"Get the door, Baldrick."
(Baldrick enters, carrying a door.)
"Baldrick, I would advise you to make the explanation you are about to give phenomenally good."
"You said, 'Get the door.'"
"Not good enough. You're fired."
"But my lord, I've been in your family since 1532!"
"So has syphilis! Now get out!"
— Blackadder II, Beer
"Do you blame me?"
"Do you blame me?"
"If I'd managed to stop Eric that day in the cafeteria, none of this—none of it—would've happened."
"You don't know that. The extent of what the fucker did, it would've come out eventually."
"But—dad, you taught me to behave in situations like this one. You know you did. Are you disappointed that when it came down to it, I—I couldn't?"
"Absolutely not," he says, uncharacteristically blunt, turning to look at me as he lowers his hands, but never letting go of mine.
"But—but, I remember you thinking that psychology is like tree-hugging. I realize how much of a stretch it must've been for you to keep this opinion to yourself."
"Whatever helps you, I'll learn to believe in."
"You're sure? You don't think this is just time thrown in the wind?"
He sighs. "For me not to trust Edward's opinion at this point in time… I can't. That boy? You might just have to keep him, Bella."
For a few quiet moments, we listen to the foyer clock tick away time.
"Carlisle is worried about him."
"What did he tell you?"
"He's trying to figure out what he's doing wrong."
"What do you think?"
"I—I'm trying not to interfere. It's not easy for a parent to hear about the mistakes they've made."
"It's true. Sometimes it's easier to turn a blind eye. I think, at one point, maybe Edward wanted to follow Carlisle's footsteps, because kids, they do that a lot, but they often change their minds as they grow up. Maybe Carlisle never learned to let go."
I'm starting to think Edward feels like he owes it to his parents for taking him in and raising him.
"He feels suffocated."
"I know," dad replies. "He told me—those exact words."
"I wish I could help him."
Dad squeezes my hands. "You already have."
"No, I haven't."
"You have. He told me so himself." Dad leans against the backrest and lets go of my hands to rub his face. "I heard Carlisle and Esme bought you a piano."
"Sorry." I lower my voice. "Why? When? I haven't seen a piano."
"It's in the living room. Have you been there recently?"
Dad stands. I hold on to his forearm as we walk to the living room, turn on a single, dim light, and look at an upright piano covered by a white cloth at the back of the room. With dad's help, I walk to it. Dad sits on the edge of the couch as I sit in front of the piano and lift the cloth. In yellow writing, it reads, C. BECHSTEIN. I slide my fingers across the fallboard, but I don't lift it.
"Didn't Edward get into a fight with his parents on Friday?"
"How do you know that?"
"He told me." He motions at the piano. "And this—this is the reason."
"It makes sense, what he told them about giving gifts. This is how he thinks his parents make up for their shortcomings. They do love him, dad. They care so much. Edward is just too mature for their manner of showing it."
Looking at his lap, dad sighs. In a small voice, he says, "I could never afford something like this."
"Dad, no." I stand in front of him and squeeze his hand. "I'm not asking you to."
"You'd deserve it."
"Shut up, dad."
I motion for him to stand. He lifts his eyebrows but proceeds to comply. I pull him into a hug, the one he's embarrassed of. Dad doesn't say it upright, but he doesn't have to. I don't think Edward's parents realize how much you can hurt a person by doing this, how much they've made dad question his choices in life. It seems like a touchy subject to dad, someone who has, apparently, spent insane amounts to pay for the most expensive health insurance, who has insured himself in a way that would leave me and Emmett time to gather ourselves should anything happen to him. I hope not, God. He's going to live to be a hundred and fifteen.
"I don't fault you for the things you've done for us as much as you fault yourself for the things you haven't. I love you, dad. I can't wait for you to return. I miss you."
He squeezes me. "You miss your old man?"
"So much, dad."
He pulls back, embarrassed-looking, wipes hair out of my forehead and tucks me by his side as we lean on an armrest and face the piano.
"What happens now?"
"First, we need to get you some help. I think we should take you away from school for a while. You could study from home. What do you think?"
"I think it's Easter Holiday. I mean, Edward told me yesterday—I'd forgotten about simple things like that."
"I only have two weeks left."
"I remember. Where are we going to go when you're back?"
"I'm going to rent a house. Tom and Al have helped me find a few places."
"Can we go see the houses together?"
He clears his throat, but I beat him to the bunch.
"How could he have committed suicide, dad? Did they not keep an eye on him? I wouldn't have wanted to face a trial, fuck no, but I—it's so unfair. Why should he have had the opportunity to end it all while so many people, so many he abused, have to learn how to live a normal life with the horror and shame he caused? It's so fucking unfair. Why did he do it? Why did he keep doing it? Did his dad just find out on Friday? Where's his mom? Why did he get away with it for so long? Just—just fucking why, dad?"
"I don't know, honey," he says, voice low. I take a few deep breaths and wrap arms around myself.
"And you? Are you okay?"
"Just a bit cold."
Dad takes a thin woolen blanket from the armchair and wraps it around me.
"That's not what I meant."
"I know," I reply, eyeing him. He's my height, all dark hair and lighter eyebrows above kind, worried eyes. We've come a long way, he and I, our ways of coping, our level of trust, of being comfortable with affection. What a man he's turned out to be.
"I think—I'll be okay. Eventually."
"Yeah," I reply. "Although I might have to force you into a couple of philosophical conversations in the middle of the night."
"As long as you're okay."
Dad smiles, squeezes my shoulder, and switches off the light. He helps me downstairs.
I sit on the edge of Edward's bed. He shifts and rubs his eyes in a way that makes me confident he's awake.
"Did anything happen? You okay?"
His voice is rough with sleep.
"I feel remarkably like myself tonight."
He slides his fingers across my knuckles and throws a couple of pillows on the floor before lifting the blanket. I slide beside him. He nuzzles my ear.
"Why do I always wake up hugging pillows?"
"'cause I'm irreplaceable?"
"Good answer. I approve. C'mere."
He intertwines our legs and pulls me so that my head rests on his chest. I listen to his breathing start to even as I draw patterns on his chest. When I'm convinced he's asleep, he asks, "You're sure nothing happened?"
"Nothing of consequence."
He's watching me, I'm sure of it, but he says nothing.
"Will you take me to Rape Crisis Center?"
Those warm hands stroking my skin still.
I lift myself a bit to kiss him. "Thank you."
"Why do we always end up talking in the middle of the night?"
"Because you've got enough life going on for the both of us."
It is dad, eventually, who takes me to Harborview Center for Sexual Assault. He borrows Edward's car. I go to Bank of America, too, but before long, we're looking at each other in a parking lot around the corner from Harborview. He keeps fiddling with the car keys.
"Do you want me to come with you?"
"You'd have to. We didn't take my walker."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know." I sigh. "You can come if you want."
The place is dreadfully ordinary with its yellowish walls and corridor chairs. With dad's help, I inch closer to the receptionist, lean on the counter and clear my throat. A frizzy-haired, middle aged woman looks up.
"How may I help you?"
"I'd like to make a donation."
She smiles. "Of course. Just fill out this paper. How would you like to make it?"
I slip her a check, squeeze dad's arm and ask dad to help me leave.
"Miss? Miss? This is—" The woman comes after me. "You need to fill—"
"I don't care for that."
"You don't want to put down your name?"
"You can write Eric Yorkie. Yeah, put that. My mom had a funny sense of humor. Right, dad?"
Confused, dad stares at me, at the woman holding my check, and the few people who bypass who are unaware of this strange ordeal. After staring at my check for five awkward seconds the woman makes eye contact. Hers widen.
"This is—very generous—"
"It's not fake if you're worried about that." I wave. "It was nice meeting you."
When we're out of the building, dad nearly slips on a puddle covered by ice, but he doesn't sacrifice a single bruise to the gods of frozen puddles. Instead, he puts a mitten-less hand on mine and holds on to me as we walk to the car in silence.
"Where did you get that kind of money?"
He turns on the heater and pulls away from the parking lot.
"I sell heroine when I'm not at school."
Dad looks at me in front of the stop light, and it's not like that look he gives me when he's trying to figure out if I'm telling the truth. No. He's trying to figure out why I'm not telling the truth.
"Aw, you can count to five, dad! You must be so proud."
"Five digits, Bella."
"I robbed a bank last week. Happy?"
"Fine." I huff. "I sold Esme's diamond earrings."
If dad would be the type of person to roll his eyes, this would be his moment. He doesn't take his eyes off the road when he asks, "Did you sell part of what Renee left you? The business?"
"You really want to know?"
"No, I'm just asking to annoy you."
"Hardy har, har."
"Come on then."
I sigh. "I didn't want to take the money. It was Al who convinced me."
"But where did you get it?"
"King Broadcasting Company."
"For the videos?"
"Yes. I can only imagine their joy after they realize the videos are up for free on YouTube."
"What about Eric's parents?"
"I sent his dad an email on Saturday morning. I told him he can have it, but he didn't want any money associated with what happened. Neither do I. So I told him where I wanted to put it. He approved."
Dad eyes me, eyebrows raised. "So you decided to donate it."
"It wasn't mine to have."
He looks out of the window, turns on the radio, and casts a brief glance at me. Misleadingly dismissive-looking yet proud, he says, "I must've done something right."
Dad smiles at me. I return it and turn up the volume.
We go to Kirkland PD to talk to the Chief and Thomas Kell. It turns out the paramedics managed to bring Michael Newton back to life but several minutes of hypoxia damaged his brain and pressure to his neck seriously damaged his trachea. The paramedics performed tracheotomy (whatever that is) before Newton's heart gave out again, this time permanently. His mother hasn't showed up since his arrest.
Upon dad's request, nobody overwhelms me with questions as the current Chief and dad discuss the names Newton named prior to his death. Two of them were arrested on Friday, one on Sunday. A few are on the wanted list.
Esme is already in her coat when we arrive home. Dad changes clothes as I wait by the front door. When he reappears in his cargo pants and sweatshirt, he sets down his briefcase and stares at me, lips pursed in a bittersweet smile. He opens his arms and I step into them.
"Edward is a capable young man," he says with a lowered voice. "Trust him."
"Take care of yourself." He pulls back and disarrays my hair. Teasing, he presses my hair against forehead so that the fringe almost reaches my eyelashes. Dad smiles. "You need a haircut."
"I'll shave myself bald when you're gone."
He chuckles, throws the strap of his bag over his shoulder and picks up his back bag. Esme smiles and steps out, dad waves and follows. The click of the front door echoes in my ears before I throw it open.
I try to run to him, but it hurts. In socks, I step on the wet porch. It's freezing. "Dad!"
He turns and jogs to me. "What's the matter?"
Snow slosh seeps into my socks as I slowly step downstairs. Dad waits as I do, but I can tell he's a bit freaked.
I throw arms around him, squeezing and inhaling.
"I love you," I say. "I love you and I miss you and I need you to take care of yourself for me, okay? Can you do that? If anyone insists you should put yourself in a dangerous situation, tell them to go fuck themselves and come home. Please take care of yourself."
He pulls back to look in my eyes. "What brought this on?"
"You're all we have and you're the best dad ever and I need you alive and healthy. Please take care of yourself."
His face softens. He messes up my hair. "It's just for two weeks. I'll be home before you know it."
"Promise you'll be okay."
Confused, he nods. "I promise."
I'm a bit embarrassed as I let go of him. "Sorry for the dramatic farewell."
He squeezes my shoulder. "Wouldn't be you if it weren't a bit crazy," he says, letting me hold on to his forearm as I step upstairs. He stops in front of the front door. "Listen. I need you to take your sessions with Dr. Hunter seriously. If you want to see someone else, we'll find the money. Focus on getting well. I think you should skip school for a few weeks so you could focus on your health. Let me know at the end of the week if that's what you need."
Dad casts a glance at Esme's car. The windshield wipers are working.
"I also want you to know—I'm immensely proud of you. You're growing into a wonderful woman and it's a wonder to watch it happen. You and Emmett both. Even if I don't tell you all the time, I couldn't be prouder to call you my own."
"Thanks, dad," I reply. "I agree. Emmett growing into a wonderful woman is, indeed, a wonder to watch."
"Watch out for each other. I think he's got some girl issues he's not telling me, and maybe you could help him out."
"I'll see what I can do," I reply and pull him into one final hug. "I'm proud of you, too. So proud. I'll see you soon, okay?"
He smiles and hurries downstairs. I wave as the car leaves, close the front door, and sit in the foyer to take off my soaking socks. Barefoot, I walk to the kitchen. The silence feels odd. I pour dog food in Ping Pong's bowl before I halt. It is nothing but a habit for me to fill my dog's bowl the moment I get home, but this time, it turns my stomach. I lean against the counter and take deep breaths. I stare at the little metal bowl that is covered by kibble some of which is scattered around the bowl. It clangs against a cupboard in the hallway when I kick it away from me. A painful jolt runs through my back.
I sit on scattered kibble.
He'll never be here to eat it. He'll never be here to lick my face or bother me when I'm doing physical therapy. He'll never snuggle when I'm sprawled across the parlor carpet, studying or watching a movie. He'll never bark at a stranger when I'm jogging at ungodly hours. He's just—gone. Like smoke in the wind.
I start picking up kibble, one by one, setting them in the empty ceramic bowl where his water should've been. The position strains my back, so I turn on my side, rest head on the cupboard and flick kibbles away from me. It's my fucking fault he's no longer here, mine. Nobody else's.
I try to get up when I hear the front door, but give up after my left leg is covered by pins and needles. I raise my eyes to see Edward stop on the doorway.
"Christ." He leans over me. "What happened?"
I am more conscious this time of the way his palms run over my skin, cheeks, neck. He kneels and caresses my hair. "What happened?"
I take his hand and intertwine our fingers. "Where's Ping Pong?"
Searching my eyes, tenderly, in a low voice, he says, "He's dead."
I realize he's afraid I've forgotten, or I'm still in shock, but I take a breath and kiss his knuckles. "I know," I reply. "Where is his body?"
"In the basement freezer."
"I want to bury him."
"Right now. I'll dig the hole myself if you don't want to."
"No, I can do it. But right now? Are you sure?"
The world is mocking me, I am sure of it. Why else would the sky be dim and orange in its cloudless charm? But I'm glad Edward's house isn't part of a subdivision. Hand in hand, we walk to the edge of a foresty park where Edward refuses to help me dig. Together we clutch the edges of my blood-soaked sheet weighed down by Ping Pong, and carefully place him in the hole Edward dug. I lean on a tree and watch my Garfield sheet take cover under wet soil. When Edward is done, he steps on its shoulder so that the shovel stands upright. He walks up to me, lips pressed together, and envelops me in his arms.
It's unreal, the occasional breeze, semi-frozen ground and bare trees against the darkening sky. For a moment, we listen to distant sirens and chirping birds.
"You're a brave girl."
"I'm just slow. It takes a while for emotional garbage to sink in. Don't confuse bravery with my snail-paced emotional response."
"I'm glad you do."
He runs his hands through my hair and pulls away, just slightly. "How are you feeling today?"
"Surreal but better. You?"
We head inside. In silence, we take off our coats and grab a bite to eat. In the parlor, Edward pulls me to sit between his legs, wraps arms around me, kisses the nape of my neck and nuzzles my ear. I shiver.
"I missed you today. I'm sorry I couldn't take you."
"How'd it go?"
"I saved three lives and a kitten."
He breathes down my neck as he hesitates.
"Do you think we could make a little cross for Ping Pong?" I ask.
"Of course. Do you want to do it now?"
"No, I—it's weird."
"What's weird about it?"
"I'm—it's so weird. I feel so much guilt about letting that happen to him. It's terrifying, but at the same time, I'm not even crying. How terrible is that?"
He squeezes me. "Grieve however you feel like. Tears or not."
I turn a bit, just enough to see his jaw. "Edward?"
I imagine what we'd look like to an outsider, snuggling on a couch, TV and laptop turned off, no music, nothing but us. Nothing but a seventeen year old girl wrapped in her best friends clothes, and nothing but a young man who is far and beyond what you'd expect from a guy his age, even at twenty one. I'm struck by the oddest feeling of not knowing him at all, past, present, or vision of a future.
"Yes?" he repeats. Edward helps me turn around, lifts my legs over his lap, strokes my calf and looks down at me. I brush hair off his forehead.
"I want to get to know you," I tell him. He returns the gesture with my fringe and leans closer. My stomach flutters. Edward's smile is teasing but somehow still shy.
"Are we reaching the same page?"
Despite his comfort in being affectionate, his face is so vulnerable that I pull him into a kiss. I lift myself, slide fingers in his hair and pull him closer. He grins against my mouth before responding, stroking my back, pressing his torso against mine and gently laying me down on the couch. Putting no weight on me, he straddles my hips and leans over me. He's holding the back of my head in his hands, covering my neck with kisses, and even though my back is not that strong, I press him against me. Leaning on his elbows, he draws away and licks his lips. I lick them, too. He laughs. Curly hair is falling on his forehead, and his face is slightly red. He's drawing patterns on my hair with his thumb and searching my eyes, almost like he's desperate to comfort me but at the same time incapable of keeping his hands off of me.
Is this real? Can I tear this moment—that look in his eyes—from my mind and shelve it somewhere precious? I need to have a safe for that look filled with worry and caring and unabashed love. Why me? I don't ask. Instead, I smile, and if I ever had doubts about us, the way he immediately mirrors it would erase them. Thousand fold.
"This is unfair."
"Unfair?" he repeats, puzzled. "How?"
"I want to be on top."
He huffs a chuckle and rests his forehead against mine. "I told you."
"Told me what?"
"You're a natural initiator."
"So full of it, Cullen. If my back were fine, I'd tie you up and have my wicked way with you."
"Oh, so that's how things are going to be when your back is okay again?"
His face breaks into a grin.
"Remember the tickets you got me for Christmas? War Horse for the 4th of March?"
"I was, ah, going to ask you to go with me."
He trails a pattern on my cheek with his nose. I can feel his smile on my skin.
"Were you now."
"Yes. Strictly as friends, of course."
"I know. I would've probably jumped you afterwards, though."
He laughs and lies down beside me, resting his head on his palm. I turn to face him and place my palm flat against his chest. Smiling, Edward strokes my waist, squeezes, slips his hand under my shirt and repeats the motion. It's almost absent-minded, that smile and the way he observes me.
I wonder how much of what we do together he deems important. If Edward were to write an entry into my diary (or his own journal), what would he write about? Even if he wrote about the exact same situations I'm writing about, how different would they be? He's so casual about affection he probably wouldn't even notice a moment like this.
"Would it be okay for you if I spoke to your dad about, you know, the whole doctor thing?"
He pulls back. "You think he'd listen to you?"
"I can try. Would that be okay?"
"Of course," he replies, and brushes his lips over my cheek. "How's your PT going?"
"Nowhere. Chris hasn't been around since Thursday."
"Yes, super hunky dude, very sleek, hot six-pack owner. He shows me sex positions and wants to go on a date with me."
After a moment of quiet blinking, Edward clears his throat.
"I didn't realize your physical therapist was a guy."
"Why? Are you jealous?"
"Maybe." He nuzzles my ear.
"Maybe? Maybe, huh. In that case, you should know he walks around with a permanent boner when we—"
"Bella," Edward semi-growls. I hold eye contact before bursting into chuckles.
"I'm sorry. You're too precious. Chris is short for Christina. She's a she."
Hot air warms my ear when Edward exhales. He throws a leg over mine and squeezes me.
"You evil little girl."
Tuesday takes a turn for better—or for worse—when I have an appointment with Dr. Hunter in the afternoon. Edward drops me off and helps me to the waiting room before heading off to some WWF conference he's helping out with (I've lost track of Edward's extra-curriculars, so I'm not entirely sure). A big man with a limp exits Dr. Hunter's cabinet before I crawl (eh, you know what I mean) in. I shut the door and watch Dr. Hunter lean against the table, holding a clipboard in his lap. His tattooed double-chin seems to have grown.
"Do you only accept patients with a physical disability now?"
"Maybe." He scribbles something down and stands. "Do you need any help?"
"No. Just give me time."
He takes a seat in the armchair and silently observes me as I inch closer to the couch. I let my bag fall on the ground and sit. He's resting elbows on his knees, watching me.
"How've you been?"
"Same old, same old. Saw a friend start a school shooting, took a bullet, put a few guys in jail and failed to prevent a couple of suicides." I hide my hands in my sweatshirt's pockets. "How about you, Jammy? How's life treating you?"
He doesn't smile but leans forward and simply looks at me. I'm not sure if he's trying to imply that it's not my place to reciprocate or that the answer wouldn't hold the same weight. A few seconds pass.
"All that's been happening—Is that why you started seeing me?" he asks, and continues to look at me in that jarring, silent way.
"How do you feel?"
"Haven't you read any newspapers recently?"
"Newspapers don't tell your story. I'm asking you."
"I feel—I don't know. Confused. Angry. Disappointed. Guilty. All over the place. My emotional response is a bit on the slow side."
"Nothing wrong with that."
I shrug. "I wouldn't know."
"Edward came to talk to me yesterday."
"Right. I forget you guys know each other. So what did he tell you? That I'm a harm to myself and others? That the likelihood of any male committing suicide increases as they come in contact with me? What?"
I let out a breath and let my shoulders fall. I can't help but feel defensive.
"Does he have a reason to be worried?"
He leans against the backrest. "How about we discuss your feelings one by one."
"Will that fix me?"
"Can you fix me?"
"That is not my goal."
"Then what am I doing here?"
"Because I can help you help yourself."
"That's deep, man. How much time did you spend making that up?"
He looks at me until I grow restless and attempt to raise my legs underneath my body, but I fail. For a quiet moment, we stare at each other. He scratches his double chin. It's scruffy and looks like a soft hedgehog with a balding problem.
"I understand this past month must've been hard on you, but you have to help me help you in order to make progress. I know it must be difficult—"
"Difficult? Difficult, really. Did it take you a PhD to figure that out?"
Eyeing me, he says nothing, and it makes my hair bristle. I want to get a rise out of him. I want to annoy him. I want him to shout and throw me out. I want a reaction.
"So you think you understand what I'm going through."
"No," he says quietly. "I have never been in your situation. Not even a similar one."
"But you think you can help me."
"I have to believe that."
"Because you need help and I have means to provide it."
"So you think I'm so messed up I couldn't function without it."
"I never said that."
"But that's what you're thinking."
"It is not."
"So you think I'll just waltz in and start pouring my heart out and that'll magically heal me or some shit?"
"I seem to be thinking an awful lot of things in your mind. I know—"
"You don't! You don't know shit!"
He lifts his chin. "Tell me then."
"You—you—don't! I don't want this. Nobody ever—they don't teach you how to not smell of shit when you've been forced to bathe in it for years. Because you're expected to scrub it off, but it's too deep! I can't. It won't. It's under my skin and seeped through my muscles and into my bones. I can't."
"Let's talk about that."
"No! Let's not. Stop being such a fucking psychologist and fix me."
"I told you—"
"You can't, yada-yada. Well that makes two of us!"
"The door is over there," he says, calm as ever, motioning at the door as he observes me.
"You are—so you just want to give up?"
"I never said that."
"Why are you not yelling at me!"
"Is that what you want?"
"Because it's fair!"
"Because I deserve it! Because I want to feel pain! Because I caused pain and it's fair!"
"Why is it fair?"
"Because I failed dad and I failed Edward and I let Ping Pong die! Come on, now. Get up and shout! Throw me out!"
"If you want to pass the responsibility of your decisions on to me you have chosen the wrong person."
"I don't want to—stop psycho-analyzing me!"
"I'm a psychologist for a reason."
"You—you! Stop that! Why are you so calm? Yell at me!"
He rests elbows on his knees, and I want him to sound smug, I want to hate him, I want him to treat me like shit, I want to see every bad characteristic in him to make yelling at him okay. Because, as he sits there, just watching me, scratching his chin like I amuse him, like I'm playing his game and not the other way around, that fuels my anger. I'm irrational, impulsive and enraged, and even more so as Dr. Hunter nods at me.
"Stop doing that!"
"Looking like you understand what I'm saying! Like you know how I'm feeling! Like you're expecting me to yell. Stop it! Stop me."
"Maybe you need it."
"So you think talking is going to make everything okay? You think talking will bring back Eric and make me realize at the right moment how necessary I was in his life? You think talking will erase all the time I spent in middle school desperate to hide bullying from dad? You think it will make me take off my pink glasses and see the world and the people around me without their halo? I don't want to see the world like it really is. I don't want to be forced to have coping mechanisms. I don't want anything. And why did Newton have the right to hang himself? Why? He should've been stopped. He had no right to take the easy way out when I'll be forced to learn how to feel like I deserve good things to happen to me. As if I matter."
"You do matter."
"How do you know that? You don't know that!"
"Your family and Edward's is a living proof of that. People care about you."
"Well, they shouldn't. I let them down and I'll let them down again."
"Is that unforgivable?"
"Why? You're only human. Have they let you down?"
"It's not the same!"
"Because it's not!"
"What's with the whys?"
"Humor me. Why?"
"Because they're better than me! I love them and I'll forgive them because there's not much they can do that I couldn't forgive them for. But I'm not that girl they think I am and they'll hate me when they see that."
"Who do you think you are, then?"
"Oh, believe me, you're proving the opposite at this very moment."
"Stop analyzing me!"
"Merely offering a perspective, forgive me. Continue."
Running his palm along his chin, he regards me. "I believe you're more afraid of showing weakness than actually having it."
"You don't know that!"
"I believe your issue is not that you're weak, it's that you're afraid of being weak and you think of that as a weakness."
"I was weak before I decided to change. I was weak in middle school."
"Think of it this way—if you hadn't had the experiences you had in middle school, you wouldn't have felt so held back and probably would've let yourself shine sooner out of stage. So it appears you're not repressing your middle school self, you've stopped repressing your true self and letting your real character show. Am I close to how you feel?"
"That proves nothing."
I'm panting a bit as we argue but I stop yelling at him to observe how calm he is. It feels abnormal. I rub my face and let out a slow breath.
"I'm deflecting," I say in a low voice. "I'm sorry."
Dr. Hunter's eyes are alive—not humored or serious but filled with energy.
"It's not okay. It's not."
"Express yourself however you feel you need to," he replies, and I feel disappointed in myself that he's being such a voice of reason while I'm yelling at him. I can't help it.
"What makes you think you're weak?"
I sigh. "I failed to act when John Newton shot my dog and himself. I just—shut down. I never thought that could happen to me."
"You were in shock. That is not a reaction you can control."
"It makes me no less responsible for what happened."
"If a murder happened in a room with a sleeping person in it, would you hold him responsible for not calling 911?"
"Of course not."
"What if that person were you?"
"I see where you're going with this. It's not the same."
"How is it not? You don't remember what happened after he shot himself in front of you, do you?"
"Just bits and pieces and what Edward told me."
"There's a limit for everyone. If you want to punish yourself for being human, go ahead, but you're fighting a lost cause. What else makes you think you're weak?"
"Middle school. I didn't fight back."
"What did you think would happen if you did?"
"The rare times I did, it got worse. Choosing between bad and worse, I chose bad."
"So you were preserving yourself. We've talked about this."
"How about when you jumped and took that bullet for Edward? Or when you told your father to go back to Georgia? When you took charge when your mother passed away? When you found Eric's tapes and took them to the police by yourself? Do these situations not count for anything?"
"How do you know about that?"
"I watch the news."
"I mean me telling my dad to return to Georgia."
"I spoke to Edward."
"You don't think all of that took bravery?"
"How is it different?"
"I had no choice."
"So you have situations in life when you're forced to preserve yourself, and then you show acts of courage not many people are capable of. So which situations do you want to define you? Which will you let define you?"
"Perhaps." He looks at his wrist watch and stands. I bend to take my bag, but he motions for me to stay put. His lips are pressed in a kind but modest smile, and even though it's 4:14 PM (half an hour past due), he doesn't seem to be in a hurry. He intertwines his fingers under his pouch. I shuffle my legs and look down.
"I'm sorry," I say. "For shouting at you."
I look at him when he doesn't answer, and his eyes continue to hold that energy in them.
"I've rarely been so glad a recipient of yelling."
And yet, he doesn't fully smile.
"Am I right in the assumption that it's okay to let you leave for today or do you have any burdens to get off your chest?"
"I'm sorry? Do you think I'll go off myself or something?"
He stares at me as if the idea weren't as preposterous as my reaction makes it to be.
"You seriously think I'd do that? Seriously?"
"You've gone through a lot during the last half a year. More than some will in their entire lifetime."
"Well, I'm not thinking about it. I promise to come and yell at you about it if the idea ever strikes me as appealing."
"You do that."
I pick up my stuff and stand. Slowly, I start walking to the door but stop midway and turn around. "For what it's worth, I think you rub me the wrong way just enough to make seeing you worth it."
His amusement is clear in his eyes. "I'm glad. Friday morning?"
"You bet on it."
For a few days, I seem to walk around in a perpetual state of confusion. I question my perception, but also those around me, and I'm left wondering if anything I see and notice about the people around me is how things actually are. But who's to say how things really are? I've learned a few lessons about that recently.
I climb on top of the refrigerator the next morning—it takes me three chairs and a half an hour—and sit there, watching the dark kitchen in the early morning light. It's quiet. I just sit, doing nothing but wondering what I've been doing wrong in my life to justify the intensity of my reaction and the confusion that has followed, and if it's normal to question such things. Everyone seems to be under the impression that my confusion is natural, that it's expected, that it would be a miracle if I were left unaffected by the events that have been happening for the past month. I wish I didn't agree, but I do. It's a funny way to see things, but I think it's for the best for me to live through this confusion right now and not try to be superman. Because that's my natural reaction—pretending the problem doesn't exist. But if I did that, who's to say I wouldn't become depressed for no apparent reason in ten years' time because I can't even figure out what's causing me to be that way?
Better to scream while shelving my untangled emotions than to shelve knotted emotions and leave a screaming cupboard behind.
The sound of doors opening and muffled noises reach me before I see Carlisle's and Esme's figures on the doorway. Carlisle's arms are wrapped around Esme and they're both swaying as if dancing a silent dance.
"He needs to know," Carlisle says.
"Not yet. It's horrible timing."
"But what a miracle."
Esme laughs, and it's filled with joy I've rarely heard in her laugh. It's heart-warming. I'm, once again, struck by the absolute bewilderment of witnessing their happiness some of which is supposedly pretend. Or maybe it's their habits and behavior (without me around) that Edward criticized. While I've been meaning to talk to both of them, I don't want to intrude on their moment. But I have no way out. I think of clearing my throat but the lights are switched on before I can do it. Esme lets out a scream before hyperventilating. Their arms are wrapped around her stomach.
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I didn't think anyone would be up this early."
I feel their eyes on me (and the tower of chairs I've built) as I, slowly, start to climb down the refrigerator.
"Bella! You scared me. What were you doing up there?"
"Waiting for a letter from Hogwarts."
Carlisle assists me as I climb down, and when we've returned the chairs in their places, we look at each other in silence.
"Please don't tell Edward yet," Esme says.
"Tell him what?"
"You heard," Carlisle says, but he's smiling when he returns to his place behind Esme and wraps his arms around her. "I know you heard."
I smile. "If it is what I think it is, I believe congratulations are in order. Are they?"
They both beam a toothpaste commercial worthy smile, and I have my answer.
"Congratulations! This is pretty awesome."
"Aw, honey." Esme tilts her head on the side and puts an arm on my shoulder. "Thank you."
I want to tell them to be careful sharing this news with Edward. On the one hand, he'll be thrilled for them (and himself) because his parents will finally have someone else to dote on but him, one the other, Christ, this will break him. Talk about handing issues on a silver platter to an adopted guy who's got belonging issues.
"I actually wanted to talk to you about something, Carlisle. Is that okay?"
They eye me before Carlisle kisses Esme's forehead and she goes to take a shower. Carlisle takes a seat and so do I. He rests elbows on the table, intertwines his fingers and presses his lips together.
"You don't have to look quite so warrior-like for a conversation."
He chuckles, and I take a breath.
"It concerns Edward. I know it's none of my business, and I'm not trying to butt in on your life. I'm just worried about him. Is it okay for me to add my two cents?"
"I think I know what you see in him."
His eyebrows shoot up. "That is not what I thought you'd say."
"Did you think I was going to scold you for bad parenting?"
"Something like that."
"Well, I'm not. No family is perfect. I love my dad and brother to death, but I wouldn't dream of either of them acting according to my approval. We're different. That's both the hard and the interesting part."
"Are you implying I'm forcing Edward to act on my approval?"
"I'm Bella. I don't imply, no. If you believe he'd make an excellent doctor, I agree with you."
"I don't understand."
"I mean, I think he would make an excellent doctor if that is to become the path he chooses. The way he reacts in a tight situation? Definitely cut out for it. The thing is, I think he thinks he needs your approval, I think he's forcing himself to act on your approval, and whether or not you agree with me doesn't change the fact that he hates himself for needing it."
"What? My approval?"
"Yes. Well, at least I think so."
"If he's cut out for it then what's the problem?"
"I think you should have this conversation with Edward."
Carlisle grimaces. "The problem is, every time we speak the volume is through the roof."
"But if I can talk through you, let's do that. Tell me, if he's cut out for it, what's the problem?"
"Well, it's one thing to be good at something, it's another to want to do it. Especially if he feels the value of him as a person in your eyes hangs upon your approval of his choices."
"But you agree. He's a natural at medicine. He could have a bright future ahead of him."
"And I'm not questioning any of that. But right now, it seems the more you bring it up, the less likely he is to want to discover that path for himself."
He crosses his arms and leans against the backrest. "Did you know that when Edward was four, he saved two people from a burning car?"
I blink at him. "I did not know that."
"It was all over the news, too," he says, eyes burning. "It was because of this news that we chose to—" He stops, looks down and taps his bicep. "Anyway, if anyone's cut out for this job, it's him."
Oh, fuck. It was after this news that they chose to adopt Edward, wasn't it? Because of it? Shit. If Edward hears that he was chosen because of expectations of a future that he's not sure he wants, he might just run away from home. I know I would. Edward, if you hear all of this and still manage to have a normal relationship with your parents, you will be my hero, because my heart is breaking for you.
"I think he needs the assurance that whatever he chooses, you'll approve of. Even if it's plumbing."
"Plumbing, waitering, whatever."
"Don't be ridiculous. He's better than that."
I press my lips together because I know he loves Edward, and he will come to grips with whatever Edward chooses, but at this moment, Edward needs his support so that he could tone down the extra-curricular escapism and actually figure out what he wants to do without Carlisle's arrows.
"You don't like what I'm saying."
It's not what you're saying, Carlisle, it's what you're leaving unsaid that bothers me.
"I do not."
"I'm proud of my son."
"I've never doubted that."
"And he is too good to settle for anything less than he's worth."
"Are we still talking about his supposed career?"
"Don't worry, you're ambitious. You're good for him."
My ambition is why you approve of me? Oh, fuck off, Carlisle.
It's the unwavering certainty that turns my insides out, makes me boil with anger, and if my back were okay, I'd go for a good four hour jog, three of which I'd spend screaming. I am able to stand, so I do just that, and I have no reason to hide my disapproval of his closed-mindedness.
"Thanks," I say, tight-lipped. "This has been enlightening."
He stands. "Do you need any help?"
I'm surprised my skin doesn't show signs of boiling because I am furious. I find Edward sleeping without a care in the world, holding the pillow I left for him. His lips are parted and he might be coming down with a cold because he's wheezing. I open the blanket, tug the pillow from his arms and lie myself on him. He wraps arms around my waist, and even though his morning wood is poking my thigh, I press myself closer, kissing his neck, sucking it, hiding my fingers in his hair and stroking his neck and chest. I press a wet, needy kiss on his lips, and his eyes open. He gives me a sexy, adorable smile, and returns the kiss.
"What's the occasion?"
I grind myself against him, and he twitches before stilling and rubbing my back. "You can't—it's morning—Bella?" He grips my hand. "You're shaking like crazy. What happened?"
Stroking and squeezing, I rub his skin, his warm skin and taut muscles, and kiss a trail from his chest to lips. "Let me love you."
"Can you sit up?"
"Why are you upset?"
"Please," I whisper. "Do you want to do this?"
Edward sits against the headboard. In the dim morning light, I tear off my T-shirt, straddle his lap and resume to kissing him. Edward's hands grip my hips as he pushes me down. "What's the matter?"
"Is it okay to get you off?"
"Of course but—what happened?"
I have no clue what I'm doing as I stroke his skin, kissing and sucking. It's when he returns my enthusiasm that I feel the love and pleasure in his touch. He wipes hair off my forehead, leaving his hands on my neck as he licks his lips and gazes at me like I'm the only thing that matters. I lift my hips, just slightly, but it's enough for him to grip my hip and press down a bit. He grunts but eyes me with a sort of wild wonder as he pulls me into a kiss. We share desperate kisses, reach a rhythm, and I watch, fascinated, when his head falls back as he presses and holds me down once, twice, three times. His entire body twitches before becoming still. He's panting, and it takes him a while to lift his head. He gives me a lazy smile as he rests his forehead against mine.
He seems shy, but the kiss he gives me is tender, protective, and after pulling me against him he maneuvers us to lie down. He hides his face in my neck. I shiver.
"Your pants are wet."
His chest shakes as he laughs. "That's what happens, yeah."
"I think I've heard of that."
He straddles my hips and pushes hair off my face. "Is your back okay?"
"Yeah. That's why I wanted to be on top."
Edward smiles and presses a wet, lingering kiss on my lips. "I'm sorry I didn't last very long."
"My extensive research and personal experience with guys will tell you that, oh, wait, never mind."
Laughing, he kisses my nose. "Do you want me to return the favor?"
"Is that something you'd want to do?"
He huffs, and it's sort of a wheeze but I can understand he's laughing.
"Hey! No laughing at the virgin!"
He smiles against my cheek and whispers, "I'm sorry, you're adorable. We should probably talk about this later on, but yes. Definitely something I want to do."
"But, uh, not today. Is that okay?"
"Of course. Can you wait one second? I'll be right back."
He returns sans pajama pants but with boxer briefs, slips under the blanket and wraps arms around me. "You're incredible." He breathes against my ear and strokes my waist. "Now tell me, what made you so upset?"
"My dad? My dad got you so hot and bothered you just had to come to me?"
"I believe you were the one cumming."
"You snarky girl." He snickers. "What happened?"
"I talked to him like I told you I would, and at first it seemed it was going well and he was willing to listen but he, God, he pissed me off and I'm so impressed you're not strangling him half of the time because that's what I'll always want to do when in the same room with him. Oh, Edward, what he said? Jesus. No wonder you feel pressured."
"Did you have a shouting match?"
"I was tempted."
"I'm sorry," he mutters against my skin. "I'm sorry you had to see how stubborn he can be."
No, I'm sorry, Edward, because once you find that your parents chose you because of a future they expect but you don't, once you find out that your parents are expecting a miracle of their own—unless they learn to see you for who you are and how much you have to offer—you'll be heartbroken and I'm incapable of healing wounds that deep. I desperately hope Carlisle accidentally misworded the cause for your adoption, because if he didn't, there's a lot of pain coming your way.
I turn to face him. "Have you googled your real name?"
He raises his eyebrows. "Never thought of it."
"You were seven in two thousand, right? Four officially?"
"Do you have your laptop around? I think there's something you should see."
Is it a stretch to believe news like this made the internet those days? I guess we'll find out.
Edward turns on his laptop, I open Google and enter 'Edward Jr. Masen burning car.'
Nothing comes up.
I use search tools—custom date range—and add the year. Sure enough, there are several little snippets of the news but one actual story. The bed dips as Edward sits up and grabs the laptop.
"I—" He clears his throat. "I remember this. I thought—shit."
"You thought what?"
His eyes grow wide. "I thought it was a dream."
Together, we read the story. It gives me goose bumps because, fuck, Edward performed CPR two weeks before his seventh birthday (the real one in March) on a thirteen year old girl, and found a bypasser who helped him drag a mature man away from a burning car. There's a picture, probably taken with a potato because there are about two pixels to it, but you can clearly see a boy wrapped in a yellow blanket, eyes fixed on two stretchers. The article, of course, mentions the fact he's living in an orphanage at the time, but they get his age wrong. Not that I blame them—in those two pixels, he looks malnourished and tall but so incredibly young.
"How did you know?"
"I didn't. Carlisle mentioned it, but of course, he couldn't have known you know about being adopted, or that the information is available on the internet."
"All this time, all I had to do is google my real name, and I would've known."
"True. But you didn't know your real name."
Absent-minded, he nods and, using search tools, googles versions of his name. Nothing but what we already read comes up, but still, the knowledge is huge. After a while, he shuts his laptop, hugs me and whispers, "Thank you."
It's getting lighter outside, but we don't move, neither do we fall asleep. Edward smiles as I draw patterns on his cheek. He strokes my waist.
"I don't know how to repay you for how much you've taught me about myself," he says.
"You could start by catching me!" I giggle and tear myself out of his arms, but he grips my wrist.
"But you can't run."
"Shit. You're right." I put my arms on his stomach and grin. "But I can tickle you!"
If at first he seems mildly amused by my efforts to make him laugh, he starts shaking with laughter when I stroke the bottom of his right foot with my toes. My face hurts from grinning so hard, but not even five seconds have passed when he quickly but gently pins me under him. He straddles my hips, presses his palms against my waist and leans so close to my face I breathe his breath.
"Oh, don't you dare get all shy on me now," he says, grinning as he leans even closer. He whispers, "We are such equals it's ridiculous."
It's amazing to hear those words from him, to think of us as equals. So maybe I have issues, and maybe he does, too, but how amazing will our relationship be in spite of and because of all of what we'll have to go through?
My grin widens. I bend my knee to rub the bottom of his foot again, and he twitches and presses his face against my neck in laughter. "You evil little girl."
I sober, soon, as I look at him, hair falling against his forehead, panting and blinking slowly, grinning like all the worry in this world is conquerable when I'm by his side. I wipe hair off his forehead (it falls back) and observe his toothy grin as he nuzzles my nose, gently, cherishing, with so much happiness in his eyes we could be flying together. I know, on the horizon, he's got pain waiting for him, and maybe I do, too, but at this moment, I need to believe that we will be okay.
"Never leave," he whispers, and I see that boy, that small boy who saved two people from a horrible death, and this man, so desperate to belong he doesn't even realize how much approval he needs in his choices. But I'll be here. I grin, and when I pull his lips to mine, he mirrors my grin, so with teeth pressing together rather than lips we fall against the bed in laughter and I just know, everything will be okay.