Epilogue: The Clearwater Flourish
At long last, it was summer in Ohio. I understood all at once why Edward had seemed so keen on planting more fruits and vegetables than flowers in our new garden. Our grey, indecisive spring gave way to solid days of sunshine and blue skies, and the entire clearing between the barn and the far edge of the woods bloomed into a sort of meadow filled with wildflowers in every shade of pink, orange, white, and purple. The school year finally came to an end, and I spent two full days just reading out among the flowers. Edward set up a couple of Adirondack chairs and a shade umbrella, but I usually opted for just a blanket and the shade of a tree. I liked to feel the spongy earth beneath me and breathe in the fragrant air.
Apparently, Edward felt the same way. I came home from a grocery run in the middle of the week and found him lying prone in the shade with little Che asleep on his chest. Rose and Emmett named their son Rochester after the place where they'd met, but the rest of us decided he needed a name more suitable for a kid. "Che" was what stuck.
Edward turned his head my way as I approached, his drowsy smile lighting me up. I crept closer and curled up beside him silently, putting my hand on Che's little body rising and falling in sleep. He was just four weeks old and growing so fast already.
"Thank God you're here," he whispered. "The kid has had me trapped like this for an hour."
I giggled. "You love it. Has he really been asleep that long?"
"Nah, more like ten minutes."
"Did he take his bottle?"
"No. Keeps spitting it out. I don't think he's hungry enough to cheat on his mom with a piece of plastic."
"Well, Rose and Emmett will be here in a few minutes."
I gazed at Edward lying there with his big hand blanketing Che's head, fingertips stroking the little downy hairs. Che gurgled in his sleep and squirmed against Edward's soft tee shirt, wrinkling his nose and pursing his lips. I swallowed a lump in my throat.
He said out loud what I was thinking. "I hope they take their time. I'm in no hurry."
"You're not getting sweaty?"
"No." He smiled a gentle smile at me. "I'm not getting sweaty."
I touched my fingertip to Che's little clenched hand to see if he would grasp it in his sleep, and he did. Edward watched me do it.
"They aren't always so quiet and cute."
I let my gaze linger on Edward's face and the strange expression that came over it. I knew that family was no simple thing for him, given his own childhood, the aching lost connection to his birth parents he never stopped feeling, like a missing limb. He screwed his eyes shut for a moment and then looked at me again; even here in the shade, the brightness of the day shrank his pupils to dots.
"I want this." His voice was barely audible. "Not, you know, right away. But…in a few years. I think we should talk about it."
He was making a statement more than a request, but I knew what I wanted, too. "Okay."
"Seriously? Okay, we'll talk about it, or okay, yes?"
"Okay, yes. We'll talk, too, but yes." Did I surprise myself? Not really.
He tilted his head toward mine, edging closer to me without jostling Che. He reached a hand to cradle my cheek.
"Just so we're clear, you're the mom in this scenario. You get that, right?"
I laughed and pressed my lips against his temple.
"Shh, let's not wake him up."
The sound of tires crunching on the driveway told us Rose and Emmett were here to pick up their son. I sat up and shaded my eyes, waving as Edward walked across the lawn to greet them. He handed the baby over and caught them up on Che's various bodily functions and moods. They were all packed in and closing the van door when Edward shouted a request to Rosalie.
"Do me a favor and close the driveway gate behind you."
"Really? You never close the—"
"Just close the gate. Please." He turned his back on her before she was finished nodding her assent, and I saw the crinkle in his upper lip and the heat in his eyes that meant my clothes were about to come off right there in the great outdoors.
He laid me down and spread me out like a fan in the shade, sliding his sweaty body over mine and groaning into my neck, hoarse with exertion. I grasped both of his hands in mine and drew his arms out wide, feeling his weight on me, rolling us over. I guided his fingers and his mouth until my shuddering and gasping unleashed his deeper noises, deeper thrusts. We caught our breath. I rested my head on his thighs and kissed the grass stains on his bare knees. He murmured into my hair and wove it into one long braid, bending to tickle my vertebrae one at a time with his scruffy face.
Carlisle and Esme had us all over for a cookout on Saturday, along with Seth and Sue Clearwater. We ate, played badminton, and took turns cooing and gurgling in Che's direction. With Che nodding off to sleep every so often, Emmett, Rose, and Jasper played cards by the light of a lantern, a baby monitor next to them on the picnic table. The rest of us settled around the fire pit roasting marshmallows and drinking beers. With the static of the monitor competing with the crackling flames, I almost didn't hear Carlisle's quiet announcement.
"I thought you might be interested, Bella… Esme and I requested duplicates of our Dear Government Documents letters."
I looked up, startled. He was talking to me, but I could see that the collected group was listening. Esme nodded enthusiastically, raising her eyebrows and taking a swig from her beer.
"From the archive? Wow, I guess it must have been thirty years by now, hey?"
The library had a policy of releasing copies of the files after thirty years had passed—but only if the requesting party could describe the original letter with accuracy. Typically, the only customers were amateur genealogists who had notes in the family bible or a diary disclosing the existence of the letter, and even those were few and far between.
He nodded. "We just got to thinking about it, after all that's happened."
I smiled. After Esme had made us aware of those letters, I'd been careful to avoid seeing them, not wanting to pry. She'd only said they concerned her infertility. "So, what was it like for you, looking back?"
"Just a reminder of another time, I guess. No surprises to speak of." Carlisle pulled his marshmallow away from the flame, testing it. Sue moved to put another log on the fire, which threw more light on all of our faces. Jasper and Rosalie joined our circle as Emmett walked inside to check on Che.
"His letter was asking about how to optimize the chances of being selected as adoptive parents," said Esme.
"And so was hers. They were almost identical, in fact. We both even referenced the same family motto—Grandpa Platt's thing." Carlisle winked across the fire to Esme.
Sue ventured a guess. "Giving love never depletes or diminishes love."
"Yes, that's the one. I guess it's memorable." Carlisle nodded with a smile. "It was nice to see we were on the same wavelength even then. Of course, if we hadn't been so in tune, we would have found that out soon enough, given the events that took place. Those were difficult days for all of us."
He glanced at Alice and Edward. Edward was crouched next to Seth, the two of them assembling s'mores with industrious attention. Alice looked up, her lips pressed into a sympathetic smile. Jasper whispered something in her ear, and she fed him a bite of her snack.
I'd heard Edward tell the story, but I was curious to hear it from his parents. Edward had a bewildered sensitivity to what felt like extraordinary good luck in the aftermath of an unbelievably bad situation. His grief over losing one set of parents was forever tied to gratitude for the adoptive parents who stepped into their shoes. I'd never thought about what Carlisle and Esme's experience might have been.
"How did things come together? Do you mind my asking?"
"Not at all. Esme and I were already licensed as foster parents—a step we had pursued according to the advice forwarded to us from the library. And at the hospital, where I was a resident, I was following the Masens' care closely. We all were." He hesitated, looking at Edward.
Edward, for his part, scratched the skin behind his ear and glanced at Seth. "You go on ahead, I've heard this a thousand times. Seth, buddy, I think Jasper wanted our help getting some nonslip treads on those tree house stairs."
Sue turned her head to watch the two of them retreat to a brightly lit patch of lawn near the treehouse—away from talk of sick and dying parents. Jasper jumped up and loped after them.
Carlisle continued. "Well, you probably have no cause to be familiar with how full-blown malaria takes its course. It's very frustrating to treat, even with all the advantages of Western medicine, because it can seem to be cured—repeatedly—when, in fact, the disease is dormant and worsening. With each subsequent treatment, the likelihood that the cure will succeed becomes exponentially smaller. Edward Senior and Elizabeth spent weeks coming to terms with the seriousness of their prognosis, and one of the first things they did was to research and select guardians for Edward."
I remembered Edward telling me that he and his parents were the only living members of what had once been a large family. "What sort of research?"
Rosalie rested her head on Esme's shoulder; the two of them rocked gently from side to side, listening.
"Well, they spoke with the hospital social worker and interviewed various agencies. And then…we think that someone was gossiping about our adoption efforts in the cafeteria or some such thing, because the next thing we knew, Edward and Elizabeth asked us to sit down and talk with them about our values, about options. They watched us with Edward. We discussed what family means to us. And then they chose to designate us as his guardians, with the understanding that we would adopt him in the event that...well.
"Of course, our prevailing hope was that they would recover and that none of it would ever be necessary. To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest with me being involved in their care, I called in my mentor from the Cleveland Clinic to take my place on the team. He was a world-class clinician.
"But it wasn't enough." He poked at the coals with his marshmallow-roasting stick. "I can say without hesitation that it was the most heartbreaking loss of my professional life. Or my private life."
I thought about this for a moment. I wondered if the most difficult chapters in all of our lives were finally behind us. And then I wondered if difficult and easy were the wrong measures to pay attention to. Were we our most resilient by now? Our most capable? I listened to the boisterous noise coming from the shade under the tree house, the boys' project apparently finished. They were now taking turns riding Seth's dirt bike as slowly as possible down the sturdy wooden stairs.
Esme spoke. "At first, it was more like we fell in love with this little boy and then watched him lose his parents. And then we were his parents. It was a surreal combination of events."
"They couldn't have found better parents than you in a nationwide search. And yet there you were in the next room," said Alice. "I hate to think what would have happened if you weren't working that day."
"So do all of us, Al."
"I'll go see if Emmett needs any help. Anybody want another beer while I'm up?" Sue stood and gathered some empty wrappers to take into the house with her.
In bed in the tree house that night, I burrowed into Edward's campfire-smelling skin and tried to imagine what type of person he might have become if it hadn't been for Carlisle and Esme—and whether he and I would have ever crossed paths. For the first time, I felt a chill at the randomness of this luck Edward had spoken about so often. I tightened my arms around him and wove my legs in between his.
Sue surprised us the next morning by joining us for our pancake breakfast. We always invited her, but she usually preferred to be at Muddywaters for the Sunday morning crowd. I was glad for the chance to spend time with her without so many other people around; it was just Edward, his parents, and me, everyone else having gone home the night before.
Sue handed Carlisle a small, dark jar of honey and tossed something my way. It was a tiny bundle of dried lavender. It smelled like heaven and summer.
"Oh! Is this the new lavender honey?" I asked. Leah had lobbied to convert part of the farm to lavender so they could produce this distinctive aromatic honey. "Edward mentioned it."
"I thought this would be nice with breakfast. In some tea, or on the flapjacks."
As I'd seen her do before, Sue studied the quilt on Esme's wall. Her eyes had wandered across the fabric surface, lingering on that odd blue and red circle trapped in the tree's branches. A design element, Esme had told me, meant to balance the composition. A Clearwater flourish.
Esme handed Edward a pile of plates for the table and poured Sue a cup of coffee.
"How is Leah, Sue? She's got a birthday coming up, doesn't she? Same week as Edward's?"
"Ah, good memory! Yeah. She's almost exactly a year older." Sue nodded at Edward. "She's well, doing well. Got a new job and everything in the city."
The conversation came around to Rosalie and Emmett and the new baby as we ate, and Esme prompted Sue to tell us what it was like to be taking care of an infant in the late 70s. I knew Esme was envisioning Edward's infancy; she was newly fascinated with it. There had been a time before Che was born when the group of us looked around at one another in panic, like a bunch of kids in a pool who realized the lifeguards were nowhere to be found. Even the pseudo-grandparents-to-be among us had never been around a newborn.
"Were you able to take time off to be home with her? I mean, I'm sure even a day job isn't easy to do when you have a tiny baby, but I can't imagine working these diner hours."
"Oh, I didn't work in the diner then." She laughed, pushing her plate away and folding her arms on the table in front of her. "No way. I had a lot of odd jobs. For a long time I was switching from place to place every six or eight months…I tried to adjust and settle down, but I just got the itch to change so fast. Harry had a steady gig until 1980. Then he got another steady gig. Then we opened Muddywaters when Leah was ten, in '85."
Sue cleared her throat and fidgeted with the cloth placemat. She seemed nervous all of a sudden, and despite this—or because of it—she was volunteering the type of information I usually needed to pry out of her. My heart was racing, and it took my brain a moment to catch up. Sue was trying to tell us something.
I took a deep breath. "Sue…where did you work, all those years ago?"
"Oh, well, let's see. I cleaned houses. Then I did alterations and tailoring out of our home. I worked the day shift at the video store. I guess you would call it a DVD store today. And, ah, you'll be surprised to hear that I…I worked in the library."
Her voice was so quiet, and her face was clouded over as she looked at each of us in turn, reading our faces. Edward grasped my hand under the table.
"Sue, it sounds like…I mean, if there's something on your mind...," I paused and took a quick survey of the faces around the table, all of them perplexed. "Did you work in the archive?"
She was quiet for a moment, allowing us all a moment to draw our own conclusions. Esme, across from me, let her eyes drift to the quilt hanging on the wall—a quilt Sue's mother had made on commission, never meeting her client. I began to put together a sort of chain of events.
Sue slid her fork back and forth on the placemat. "Until 1980, I worked in the archive, cataloguing the letters. I couldn't handle all those sad stories, it turned out."
I pictured her as a young and free-spirited mother, coming across letters from two halves of a couple, each unaware of the other, each grounded deeply in love and desperate for a way to build a family out of love, if not out of DNA. I pictured her observing her mother at a quilting table, seeming to pluck phrases out of Sue's consciousness. Giving love never depletes or diminishes love. Unwittingly fabricating a future.
Esme joined in, prompting Sue. "And where did Harry work? You said he had a steady job until 1980. It's important, isn't it? Where…where was that?"
"He did small construction jobs. Woodworking, cabinets, that type of thing." Sue looked up from her own trembling hands, breathing out a sigh. "He was making some bookshelves for this young family. He was so proud, because he had designed the unit himself, and it was good work. He used to tell me stories about this little boy with straw-colored hair."
She stopped abruptly and looked at Edward, laughing feebly through tensed lips.
"I didn't know if I should tell you. I thought it didn't really matter…until last night, hearing you talk. One day he came home from work and told me how their health took a bad turn…and then how it took another worse turn, for both of them, unbelievably. And then he said how they were single-minded about leaving their beautiful boy in good hands, how it was all they could think about."
I watched Edward's eyes glaze over as he imagined the scene. Maybe he was mining his oldest memories for any trace of a young Harry Clearwater.
"So…I couldn't help myself. I told them both about your situation—the letters you sent to the archive. I knew how prepared you were to be parents, and I told them how full of love you were for each other, how you needed to share your hearts and your home. I showed them the letters, Esme. Carlisle. I quit the library the next day." Edward reached across me to put a hand on top of Sue's. "I wasn't supposed to tell them, but I did it anyways. And then I shouldn't have stayed quiet for so long, but I did. It was only when I heard you talking so openly about seeing the letters again that I decided...
"I thought you should know it was never random chance. You showed your character in those letters, and I couldn't stay quiet about it. Even though I was wrong to break confidentiality, I would do it again in a heartbeat."
"Thank you, Sue." Edward knocked over his chair, moving awkwardly to wrap Sue in a sideways hug. His eyes were bright, dazed, intense. He'd been waiting a long time to thank someone other than fate.
Edward sat with the bulky, plainly-wrapped package on his lap, looking at me with his eyebrows pulled together. "So, even though it's my birthday, this is not a birthday present?"
"Well, no. I mean, I did make sure to get it in time for your birthday, but it kind of already belongs to you. Or, in any case, it's not mine to give you."
"But you are giving it to me?" He shook his head, baffled.
"I just tracked it down for you."
I was jostling the whole couch with my nervous energy. I hoped he would understand it. "Will you open it already!"
"You're so excited. Wait, is this going to make me want to get extremely naked immediately? Should I call Jasper and have him push back our dinner reservation?"
"No, it's nothing like that. I'm saving that one for after dinner."
He blinked and pursed his lips in mock dismay, pretending to look around the room for a second gift. It made me laugh.
He chuckled at me and slipped the paper off, shaking his head. He frowned at the cloth object vacuum-sealed in plastic, trying to sort out what it was and why it belonged to him. I was just as curious to see the thing, since I hadn't opened it myself.
As he unsealed the plastic and began unfolding the quilt, I realized with a start that there was very little I would have to explain. The fabric still carried a faint scent of tobacco and wool and something else indescribable. Based on the way he buried his face in it, it smelled like his childhood. I hadn't thought of that.
"Oh, God. Oh, God. This is them, Bella." His muffled voice was like a sob. "This belonged to…oh, wow."
After a few moments, he laughed and raised his wide-eyed face to look at me, blinking, gathering me into his arms with the quilt crushed between us.
"But you already know, of course. But…where? How?"
"Sue figured it out. Isn't it beautiful? Let's really look at it first."
We spread it onto our laps and the clean coffee table in front of us. Edward occasionally bent down to sniff at it, laughing at himself, bouncing his knees under the fabric. The quilt was a blend of all different shades of blue, mostly circles within squares, with red accents. It was perfectly preserved.
"This blue circle motif is in Esme's quilt, too. The one she had commissioned."
"Sue always thought it looked familiar, that circle—and then she matched it to an old unclaimed quilt in Emily's collection. She thinks her mother was still making Esme's when the adoption was underway, so she must have put this motif in to link it to Elizabeth's. But no one ever came to claim Elizabeth's finished quilt, and it got lost in the shuffle. Until now." I flipped over a corner of the quilt to reveal an embroidered signature: E.M., E.M., E.M.
He turned his attention back to the front of the quilt. I explained to him how the stitching on the individual quilt squares differed from the stitching that held it all together, which was a sign that it was made in two stages by two people; most likely, Elizabeth made the pieces, and someone more skilled quilted them together and finished the seams.
One square stood out, distinct from the rest: a rough-hewn circular patch of blue and red held together with chunky scarecrow-like stitching. We both noticed it at the same time.
"What is this? Is this an alteration—like the ones you've mentioned, where they change the quilt later?"
"No. It's part of the original quilt. See here? This stitching is the same as the rest of the squares, while this other part is not. But the fabric is the same throughout, and the thread is identical."
"What are you saying? Do you think Elizabeth was already sick when she made this part? I guess that's why it's so messy."
I remembered where I had seen stitching like this before, and suddenly I knew why it looked this way. I took a deep breath, seeing the patch grow blurry before my eyes. "No. It wasn't her. Edward…this is how a child stitches."
I watched him inspect it with fascination. He wasn't picking up on what I was saying. I put my hand on his, calming myself more than him.
"Baby, listen. I think…you made this."
His head lifted, and he stared at me, astonished. I saw a flicker of skepticism pass over his face—an impulse of his that told me just how badly he wanted this to be true. And then I saw him thrust his doubts away, and his face crumpled with emotion.
"You think…you think she taught me, huh?" He ran his fingers over the stitches. "You think she saw me make this?"
"I do." I conjured up an image of this woman and a very young Edward bent over the fabric, running their hands over the shapes, making something together.
"It's quite good for a four-year-old. Remarkable, really."
I watched his chest rise and fall with deep breaths as he studied the handiwork—his mother's and his own. He sighed, a wistful smile spreading across his lips. He looked up at me when I threaded my hands into his hair.
"It's funny…all this time, I've been wishing she could have known me, could have seen the way I turned out. I wondered if she would even recognize me—her son, an artist? But maybe…maybe I turned out to be who I am because of her."
And there it was. A simple link, half-invented, only barely plausible. But a link nonetheless. I watched resolve take hold in his features. It was a neat trick, this deep optimism of his; he had relearned it the way an accident victim learns to walk again. I stroked the weary lines out of his forehead. Did I want our child to have his eyes, his talent? Or his heart? It wasn't even a question. His heart was everything. Everything.
My own pulse hammering in my chest, I kissed his soft lips. This was the rest of our lives, already beginning.
AN: So, in terms of chronology, this was more like a side-logue than an epilogue...but I didn't feel like it fit within the action of the rest of the story and it also didn't seem like an outtake to me. I've had so much fun doing this, and I so appreciate all the readers who have taken the time to read. Thank you! Thanks as always to happymelt, faireyfan, and midsouthmama for giving me amazing advice and keeping me on the straight and narrow grammar-wise...and for being generally awesome.