Edward. His forwardness, his confidence, everything about him that's had me on edge is coming together. My thoughts are only stopped when Edward gently presses below my chin, lifting my eyes back up to his.
"Life is fragile, Bella. I told you that." He twists a loose piece of hair around his finger, slipping it behind my ear and moving closer still. "It doesn't matter if this still works a month from now, or a week, or... shit, even ten minutes from now. Right now is what matters to me," his hands find my jaw before sliding down to my shoulders, "And right now I want to kiss you."
I swallow. My eyelids flutter when he exhales, his breath on my face, and still so close... and then just as quickly, he's gone, releasing me and putting a foot of space between us. When I regain focus, Edward is standing straight, hands reaching for the pockets of his swim trunks.
"I'll understand if you don't want to," he says with a sigh. "I'm not going to push you or anything. I just need you to know where I stand."
Before he can step back, my hand slides to the back of his neck, holding him here, near me. I slide my leg over so that I'm seated sideways on the seahorse. And then we're face to face, so close that my eyes have to flicker between his so that I can see them. I pull him closer to me, guiding him so he's standing between my pale legs, and I breathe.
I don't know that later today I will learn that his name is Edward Cullen, and he is twenty years old.
I don't know that one month from now he'll meet my father in a most unfortunate way, stretched above me on my sofa as Charlie strolls in from his shift, twenty minutes earlier than expected.
I don't know that just before we return to school together (he to Seattle University and me to the University of Washington), we will come together on a blanket on our pier, breathing the same air, melting together with sweat and heat and a love that developed on a carousel over two months.
But I do know that my palms sweat just before they find his hair again. I know that despite his calm confidence, he's as affected by this as I am—his breathing still as I approach—and I know how terrifying and wonderful it feels when he waits until I kiss him, his lips frozen for a moment before coming to life against my own. His hands grip my waist, his body slowly pressing itself to mine, and tongues and eyelashes and the smallest amount of scruff against my cheek, and I know.
I'm okay with not knowing because this right now is what matters.
And right now, I know this is perfection—sitting on an abandoned carousel with this strange and beautiful man, kissing and being kissed with an intensity I didn't know I had.