"Emmett, imagine something deep and meaningful because you don't get a quote this time. You brought me no books." — Isabella Swan
For a while, my vision and memories are a whirl of reality and imagination. I awake to strange faces. I awake to see passing lights on the corridor ceiling. I awake to strange sounds.
Undetermined amount of time has passed when I finally come to. I do not know how long. It's not so much the light that grabs my attention. It's the noise. Confusing noise. I wonder who's in my room in the middle of the night, but when my right forearm touches a cold, metallic pipe, my eyes snap open. It's a side rail. I'm in a hospital bed in a dimly lit, white-walled room. I'm the only soul in it.
It's dark outside. I feel hot and dizzy but painless.
My back feels tight, as if someone wrapped a duct-tape around it. When I start to raise my hand to lift the blanket to see what's causing the sensation, I find my wrist bound to the side rail. Interesting. My left hand, however, is unbound, and I manage to lift the blanket only to be looking at my light blue johnny gown. I let the blanket fall.
The persistent whisper loudens. I hear an argument right outside my door, and much to my surprise, I recognize one of the voices as dad's. The minute I'm able to differentiate his words from each other, he appears on the doorstep, panting as he attempts (and fails) to lower his voice.
"—to have the audacity to ask to see my daughter after it was your son who shot her? Bella has yet to wake up. You have no reason to be here. None."
"With all due respect, Mr. Swan, just let me—"
I clear my throat. I don't feel coherent, but this has to be done.
"Dad?" I ask, and when he doesn't move, I make another attempt. "Dad!"
Ouch. Yelling is out of the question.
Both men fall silent. Dad turns, and while he smiles at me with such relief his entire body relaxes, he starts to close the door on Eric's dad's face.
"Dad," I say, and clear my throat again. "Give me a moment with him."
"But, Bella, you don't understand, this is—"
"Ralph Yorkie. Eric's dad. We've met. Can you give us a moment, dad?"
Clearly taken aback, dad lets go of the door. His face is red, now from embarrassment rather than anger, and I can tell he's hurt by my actions. He walks to my bed and crouches to be on the same level with my face. "Why? His guilt is none of your business. You should rest," he says, pushing back my hair. There's affection and worry in his hands. "How are you feeling? You have to rest."
"Just five minutes," Mr. Yorkie mutters. "That's all I ask."
Seeing that I want this, dad sighs, nods, and leaves us alone. Ralph Yorkie is a gawky, tall man who wears glasses and bears an uncanny similarity to his son. He takes that single chair and sits. His clothes look impeccable, a boring-looking beige suit and a tie, but it's the expression that gets to me. It's the pain in his eyes. His lips twitch when he pushes back his glasses and eyes my hospital bed.
Uncomfortable, he shifts the chair. "Strictly speaking, I shouldn't be here."
"I don't care. Did Eric make it?"
He rests his forehead on his palm, and his lips twists in a way that gives me the answer. I purse my lips and feel my throat tighten.
"He was a good boy."
He nods, and looks at the wall across from him as his eyes get glassy. "I'm—sorry. For bothering you. I already have the press on my front door and then the—the—funeral arrangements…" his voice breaks. "But I—needed to ask. He only ever mentioned you on a good note. You have to know that. He never meant to hurt you—or, or—"
He nods, relieved. "I noticed—something was wrong with him on Saturday. Really, really wrong. He was moody. He walked funny. I tried—tried to see what could've—we got into a fight, and he shouted something that stayed with me. He said you'd know. He said you had—evidence? Of what? Isabella—what do you know? Can you help me understand why he'd—why he'd—"
I gulp, and feel empty. It's hot. I'm sweating.
"He said something to me, too, about evidence, but that was right before what happened in the cafeteria. I'm sorry. I have nothing. Whatever he meant, I don't have it."
"But what happened? I just need to—understand."
"I might be wrong."
He stares at me with his bleak, grey eyes. "But?"
"I think Michael Newton might've raped him."
His face pales as he, unblinking, keeps eye contact with me. His mouth twitches and he slumps, holding his head in his arms. Suddenly, he gets up, lets out the shout of a broken man, and throws the chair out of my window. A gust of freezing wind hits us and rain starts falling into my hospital room. I'm covered in shards. For a fraction of a second, Ralph Yorkie makes eye contact, and he seems to be just as surprised by what he did as I am.
Chaos ensues. Nurses are calling security, dad is cussing at Mr. Yorkie, I'm being taken out of the hospital room. In the corridor, I see Edward lie on a bench. He's been woken up by the noise, and when he sees what's happening, he's immediately on his feet.
Mr. Yorkie doesn't resist. His unfocused and unblinking eyes show no sign of an occupant in his body. When he's in the corridor, letting the security take him out, I let out his name.
It takes him three seconds to focus his eyes on me, and when he does, it's like he's surprised to find himself next to me.
"When is the funeral?"
He blinks. "Next Friday."
"I'll be there if I can."
He locks eyes with me, and I'm not sure if I'm looking at the same man who entered my hospital room a few minutes ago. "You need your rest," he says, and a second later, the security has turned the corner and taken him along. Nurses shoo my family away as they prepare a new room for me, one with another (empty) bed. Not until they've re-attached a heart monitor do they allow people in, and boy, my room is suddenly a high traffic area. A squatty, brown-haired doctor named Jon Heilbronner arrives with a few nurses to take a look at me and ask questions. He wants to know if I'm ready to talk to the policemen. I'm not. Not yet. All I can think about is either seeing dad and my brother and Edward again, or sleeping. I'm exhausted.
Finally, I convince the doctor I'm coherent and awake enough to see my family, and he lets me. Even with a fever. But when Edward follows Emmett, a ginger-haired male nurse puts a hand on his chest to usher him out.
"Immediate family only."
I don't know if it's the panic or worry in Edward's eyes that makes him do it, but my dad presses his lips together. "I'd rather you let both of my sons talk to their sister."
The nurse looks doubtful. Emmett throws a hand on Edward's (much higher) shoulder, shaking him. "Come on, don't we look similar?"
Like night and day, actually.
"Ah, just kidding." Emmett grins, messing with Edward's hair. "This one's adopted."
If you only knew, Emmett. (Or I guess you do, huh?) The man, unsure as to what just transpired, eyes them both, but decides it's not worth the fuss. He leaves.
Emmett borrows two chairs from the corridor while Edward sits on my left, silently intertwines his fingers with mine, and presses and holds his lips against my hand. He slides it along his jaw and keeps it there. I watch his face, the shadows under his bloodshot eyes and the concern with which he's observing my own face. I tilt his head back so that he'd lock eyes with me, and when he does, I see all the doubt and affection. He's still not sure about my feelings.
"Will you stop?" Emmett says, pretending to be aghast. "It's like watching porn with clothes on."
The tips of Edward's ears redden.
"Would you prefer we took our clothes off?" I ask.
Dad clears his throat. It's strange to be in the same room with him. He's wearing black cargo pants and an army green sweatshirt with the words 'U.S. Marshal' on it. He's got a distinctive stance, a different expression, and not just because he's so muscled he could do three hundred push-ups on the spot if he felt so inclined. Or lift us all out of the room and then paint his nails with the other hand. No, that's not it. He's changed.
"Why are you here, dad?"
He ruffles my hair and presses his lips in a line. "Because my little girl got hurt."
"But how do you have permission to be here?"
"With an emergency like this one, they couldn't say no." Dad shifts his chair closer and his lips twist. He presses them in a tight, trembling line, and swallows. He's at the brink of tears, and for a minute, he takes deep, shaky breaths, refuses to make eye contact and runs his fingers through my hair. He says nothing. Emmett gets very uncomfortable with dad's emotional side and ignores him, but he, too, starts to avoid my eyes. Edward holds my hand against his forehead and looks down. I'm only able to see the top of his head. If I'm not mistaken, my hand feels wet, too.
I do the stupidest, bravest thing you could imagine, and all I've done is made three of the most important people in my life weep by my bed.
"I see we're all happy holly jolly about me waking up," I say. "So, what date is it?"
My dad lets out a shaky, unexpected laugh. "Wednesday, the third." He looks at his wrist watch. "Five minutes to seven. AM."
I shut my eyes for a moment, just to gather energy. I'm exhausted. My stomach still feels tight, and it itches, but when I start to scratch it, I re-discover that my right wrist is bound. I'm still hot. Maybe dad will throw a chair out of the window, too, if I told him about Michael Newton. I'd love some cold air.
"When did you get here?"
"After midnight," he replies, gathering himself. "I took the first flight from Atlanta, and by coincidence, I happened to take the same plane with Carlisle. He didn't even know about the shooting. All I knew was that you'd been shot. I didn't know how seriously or why, or if Edward made it or not."
"That sounds like some jolly time on a plane."
"Indeed." He lets out a sharp huff. "But we're not here to talk about me. How do you feel?"
"Strangely, I feel like I've been shot. I've never felt this way before."
Emmett lets out a laugh, and even dad chuckles.
"I feel fine. Tired and hot and itchy, but fine."
"You look like shit, Bella," Emmett says.
"Always with the compliments."
Dad nods. "You should get some sleep."
"Wait." I force my eyes open. "I want to know—"
But Dr. Heilbronner enters the room and interrupts, insisting that I need rest, which I probably do. There's a lot I want to know, but dad caresses my hair and promises to be in my hospital room as soon as possible. Edward is still sitting and rubbing his forehead against the back of my hand (just like he did during the entire length of our conversation) when Emmett and dad are almost out of the door.
"Edward? You coming?"
"She really needs her rest," my doctor says, and Edward nods. He rubs his face, stands, and leaves a lingering kiss on my forehead before making eye contact. His eyes are red.
"Get some rest," he says with a broken edge to his voice. "I'll be right here."
"Can we talk tomorrow?" I ask, squeezing his hand. There's a shadow of anger under the overwhelming concern in his eyes, and even as it's gone in a second as he nods and offers a smile, I just know he's not happy with me. I imagine myself in his shoes, and immediately, I know that behind his worry, he must be furious. I know I would be. I just need to be remotely healthy for him to express it.
"I will eat my stethoscope if that's your brother," my doctor says as he closes the door. He drags a chair closer to me, and smiles. Two of his front teeth are crooked. He's in his fifties or sixties, of mixed heritage, and there's something good-natured in his amber eyes. I like him.
"This'll only take a couple of minutes, and you'll get to rest." He injects fluid into my arm, sticks a thermometer in my mouth and draws my blanket down to listen to my lungs. "Does it hurt to breathe? Is it difficult or uneven?"
I shake my head. He draws the blanket up and presses his lips together. Everyone is giving me tight-lipped smiles lately. I'm starting to fear the reason.
"I can't figure out if you're the luckiest or the unluckiest out of all of you," he says. I raise my eyebrows, desperate to know who the others are. He takes my thermometer and writes in what I assume to be my file. "Your temperature's picking up again. Get as much sleep as you can. If it gets too painful, push this button." He points at it. "Nurses will give you pain-killers. Whatever you do, don't stand up. If you need to use the bathroom… don't. Nurses are used to this."
I feel hot. So hot.
"But—but I can feel my legs. I can. Pinch them. I can feel them."
"Yes, but for you to continue feeling them, you'll have to tread carefully. Until further results. It's a cautionary measure." He offers that small but genuine smile. Aiming to assure me. I don't feel assured. I feel quite nauseated, actually.
"I have a spinal injury."
"Yes. A minor spinal fracture, and all evidence shows it's inherently stable. The bullet grazed your vertebra, thoracic spine, just above your thoracolumbar junction. T10, if you will. I personally believe you'll make a full recovery, but until I have proof, please stay in bed."
Yeah, like I'd threaten my ability to walk. Or run. Ever again.
He turns to leave, but I persist. He can't tell me I have a broken spine and leave.
"Doctor? Can you—just tell me what the bullet did. Did you get it out? How much time will it be before I can go home? What are my chances of—you know, full recovery?"
He turns, but does not sit. "If the bullet hadn't gone straight through you, you'd no longer be here. That's a fact. But it did enough damage. It went through the bottom of your left lung, grazed your stomach and vertebra, and when it grazed your spine, a piece of the bullet broke off. You went to surgery Monday evening. But yesterday, you scratched your stitches wide open, and got Acinetobacter baumannii infection. A nurse will give you carapenem in every five hours. Frankly, I'm surprised you're as coherent as you are, given the circumstances. Once the pain killers start wearing off, you will be under a great deal of pain."
I feel hot and dizzy and sleepy. Not painful, but uncomfortable.
"Is that why you bound my wrist?"
His crooked teeth show as he smiles. "Yes. It's not a standard method, but it worked. We need to keep your fingers out of your stomach for a while." Again, he starts to leave, but before he has shut the door, he peeks his head in, smiling. "You should know that if it wasn't that non-brother of yours keeping pressure on your wounds, you'd probably be dead."
The door shuts. I'm left alone with my questions, and for an odd reason, I imagine each question like it's a wheat head. Or maybe I'm dreaming. I think I watch rain fall as the dark blue outside starts to turn black, and suddenly, I'm running in the middle of a wheat field, scorching sun burning my face and each wheat head shooting its kernels on the soil and producing thousands of others. Each of them asking me things I don't know.
Noises wake me up, several of them. I'm cold. So cold. It hurts to breathe. I feel a soft, rough pattern against the back of my hand, rubbing back and forth against it. Voices argue. I hear something about doll mixing and kidney failure, and I think I hear Carlisle's voice in the argument. I can't follow. I'm cold. My abdomen feels tight. Itchy and tight. I focus on the warmth of rough skin against the back of my hand.
The next time I open my eyes, it's dark outside. I'm no longer cold, but it hurts to breathe. Two figures sit next to the window, one of them hunched, holding his head in his hands and staring at his feet. A lean, elderly man sits next to him. He's got white hair.
".40 caliber Glock 27," Marshal Stephens says in his calm voice. "Nothing extraordinary. Ralph Yorkie has a license."
"And a maniac for a son who uses fucking dumdums, Al."
"Hollow point bullets have been used before. You've used them."
"Don't compare me to a seventeen year old psychopath who shot my daughter and fractured her spine."
"Have you seen the videos?" Mr. Stephens asks. "Isabella knows why he did it."
"She called you, Al, didn't she?"
"Saved a lot of time. If she hadn't, Mr. Yorkie would've killed six people instead of three. Your daughter is a national hero."
Dad tilts his head back to look at Mr. Stephens. His lips are twitching. "But what's the use? Why be a hero if this is the sacrifice she'll make for it? She's not a girl for a wheelchair. She's not. She's too full of life. She—she has her whole life." He presses his lips together so tightly his face starts turning red. "I wrote a statement to Glynco."
"I'm staying here."
"Don't make rash decisions, Charlie. You heard Dr. Heilbronner. She's likely to make full recovery."
"What if she doesn't? What then? Do you expect me to be in Georgia while she learns to accept the fact she'll never walk again? I can't."
Dad ignores the Marshal and stares at the door. I close my eyes.
"Did you know she ran last year's Olympic B standard in one hundred meters?"
"I did not," Mr. Stephens replies. "That is very impressive. I didn't know she ran track."
"She doesn't. But her coach told me she could be good. Really good."
"She still could be."
Dad says nothing.
"Is he here?"
"Playing cards with Edward."
There's a pause in their conversation. I watch dad shift and stretch.
"Discuss the matter of Glynco with Isabella. It seems to me she would want to be included in your decision."
Dad sighs and nods. "But if I'm going back, I need people here working on Michael Newton's case. I know there's no evidence of anything and it seems like a huge misunderstanding. Nice bloke, dad is a teacher, mom works for the government, decent grades, heading to Yale. But he had to do something."
"You could start with your daughter."
My dad's shoulders slump. He rests elbows on his knees and stares at his feet.
"Or do you already know what he did? Has your daughter told you?"
"No," dad says, turning his head to look at Mr. Stephens. "But Emmett knows. To what extent, I don't know."
"Did you question him?"
"Yes. So did the police. He admits nothing. But the comments he makes… he knows. He has to."
Distant voices, stretchers rolling and beeping echo in my room.
"The entire country is waiting for Isabella to get well," Marshal Stephens says. "It's quite remarkable."
"That's the power of YouTube," a hoarse but pleasant female voice says. An olive-skinned, athletic-looking woman steps into the room. Marshal Stephens stands up and gives the woman a warm greeting.
"Get back to me when Isabella is awake, Charlie. I'd like to have a word with her."
He steps out of the room, leaving the woman, probably in her mid-twenties, standing in front of dad. She's clad in faded jeans, a long sleeved top and a ginormous scarf. She eyes me. I'm looking at her reflection on the window and she doesn't notice I'm awake. Even though dad doesn't acknowledge her, I feel like I'm intruding. This is the last chance for me to let myself known before I'll hear things not meant for my ears. But I'm paralyzed. (Don't hold your breath—I am, of course, speaking metaphorically.)
"You shouldn't be here."
Not intimidated by dad's harsh tone, the woman steps closer to him until she's a few feet away, and crouches so that she can see his face. "And where, may I ask, should I be?"
She takes a step to the left. "What about here?"
"Not there either."
"Now that's unfair," she says and squeezes his knee. She looks up at him, sighing. "I hate seeing you like this."
"You don't say," dad replies. If I had any more energy, I'd laugh. The woman doesn't move. I can see her eyes dart to his feet and back to his face.
"Sarah," dad whispers, but says nothing more for a while. They stare at each other.
"Maybe one day you'll realize pushing people away only leads to a bitter and lonely life."
"Maybe I'm okay with that."
Before I figure out how to make my presence known, dad has pulled the woman in his lap and they're kissing. I expect my heart monitor to go haywire, but it doesn't. I'm no longer attached to one. I'm incredibly curious as to who the woman is, but more importantly, how and why dad has kept this from us.
"I'm not trying to replace her," she mutters. Dad says nothing.
I wish an invisible fist would knock me out and flush me down the drain because I don't want to interfere. I don't want to hear this conversation. It's not meant for my ears. I've got the curiosity of Einstein when he discovered that E equals m c squared, but I want dad to be able to tell me on his own terms. Not like this.
They stand and walk to my bed, and I see no other choice but to close my eyes.
"Does she still have a higher risk of kidney failure?"
Dad sighs. "Carlisle told me she should be fine. But yes. It's the drugs against the bacteria she caught, I think."
"You have a brave daughter."
"Your father agrees."
"That's because it's true."
"Not even people like us are always capable of risking with our lives when our loved ones are in danger."
"I know," dad repeats, and I can feel him squeeze my hand. "Let's give Edward some time with her."
"Is that the red-haired one? That boy is quite something."
"I think he would've donated his heart if they'd asked for it."
"I think he already has."
I open my eyes when I hear their footsteps draw away, and I see dad holding two of her fingers as they leave. Is she a Marshal? Is she Mr. Stephens' daughter? When did this happen?
I've changed hospital rooms. I'm in a bigger, light green room, and there's a man in the bed next to me. I can't see his face, but he's got potato brown hair, he's fairly tall, and his leg is in a cast. I listen to him breathe (he's asleep,) but I'm afraid to lift myself to see his face. I'm afraid to find out I'm not able to.
I wiggle my toes, though, and I seem to be fine.
Edward enters. He has already sat beside me and encased my hand in his when he makes eye contact and realizes I'm awake. He lets out a breath, smiling with his eyes more than mouth, and holds his jaw against my hand. He's followed by my doctor and a few nurses who ask questions and take my temperature and listen to my lungs. Edward observes them and offers a smile when we make eye contact.
My back is tight, and while breathing is uncomfortable and painful, it is to be expected, they say, and give me painkillers. It's nothing I couldn't handle, it just makes my breathing shallow.
The doctors leave, and nobody says anything about Edward being here, so I assume it's fine. He drags his chair closer to me, circles my palm with his thumb and rubs it against his rough jaw. I have questions. So many of them. But I want things to be clear between us, and we have time for answers.
"How are you feeling?"
"Hungry. Scared shitless. But mostly hungry."
He squeezes my hand. "You have no reason to be. You'll be fit as a fiddle. They all think so."
It's funny how an unnecessary conversation like this could be so necessary. Building the foundation for the conversation that can't be held in anymore.
For a few seconds, I observe his green eyes and how they linger on my lips and cheeks and eyes. I see the upset in his. I need to drive it out of him. I want nothing between us before the next step. I'm intimidated by the uncertainty of my spine (physical and not metaphorical, just to be clear.) If the worst happens, should I expect Edward to stay by my side? The answer, of course, is no. I wouldn't do that to him. I wouldn't expect that of him, and not because he's not capable of self-sacrifice of that degree—he is—but because I want better for him. I want the best for him.
But he deserves to know how I feel and make the decision himself. I do, after all, have a high likelihood of full recovery. Right. Pink unicorns. Pink fluffy flying unicorns.
"I heard you saved my life out there," I start. "I'd give you a fiver, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't cover what you did, so I believe thanks are in order."
He runs both of his hands through his hair. It leaves my palm empty.
He's a step away from actually expressing himself.
"Ah, so you want a fiver? I can give you a fiver. If you wait a bit."
"Fuck, Bella! Stop. Just stop. You saved my life, you took a fucking bullet for me and not the other way around!"
"I was there, yes," I reply. "Thanks for clarifying that for me."
Edward blinks at me. His jaw is tight and he's tearing at his hair, staring at me.
"Why? Why would you do that? Do you know just how stupid that was? That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen anyone do!"
Imagine that I actually tell him, and he decides that because of the risk of my injury, I'm not worth it. I think I'll be able to feign indifference for less than a minute. So I decide to let him express his anger. To postpone telling him. Because maybe he doesn't want me if I'm injured. Because maybe he starts seeing what I used to see and turns away. Because I can think and talk that I'll be okay with him leaving if he doesn't want me with the potential of a spine injury, but in reality, I'll be so gut-wrenchingly heartbroken I won't know what to do with myself. What if he isn't interested in me, long term? What if I'm a project of self-esteem, and as soon as I'm fixed, he moves on?
What if Martians built a castle for a cat? I'm a moron.
Edward presses his lips together, leaning closer. He's tearing at his hair. "Why?! Why, Bella?"
I shrug. "Isn't it obvious?"
"Nothing is obvious with you! It's like you're a fucking invisible labyrinth! Was it because of what happened—before? Did you feel bad about that?"
"You're a fucking moron. Of course it was because I'm secretly in love with Newton!"
He pales and staggers back as if the answer I gave him didn't just work against anything he knows about me. I might as well have repeatedly stabbed his chest and left him on the side of the road to bleed to death. He slumps and violently tears at his hair. He stares at a spot under my bed, and his voice is hoarse.
"So that—that—what happened in the morning, that meant nothing to you?"
I think he might actually cry. Shit. This isn't going anywhere.
"Edward," I start, patiently and slowly and with no deadpan that he doesn't get. I'm starting to think he just lacks wires for my deadpan. "Edward, what happened in the morning—"
I can see his eyes brim with tears. He's not listening.
He makes eye contact and takes a deep, shaky breath. "Yeah? Just—give me a second. I've just grossly misunderstood everything that I thought was between us. Give me—just a moment."
"Edward, stop it. Here's the thing. I'll stop being all snark snark, and you stop being all—"
"Bella," he rasps. "Give me—a second. You've made it perfectly clear you don't feel anything for me. No need to rub it in."
"Edward! I just took a fucking bullet for you, how much more proof do you need?"
"I thought—you said—it wasn't for me."
"I take a fucking bullet for you, and you think it's not for you. For who then? Michael fucking Newton? He can rot in hell. And fuck you, Edward! I fucking love you, you fucking oblivious bastard!"
He blinks like a slow stoplight, slow and amazed. So do I. Sure, I wanted to let him know I'm open to the possibility of a relationship, but that doesn't mean I should shout I'm in love with the guy in the middle of an argument. Especially before we've had a conversation about the damage done to my spine and how it affects his feelings for me. I don't want him to do this out of guilt.
"Fuck," I curse, covering my eyes and forehead with my palm not to see his face. "I'm so sorry, Edward. I'm sorry. Jesus fuck, please. I'm so sorry."
I feel the bed dip where he sits. He strokes the back of my hand, wraps his fingers around my wrist and pins my hand away from my eyes. I'm beetroot red, I'm sure. I can't look at him.
"Why are you apologizing?"
"Because I didn't mean to—"
He leans in and kisses me. His skin is rough as if he hasn't shaved for a week (which is probably true), and he's sliding his thumb back and forth against my cheek, against my jawline and neck. He's kissing with fervor, panting like he's trying to breathe through my lungs (which are not too capable at the moment, mind you.) His breath is warm, and I don't think he planned for this because he doesn't taste like gum. He tastes like affection and the butterflies in my stomach. When he stops breathing through my lungs, I'm panting. He holds his forehead against mine before whispering in my ear.
"If you're bullshitting me right now with those words, I will change my name and move to Japan." He withdraws, just enough to make eye contact, and he's got the most adorable yet unsure smile on his face. He leans closer to my ear. "Tell me you meant it."
He pulls back, still making circles on my cheek with his thumb, and locks eyes with mine. Since he started kissing me, I've blushed to the roots of my hair. I'm panting. And the one thing I'm still incapable of doing is being sincerely unembarrassed about (talking about) feelings, so I watch my fingers draw a pattern on his forearm.
"I did. I meant it." I lock eyes with his. He lets out a relieved laugh and grins against my lips.
"Thank fuck." He runs his hands through my hair and looks at me like he wants to scoop me up in his arms and never let go, but he simply grins, wets his lips and leans in for a kiss. I feel like I'm flying, and while I'm sure a large part of it is because Edward parts his lips against mine like he wants to permanently attach himself to my lips, I'm also dizzy. Lack of oxygen will do that to you.
He stops, but rests his forehead against my cheek. "If you just remembered that you were, in fact, bullshitting, pretend you weren't. My heart can't take it."
I laugh. It sounds odd as I hyperventilate. "No. It's just that—I can't breathe."
He pulls away. "Did I hurt you? Do you need the doctor?"
"I'm fine," I assure, holding my hand out. "Come here. I just need a second to—breathe."
"Are you sure you're not hurt?"
"Positive. I'm just not used to being kissed like I mean the world."
Concerned but very pleased with himself, he beams, holding my hand in both of his. He searches both of my eyes and leans closer to my face.
He eyes me, curious. "But I—"
"I don't want you to say anything before my spine situation is clear. If the doctor tells me that I'll never walk again, or if I can and it gets painful or difficult, or if I walk with a limp, or whatever, I want you to let me know when it's too much for you."
"I'm serious. Think about it. Imagine I'll never be able to walk again, or walk properly again. I know you think I'll be fine, but what if I won't? I don't want you to stick with me out of guilt. Because you would. You'd probably make that sacrifice, but I don't want you to. You deserve someone healthy. It was my choice to throw myself in front of that bullet, and you owe me nothing for it. I just want you to think this through tonight and tell me tomorrow because if you give me false hope, it'll only be more difficult to let you go later."
"No. Tell me you'll think about it. Really think about it. All the what ifs and the worst case scenarios, and give me your answer tomorrow. I promise I won't hate you if you choose not to do this with me. All I ask is that you'd still be my, you know, friend. At least until I'm able to accept this."
"Bella," he huffs, and starts pronouncing his words like he's speaking to a child. "You'll be okay. You will. Dr. Heilbronner thinks so, my dad thinks so. You will run a marathon and hop as a glowworm and climb trees in the middle of the night. You'll be fine."
"I promised you once that I would never settle, now I want you to promise me that you won't be with me out of guilt. Please."
"Fine." He presses his lips together, not pleased with what I'm asking him. "But it's not necessary."
"Come here," I tell him, and he sits on the edge of my bed again. I pull him into a hug, and when I kiss him, he responds tenderly. He's smiling.
"Give me your reply tomorrow," I say.
He licks my bottom lip and tugs it. "Not necessary."
"Please. Tell me after it's clear what's happening with my spine."
"It won't change anything."
"Okay," he replies, sighing. "But it won't change anything."
Just when he grins against my lips, a throat clears. Edward pulls back, and we turn to look at my Drama teacher, munching on banana chips and grinning at us. "Who needs MTV when you've got stuff like this?"
"Peter! What happened?"
"Your friend Eric is what happened," he replies. It is odd to see his face without all the metal. "Good to see you up and about." He raises his eyebrows at Edward who offers a nod and holds my hand against his jaw.
"What happened to your leg?"
"A shattered femur."
"Shit. I have a fractured spine, though. I win!"
He shakes his head. "I heard you're going to be just fine," he says. "So how did this—" he motions in our general direction. "—happen?"
"Ah, you know. I decided there's no point in having a guy as hot as Edward as my best friend unless I have the benefit of kissing him. I led him on for no reason for so long I figured, hey, I'm great at pretending, let's pretend ugly, insensitive guys like him go for a beauty like me, you know?"
"Bella," Edward warns. I laugh. There's a lot to be said between us, of course, but as I look at him, he offers the most adorable grin and encases my hand in both of his before kissing the back of it. I pretend to wipe it off. He grins and takes back my hand.
Apparently I'm well enough for visitor regulations to be less strict. Carlisle and Esme enter my room, followed by my doctor; and Esme, upon realizing I'm awake, drags a chair closer to me, clenches her fist around my ankle, and starts sobbing. Tears and gasps and a grimace on her face. Edward observes her semi-amused and semi-concerned, and Carlisle does that deep breath thing to calm himself. He offers me a smile. Esme attempts to speak, but the only thing I'm able to decipher is 'never going to walk again' and 'my little boy's life.'
"Esme," Carlisle says, holding her shoulder. "You're scaring her."
"But she—but—and then they—and my Edward—and fractured spine—"
"I told you, not every fractured spine ends in a wheelchair." Carlisle tells Esme and looks at me. "You'll be just fine, Bella, I promise."
"You make bold promises," my doctor looks up as he writes on Peter's file. "You are very likely to make full recovery, Isabella. But I wouldn't promise anything. Not yet."
"When will you get the results?" Carlisle asks him.
"Any minute now."
A nod is shared, and Carlisle looks at me. "Knowing you, you'll have nothing to worry about. They're only taking precautionary measures."
Edward squeezes my hand, and I see my doctor raise his eyebrows as my brother and Jacob Black enter the hospital room. Dad follows with the woman named Sarah. They're not holding hands. I lock eyes with my coach, and he waves but drags a chair to the bed beside mine and sits. Peter turns to look at him, and while there's no physical contact, they start to have a silent conversation. It's common knowledge that they're friends, but I want them to have privacy. I want to divert everyone's attention. I look at my doctor, and he's eyeing the crowd in our hospital room like he wants to throw everyone out.
"Ten minutes," Carlisle states, looking at my doctor as if it were a question.
"Please," Dr. Heilbronner answers and leaves the room. I see dad look at Sarah as he intertwines his fingers with hers and as I happen to make eye contact with Emmett (who'd been looking in the same direction), we both immediately divert our eyes. I start laughing. I don't know why.
"What?" Edward asks, and everyone looks around to see the source for our amusement.
"Nothing," I answer. "Déjà vu. What date is it?"
"Thursday, the 4th of March," Carlisle checks his wrist watch. "A few minutes before eight PM."
"What did I hear about doll mixing?"
He frowns. "Doll mixing?"
"Yeah. Doll mixing and kidney failure."
His face clears. "Ah, polymixins. They're against the bacteria you caught. It's been known to cause kidney failure, but we're fairly certain you'll be okay. Your kidneys are fine."
"What's the deal with my spine?"
"Yet to be decided, but we hope you'll be on your feet in no time."
"Dr. Heilbronner should have more information tonight."
He holds on to Esme's shoulders, and I observe everyone as they watch me shoot questions at Carlisle. Edward gazes at me, eyes alight with humor, and I have a feeling he wants to jump up, announce the new nuances in our friendship and kiss me silly. But he keeps drawing circles against the back of my hand and says nothing.
"So what happened after I so gracefully found a bullet?"
"Blood and gore, Bella," Emmett answers. "And a shitload of panic."
"Who did Eric wound? And kill?"
"Jared, you, Peter." He motions at him, and my coach and Peter immediately shut up. Mr. Black gets awkward and starts darting his eyes around, but nobody but Peter notices, whew. "Then Shawn and Michael Newton."
"Muscle wound in his shoulder," Edward says, kissing my knuckles. "Got home on the same day."
I haven't thought about what I wanted to happen to him, but facing him again as I go to school and knowing I have no evidence of what he's done doesn't sound appealing at all.
"What about him?"
"Did the Police end him—or—"
"He shot himself."
I'd hoped the police shot him. I shouldn't have. He clearly insinuated that he would soon not be with us. But for some reason, I would've felt better if he'd imagined himself living. Moving forward. Crawling through the shit that happened and moving on. But he didn't. He couldn't. I can't believe a guy I simply considered my torture buddy a week ago, a guy who seemed a bit awkward and a lot harmless, would bring his dad's gun to school with the intention of killing the people who harmed him.
I was wrong. I thought there were peer pressure bullies and cruel bullies, and that was it. I couldn't have been more wrong. So maybe there are those two groups, but then there are the bullied, the cornered ones, the people driven to the point of desperation. The people who crave for revenge. The people who can't untangle the shit alone, who are too inward to talk, who see no way of living with the way they've been treated. No way of moving forward.
No way out.
And it's not his fault.
"Why did Ralph Yorkie throw a chair out of the window?" Emmett asks. "What did you tell him?"
"He did what? When? Why?" Carlisle asks.
"I told him my opinion about what happened."
"And what is that?"
"Shit happened. That's what happened."
"So you know why Eric did—what he did?" Carlisle asks. Even Peter and my coach are eyeing me in silence. I feel the weight of my answer, whatever it may be.
A collective breath is taken.
"I have no evidence."
"But what happened?"
"Shit happened," I repeat. "Carlisle." My voice is weak, and I clear my throat. "Do you think it would be possible for me to attend Eric's funeral next Friday? Maybe in a wheelchair?"
"Why would you want to go to the funeral of the psychopath who—!"
"He shot you!"
"He didn't mean to."
"Oh, that makes it all better," dad replies dryly. "I can see how that would solve everything."
"You don't know fuck, dad!"
Esme gasps, dad pales and I feel my eyes brim over from God knows what. Maybe I'm tired. Maybe it hurts to breathe. Maybe my back feels tight and painful. Maybe I understand that in a world filled with good people and bad people, there are none. None good and none bad. Just the people you care about who can make the wrong decisions, or the people who don't mean to hurt you but still do, or the people who are driven to a boiling point—and we all have it—who see themselves in a dark, circular, shrinking room with no way out, with nowhere to scream and nobody to listen. Maybe we imagine there's a deeper meaning to our life, and all our life really is is a series of events caused intentionally or unintentionally by people in shades of gray. None black. None white. Just gray.
Maybe sometimes we're closer to white, and sometimes we're closer to black. Shades change as our experiences mold us.
I don't know. All I know is that I've shouted at my dad at a fragile moment when my anger wasn't even aimed at him. I'm not really angry at him. I could be. I could blame him for not noticing or not paying enough attention or being in denial or whatever the fuck, but I can't. Because I was here, too, and I could've told him, I could've let him in, and I chose not to. It takes two to tango.
Because I thought silence was a sign of strength. Not showing how humiliated I am by the experience was an act of defense. And it is. Hiding my shame, hiding what happened, that's all self-defense. Not only because it will hurt me to see my family (and Edward) hurt when I tell them, it will hurt me, too. It will tear my wounds wide open and show them how weak I am. How weak I've been. It would make dad see that I am a master at hiding shit, and it would make him blame himself. I've blamed myself. Blame and shame and fear that if you show how weak you could be, history would repeat itself. I've bathed in those feelings.
Maybe, when I tell them, I think that I'm shedding white paint, but in reality, it turns black when they receive it. They'll want revenge. I could deny it, pretend I'm all white and shit, but I can't—I do, too. When you've been so deep you produce layers of self-acceptance and (lack of) self-respect, hoping for someone to teach you how to handle the pain without wanting revenge, you'll see people differently. Maybe there is a "real" me underneath it all, a girl perfect and unharmed who didn't have the traumas I did, but if there is, she wouldn't be the "real" me. Because I wouldn't be the person I am if I hadn't seen the things I did and drawn the conclusions I have. I would be someone different. Shame and guilt and all that shit, that's a part of me.
Through my tears, I watch dad make his way to my bed and crouch next to it. I press my lips together to hide what cannot be hidden. I'm crying.
"Why don't you tell me then?" he asks. "Show me."
I nod. I don't reflect on how my rude words made Esme or Carlisle or Sarah, whoever she is, see me. Before Carlisle leads Esme out, dad tells him a few words I can't hear, and he nods, glancing at me. Sarah makes eye contact with dad before they all leave. Emmett is in between, not knowing what to do, and Edward starts to stand up as well, but I shake my head at them and motion for them to stay.
Same with Mr. Stephens. If dad convinces him to look into this, he needs to know.
My coach is ready to exit the room, too, but I shake my head. I know he'd leave if I asked him to. But there's no point. He resumes to a quiet conversation with Peter. He knows a version of this story from Michael Newton's mouth. I don't know what he did, but I don't think this story ends with me or Eric. I don't think I've pieced together one tenth of this story.
"First off, dad—you're going back to Glynco. You're not staying here because of me. Regardless of what happens."
"How did you—"
"Dad, please. You're going back."
"I'm serious. I've had enough of blaming myself. I don't need you start doing it, too. You need to go back. It's what you want to do."
"I'd never blame you."
"Then you'll blame yourself, and I don't want that either. You need to go back. Regardless."
"Tell me what Michael Newton did and I'll consider it."
"Don't put that kind of pressure on me. Please don't. It needs to be your decision in spite of my wants. It's the only way you'll proceed without regrets."
For five seconds, dad stares at me. Finally, he says, "Who raised you?"
"The seven dwarves."
He lets out a breath and shakes his head.
"Is this something I'll need to talk to the police about?"
"Can I not?"
"I'd rather not have a repeat performance of telling it. I have no proof of what happened. To me or Eric. It'll look like I'm badmouthing a future Yale student. In case I do have to talk to the police about it—I'd rather not. If you want me to write a report or whatever, I think I could. But only if it's possible to keep it under the radar."
Dad rubs his forehead with his palms and holds his them on his eyes. He hunches.
"Whatever you wish."
"So I don't have to repeat the story?"
"We can work something out."
"Would it make it easier if we recorded you?" Mr. Stephens asks. "That way you'll have no reason to repeat whatever you have to say."
I nod, and he leaves for a minute or two. I smooth the edge of my blanket for no other reason than to gather energy and let my decision sink in. It's time I told them. Maybe I'm not ready and it might not be the perfect moment, but it's time they knew.
Marshal Stephens returns and turns on the recorder. Edward squeezes my hand, and I take a breath.
"Not everything I say will matter."
"It's a long story, and I've dissected the bejesus out of it with Dr. Hunter, so I could go on for hours. Bottom line, I got bullied a lot in middle school. So did Eric. Sometimes I'd end up locked inside my locker, sometimes it happened to Eric. If we weren't both in, we'd help the other out. There was, er, verbal abuse because I was, you know, underdeveloped. And weak. And awkward. Mostly, Eric and I got our lunch money taken away, so we'd sit in the school parking lot together and make up all sorts of stories about what we'd make them do if we were big badass CEOs one day and Michael Newton or any of the other bullies were our employees. Dumb, but it helped. We forgot our hunger, and sometimes—"
"You never said—"
"Charlie," Marshal Stephens says. "Let her talk."
"Closer to summer, we'd walk to Eric's dad's office just across the street and get cookies and stuff. I never took much because I didn't want to draw attention to how hungry I was. Ralph Yorkie and his colleagues always treated us well. Asked about you, dad, that sort of thing. Sixth grade wasn't so bad. In seventh, when it became clear—"
Dad is pale. "You were going hungry?!"
"Charlie," Mr. Stephens mutters, motioning for me to continue.
"So in seventh grade, when it seemed I was going to be a perpetual boy forever, the fact that it was easy to bully me while my dad was the chief of police became a sort of challenge. Like, how far could they go before I ran to my daddy and told on them? They were determined to find out, it seemed, which of course ensured that I never did. I just had to learn—not to care. Got coke poured on my books and stupid sticky notes on my bag and my clothes cut open after P.E., that sort of thing. Once, a rumor spread that I stank, so I washed and rubbed myself to the point where my skin started peeling off. I did it for months. It hurt a lot. Silly stuff, really.
"I don't think I considered Eric a friend in middle school. We wouldn't have started to communicate were it not for our shared experiences, as insignificant and dumb as they seem now. Looking back, though, I think we were the closest friends the other one had. But it was more like a friendship based on mutual horror than any shared interests. If he had a lunch box and it didn't get taken away, he shared it, and vice versa. We got along. We didn't talk much, other than to cuss at Michael Newton and imagine his gruesome death, but obviously, we couldn't fight him.
"During middle school, I think only our Music teacher noticed and wanted to tell our parents, but—knowing that if the word got out that we were running to our daddies for help, the verbal abuse would be endless—we assured her it wasn't as bad as it looked. That was the only time any adult noticed or acknowledged what was going on.
"It wasn't all horror. Sometimes Eric and I got to eat lunch together when Michael Newton wasn't around. There were days when both of us managed to go under the radar. But I clearly remember a Monday at the beginning of eighth grade when Eric arrived to school all haggard and shaken. He didn't talk much usually, but he didn't say a single word the entire week, and had the same vacant look in his eyes he did this Monday. Monday after that, he started talking again and kept asking me these cryptic questions. He wanted to know if Michael "did that shit" to me, too. I thought he meant the usual. He also wondered what would happen if he brought his dad's gun to school and shot him right in front of everyone.
"I remember this because I went along with his jokes. Because that was our way of coping. We always imagined horrible stuff happening to him, but I didn't think he meant it seriously, because I never did. The black humor just helped me imagine that we live in a world where people give a shit, where an adult or a fellow student would step up and say we weren't different. That bullying us wasn't justified. That karma works. That Michael Newton wasn't all what he seemed to be. But nobody who aims to seem superior by hurting another person or is desperate to fit in thinks it isn't justified—so, in our case, I think the students justified it by thinking and saying that we were different. When there is a person bullied by everyone, you do what others do because otherwise you'll cease to be in the sidelines. You'll be the target. Nobody wants that. So you notice when someone behaves differently, or is secluded and weak, and we were. We both were.
"Either way, I've seen the same look in Eric's eyes before, only this time it was serious, so I called you, Mr. Stephens. But I stalled. I refused to believe he'd actually do it, so I lost a few precious minutes. If I hadn't, maybe everyone would be alive and unharmed. I'm—so sorry. I had the power to stop him, but I couldn't, and now he killed himself as well. I'm—I wish I'd been quicker."
If dad were paler, he'd be see-through.
"You saved three lives, Isabella. You alone. Don't apologize for anything," Mr. Stephens says. "But please, continue. Do you think all this bullying is what drove Eric to do what he did?"
"Well, I—I can't be sure."
"But there's something else you suspect."
"I think Michael Newton raped him. And I might be wrong, but I don't think it was a one-time occurrence."
A collective breath is taken, but Mr. Stephens simply eyes me. "Do you have reason to believe so?"
"I didn't see it before, but—based on how he behaved when he missed a couple of days of school and seemed so full of vengeance when he returned, he behaved just like I did when Newton… well, when I finally started to suspect what it was that made Eric so vindictive."
"It's okay if you can't, but could you elaborate? No pressure."
"I—I think so."
"You don't have to."
"No—I think it's time," I reply, taking a breath. "So, one night, when I started to walk home from school, Michael Newton and Jared and a guy I couldn't recognize were drinking on the side of a deserted warehouse. I always take a shortcut there because it's quicker. This time, my Drama took longer and it was almost dark, so I couldn't see them before it was too late. And the thing with Michael Newton is, you never know if he's going harm you until you see if he's got company—he's always ignored me when he's alone. At first, he seemed to be, but when I got closer, I saw that he wasn't.
"It started with them throwing cigarette stubs at me and teasing me about when I'll run to my daddy to tell on them. I can't remember what I responded, but I managed to piss Newton off, and next thing I know, they shove me up against the wall and hold on to me as Newton unzips his pants and—and—I couldn't fight him—they laughed—and there was no one to hear me scream and cry—so he forced me to—to—fellate him, I choked and it—I couldn't—"
A crack is followed by the sound of breaking glass shattering on the floor. Dad is red-faced, and blood starts dripping on his broken phone from his now empty palm. He's breathing through his nose. Emmett calls for a nurse, but dad refuses, and Edward squeezes my hand so hard it's almost painful. Or maybe it's me. He doesn't look any better than dad.
"It's okay, Isabella," Mr. Stephens says in his calm voice. "You don't have to continue."
"I want to—I mean, there's not much left to say. I figured I could bite him, and I did—drew blood, too. The pain distracted him enough to—draw away from me, and I used their surprise to twist my hands and crawl out, and then I—ran. I left my bag and everything, and just ran. Spent a few days vomiting, didn't even have to pretend to be sick to look sick, and then… went back to school. Saw Eric. I said nothing, he asked nothing. For some reason, though, I felt like he knew what happened. I avoided Michael Newton like the plague, and so did Eric, and we—existed, together. Forced each other to cope. Never spoke a word about what we suspected had happened to the other. Kept avoiding Michael Newton, stopped hoping for an adult or a nice student to stand up for us, and… moved on."
When I don't say another word, Mr. Stephens turns off the recorder. Edward shifts his chair. Now that I've finally gotten it all out, I feel relief. Pain, but so much relief. I'm aware of how much it hurts to breathe, of how tight and uncomfortable my back feels, but I could be flying, too. Maybe I am.
Dad's chair falls when he stands and clenches his fists. He's panting. "Why did you never tell me any of this? You told me you weren't bullied! You told me you got along with everyone!"
"In present tense, dad. I'm not. Not anymore."
"You should've told me!"
"Charlie," Marshal Stephens says. "It will not work in her favor, or in yours, to make her feel guilty about something she cannot change."
Dad is reddening further, and when he looks at Emmett, I feel like he's about to shout his lungs out, but instead, his voice is torn. "You knew."
"Not to this extent," Emmett says, still hunching and leaning his elbows on his knees. He rubs his face and makes eye contact. I imagine he wants to exit and go for a good three hour run.
"But you never thought to mention."
"It was not my story to tell."
Dad's fists start shaking. He reddens to a color only a Swan could reach.
"Can you give me a moment with my daughter," he says. "All of you."
"Charlie, in your current state, no. Isabella needs to rest. She's got enough to deal with without your input. Sleep on it. You have time."
Marshal Stephens, the voice of reason, eyes dad, the voice of emotion. Dad opens his mouth, and I'm sure he's about to cuss or shout at him, but instead, he motions for them to step outside. He walks over to me, presses his lips together and caresses my hair.
"I'll be right back."
He leaves. Edward keeps rubbing his face against my hand as he stares at the floor. I draw a pattern against his rough jaw with my fingers. He makes eye contact, and there's not a hint of accusation in his eyes. Just pain. Anger. Mostly pain.
"I never knew," he whispers. "About your middle school, or exactly what that—that motherfucker did. I never knew."
"I'm good at that."
"I wish you weren't."
Edward gets up. He leans closer, cradles my head in his hands and lets his lips hover above mine. He breathes on my mouth and plays with my nose. "This changes nothing."
"That's because you're a noble moron."
He smiles and presses his lips on mine ever so slightly. "But I'm your moron."
He smiles with more his eyes than mouth. "Really."
"Do you have a pen?"
A light blue marker hits Edward right against his temple, and he looks up. Peter shakes his head. "You guys are gross."
I offer him a grin before turning back to Edward. "So, how much do you like your shirt?"
His eyes are alight with humor as he takes off his sweatshirt and reveals a grey tee. "What do you have in mind?"
He knows that I want to write on it and yet he leans closer, leaning on side rails as he looks down and grins. I mirror it, and as his chest is just above my hands, I grip his bicep and ruin his T-shirt. When I'm done, I throw Peter's marker back at him.
"There. You asked for it."
Keeping his position above me, Edward looks down at his T-shirt and beams a smile worthy of a Crest commercial, leaning closer. He places a kiss on my nose.
"Bella's properfy, huh?"
"Eat shif, Edward."
He grins. "This T-shirt is never getting washed again. Ever."
"You repulse me."
He laughs, cradles my neck and leans in for a kiss. But we're grinning, so it's us pressing our wide smiles together than an actual kiss. Edward moves on to the side of my jaw and neck. I pant.
"There's something I've always wanted to tell you," I say, pushing him back. He grins, and I can see he expects me to get all feeling-sy on him.
"You love me?" He has the most elated smile on his lips.
"No. I had a sex change operation when I was five."
He bursts out laughing. "You are ridiculous."
"And amazing. Like, totally."
He's just about to lean in for a kiss when a throat clears. Edward throws his sweatshirt on his shoulder and squeezes my hand. He looks at my dad, pecks my lips, and whispers, "Talk to you later."
I smile. Dad's eyes linger on the words on Edward's T-shirt as Edward stands, looks dad straight in the eye and nods at him. Dad nods back, and if I'm not mistaken, there's humor on his face. Jacob takes something with wires out of his pocket, throws it at Peter, and squeezes his hand ever so subtly before waving and leaving. He closes the door.
Dad takes Edward's place. There's a bandage wrapped around his right palm, and a few band aids covering the other. He opens his mouth, but can't say a word. Peter has, apparently, gotten his hands on an iPod, and a song starts blasting through his ear pads. I could be mistaken, but it sounds like Teenage Dirtbag, and when both dad and I stop to stare at him, he pretends not to notice as he nods to the beat and takes out a cross-word puzzle.
Subtle, Peter. Very subtle.
Dad turns his attention back to me. "I take it you're an item now?"
"I don't know about that, but, yeah. Things are going well. Don't hope for a wedding yet, though. If I don't make it—intact, I'll let him go. That's the way it has to be."
"How do you know he'd go, though?"
"I'm a good bullshitter. I can figure something out."
Dad says nothing as he draws the chair closer. I observe him. His lips twist the same way Ralph Yorkie's did, and he wraps his fingers around my wrist. My hand looks pale and fragile in his. Dad takes a deep breath.
"What—did I do wrong?" he asks, almost a whisper. "Bella?"
"You did nothing wrong."
"God, I didn't even—" he starts, but swallows and stares at my hand in his. "Suspect. You never even hinted—nobody said a word at school. You always came home all cheerful. You never let on, Bella. You never let on—and now… If I had known. If I'd known, we could've taken you to Emmett's middle school. I could've—I would've talked to the teachers. I know you don't think much about my conversational skills. And we don't—we don't really talk much, do we? Maybe that's why you never felt comfortable telling me. But I would've helped. You have to believe that."
"I know, and I do."
"Why did you never—it would've been so easy to take you to the same middle school where Emmett went. He would've taken care of you."
"I can take care of myself."
"Sure, that's why you—" he stops himself. I see the source for my habit of sarcasm in a situation where I feel angry or hurt. Dad sighs, rubbing his face. "I know," he says, defeated. "You've been doing it for years. But if you didn't want to talk about how severe the bullying was, why didn't you at least suggest attending Emmett's school?"
"I had Drama with Mrs. Pope at North Cedar High. It kept me—I don't know. It gave me hope. And I couldn't have left Eric. I mean, we weren't best friends, but maybe there are experiences in life that bind you to the person you shared it with. But not romantically. Just—kind of like with war. The people you go to war with, by default, understand you without words. How you feel, why you act the way you do and your basis for comparison. Middle school was kind of like our war, you know? In high school, even though everything changed and I changed and we didn't communicate as often, we'd still greet the other in the hallway and appreciate the fact that the worst had to be over. Or so we thought."
"And then when—when Michael what's-his—"
"When he—that time he—"
Dad struggles, lets go of my wrist and rests his forehead on his palms. His fingers make eight lines of brown hair stand on end, and when his shoulders sag, he looks up at me. Lips pressed together, he gulps, and the sides of his eyes crease. I think he's about to force a smile, but instead, he slumps and his face crumples. It's a silent, tearless sob.
For seventeen years, I've lived without seeing my brother or dad at their most vulnerable, without ever having seen them shed a tear or lose control of their emotions so thoroughly they forget my presence. And now, during those last four months, they've let me see a new page of the book they are, and I've let them see mine, and we're all discovering that we are not the books we've thought. Maybe it was always open and you never caught glimpse of the cover. Or maybe you saw the cover and never really thought of opening it. Or maybe it was always there for you to see but you never really looked. Maybe that's when you grow up—you start to look.
Peter continues to pretend like we don't exist. I couldn't be more thankful.
He makes eye contact, and his eyes are completely dry yet his face twists further until he covers his face and starts breathing through his nose. If this is what he needs to do instead of yelling at me for not trusting him in the right place at the right time, I'll let him. I wrap my fingers around his forearm. He straightens his shoulders but takes hold of my hand.
"Bella." His voice is hollow. "Why did you never tell me? How could you have lived with—with that?"
"One day at a time," I answer. "Either I lived with it or took the kind of action Eric did."
He stills. "You think you could've—"
"Dad." I sigh. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. It's not that Eric is any different in this story than me—we're exactly the same. The only difference is: his limits were either lower than mine, what happened affected him more, or he got treated even worse than me. Maybe a combination of those three. If what Michael did had happened to me repeatedly or if he'd actually raped me, would I have done what Eric did? Would I have been capable of starting a school shooting or committing suicide in front of everyone? Yes. I think we all are. It's just a matter of how far you can push a person before he snaps, and Eric got pushed too far for too long. He reached his limit and he—snapped."
He shakes his head. "I don't think you could've done what he did. You—you're different."
"We're exactly the same, dad. Eric is no different from you and me except for what he saw in life and how he responded to it."
"And you want to go to his funeral."
Dad sighs. He presses his lips together and holds my hand in a firm grip as his face colors. "That—fucker—did you say his dad is a teacher at your school?"
"Does he know? If his son is the—how has that fucker not ended up in jail yet? How can he—does anyone know? What he did? How can—his parents live with themselves?"
Michael Newton paraphrased by dad as 'that fucker.' I'm okay with this.
"Maybe sometimes it's easier for parents to turn a blind eye to what's really going on with their kids."
Dad stares at me and grimaces. His features contort. "You must hate me."
"How can you not?"
I just want to hug him and all his self-blame away, but I simply squeeze his bandaged hand and offer a sad, pursed-lips smile.
"I am who I am, and it was my decision to not tell you. Not yours, mine. I never expected you to read my mind. I wanted to keep this from you. It sounds awful, but if you'd started to fuss about bullying and shit, or focusing all your attention on my well-being, maybe I would've never really learned to be okay with being me, you know? I needed to fight my fights to become who I am. I don't blame you and I don't want you to blame yourself. It benefits nobody. I don't think teachers are to blame.
"Society? I don't know, dad. We're the victims of the society we live in, and maybe I could blame the entire school for not stepping outside the box and standing up for us or not acknowledging the problem. But I choose not to. Otherwise I'll spend my entire life being bitter about something that made me the person I am. Of course I want that fucker to pay. Of course I do. Now more than ever. But think about it—why do we live in a world that creates people like him?
"Why do we not teach people to search for help? Especially guys. Why do we still have that macho view of a strong man who doesn't speak about emotions? Or show them, in case they make others perceive him as weak? That's such bullshit. Okay, so Eric and I had shit happen to us. Would he have done what he did if he'd felt comfortable seeking help? Talking about it? Maybe—but maybe not. That's the difference between being so ashamed you channel your emotions into revenge, or a school shooting, and accepting that, alright, me being different and weak might explain what happened, but in no way justifies it. But it's possible to change, and accept, and move on. Nobody taught him that. Nobody taught him to have that faith.
"Because I had that. You and Emmett and Edward—and Dr. Hunter. So I make fun of shit and maybe we don't talk about the stuff that matters—but knowing that some things matter without having to blabber about it, that's important, too. I've never told you how important it is for me that you give me absolute freedom in my choices after high school—whether or not I choose to go to a university, and what I choose to study. But it is. It is so important for me to know stuff like that without us having to discuss the bejesus out of it. And sometimes it's the little things. And Eric? Maybe he had that, maybe he didn't. It could be so many things, dad. Maybe he felt repressed, depressed, whatever—but he never saw seeking help as a choice to be made, and that's the real problem. Because you cannot prevent shit from happening. The world will never be crimeless and perfect. But if there would be a way to deal with shit—especially making it crystal that searching help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength? It's important, dad. It's so important."
It hurts to breathe. My back feels like it's on fire. Dad is staring at my face, not seeing it, but a second or two later, his eyes focus on mine. His lips tremble. He holds my hand in both of his and keeps breathing through his nose. It's loud.
"I can't believe half of you is me," he whispers, wide-eyed but still struggling to hold composure. I let out a broken laugh because dad is so silly and I love him to pieces.
"That could only be a compliment," I reply. "Now, come here. I'm hug-deprived."
Dad smiles, and it's border-line sob, but he stands up and envelops me in a careful hug. I can barely put my arms around him, he's so muscled.
"You are such an intelligent young woman," dad whispers. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
It will take a while for the words to feel natural and careless, from both of us, but we're working toward it, and it's special because we're not used to it. Neither of us. Dad pulls back, but doesn't sit. He pulls his fingers through my hair. "I promise we'll put that fucker behind bars as soon as we can."
"There's no evidence against him and you're not a cop anymore."
"We'll see, and it doesn't matter. I have connections, and so does Al. I still want you to turn to him the moment anything is wrong. Anything. Carlisle is certain you'll be alright, and I trust his opinion."
"Does that mean you'll go back to Glynco?"
Dad takes a huge breath. "If that's okay with you."
"Of course. You love it there, I can see it."
He keeps caressing my hair. "Please, never keep anything like this from me. Ever. I don't care how uncomfortable you feel telling me or how inconsequential you feel your problems are. Please talk to me."
"You must be exhausted. Get some sleep." He smiles and turns to leave. Peter is nodding to a beat I can't recognize as he continues to ignore us both.
"I forgot to tell you—if Mr. Stephens starts to look into the whole story, can you tell him Eric's girlfriend left him just before what happened? I don't know if it's important, but if it helps them understand, they should know."
"I'll tell him."
"Thanks. Can you send Emmett in, if he's still here? Just for a second."
He nods, and Emmett arrives. Like the rest of my family, he looks like he could use a shower and a bed to sleep in. He's exhausted.
"I need a favor."
"Am I relieved you're alive or what. So what do you need?"
"My diary. Go to Edward's place tonight or tomorrow or whenever, and bring it to me. I'll die of boredom if I can't write any of my shit down."
"Can I read it?"
"Like you wouldn't if I told you not to."
"Good point. So where is it?"
"My room, wooden desk, bottom drawer on the right. In a folder titled Titanic."
"No symbolism about my life, Emmett. Edward hates Titanic. And bring me a book, too, will you? Any book."
"Understood. So how should I explain my sudden eagerness to visit them when they haven't invited me over?"
"Tell them you're getting condoms for me. Or a pregnancy test. You'll think of something."
"You're grumpy today."
"Try being denied solid food for three days. Tomorrow I'll be tearing paint off the walls and eating it."
He chuckles and stands. "It's good having you back, Bella."
"So you'll do it?"
"No hay problema. It's about time I repaid you for the nights you've covered for me."
"You're only nice to me because I almost died. I expect you to be a total asshole next week when I'm on my feet."
"Not to disappoint," he salutes, messes up my hair and smiles. "Whatever you do, don't switch on the TV. Your ego won't fit in the room after you've heard what they're saying about you."
"What? Why are they—what are they saying about me?"
"Ah, you know, this Isabella Swan girl is a total jerk and helped her friend kill everyone, and why has she not dropped dead yet, she needs to diiieee. That kind of thing."
"Sounds about accurate."
He shuts the door behind him. Peter is immersed in A-Ha's Take on Me, and I try to get his attention, but I don't have anything to throw him with, so I wait for the song to end.
"Peter. You can stop being all tactful and shit."
He takes off his ear pads and turns off the iPod, but doesn't let go of his crossword puzzle.
"Lingerie items, four letters."
"Bras. Something that I'm not currently wearing."
"Thank you for that piece of information. I very much appreciate it."
"Always at your service."
Peter puts down his cross-word. He turns to eye me, not saying a word, and I stare back at him. It's not that he's worn or looks particularly tired. Not like my family and Edward's. It's the lack of lip and eyebrow barbell and multiple earrings that emphasize the difference and make him seem vulnerable. As if I saw him without make-up for the first time, even though he doesn't wear any.
"I saw what you did there," he says. "Jacob is more grateful than he lets on."
"No hay problema. I should thank you for—what you did. My dad doesn't wear his heart in his sleeve, but on the rare occasion that he does, he needs no observers to feel comfortable showing it."
"You are one remarkable girl, Isabella Swan."
"Words mean shit, Peter. Make me your girl of honor in your wedding, and I'll believe you."
He laughs. "Why don't you wait a couple of years."
"I'll hold my breath. And eat all your banana chips while I'm at it."
"Recent shooting in North Cedar High School in Kirkland, Seattle, has prompted renewed debate about gun control in the United States and a proposal for a legislation that would ban the sale and manufacture of certain types of magazines and semi-automatic firearms. The issue of gun control in the States is heating up again. Comparisons have been drawn between North Cedar High School shooter, Eric Yorkie, and Newtown gunman Adam Lanza, who were both reported to have been bullied at school. Videos of Kirkland shooting have been posted in YouTube, and with nearly eleven million views, they raise several questions.
"Does the girl who tried to stop Eric Yorkie, Isabella Swan, know exactly why he did it? If Michael Newton did, indeed, harm them, why would she have taken a bullet meant for him? While interviews with fellow students unanimously express doubt that Michael Newton, a senior heading to Yale in the fall, could've ever bullied anyone, opinions about Isabella Swan vary, and it is known at school that the two do not get along. But nobody doubts Isabella Swan's courage in fighting the shooter, and President Obama himself has…"
"Pass me the bread, will you?"
"Turn it down. They've been recycling this for four days now."
"…is said to be critical, but our sources claim that she will never walk again. The police and press are waiting for her doctor to confirm that she is stable enough to talk to her and get answers, and answers—she definitely owes them to the world."
The TV is switched off.
"Morons. She doesn't owe them a fart in the wind. I hope they replay this video when she's running the women's world record in a hundred meters."
"You think she'd take that direction?"
"She could. Girl's got talent."
"Opinions about her vary," Peter scoffs. "Who did they talk to—Michael Newton and Alice? Fucking Fox News. The only ones who still doubt who she took that bullet for."
"Wait until they realize Eric and Bella were friends. She won't be able to leave the house."
"How're things at school?"
"Starting to calm down. Everyone's waiting for Isabella to return. Mostly, it's buzzing with shock and curiosity."
"Did the press stop harassing Edward?"
"They've taken it down a notch after what aired yesterday."
They fall silent. I listen to the sound of hail beating against the windows and watch as the dark blue sky gets lighter. It can't be more than seven in the morning. Jacob is sitting on the other side of Peter's bed, holding a bag of gummy-bears out to Peter as they eat together. Their fingers are intertwined on Peter's stomach, and they end up throwing gummy-bears at each other.
"I will give you all my worldly possessions, Jacob, if you give me a green gummy bear."
Peter looks at me and smiles. "Morning, Bella. Slept well?"
"Like a dying monkey. How about that gummy-bear?"
"I think not. Not without your doctor's approval."
"Do you always follow the rules?"
"Do you?" he replies. "Wait, rhetorical—don't answer that. I do, yes, when I could accidentally kill my famous friend."
"I never knew you were so boring."
"Excuse me for trying to keep you alive, Miss Swan. You seem adamant in doing the opposite."
"Bite me, Mr. Gallaghe."
He laughs. Jacob gets uncomfortable with his proximity to Peter, but Peter keeps a firm hold on his hand and doesn't let it go. It's sweet. Between our beds, on a small table, is my diary, front up. You can see my sloppy handwriting.
Peter, noticing the direction of my gaze, says, "The Doc put it here late last night, just after Edward left."
"Did you read it?"
"If there is anything my granny taught me, it's that the inside of a girl's handbag, heart and diary are sacred and never to be messed with."
"I'm gonna send Mrs. Pope a giant ass chocolate for that."
"I don't know how much she'll like an ass-shaped chocolate, but she'll love you for thinking of her." Peter engages in food-porn with gummy-bears while I try not to drool. He says, "You've got the title all wrong, though."
"I think it is apt."
"It sucks. It hints at a whiny teenager whining about her whiny appearance in a whiny way."
"Told you. Apt."
"You want me to believe you spend your time whining about your life in your diary? Please."
"You don't believe me?" I ask, gripping my diary and holding it out to him. "Read it."
He looks at it. "No," he says. "I can't. It's yours."
I slip my diary under my pillow. "Such a gentleman."
He smiles. "A gentleman who's getting home in two hours."
"Really? That's brilliant! Is that why Jacob is here at this ungodly hour?"
"It's almost nine," he says. "Hardly ungodly. Do you know when they're letting you home?"
"Not a clue. They're acting like I'll be running laps next week, when in reality, I'm probably fucked."
I eat my jello, talk to the nurse who gives me painkillers and listens to my breathing, and watch Peter and Jacob interact. Peter is given crutches. He leaves me his ballpoint pen, a crossword puzzle, and a bag of gummy bears not to be touched unless Dr. Jon Heilbronner says otherwise. Jacob holds the crutches as Peter sits in the wheelchair Dr. Heilbronner brought. Peter's leg is standing out at an awkward angle as he faces me. He smiles.
"I hope to see you soon, Bella," he says. "You'll be on your feet in no time. Show 'em. You'll be on your feet sooner than your gummy-bears can sneeze."
"How many painkillers did you give him, Doctor? I think he's high."
Doctor Heilbronner, sitting on Peter's bed, gives me a brief, crooked-teeth smile.
"Bella—keep me updated about your spine and physical therapy, alright?" my coach asks, looking slightly awkward behind Peter.
"Sure thing, Mr. Black."
He smiles. "Jacob."
"Of course, Mr. Black."
Peter throws his head back and laughs, my coach grins at me, waves, and off they go. My doctor gives me a pursed-lips smile and stands. His eyes, good-natured as they are, get serious. "I'm afraid I have bad news," he says. "We discovered a smaller piece of the bullet above the one we managed to extract, and you're going on surgery tonight."
I close my eyes and sigh. "Does that mean zero gummy-bears for me today?"
"Yes," he answers. "You can drink water, but you can't eat anything before the surgery."
"Is it serious? Should I start writing my will?"
"Not life-threatening, but important to your recovery. If it goes well, you can—and should—start with physical therapy next week."
"And if it doesn't, I'll be paralyzed for life."
"Highly unlikely. They aren't operating on the actual spinal cord. But spine is vital yet so delicate, and no activity, starting from driving a car to sitting on your bed, is without risk. I'm confident you will walk again, but as to how much pain you'll be in or how long it will take for you to walk or run, that's too soon to guess. Your surgeon will prep you at five PM. He'll discuss the risks and aftermath with you. He'll be able to be specific."
He writes on my file. "Your dad is eager to see you. Do you want to rest or should I let him in?"
"Let him in, if that's okay."
"Of course," he replies, smiling. "I'll see you soon, Isabella."
Nurses are cool about dad visiting me, so I spend my afternoon with him. I'm curious about the specifics of U.S. Marshals Service, and dad gets this twinkle in his eye when he talks about it. I enjoy lying on my back and listening to him. Just like me, he's worried about the surgery I need, but I reassure him by acting more blasé than I feel. I make silly jokes, dad laughs, he tells me stories about his training and I laugh. I think he just needs the assurance that after all that happened in middle school, I'm alright. Still the girl he knows. I have no doubt that if it weren't for Marshal Stephens, dad would've showed me yesterday exactly how pissed he was at Newton, but I appreciate the effort he made. He's a wonderful man.
But here I am now. It's almost five PM and Edward hasn't arrived from school yet, with Greek yoghurt or otherwise. Emmett will stop by any second to take (read) my diary and keep it with him until my surgery is over.
Wish me luck, Emmett. Let's get that bastard bullet piece out of my back.
Saturday, the 20th of March
05:41 AM. Lying on my stomach on this special mattress for back conditions. Remembered Eric the way he's supposed to be remembered, but scared shitless about the evidence he left me.
As you'd expect, I can't remember a thing about the surgery. I awake repeatedly early in the morning (I think,) and find myself attached to the monitors wearing an oxygen mask. It's daunting. I'm in a room with a few other patients but no windows, so I lack any concept of time. At one point, nurses arrive to check my vitals and ask questions. I nod. I shake my head. They don't take off my mask.
I wiggle my toes. I could weep with joy.
My surgeon arrives, too, and I think his eyes are smiling—he's wearing this disposable green mask, so I can't be sure. He listens to the nurses jabber medical lingo, jabbers some of his own, gives me a thumbs up and turns his attention to the patient beside me.
Dad and Emmett arrive. They're taken aback by my oxygen mask and by the fact they have to wear surgical masks. I'm unable to form long sentences with the mask on. It must look more serious than it is, because dad and Emmett treat me like I'm about to die. That is until Emmett pinches my knee, and I let out an impolite curse word followed by his name. He grins at dad. Cheeky bastard.
Soon, Edward takes their place. He crouches beside my bed to be on eye level and takes my hand in his. "I'm sorry I didn't make it yesterday. I wanted to come sooner, but Mr. Graham contacted me about the WWF project I'm volunteering for, and he—"
I squeeze his hand. "It's alright."
"Are you in pain?"
I shake my head. His eyes relax. "Good. Can you feel your legs?"
The blanket falls as I curl my toes, and Edward grins. "Brilliant," he replies, leaning closer. "I hate this mask. I wish I could kiss you."
"Sucks for you," I reply, and Edward laughs. A nurse comes to remind him that I need rest (they insist on killing me with boredom as opposed to back surgery,) so Edward leaves. Not until the evening do they take off my mask, and breathing is a bitch. Not like my lovely Ping Pong, who is a male dog. It's a bitch. The reattach the mask on me a few times before I'm capable of breathing on my own, and I get taken to the same green-walled room I shared with Peter, except now I'm alone. I can't imagine how people with a terminal illness live. I've been in this hospital for less than a week and it feels like a year.
Emmett has gone home to sleep, and I told Edward to do the same. Dad is leaving tomorrow afternoon and I won't be seeing him for another month. He's still here. Marshal Stephens has come to visit me, too. I observe them, Marshal Stephens with his lithe frame and fair hair, and dad with his newfound muscles and dark hair. The man with the reason and the man with the emotion.
"Someone broke in our house last night," dad says with no warning, just carefully observing me.
"Fuck. Are you alright?"
"I wasn't there. I stayed the night at Carlisle's because our place is freezing. I'm alright."
"What did they take?"
Dad takes a breath. "Are you sure you have nothing else to tell us about that fucker or Eric? Was there something you forgot to mention?"
"You're creeping me out."
"So there's nothing?"
"No, dad. Of course not. Why are you being like this?"
"Because—the thing is, they or he or she, whoever it was, tore your room apart. Took nothing that I can see, but perhaps you could if you were there. What could they have been looking for? Do you have anything at all that could be used against anyone—or that fucker, if this went to court?"
"Nothing," I reply, wide-eyed. "I mean, before Eric did—what he did—he told me to take care that the evidence, whatever he meant, made it into the right news outlets and hinted that he had it, but he literally gave me nothing more than that. Nothing to be used against anyone, expect—if it came down to it—my word against Newton's."
"Perhaps he wanted you to speak to the press about what happened to you in middle school," Mr. Stephens says.
"I—I don't know. We never spoke about it. I find it hard to believe that he'd want me to advertise our traumas. Maybe I could even bring Newton to court, but without evidence, he'll just walk out with his image bruised. Nothing more than that."
I hold dad's gaze. When I was little, I felt he of all people could figure out whether or not I was pulling his leg or speaking the truth, and that hasn't changed.
Dad nods. "I believe you."
"But there's also this." He pulls out a new-looking Samsung, and there's a picture of my room, wallpaper peeled off the walls, drawers turned upside down and clothes all over the place. I turn my eyes away. I've eaten so little that even something as material and silly as my room torn apart makes me teary-eyed.
"No, not the room—the door," dad says, holding the phone in front of me. He shows the next picture, and in capital letters, the green graffiti on my door reads, 'LIAR!'
Dad gauges my reaction.
"None. Did you take fingerprints?"
"I did. We'll get answers on Monday." He puts his phone in his pocket. "You have a package from Angela—I took it to Carlisle's. But that's not all."
"Your room at Carlisle's was torn apart, too. Yesterday afternoon."
"Shit. And they didn't take anything?"
Dad shakes his head. "Again, I can't tell. It didn't seem like it."
I take a few deep breaths. "If—if this is done by Newton or someone whose interest it is that whatever evidence Eric had wouldn't see the light of day, I assume his room got torn apart, too."
"Do you know Ralph Yorkie's number?" Marshal Stephens asks.
"No," I reply. "But I could give you his address—or where he works." His gives me his iPad, and I find the address with street view on Google Maps. "Do you think you'd have the time to go and have a look?"
"Yes," he replies.
"But you're not a cop."
He chuckles. "Just like Charlie, I have been. I'm familiar with the territory."
Sunday morning, when I spend my silly time dreaming about Greek yoghurt and trying to play Sherlock Holmes with a cross-word puzzle to entertain me, Edward and his parents come to visit me. As always, Edward takes my hand in his and holds it against his jaw. But nobody is able to say anything of significance before dad arrives, shaken and clearly beside himself as Marshal Stephens and dad share a few words too low for my ears.
"What happened?" I ask.
"Your—I—our—" he stutters before taking a breath. "Our house burned to the ground. Only a fridge and an oven covered in ashes are left."
Blood drains from my face.
"Bella—if this is the lengths to which the people covering for Newton—or Newton himself—would go to make sure you wouldn't have any evidence of what he's done, I can't go back to Glynco. I can't."
"We can't be sure yet. You must have enemies of your own from the time you were a Police Officer, Charlie." Marshal Stephens takes a few chairs from the corridor, and they sit. "The timing, I have to admit, favors your theory, but it is too soon to be sure of anything."
"So we know it was arson?" Carlisle asks.
"We know nothing yet," Marshal Stephens replies. "It could've been an electricity problem. But with nobody in the house, when it's twenty degrees outside—with a house that hasn't had electricity problems for as long as Charlie's lived in it—it's hard to imagine the house setting itself on fire. Especially since it's been unheated for most of the winter. Investigation will show."
"Are you covered?"
Dad runs his palms across his face and sighs. "Replacement cost policy."
"Good," Carlisle says. "Until it's rebuilt, you can live at our place. If you need more room, I'm sure the Hales will help, too. We'll figure it out. Tell us how to help, and we will."
Dad nods at him. He rests his elbows on his knees, hunching as he stares at me without seeing me. So much is happening I can barely take it all in, especially since nobody knows how long it will take for me to be able to walk again. Or how much pain walking will cause.
"What about Bella?" dad asks.
"I can take her to and from school," Edward says, straightening his back. "I'll just take her by car. We already go together."
I wave my hand at them. "I'm right here."
"There has to be someone with her at all times when she's out of the house," dad says. "Early morning jogs, date nights, physical therapy, whatever. Always."
"Oy! I'm no longer two, dad. You can stop talking about me as if I'm in the other room."
He looks at me, lips pressed together, and sighs. "I know you. And because I know you, I already know the moment you're confined by rules, you will start breaking them. But this is serious. If someone would go to such lengths to destroy property out of fear that you have something—we'll make sure they can't go to those lengths with you. Because property is replaceable. You are not. Am I understood?"
"Dad, it's not like Michael Newton's gang will jump out of the nearest bush to attack—"
"Am I understood?"
"And if you happen to find yourself somewhere without Edward or your friends around you, you must immediately find them. Always let someone know where you are, Carlisle, Esme, Edward, Emmett or Al—always."
"Dad, don't you think you're overreacting a bit?"
"You keep traumas from me for years, shit that makes other people go on anti-depressants, and I'm overreacting?! Our house was burnt to the ground to keep you from having potential evidence! You took a fucking bullet to save Edward's life! And when within an hour from taking a bullet to save a life, my daughter makes international news, and knows exactly what drove Yorkie to do what he did and might have the means to put the fucker in jail, it matters. We are talking about your life, Bella."
Red-faced, dad pants, and when he opens his mouth again, it seems he could go on, but he doesn't. I expect to find him share a glance with Marshal Stephens, but instead, Edward puts a gentle hand on dad's shoulder and looks him straight in the eye. His voice is so low I almost can't hear it. "Charlie, we've talked about this."
He returns to my side.
Dad hunches and sighs as he looks at me. "You matter."
"Do you, really?"
"Yes," I reply. "But dad—I don't actually have evidence of any kind. Clearly, they're looking for solid, physical evidence, and even if I had it, it's gone now. I have nothing but memories."
"But they, or he, is afraid you have it—and that changes things. Perhaps he could be pushed far enough to confess."
"We don't even know if it's him."
"He's the likeliest candidate, and I refuse to take any chances with you. Do you want me to stay in Seattle? Say the word, and I will."
"Dad, no. It would be no use. Nobody but me is able to get my legs back to work, just like you couldn't possibly spend every waking moment with me to make sure I'm alright."
Marshal Stephens gives me a smile so assuring I can't help but return it. Dad keeps a frown on his face. "You're absolutely sure you don't want me to stay?"
I sigh. "This is not a question of me wanting you here. Of course I want to spend time with you. But you only have a month left, and you love it there. You do. And look, everyone here is ready to help me out whatever happens, right?"
The Cullen family and Mr. Stephens confirm my words with such enthusiasm dad shifts in his chair. He avoids their eyes. "Thank you."
"No problem, Charlie," Carlisle says.
"Mr. Stephens, did you pay a visit to Eric's dad?"
"I did," he replies. "Just this morning. But he refused to speak to me. They're mourning. I'm not the only one who wants to have a word. Maybe he'd speak to you?"
Edward and his family leave to have lunch, and Marshal Stephens assures me I shouldn't hesitate to call him if I need anything before he, too, leaves. Dad stands. His flight leaves in a few hours.
"How are you feeling? I'm sorry we're overwhelming you with news. Maybe we shouldn't."
"It's alright. I'd rather be up to date than in shock later as I discover we no longer have a home."
Dad grimaces. "You're absolutely positive you don't need me to stay?"
"Because I would."
"I know. But you shouldn't."
Dad pulls out his phone and calls a cab. He steps closer to me and messes up my hair, just like Emmett usually does. "I couldn't be prouder to call you my daughter." He leans in to hug me. "I'm sorry I yelled—earlier. I'm not holding grudges because you didn't tell me about middle school sooner. I just needed you to understand you matter." He smiles. "You're a brave girl. I love you."
"Love you, too, dad. Take care of yourself."
He places a kiss on my forehead but it makes him awkward. "You too, Bella. Skype me and keep me updated about your progress."
"I will." I squeeze his hand before he steps out of the room and leaves me staring at the rain outside, wondering if I made the right decision encouraging him to go. But he needed to. He didn't say a word about Sarah, the woman I saw earlier, but maybe he's not ready. Maybe he feels guilty for loving another woman so soon after mom's death. I don't know. It could be a lot of things, and it's none of my business before he decides to talk to me about it or introduce us. Even then, it's none of my business.
All week, my spine situation has given me a taste of the surreal. I don't think it's fully sunk in yet. I haven't even had the time to be scared or depressed or angry—too much is going on. I don't know when I'll be able to stand or what it will mean, how much pain I'll suffer because of it, if I'll ever be able to run a marathon or join Mrs. Haldane's track team. I'm doing my best not to assume and not to be scared. One day at a time. I will heal, and in all likelihood, I will walk again. How well? We'll see.
Edward, upon seeing that I'm all alone, walks up to me, crouches next to my bed and starts stoking my jaw with his thumb. I close my eyes. I feel his lips press against mine, wet and warm. "Chocolate?" His nose rubs against my cheek as he nods, and I lock my hands behind his neck. His chest rumbles. I snicker.
"Jesus," he whispers, out of breath as he pulls away.
"Don't you dare. Nobody gives me chocolate." I lick his lips before he throws his head back in laughter and hides his face next to my neck. I'm panting. Edward frowns when he lets his face hover above mine and runs his fingers through my hair.
"You're sad," he says.
"Dad left," I reply. "I know that your first encounter with him wasn't all positive with him threatening to kill you and all, but he's actually pretty awesome."
"I know," he replies. "He loves you a lot, just like—"
He face gets conflicted, and he kisses the side of my lips. There's pain in his eyes. "Why won't you let me say it?"
"Because. Because everything's too uncertain. Sure, we can kiss now like it's no big deal, but when Dr. Heilbronner arrives to tell me that they didn't get that bullet piece out and my nerve endings are messed up and, sure, I can move my toes but when I stand, I'm fucked—when he comes to tell me all of that, I want to be okay after letting you go. I want to be able to patch myself together."
His jaw tightens. "I wouldn't let you go."
"You'll have to."
"I talked to the surgeon. They got the bullet piece out."
Edward presses his lips against mine, desperate and needy, sucks my bottom lip and smoothes my hair. He whispers against my ear. "I wouldn't let you go."
"Porn, porn, porn." We hear Emmett's voice as he enters the room. "Frankly, I'm surprised I haven't caught you two having sex yet. Also, if it helps, Carlisle and Esme will arrive any minute now."
"I went to see our house, too. It's pretty bad. Like a war has taken place at the back of our subdivision. Some of it is still smoking and the place is covered in ash. A few investigators were walking in the rubble, too."
"So nothing is left?"
"Nothing," he repeats. "But if it was done because they think you have something? You're fucked."
"Gee, exactly the assurance I need."
"We'll look after you, though. Right, Edward? We won't lose sight of you at school. We'll make sure you're never alone."
"Cannot wait to see you watch me pee."
Through the shock of losing our home and pretending not to care as much as he does, he cracks a genuine smile. Edward's parents arrive, and I wonder how much nepotism is involved for my doctor to turn a blind eye to the amount of visitors I have all day. Not that I'm not grateful. Or maybe I'm well enough for the amount of visitors not to matter? Maybe. I do hope to get home soon. Attend Eric's funeral. Eat solid food. Spend time with Edward. Convince him to kiss me silly. Kiss him silly. Play with Ping Pong. Catch up with schoolwork. Look into the whole Juilliard business and dream about running.
Life. I miss life.
Dr. Heilbronner enters and shares a few words with Carlisle that I have no hope of repeating, all I know is that he's got a smile on his face, and after some shared medical jargon, Carlisle is reflecting it. He offers me a genuine, encouraging grin. Esme's hands clench around my calves.
My doctor flashes his crooked teeth. "Even as it will be tough to get you on your feet and we can't promise you'll be completely void of pain for the rest of your life, you're likelier to make full recovery than we could've hoped for. Depending on how much you're willing to work on yourself, you might even run track again. If everything goes according to plan, you'll be on your feet as soon as next week. You might get home on Tuesday. I'll talk to you about the specifics in the evening."
He smiles, shares medical jargon with Carlisle, and leaves. Everyone is grinning, but before Emmett can whoop and start jumping on me, or before I start to cry from happiness (I mean, hunger,) Edward beats them to the bunch. He stares after the doctor, dumbfounded, stares at me, still dumbfounded, leans closer and hovers right above my face. He tilts my head back and beams. "In your style."
"So now it's okay?"
"Telling you," he answers, grinning. "I fucking love you, you fucking adorable girl."
I burst out laughing and hear Esme gasp before Emmett's laughter covers the rest. I pull Edward to a kiss and continue to laugh. "You're a fucking moron."
He grins, and there's a twinkle in his eye and love in his voice, and fuck, this man is mine.
"I am a lucky fucking son of a bitch."
"Didn't think you were related to dogs."
I think Emmett might choke from laughter. Edward's sweet mother is not only shocked by Edward's coarse language but also by what just transpired, and while Carlisle is shaking his head, amused, Esme is looking at us, mouth agape. Edward offers everyone a proud smile and steals a kiss. "Let's talk later," he says. I mirror his silly grin.
Sure, life is messed up, but Edward is here, looking like he's ready to burst with affection for me. The rest is trivial.