"Permission to sing boisterously, sir?"
"If you must."
"Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream!
Belts off, trousers down!
Isn't life a scream?! Oy!"
"Fabulous. University education, you can't beat it."
— Blackadder Goes North, Plan A
Habits can be broken by change of routine. The simplest change can make you reconsider the schedule you didn't know you had, the things you didn't know you did and thought. Habits can make you prejudiced, they can make you think and act a certain way without you realizing. How often do you reconsider the person your habits make of you? Habits make us. Habits break us.
It is Edward's habit to drown himself in extra-curriculars, just like it is mine to think the way I do about myself. And it's difficult to bring myself out of it because I've been doing it for years. It's difficult to let go of what (you think) you've known.
In being predictable, habits offer a routine that we can count on. So we can think less. Have a reason to lean on the way things have always been to explain, justify and support how they are. As if we cannot or can't be bothered to step out of the chain and change the course of action. Why are things the way they are? Because they always have been. Why aren't we changing how they are? Because the way things are, it's easy. It's safe. It's our comfort zone. In theory, everyone likes thinking out of the box. Or, at least, we like to think of ourselves as people who think outside of the box.
It is perhaps that need for breaking my routine—for thinking that there are only certain things in life I can change. Perhaps it is that need to prove myself, to change myself and the world, to have an impact at the cost of my thinking routine, that forced me to step outside my box. Because, sure, I always thought one day I will make an impact. One day, when my life is perfect, when I've made myself to be the best possible person I could ever be, after high school and college when I have a steady job as an actress, stage or otherwise, I will start changing the world.
The problem is, that day will never arrive unless I make it.
But before my grandiose plan to change the world, I have a sillier one to make Edward's first real birthday as memorable as possible. Starting from the fact that, at 4:15 AM, I hide twenty one little notes all over the house and the garage. When I'm done, I sit on the edge of his bed and run fingers through his hair.
He groans and clears his throat. "What's with the early morning wake up calls?"
"I want to make out with you?"
His lips twitch from a stifled smile before he opens the blanket for me. "Why are you up so early?"
"Because I go to sleep four hours before you do?"
He pulls me in his arms, intertwines a warm leg with one of mine and looks altogether too sleepy and adorable to be capable of pinning me under him and straddling me, which is why I'm so caught by surprise I let out a squeal. Snickering, I pretend to be grossed out by his morning breath.
"Seriously, where are your manners?"
"My manners?" He nibbles on my ear and whispers, "You're the one who keeps waking me up in the middle of the night."
He throws a leg over my hips and lies next to me close enough to crawl under my skin. He peppers my neck with kisses and sighs when he snuggles oh-so-close and, holding me tightly against him, closes his eyes.
"What are you doing?"
"I am trying to sleep," he responds and presses his lips against my neck. "Now, if you don't mind."
"It's too early for life on this planet. Try again at noon."
"And don't you dare replace yourself with a fucking pillow. I will not let you go this time."
He squeezes me, gentle yet protective, and so I listen to his breathing even out as I fight goose bumps—the good kind—and play with his hair. I don't let him sleep for long because his parents will be waking up soon and I want to do this before they wake up. So I reach for the bedside table, take my white rose and stick it under his nose. I brush the petals against his lips.
"Bella," he warns, snuggling closer.
I kiss his ear and whisper, "Happy twenty first, Edward."
I pull back. He runs a hand over his face and makes eye contact, blinking.
"You forgot." I bring the rose to his nose and smile. "I, ah, I know guys aren't probably excited about flowers or whatever, but I really wanted to get you one so please pretend it's the best thing ever because it's coming from me."
Blinking but with a growing smile, he sits up, takes my white rose and sniffs it. There's a twinkle in his eyes. "It's the best thing ever because it's coming from you."
I slide off the bed. Edward's eyes linger on the little note attached to my flower. His grin widens as he reads it, and when he's done, he jumps up, wraps arms around my thighs, lifts me up and twirls me around. I laugh when my hair brushes the ceiling.
"Damn, you're enthusiastic."
Slowly, he lets my feet touch the carpet, brushes hair off my forehead and eyes me like I'm the Sun to his Solar System.
"That's the reaction I want to get when I propose to you," I add.
He laughs and kisses my forehead.
"So they're hidden? And I have to find the next one? What happens when I reach the last one?"
"Wouldn't you like to know."
He wraps me in his arms and squeezes. "You evil little girl."
A second later, as I sit on his bedside, I watch Edward act like a five year old boy, running around the room, throwing clothes on and grinning like a maniac.
"Can I use your computer while you're searching the house?"
"It's under the bed," he says before grabbing his rose and running out of the room. I don't think I've ever seen him act so silly and enthusiastic. I love it. I make sure his Mac is charged before I inch upstairs, sneak into the living room—he's in the garage—hide myself in the closet and wait. I can hear him moving around, finding notes that say stuff about him and lead him to the next note. I think I've sat there for about twenty minutes before the closet door opens. Edward is stuffing my notes in his pocket before he makes eye contact and lets out a laugh.
"Shh. Your parents are sleeping."
Edward stifles his laughter, but he's smiling as he crouches and rests elbows on his knees. He has that twinkle in his eyes and I'm afraid his face might break in two from that grin.
"Have I told you you're my favorite girl ever?" he asks as he, in vain, attempts to suppress his grin. "Are you my gift again? I could totally work with that."
"C'mon," I motion at the closet. "Join me."
"There's no way we're going to fit in there."
"We will," I reply, scooting away from the wall. "You just have to be flexible and sit behind me. Like this." I show him, and he sits behind me so that I'm between his bent legs. He gently pulls me against him and wraps arms around my stomach. I pull the door closed, and we're in the dark. Edward rests his head in the crook of my neck. His chest is shaking from laughter.
"So why, dear girlfriend of mine, are we sitting in the closet at this god forsaken hour on my birthday?"
"Because you love me."
"That, I do." His embrace is warm, and he breathes on my neck, all signs of joking gone. "Were they true?" he asks, barely above a whisper, like he's afraid of a negative. "The notes?"
"All of them?"
"Even the seventh one?"
He lets out a breath. "One day, I will write a book about meeting you and nobody will believe me you're for real."
"Hardy har har."
"So is this our first date?"
"That was the idea."
"Best first date ever."
I smile. "I have tickets to stand-up at Laughs Comedy Spot on 124th Avenue. It's at four PM. Wanna join?"
If voice could express an eye roll, his is doing it. "No, I'd totally skip that."
"Sarcasm, really? I've ruined you."
He laughs. "I hope so."
"Now, I actually wanted to show you something."
"In a pitch black closet? I'm afraid we might have some technical difficulties."
I open his laptop and as the screen light blinds us, Edward groans. It's low and he still sounds sleepy.
"So, before I glamorously announced my feelings for you at the hospital, I'd planned on presenting you a slide show to show you how brilliant I think you are. During my presentation, you're not allowed to: one, laugh, two, grow an ego the size of a bulldozer. Deal?"
I know he's grinning against my neck because his teeth make contact with my skin.
I open my slide show.
"The pillow to your carrot?" He huffs, taking sharp breaths, chest shaking before he erupts in loud laughter. I exaggerate a scoff, and he takes several deep breaths before saying, "Pardon. Continue."
But he's smiling, and continues to break the agreement with every slide. In his defense, I did cover his supposed life story and characteristics and stories about his heroics with comic strips and silly videos. At one point, during a more serious slide that explains why he's important to me, Edward snuggles so very close, nuzzles my neck and hums. That all changes when I compare his intoxicated self to a roller-skating baby tiger on drugs. When my slides are over, I sit up and put the laptop by our feet. Edward pulls me close.
"I just wanted to thank you for being you," I mutter, a bit embarrassed. I kiss his jaw, rest my head under it and draw a pattern on his shoulder. Edward runs his fingers through my hair, trying to catch my attention, and his eyes, although silly and amused, hold affection and wonder in them. He's smiling, but it's not at all ironic or smirk-like. It's kind and caring and everything I love about him. His eyes twinkle.
"You do realize you've set the bar so high for me in terms of gift-giving I'll never reach over it," he says, running an absent-minded hand over my upper arm. He leans in close, whispering, "You're sort of wonderful, you know that?"
"Compliments, keep 'em comin'." I take a breath because I feel like I might burst from affection for this incredible man I've met. "Also, I don't really know if flowers mean anything, but if a white rose means that I want your head chopped off as soon as possible, please disregard that minor detail."
He laughs. "It's white. That's for innocence, right?"
"Ah, shit, maybe. I'm sorry. I don't think about shit like that. You can just give it back to me, I'll put it in my room."
"Calm down. It's just a fucking flower."
"I am getting seriously concerned about the impact my language is having on yours."
Again, he laughs.
"Besides, if you need it to be symbolic," he says, voice lowering. "You should know that I am innocent when it comes to you. This is all new for me, too."
"I know you can't see my face, my eyes just popped out from being rolled so hard."
"Doesn't make it any less true."
"Oh, really. Did all four of your previous girls hear that, too?"
No sooner have the words escaped than I slap my mouth.
"Fuck. I'm so sorry. I wanted you to have the perfect day, but I'm exhausted from… everything, and shit just spews out of my mouth when I'm tired. I'm sorry."
Saying nothing for a few seconds, Edward squeezes me. "If you've decided my past bothers you, you can say so. But don't say it doesn't bother you and then make comments like that." He nuzzles my ear. "I mean what I just said. Maybe you can't believe me just yet, but I mean it. How I feel about you—I didn't even know it's possible to—to, fuck. To yearn and cherish and just—I want to protect you and please you and make you laugh. I want so much I'm afraid I'll scare you away."
I glance up and him, and he looks so earnest and open, the way he only knows how to be with me, and I treasure that. I place my palm flat against his cheek, and he leans into it.
"You won't," I say when he kisses my palm. "I believe you. But—maybe we should still talk about, you know, past. Just to put it behind us."
I smile. "Also, consider that I just poured my heart out to you in twenty one little notes. What if I scare you away?"
He snorts, but it sounds like a four year old giggling, and I can't help but laugh along.
"Wait, wait, open your mouth."
He frowns but complies as I slowly turn around in his arms to inspect his bottom teeth.
"Ha! I found a flaw!"
"Your bottom teeth are crooked."
"And that's good?"
"That's brilliant. I thought I was never going to find a flaw."
He lips pull into fake smile that reveals all his teeth, four crooked teeth and all, and points at his right fang. "This one's acrylic."
"A sort of plastic. It's not real."
"Why? Did you get yourself so drunk you started smashing your head against the wall?"
"Far less boring," he replies. "The milk tooth never grew."
"Damn," I reply. "That is boring."
He nudges my side but chuckles.
"Okay, something else."
"Flaws. Name them."
He leans his face forward and puts my hand on his hair. "My dandruff is back."
I mess up his hair.
"Aw, it is."
"Mom thinks it's stress. It returned when you, you know, got shot."
I observe his curly hair and massage his skull until I notice a scar, a sharp line about seven inches long hidden under his hair. I trail it with my index finger, from the back of his left ear to the top of his head. It's quite wide.
He lifts his head so that I'm holding on to the nape of his neck. "I don't know. I've always had it."
I kiss his cheek. Edward has other ideas but I turn away.
"I can't kiss you today?"
"Watch me care," he replies, nibbling my bottom lip before opening my mouth for a real kiss. He tastes like pancakes and I taste like—frankly, I don't want to know.
"Wait, wait, flaws," I say between kisses. "Flaws."
"Clearly there is something wrong with my kissing if you want to make a list of all the things that are wrong with me."
"Don't laugh, okay?"
"I don't usually sit alone in my room laughing at my shortcomings."
"Consider me surprised," I reply. "But seriously, okay. You're on my pedestal because I'm, you know, so in love with you I kind of worship you and I don't think I see you like others do. So, help me out. Give me a reality check or something."
His face softens as the most adorable grin covers his face. "Worship me, huh?"
"Shush. I am still capable of kicking your ass should your ego grow out of your ear."
He nuzzles my neck, kisses it, covering me in goose bumps, and when he pulls back, the Crest commercial grin is still there. "I don't think you're supposed to see the person you're in love with like others do. Isn't that the whole point?"
"But, but. Help me out. You're so you and I'm so me, it'll help me to think of you as something tangible."
He holds out his tongue, and I think he's just being smug until he licks my cheek and pulls back, looking all wicked and satisfied with himself. My cheek gets cold.
"Just making sure you know I'm tangible."
"Smug bastard. How would you like to have your face licked?"
"Why don't you find out?"
I pull my tongue over his rough cheek.
"It's like licking sandpaper."
"I rather enjoyed it."
I nudge him. He laughs. Helping me sit sideways, he puts his hands behind my head, draws my face close to his, and doesn't close his eyes when he makes my lip wet and kisses me. He runs his tongue over my upper teeth and bottom ones before pulling back.
"What's with this obsession with my flaws? I have many. I can't risk listing them all."
"Why? I can list mine if you want."
"Urgh, I know. We'd starve to death."
"Bella," he warns, and his tone is earnest. He runs his hands through my hair, back and forth, as he eyes me. "Okay," he says. "I want to hear your list."
"Mine? Well, shit. Okay. I'll consider myself single by the end of the night."
He looks like he wants to roll his eyes but doesn't.
"Tell me what you like about yourself."
"Yay! Pancakes in a minute!"
I run my thumb across his lips and stubble-covered chin. I stroke it.
"Teeth," I say. "I think I like my teeth."
I pull both of his eyebrows upward with my thumbs, and the sight makes me laugh. "You should see yourself. I've just make you look like a furry gorilla."
While his mouth quirks up, he doesn't share my enthusiasm. "I'm listening."
"Uh, okay. I kind of like my hair now. I used to hate it, but short and blonde and messy? I think it suits me."
He observes my face, but when I don't continue, he asks, "Well?"
First, he blinks at me. He draws absent-minded circles on my scalp with his thumbs.
"You're kidding me."
"No, I'm not good at self-delusion. Delusion about the world? Apparently, I'm brilliant at that. Deluding myself, though? Not so much."
"But you're confident. Don't tell me you're faking it."
"That's because I decided it doesn't matter. Not because I decided that this reality sees me as beautiful. It doesn't."
"Haven't you heard?" Edward brushes hair off my forehead while his laptop shuts itself off. We're in the dark again. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
"Haven't you heard? Evolution has made the beholder look for signs of health and fertility. Red lips and symmetric face, boobs and everything. "
"So? I don't see where you find yourself lacking."
"Oh, come on." I take his hand and put it on my boob. "On a scale from one to ten, how flat-chested am I?"
"Did you just make me grope you?"
"I might have."
He's laughing as he gives my boob a gentle squeeze. "Perky. Definitely a curve there."
"You're supposed to agree with me!"
"Am I? I have no problems with your breasts."
"You've been raised to be too polite. I want you to tell the truth, always."
"What makes you think I'm not telling the truth?"
"Oh, come on."
"No, seriously. Do you think every male out there has the same taste in body type? Or a boob type? I'm offended on behalf of the decent males out there." He slides his hand off my boob and on my waist. "I'm not saying I like you in spite of your boobs, or because of them. They're a part of you and you're the one who'll have to make peace with what you've been given." He leans closer. "But of course I would hope to enjoy them, too, in the future. If you'll let me."
Even when I can't see it, I am positive he's grinning.
"You can start now," I say, and put both of his palms on my boobs, to which he starts to laugh and squeezes them before wrapping arms around me.
"You're making me feel like a sex offender."
"Am I making you uncomfortable?"
"Always," he says, like it's a good thing. Stroking on my upper arms, he sighs. "Bella, just because you have issues with your body does not mean that I do, too. Maybe it's easiest for you to believe that I don't like some parts of you. Because then you wouldn't have to accept that I want you like you are. But you know what? You don't know shit about me."
Surprised, I blink at him.
"But that's okay." He leans closer and whispers, "I probably don't know shit about you. Do you want me to tell you, over and over again, how beautiful I think you are? Is that what you want? I can. I can waltz in and praise you in embarrassing amounts, and it wouldn't change a thing. Because it is your business, not mine, how you feel about your body, and your right to feel however you feel."
"You've really thought about this."
"But the thing is, I don't want your opinion of yourself to start depending on others' because if you let it, you'll never really be happy. Even mine. You don't have to agree with my reality, but you could learn to believe it's just as true to me as yours is to you."
He pauses as I let his words sink in.
"You are just a fountain of wisdom today."
"Am I getting through to you?"
"Will it help if I tell you what I love about you just like you did in your little notes?"
"Wait," I reply, snuggling closer to him. "Enough room for my ego now? I think so. Go on."
Edward laughs against my neck, chest shaking and arms wrapped around me. "Jesus, sitting in a cupboard at five AM on my birthday morning? I love you."
"Jesus? You named my ego Jesus? You're about to be stroked, Jesus. I hope you enjoy it."
Huffing and laughing, Edward hides his face in my neck. "Where did you come from?"
"It's a wild guess, I know, but I think my parents had sex."
"I know. I was surprised, too."
We laugh. He sighs, and I hear the smile in his voice as he puts hands on my waist and holds them there. He whispers, "Your waist."
"My waist? You like my waist? That's boring to the point of being offensive. I feel sorry for myself."
"Did you or did you not want to hear my opinion?"
"Did! I did. My apologies."
"Used to drive me nuts, your waist," he continues, trailing a pattern to my lips. "Smile." As I do, he switches on his laptop with his toe and we squint from the light. His eyes linger on my mouth as his thumb plays with my lower lip. His own smile. "Fuck me," he whispers and leans in for a kiss before I snort from laughter.
"I don't think I'm quite ready for that step yet."
His eyes twinkle. "I meant your smile. You could start wildfires with it."
"Cheesiness level: Edward Cullen. There, I said it."
"Fine." He scoffs, pretending to be hurt. "I think you're ugly and talentless."
"One a scale from one to ten, you're a stone when it comes to showing affection."
His lips twitch. "I think you're boring and selfish."
"And ugly. So ugly."
"Enjoying yourself, are you?"
He grins and muffles his laughter against my neck. "Very much."
"I do believe you were in the middle of complimenting me. Don't let me stop you."
He runs his hands to my thighs and I realize how much being in this position for so long is going to hurt my back later.
"Your legs. Jesus, your legs."
"Jesus has hot legs. Gotcha."
He ignores me. "There are so many things to love about you, Bella. Just your—everything," he whispers. "You're hot."
"You did not just say that."
"You are hot."
"I don't appreciate the sarcasm."
He breathes against my ear. "I'm not mocking you," he says. "Do you know how many times I wanted to punch guys in the locker room when they noticed you were gaining some curves? God. Or when Laurent used to bring you up in a conversation, I just wanted to—you know. It pissed me off."
"We should find you a therapist. I don't like the influence my language is having on yours."
Edward sort of bites his lower lip, and, unamused, tilts his head sideways. He's earnest. "Can you please not turn everything I say into a joke? Your brother does it, too, and maybe you're used to deflecting but—please don't. Not now. Not when I'm trying to tell you something."
I sigh. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay." He presses his lips together and when he continues, his voice is lower. "Do you understand what I'm saying? Do you understand why I haven't been saying all those things all this time? Now that I'm telling you, you don't believe me. I'd rather show you, anyway. How do you want me to help you? How?"
"I'm too tall," I say, like it's the answer to all of his questions. "I'm five eleven now."
"So what? I'm six foot eight. I still have ten inches on you."
"I have stretch marks."
"Boo-hoo. Move away, hunger in Africa, Bella has stretch marks."
"I have a huge forehead."
"I have a bumpy nose."
"My nose is crooked, too. See?"
"But you're a guy."
"So it's okay for a guy to have a bumpy nose but not a girl? I do believe you're sexually harassing yourself."
"I have a broken back."
"Yeah, and you're working harder than anyone I know to fix it," he says, not missing a beat. "Are you quite done feeling sorry for yourself?"
"You don't understand!"
"What? What do I not understand?"
"When you're done seeing me through your love goggles, you'll see me for who I am!"
"And who is that? Huh? A girl more beautiful than meets the eye? The strongest woman I've ever met? Someone with incredible—"
"A weak girl just pretending to be tough!"
"Really? Really?! What about a tough girl who's been made to feel weak? How about that?"
"You don't understand!"
"Make me! Make me understand! Why do you hate yourself for shit no one else has noticed? Why is it so important? I love you like I've never fucking loved anyone before! Is that not enough?! Why can't you just let it go?"
"Because I—" I take a breath and wait for my back to hurt from it as I realize it's Edward's birthday morning and we're spending it sitting in a cupboard having what is perhaps our first serious quarrel. The thought makes me deflate. I press my lips together. "It's too hard," I whisper. My voice trembles. "It's so fucking hard, Edward."
Edward squeezes me, pressing his lips to my neck, voice too gentle for its own good. "You're probably too proud to tell me your back is—"
Light blinds us when the door opens. Carlisle is holding Esme, resting his chin on her shoulder, eyebrows raised. Esme seems to be stifling laughter.
"It is quarter to six in the morning," she says. "Quarter to six. What, may I ask, could you possibly have been doing sitting in our living room cupboard?"
"Thursday morning cupboard quarrel," I answer as I slowly start to get up. Edward and Carlisle help me. When I'm up and Edward is standing beside me, red-eared and gripping his Macintosh, Carlisle and Esme continue to gape.
"Thursday morning… cupboard quarrel," Esme repeats, tone unchanging.
"Exactly," I confirm. "Every teenager knows it. It's the sign of a healthy couple. Right, Edward?"
The door to Edward's room receives an incredible amount of attention when Edward closes it and lifts his eyes to meet mine. He puts away his laptop and walks over to where I stand. If at first he looked like he was about to laugh at what I told his mom, his eyes sober the moment he notices my quivering lips. The horrible thing is, I don't have a clue as to why I'm crying. Yet I am. Edward, the sweet man he is, opens his arms for me.
He holds me tighter. I soak in his warmth. "Dr. Hunter warned me this might happen."
"Don't you dare start evaluating me, too."
He doesn't say it at the time, but Dr. Hunter told him that might happen, too. Yelling out of fear of being evaluated or expected a negative emotion that I don't feel I have the right to feel. It's difficult to grasp even now that I'm aware of doing it, much less when I feel like I am expected a reaction I don't want to have. It doesn't take much to make me shout, not after everything that's happened. The more I fight against it, the likelier I am to end up standing in front of Dr. Hunter, expressing my inadequacy and fear and fear of inadequacy. Meanwhile, he just sits there, watching and evaluating, offering words of wisdom said calmly and without judgment that make me angrier. I, apparently, am guarding a fuckton of emotions that is only able to come out as anger. It would make me self-conscious being aware of it if it weren't intense enough to be out of my control.
Edward runs his fingers through my hair before kissing the top of my head. "I'll bring us some breakfast and we can talk, okay? You can cry and shout or whatever you feel like. We can talk about anything you want."
"I don't want to yell at you," I mutter.
"I know," he replies. "But maybe you should. I'll be right back."
I settle a pile of pillows against the headboard before resting against it, and when Edward returns, he's got orange juice and pancakes and a smile. He sits cross legged next to me, and I offer a sheepish smile before digging in.
"I'm sorry," he says.
"Yes. I shouldn't have responded to your provocation. I should've known better."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Dr. Hunter told me you—"
"Please don't. I'm glad you care enough to talk to him, but please don't tell me what he told you. I feel like you're all expecting me to act and react a certain way. I don't like it."
"Fair enough," he replies. "But it annoys me when I pay you a compliment and you don't believe me."
"Can I generalize? You won't like it."
"Men, I would say, don't like to assure. At least I don't. Women tend to want assurance, and the fact you're unlike any women I've ever met doesn't change that you seem to expect it. I don't like that. There's nothing sexier than a woman who can take a compliment."
"So I should pretend to agree with you when I don't."
"No. No, definitely not. I'm not asking you to agree with me. I'm asking you to believe me. Because I don't want to assure, I want to give a compliment."
"Do you think it's possible for you to try to believe me in the future?"
"I'll try. But I don't get it. First you tell me it's okay for me to feel about myself however I feel, and then you tell me to let go."
"It's the association with what happened that I want you to let go. It's pointless. It leads nowhere. Having the right to feel however you feel about yourself is not the same as hanging on to how you were treated in middle school and letting that justify your self-esteem. Two separate things, Bella."
"But how do I let go? I don't know how."
"Neither do I," Edward admits, sighing. "But it kills me to see you hate yourself when you have no reason to. And the things you're insecure about, seriously? Your height is such a turn on."
"A turn on?"
"Yes," he replies, mirroring my smile. "What can I do to help you?" he mutters. "Tell me."
"I prescribe daily make out sessions to cure low self-esteem."
Edward snickers, puts the breakfast tray on the bedside table and straddles my legs. He leans close. "I didn't even know it's possible to love someone this fucking much."
When he's inches away from my face, I pull him to me and breathe against his neck.
"Hold on. I'm about to give you a hickey."
He throws his head back in laughter but doesn't retreat, and when I'm done sucking his neck, he pulls my feet to make me lie down, straddles me properly and leans close to my face so that his face reddens slightly. "Bella, Bella, Bella," he mutters, kissing my neck and cheeks and lips. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Easiest thing in the world."
The entire week is overshadowed by news of the father-son suicides and replays of Eric's videos. It is nothing but background noise because Edward's family muffles news outlets that express curiosity of the people who did not have first-hand experience with watching a suicide happen. Newspapers stop lying around. I condone it because I understand the reasons behind their intentions, but not until I hear dad's concern on Skype do I fully comprehend the intensity of journalism. Not only do I read and hear bits and pieces of journalists and news anchors reporting the story, I also start receiving phone calls and emails from the former. Dereck Norman is among them.
Edward gets pissed the first time it happens. He's trying to protect me, and as sweet as it is, I am not angry at the news outlets. It's just intensely surreal, especially when Emmett calls me to tune in on Oprah to see her discuss the situation. Discuss me. Strangest three minutes I've ever spent.
Officer Kell returns my laptop. Newton had it. I expect it to be broken or at least reveal signs of using, but it is unharmed.
Edward is a bit miffed (and trying hard to hide it) because I wouldn't agree to have dinner with him after stand-up, but I need to make sure we arrive home on time. He falls silent the moment he sees a taxi in front of our house and observes it from the rearview mirror as he parks. He frowns when a girl with curly bright red hair steps out.
"Do you know—"
The girl turns his head toward us and waves. Edward gapes.
"You did not," he says.
"I had nothing to do with it."
Edward blinks at me. "Sure you didn't."
"But you knew," he accuses. He cannot hold back his smile. "You definitely knew."
"Maybe," I reply, still taking off my seatbelt when Edward is on the other side of the lawn, hugging Rosalie. The taxi leaves. I don't know her that well, still, but I've never seen her so at ease with herself as she talks with comfort and greets Edward's parents like she couldn't be happier to be here.
"I like your wig," Edward says as he helps me walk downstairs. Rosalie waits for us in the parlor, observing.
"Thanks," she says, offering a cheeky smile. "I like your girlfriend."
"Thank you." Edward laughs. "Should I be jealous?"
They chuckle, and it is killing me that I can't just hop downstairs and jump on them and wrestle and tickle and, just, stop being so careful. But I can't. Slow as ever, I have to be okay with being a constant nuisance for anyone living in the same house with me.
I've arranged a Skype date with dad and Emmett to have an excuse to leave Rosalie and Edward some time to catch up with each other. Emmett sounds almost as worried as dad (even though he's plenty amused by the attention the media is paying to his little sister). We discuss the choices that await him. He hasn't made up his mind yet.
When I'm done, I join Edward and Rose in the living room. Rosalie wants to watch a movie, and despite his indifference toward movies, Edward agrees. We're not even halfway through Hangover before Edward leans his head against my shoulder, makes himself comfortable, and falls asleep not even a minute later.
"I woke him up at five AM today," I tell Rosalie. "I've exhausted him."
She smiles, but doesn't comment. We don't talk for a while, until Edward starts drooling on my shoulder.
She laughs, it's a tad awkward and silent, but still unlike the timid one I remember from New Year's Eve. "You're so different," she says.
"Why do people who have changed the most keep telling me that?"
"You are, though." She looks at me. "How do you really feel about… everything? Can you ask how you, you know, put that guy in jail? Edward told me not to pry, but I can't help it."
"He's making me sound like a psychopath."
"No. Just someone who's been through a lot."
"Ah, please don't. Everyone keeps telling me that. It's kind of starting to piss me off."
"I'm sorry," she says. "But will you tell me?"
"What do you want to know?"
So with one of the funniest films in the background, I summarize my unfunny story. She listens quietly and with interest. After I'm done, she sighs and plays with her sleeve.
"How did you get over it?" she asks, eyes on the TV.
"That's the thing," I reply. "I'm not sure I have."
Again, she sighs, pulls her jean-clad feet on the couch and turns to look at me. "But you will."
"How can you be sure?"
"You will," she repeats with the slightest of smiles. "Something about you."
"What about you?" I ask, observing the way she starts twiddling with her red earrings, searching for something to do with her fingers.
"What about me?"
"What, uh—can I ask what happened to you? Edward never elaborated and I didn't want to push. Were you, you know, a victim?"
"Victim." With vehemence I'm not used to seeing her express, Rosalie says, "I hate that word. Victim. Like it was out of my control to change my life. Like I was weak by default." She grimaces. "Before you start to idealize me or what I've been though, there's something you should know."
"I'm not like you."
I wince. "Eric told me that before he shot himself."
Her face softens. "I didn't mean to bring back memories. But—it's the truth. You were innocent in what happened to you. You have no blame. Even if you feel guilty, you didn't actually provoke that guy to do any harm to you. You didn't do anything to deserve what happened."
"I was weak. I was awkward. I was different. That was enough to provoke him."
"But you didn't do it on purpose. You didn't deserve what happened."
"And you did?"
"I was in five families in the course of twelve years," she replies, as if that answered my question.
"Javier and Maria Bermúdez, the first family who took me in. I was four. Three years later, Frances and Paul Taylor, then when I was nine, the Wrights, my favorite family. After them, Ella Irwin, and finally, Natalie and David Marsh."
"Holy shit." I blink at her. "I mean, why couldn't you stay with one family?"
She shrugs and draws her thumb and forefinger across the edge of her sleeve. "I was out of luck, I guess. Edward hit the jackpot." There's longing in her voice, but instead of sounding jealous, she sounds sad. "Money, divorce, illness. Sometimes the money they got for me wasn't worth the bother of paying attention to me. Twice it was my fault."
"But you were just a kid."
"Ah, I know that look," she says, and with every piece of information she shares, her confidence grows. "I assure you, I was at fault. I started smoking and drinking and got involved in illegal activities so that Ella Irwin would put me back in the orphanage."
"What did she do?"
"Treated me like a project," she says. "Like charity. Oh, look at me, I'm so good, I'm so precious, I took that little urchin and I'm gonna make her life all perfect! Drove me mad. I've found it's harder to get used to the family you live with the prouder they are of what they're doing. And because they can back off from their decision, when things get tough, some of them will. Nothing good can come out of adoption if the family wants to look good in the society's eyes and doesn't actually care."
"That sounds terrible."
"It wasn't all bad." She smiles. "Most of them meant well. It just didn't turn out that way."
"But you said—you provoked them. How? Do you mean—smoking and drinking and stuff?"
She intertwines her fingers and averts her gaze. "Not only. But yes. I wish I could sugar-coat what I've done because you're kind of pure, you know? Has anyone told you that?"
"Ugh. Not you, too."
"Just, ugh. Let's skip this part. Continue, please. "
She looks at me, curious, but doesn't comment. "I was just—I got sexually active quite early."
"Jesus, is that an adoption thing?"
She frowns. "Pardon?"
"It's a freedom thing, I think. Adult thing. I tried so hard to prove to myself I'm an adult I started doing all the things I thought adults did. Of course, I only achieved the opposite. Behaving like I could handle drinking and smoking and sex in no way proved that I could actually handle those things. Ella Irwin thought I was depressed, and I didn't talk much, so they put me on anti-depressants. Heavy stuff. I don't think I cared at that point. I was never depressed, just messed up. Didn't know how to get close to people. Artificial proximity, sure, physical proximity. But never anything like what's Edward found with you. Nothing like that."
I don't know what to say, so I don't.
"I don't seem like what I'm describing, do I? Is that what you're thinking?"
"I'm thinking I don't blame you for anything you've put yourself through. I can't imagine being in your shoes, so I can't judge."
She lets out a light laugh, and suddenly, it's like she's twelve. "Oh, Bella."
"No wonder Edward is so awed by you. You're reacting exactly like he told me you would. Let me tell you, Edward was not that pleased by my choices."
"You can just not answer me, but—what happened with your last family?"
"It's okay if you don't—"
"I'm fine," she replies and pauses before speaking. "Have you ever noticed that there's always someone who expresses surprise when a person who is utterly goody-goody turns out to be the biggest asshole?"
"You mean, when the most God-fearing man turns out to be a pedophile or something?"
She halts, looking me straight in the eye, and for a fraction of a second, I see fear, but it's lost when she lets out a nervous laugh. "Exactly," she says. "Exactly. In literature, just like in real life, there's always someone to say they weren't expecting it because they seemed so goody-goody. Well, you know what? No man is explicitly goody-goody unless they have to make up for something in their life. Nobody is doing the bad in spite of the good—people do good to make up for the bad. When something is too good to be true? It probably is."
"I'm not sure I want to agree."
"That's what makes you so good," she says. "David Marsh was exactly that kind of man. Too good to be true. I didn't realize until it was too late."
"What did he do?"
"That God-fearing pedophile comparison you just made? Top notch."
I withdraw so violently Edward's face falls on the back of the couch. When he doesn't wake up, I shift myself so that he'd be comfortable.
"I'm so sorry." I don't know what else to say.
Rosalie gives me a sad smile. "I was just trying to find my file from the downloads folder, and when I couldn't, I ventured elsewhere. I found, oh God. I wasn't supposed to use his computer but the one in the living room wasn't working, and that's how he found me, gaping at his collection of photos and videos. Of minors."
She chuckles. "Indeed."
"So what happened?"
"Nothing nice," she says, shrugging. "I don't know how, but he knew about the illegal things I was involved in. Those were his cards, and they were powerful, or so I believed. I grew to fear him. I think the psychological terror affected me more than the times he—ah."
She tilts her head on the side, eyeing me, and if I'm supposed to read the answer from her body language, I fail miserably. She seems to be referring to her size (in the style of, 'do you really think I'd let anyone push me around like that?'), but then she also seems to have that look in her eye, kind of 'do you really think I'd be in this situation if he hadn't?'
But I don't ask her to clarify.
"There were times when he was less intrusive physically but no less demeaning. He beat me up pretty bad a few times."
"How did he get away with it?"
"I got into fights of my own. Bruises were nothing uncommon."
"How did you escape?"
"That last time he beat me up? I think he started to get some sort of sick pleasure from having power over me, and he went too far. I woke up at the hospital. He, of course, told them some unlikely story of a street fight."
"And they believed him?"
"People believe remarkable things when there's a powerful man saying them," she replies. "He's a lawyer. He knows how to make people play by his rules, even if they are unaware of it."
"That woman who is helping you, does she know who he is and what he did?"
"That's the initial reason she helped me. She hates him."
"That is… how did you… wow."
She stays silent, and we both watch Phil phone a woman saying he can't find Doug. It's another world. Rosalie shifts.
"Do you still think I was worth saving now that you know my story?"
"Do you like chocolate?"
"Do you like chocolate?"
She scowls. "Of course I do."
"Then yes. You were," I reply. "You are."
"I quit all of it, you know," she says, as if she owes me an explanation. "That was the deal I made with Diana. I might've never gotten out of those habits and the people I was surrounded by if it wasn't for her. I owe her. I'm going to start taking classes again in the fall, and I'll finish high school. Diana is a psychologist, and I think—I think I want to be one, too. See?"
"I'm one of them. I want to do good because I've made awful decisions in my life. I'm not like you."
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"Because you are unlike anyone I've ever met. You don't do good because you've got something to make up for, you do good because good people deserve good things to happen to them."
"But you're good, too, whatever the "good" is we're talking about. I can't see why you believe you somehow caused what happened to you. You didn't."
"You donated an insane amount to a rape center," she replies, still twiddling with her sleeves. "I read about it."
"But I didn't put down my name."
"Someone recognized you."
"And they're discussing it?"
"More than you realize," she answers. "Don't you see? You're the hero—"
"Ugh. Please don't. I am no more a hero than I am a bald eagle. So maybe I've idealized what you've been through, but that doesn't diminish how strong you've had to be to heal and get on with your life. And don't do the same to me."
"Do you know how few people would've actually—"
"Stop it. I don't, and it doesn't matter because I am not other people. Don't you see? If the circumstances had been different, I could've easily taken the route you did. If you were me, maybe you'd find my circumstances to be easier to cope with than I do at the moment. But I'm not you, and you're not me, and you can't idealize my decisions or compare them to yours. Maybe you would've had a far bigger impact on Eric than I did, and maybe I would've handled your situation far worse than you have. You don't know. So can we not idealize each other, deal?"
She takes a breath. "I still think you're better than me."
"I'm not. You better get used to that before you put me in a situation where I have to live up to some sort of an ideal. I'm not a saint."
Rosalie eyes me, half-smiling, and shrugs. After watching—but not really—the screen for a few minutes, she turns to me. "On a brighter note, that surgery I told you about, it went better than expected," she says, and she's got that wonder in her eyes I saw on New Year's Eve.
"When? You never told me."
"The same week you got shot."
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah," she says. "You should've heard the voice mails Edward sent me."
"Fuck. I can't imagine what that week must've been like for him."
"Well, he didn't know I went under surgery, he just couldn't get hold of me."
"Does he know now?"
"Yeah. I told him when I got out. He got angry."
"I'm not surprised."
"You're all he ever talks about," she says. "In case you didn't know. He's had girlfriends before, sure, but I never knew much about them except that they existed."
I think my heart expands and explodes in my chest.
"That is… good to know."
Rosalie smiles, and the things she told me didn't diminish the sweetness and sincerity of it. In fact, while I'll have to think of her more like a human being and less like a warrior, I kind of like it that she has grown to be so open and real about it.
"So you're healing well?"
"Better than my doctor predicted," she says, grinning. "I feel much better, too."
She settles against the hand rest. "Can we watch some tear jerker next? I can't remember the last time I cried."
"Seriously? That can be fixed. All I ever do lately is cry. It's starting to piss me off, to be honest."
After I've yelled myself empty at Dr. Hunter on Friday morning, Edward, Rose, Emmett and couple of their friends go bowling, which is to say that I sit on a couch and watch them. Angela and Ben are here, and so is Tanya and a couple of Edward's (Emmett's?) friends from school whom I've only seen in the hallways. Laurent is there, too, and I think Edward is a bit wary of him. Everyone keeps me company when others play. Their curiosity about what happened is a bit overwhelming, but after replying to the same questions and hearing the same jokes all over again, it tires me.
When most of them watch Rosalie kick ass in the bowling lane, Angela silently sits beside me. We observe them.
"I know he's your brother and all, but he's killing Tanya. Have you talked to him at all?"
About what, exactly?
I observe the insides of my cup. "No, I haven't."
She sighs. "Could you?"
I notice Tanya glancing at my brother, dejected-looking yet hopeful, keeping herself away from the circle as she fiddles with her phone. I have no clue what Angela is talking about, but after a minute or two of watching Tanya's efforts to get Emmett's attention and my brother's careful avoidance of her, it's clear something is up.
"Is he avoiding her at school, too?" I ask, no clue if it's the right thing to ask. I could easily ask her, but I prefer not to in case she doesn't want to deliver the news herself.
"Does he ever," she says, pulling a leg under herself. "Ever since they slept together at that party, he's just been—"
"Can you help me get to the bathroom?"
"I need to powder my nose."
"I can—" Angela starts, but I give her a look and she closes her mouth. "Right."
Emmett departs from the crowd, frowns at the sight of Angela sitting right beside me, but helps me to the other side of the room, and when we're through a fire-proof door, I release my grip on his forearm and turn to him.
"You fucking hypocrite!"
He steps back, confused. "Uh, what?"
"You're a hypocrite! You do not get to fucking tell me my perception is all flowery when yours is clouded for a reason!"
"The hell are you talking about?"
"You and Tanya! Now, I don't give a fuck what you're doing or who you're doing it with, but don't you dare tell me your judgment is right and mine is wrong when you have personal issues clouding your vision!"
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"Why don't you fix that then."
Emmett sighs, slumps against the wall and drags a hand across his face.
"I was drunk."
"What else is new."
"We had sex."
"She wanted more. I didn't. I didn't know how to tell her, so I… made it look like I'm playing the field."
"And how does that make her a bitch?"
"She's so desperate to be on your good side and suck up to you, how can you not see that?"
"So maybe she's insecure like I was in middle school! I repeat, how does that make her a bitch?"
"Why are you yelling?"
I take a breath and lean against the wall.
"I can't believe we're talking about this." Emmett groans. "It was a mistake, alright. A fucking mistake. So maybe there's someone else, but I might've fucked that up as well."
"Who?" I ask. "Wait! Never mind. You're not drunk enough for this conversation and it's none of my business. Can you just—just apologize to Tanya or something. Don't make her feel used."
"I think she used me as much as I used her."
"Inconsequential." I sigh as I watch him hunch. "I'm trying not to judge and shit, but if you make a mess, please don't hide your head in the sand, okay? If you screw up, go clean up on the receiving end of your shit. Please."
He looks at me, eyes so similar to mom's blue ones it's uncanny, and clenches his jaw. "What are you, my mother?"
I press my lips together. "Someone has to be."
"You know fuck about life, Bella." He lifts his chin, and his eyes are burning. "You live in your flowery little world with the goody-goody people who never make mistakes—"
"And you know why people bullied you in middle school? You can be so fucking patronizing! Thinking you know everything and acting all—"
"Stop it!" I pant. "Please." If I weren't two steps away from the bathroom I'd vomit all over my brother. It's a single toilet, and Emmett enters after me.
"Fuck," he mutters. "I didn't mean—fuck." He crouches, grimacing when I retch and looking sufficiently horrified. "You have to know I didn't—I'm sorry! Fuck, I'm sorry."
Twice within a week, because I seem to be having some sort of a panic attack, I end up in the Emergency Room. Jasper takes us. The same woman who took care of me last time (Miss Flint) is there, and as she leaves to find someone, Emmett sits anxiously beside me in a very uncomfortable-looking plastic chair. It's alarmingly purple. He sighs and hunches.
"Ah, fuck," he says. "I shouldn't have. I don't know what I wanted to achieve. I'm sorry."
I drink water and stare at him.
"I just want dad home, you know?" And when he lifts his face, looking at me, I see all the heartbreak and confusion that I feel. "Life is so fucked up right now," he whispers. "I'm ready for dad to be home."
I reach out to squeeze his hand, just for a second. Emmett continues to look at me with that jarring expression, and after a long pause, I dare to ask, "Do you really think I got bullied because I was patronizing?"
"No," he says, sighing.
"Those words came from somewhere."
"I didn't mean it. I just knew how to hurt you." He rests elbows on his knees and smiles. It's a little one, one filled with regret, but it reaches his eyes. "Do you know, Bella, why you look like two different people on Eric's videos? The one he's interacting with and the one who got bullied?"
"Because that lively girl he saw when there was no one else around—that was you."
He presses his lips together, almost as if he were trying to hold back tears, and sniffs once before letting out a shaky chuckle. He leans closer. "Oh, God, Bella. How did we get to this point?"
Shortly thereafter, Edward and Rosalie arrive. After noticing Rosalie's eyes on him, a funny thing happens: my brother, the guy who has blushed once during his lifetime, reddens, wipes his nose against his sleeve and squeezes my hand. He avoids their eyes. "I'll be over at the waiting room, okay? Edward knows this stuff."
Rosalie leaves after him.
Edward sits and starts running his hands through my hair. "Déjà vu, huh," he says, a sad smile on his lips. "How do you feel?"
"What did they tell you?"
"Miss Flint said they needed to check if I had BTSD or PDST or—I don't know. Something like that."
"PTSD?" he asks without a hint of a smile.
His face twists, and when Miss Flint returns, Edward catches David, the guy he knows, and asks questions I couldn't dream of repeating. PTSD, it turns out, is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something I think I've heard about; but also something I associate with war veterans. I'm pretty sure I don't have it, but I patiently answer their questions. They ask about anxiety and reliving the events and I'm kind of pissed they're always asking me about what happened, but after saying exactly that, it turns out not wanting to relive the event(s) is one of the symptoms. That pisses me off, too, because symptom or not—who in their right mind would want to relive a traumatic event? It's not like normal people go all, 'Aw, yay, remember that time we buried our mother? Was that an awesome day or what.'
It doesn't happen, so by that criteria we should all have PTSD of some form or another.
Edward, who had so far sat beside me, holding my hand, pulls me into a hug when they say I don't have it. Nevertheless, I am 'likely' to develop it and should continue seeing Dr. Hunter and take it easy for a couple of months.
They're forgetting that I move at half an inch per hour. Taking it easy shouldn't be a problem.
Regardless of my psychological health, they want to wait for results for blood work, so I lie down and watch Edward share the news with Emmett and Rosalie.
I can't hear what they're saying because of beeping and people rustling about, but from their gestures and expressions, I conclude that Emmett and Edward are having an argument. Rosalie is trying to split them. When she's unsuccessful, she grabs on to Emmett's shoulders, pulls him down and kisses him, full on the mouth. I gape. Edward gapes. People in the waiting room—those I can see—gape. I don't know what kind of reaction she was going for, but when she pulls back, continuing to talk as if nothing happened, Edward and Emmett gape at her.
If stopping their argument is what she was going for, she achieved it.
Driving home from the ER, there's a somewhat tense silence in the back seat until Rosalie growls. "Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Can you get over it already?"
I start laughing, and Edward's mouth tugs into a smile.
"But I didn't say anything!" Emmett defends himself, and I wish I could see him because he sounds like a ten year old.
"Exactly," Rosalie replies. "You sound so much better on the internet. I didn't remember you being such a wuss in real life."
There's silence in the back seat as Edward and I make eye contact, look in their direction, and share another glance.
"What?!" we ask simultaneously.
"We talk. On Facebook. On Skype. You know, normal stuff," Rosalie says like she's talking about the weather. "But, no offence, Bella, but like most people, your brother is a lot braver on the internet. He wouldn't even pretend to know me when we were bowling. Seriously."
"None taken," I reply, still slightly blown away by this new knowledge. No words follow for a while before Rose huffs a chuckle.
"Jesus Christ, you'd think I asked you to marry—"
Her voice is muffled, and when Edward and I look at the backseat, we see that Emmett has shut her up. With his mouth. I lock eyes with Edward and burst out laughing. Edward joins me.
"Much better," Rosalie says, clearly smiling. "Now that we know that we have no chemistry whatsoever, we can go back to being friends."
"Wait!" I half-yell, turning on the light. "I want to see Emmett's face."
"No chemistry," he says, voice low, watching Rosalie before shoving his palm in my face with a very clear intention. I snicker and turn off the light.
"Today is turning out to be rather interesting," I tell Edward, who intertwines his fingers with mine and kisses the back of my hand. He's smiling.
"Indeed," he says, and turns his head. "Emmett, I need to have a talk with you."
He grunts. Rosalie and I are laughing. I'm positive Emmett had this talk with Edward, which is why he can't complain when Edward wants to do the same.
It is Saturday evening, a week after John Newton's suicide by my bed, when Edward wakes me up with a kiss. I stare at him for a few silent seconds, but then he nuzzles my ear. "I'm going to have a brother," he whispers, and when he pulls back, I can see him beaming. He's clothed. I blink at him.
"Can you believe it?"
A smile starts to stretch on my lips as I realize maybe I've been too afraid for him, maybe this really is what he needs. He seems thrilled, and I'm happy that he is.
"Mom is three months along," he continues in a rush. "She wanted to be sure she didn't miscarry, but everything seems to be fine. She's due just after your birthday."
"And you're happy about this?"
"It's pretty cool," he replies, half-shrugging.
"You are totally trying to play it cool right now," I accuse, pulling him to lie next to me. He laughs and nods against my ear.
I'm thrilled, not only because Edward is taking this incredibly well, but because he's genuinely excited about something like this. I can honestly admit that if dad announced his girlfriend is pregnant, it might take a while for that to sink in before I reach a point where I'm as happy as Edward seems to be at the moment.
Saturday, the 10th of April
6:45 PM. Dad is making pasta. I'm lying on my single bed surrounded by a couple of boxes. I share a room with Emmett, and he is literally breathing down my neck as I write this. Get a life, will you? (Ugh, he lay down beside me, and he's munching a peanut butter jelly sandwich REALLY LOUDLY.)
luv u 2 sis.
Fucking illiterate brother stealing my fucking pen.
The two weeks before dad's arrival vanish like fart in the wind. I have packed all my life in two boxes, two bags and a back bag. Edward helps me (he hides his reluctance very badly), and it's Friday afternoon when he sits beside me on the bed I haven't slept in since John Newton's suicide, takes my hand and looks at me, letting out a slow breath. I sigh along. He starts drawing patterns on my palm, and I don't need him to tell me that he doesn't want me to leave.
(Am I being cheesy enough for you to get lost, Emmett? 'cause I can cheesy it up a notch. Wait, wait, let me start describing making out with him!)
(Haha, Emmett grunted, lay on his back and told me to "tell him if something happens." Dream on!)
I could tell Edward to come with me, I could convince dad to take him in, but it will solve nothing in the long run. Esme and Carlisle will not cease to be his parents if he flees. I think he'll have to shout it out. Just like he can't fix my self-esteem, I can't fix his relationship with his parents. I wish I could, but I can't.
As we continue to sit and wait for dad to return, he pulls my legs over his.
"Tell me something I don't know," he says.
"Morgan Freeman had his first on-screen kiss when he was sixty three years old."
Edward laughs. "Definitely didn't know that. But I meant—about yourself. Something I don't know about you."
"I got my first job to be able to see stand-up."
"Oh, yeah? That's pretty decent."
"What's decent is the escapism it offered," I reply. "Your turn."
"North Cedar High is the third high school and eighth school I've been to."
"Not at all."
"At first mom and dad weren't happy with the districts we were in, so we moved. When they didn't like this or that teacher, they pulled me out of a school and into another one." He shrugs. "Actually, I've been to six, so it's not that bad. One school changed its name twice. When a school has a bad rep, apparently the thing to do is to change the name."
"I didn't know that," I reply. "So, third high school, huh? How do you like it?"
"I have not once been bored by company, that's for sure."
"Ooh, should your girlfriend take credit?"
He laughs. "Okay, something else," he tells me.
"I am more alike to my dad than I ever care to admit. I'm not allergic to anything and I have never had the flu or the cold. When you and I slept next to each other I used to steal kisses from you sometimes. I'm probably trying out for Juilliard, not sure yet, and I already—"
"Wait, wait, rewind," he says, and his smile is wicked but vulnerable, too. "You used to kiss me when I was asleep?"
I hang my head, groaning.
"Screw facts," Edward says, eyes twinkling when he makes me look at him and sit in his lap. "So, tell me more about that."
"I think it's a little soon for that," he says, and I laugh against his chest, but he leans closer, breathing in my ear and running his hand up and down my stomach. He whispers, "When did you used to kiss me?"
"Ugh," I reply, sighing. I'm red, and don't I know it. "The first time it happened was when my mom died and we fell asleep in the living room. You just, you were so sweet and attentive and kind and handsome and I just wanted to feel how it felt. I'm sorry."
His warm breath fills my ear. "Thank fuck I'm not alone in this relationship."
"Why would you think that? I am the model clingy girlfriend."
He huffs a laugh, but holds his mouth close to my ear. He whispers, "I'd prefer you were clingier."
"You can't be serious."
"I feel very needy compared to you," he mutters. "You seem so okay not touching me but I am so not okay not touching you."
"True linguistic talent, man."
"So why didn't you wake me up? Did I react? You're creating intrigue here."
"Smug bastard. I wish I'd never said anything."
"You are not backing away now."
And I realize, it's not about when or how much I kissed him when he was asleep, it's about me initiating something in a relationship where he feels he's coming on to me too strong. He's still holding himself back, and I don't want that.
"That time you got drunk with Emmett and Jasper."
"Ah, so something did happen."
"Not really. Just a kiss after you fell asleep."
"And you didn't want me to be awake for it?"
"You should've seen how drunk you were."
The tips of his ears redden, but he smiles.
"There's one thing, though."
"What was that rant about a nest?"
Wide eyed, Edward gapes at me. "A nest?"
I grin. "I knew it! I knew there was a story behind it. So, what is it? Why did you keep pointing at my breasts, asking to make a nest?"
He clears his throat. "Was I?"
"Oh, no, no, no! You don't get to have that reaction and not tell me. I told you my embarrassing story, you tell me yours. It's only fair."
Edward grunts or groans or huffs, or something in the middle. He blows air in my ear. It tickles, and I laugh.
"It's… a poem," he mutters. "A stupid one. You wouldn't like it."
"Did you write it?"
Again, warm air fills my ear. "Yes," he admits.
"For, like, in general, or, you know, for me? I guess it doesn't matter, I just—"
"For you," he mutters, and I think I see a smile when I turn my head, but it's vulnerable. I have grown enough to recognize a moment that matters to him; a moment when I am no longer able to hide behind my sarcasm and jokes, and so I lean closer to his ear and blow air in it.
"Will you ever let me read it?" I whisper.
He shivers and tightens his grip on my waist. "Jesus."
"What about him?"
"I don't think you realize…" He doesn't end his sentence, but the tone of his voice suggests his trail of thought, and I'm reminded of how I once read that women tend to underestimate men's desire, and to test it out, I pull him into a kiss. He's tender but filled with so much desire, and soon he's holding me as I lie on the bed. I laugh when our noses bump against each other. That seems to remind him of what we're doing and he lies on his back beside me, panting.
"No, no. I mean, your dad will be here." He gives me a sheepish smile. I return it.
"That must be one hell of a poem if that's the reaction you have even thinking of it."
He lets out huffs of silent laughter against my neck and throws a hand over me, and even when he gets all snuggly, I get the vibe that we shouldn't continue what I started.
"Are you happy with the pace we're going with?" I ask quietly. "Do you need us to go faster?"
He turns on his side, resting his head on his palm so that he can look down at my face. He smiles, all twinkly eyes and affection. "I've never been happier," he says, not clarifying anything about the pace. "The real question is—do you need us to go slower?"
"I've never been happier," I repeat, and his smile, if it's possible, gets gentler. I brush hair from his forehead. "I love it that you let me initiate so much. I don't know if that's something to admit, but I thought I'd just lay that out there."
"Never hesitate to discuss anything," he says, drawing me closer. He licks his lips as we stare at each other, my face semi-amused but his so earnest, and then he barely touches his lips with mine and whispers, "You're the most beautiful girl I've ever met."
I know it's a calculated decision on his part, to say those exact words at that exact moment.
He retreats, just enough to be able to observe me, but I pull his face back and whisper in his ear, "I believe you."
He lets out a little, maniac-sounding laugh when he crushes me into a hug and rolls us over twice so that we end up squishing all the pillows. Spring rain is beating against the windows, and I think I hear dad's voice upstairs, but Edward's reaction makes me so deliriously happy I give him a hickey. He's still grinning after I'm done, but after a few seconds, his face sobers.
"I'm going to miss you," he whispers. "God, am I going to miss you."
"I'm going to miss waking you up at ungodly hours," I return light-heartedly. He laughs, buries his face in my neck and holds me close. I let myself feel the thump, thump of his heart, to cherish the moment, and whisper, "I left you a little gift under your pillow."
He pulls back. "You're making me feel like a horrible boyfriend. You always get me the coolest things."
"Don't feel bad," I reply. "You should know by now that I'm the one wearing pants in this relationship."
"Oh, yeah?" he asks before licking my face. I start rubbing my cheek, exaggerating my disgust, and he laughs. "Your boyfriend would like to borrow those pants every once in a while."
"Is that so?"
The actual moment when all the boxes and bags are in Al's old car and I'm done thanking Carlisle and Esme for everything they've done—with all their flaws, I can't pretend they haven't helped me a lot—and dad is still drowning them in his gratitude, Edward and I stand for a moment, arms on the sides before he pulls me into a crushing hug. I hold on. I sniff his sweater and feel uncomfortable tightness in my throat.
"This is not goodbye," I whisper, and I feel his nod.
"Promise me we won't change," he whispers back, clutching my sweatshirt. "Ever."
"We can't change," I reply. "It's comes too easily."
He waves before shoving hands in his pockets. Dad closes the front door behind us. It's pouring. "You alright, kiddo?"
"Yup," I answer, gripping his forearm as we step into the rain.
Sunday, the 23rd of May
5:24 AM. Emmett is asleep, praise Sweet Baby Jesus.
One of the things I've been most worried about is whether or not I'll manage to stay the same after crawling through all this shit. Turns out, there's a better way to remove the stink than Mr. Proper, and I use it efficiently: shouting. I shout myself empty and I shout myself sad. I shout about Eric and I shout about my mom and I even shout about the future that awaits me. For a while, I feel like I'm running on perpetuum mobile and I will never run out of things to yell about, until one Friday afternoon two weeks ago, I enter Dr. Hunter's office and we—
I talk about my plans with the campaign I got involved with through Puma Athlete's Guild. I talk about my relationship with Edward and the things he's taught me. I talk about my dad, Emmett, and how Eric's actions have changed mine. I talk about how life has changed, if only a day at a time.
It's surprisingly normal, and Dr. Hunter seems surprised, too. I've been seeing him not twice but three times a week for two months (the fact that I had many symptoms of PTSD changed our plans), and not once have I not argued or yelled at him about something I think he's misconstrued. I've accused him of misunderstanding me and misinterpreting my words and tearing apart actions that I don't feel deserve to be analyzed. I've accused him of having the attitude of a psychologist. (Duh.)
I talk about me defying him with my words, and he listens. God, he's a great listener, and he listens well and with interest. He is, truly, one of the best on his field, and I hear that he has line-ups and his time is getting more expensive, but he doesn't let it show and continues to be a slightly weird, sandal-wearing unsmiling psychologist. He is exactly what I have needed, and I can recognize that now.
I've been trying to catch up with so much I've missed. A month is a long time to miss school. My perfect GPA crumbles, I barely manage a D in Spanish and C in AP History (this deserves a book of its own), and even those are a stretch of imagination (read: the teachers' kindness).
Because of what Emmett and Edward have told me about the way (they think) my perception differs from the "real" world, I observe and analyze the students around me and attempt to catch plot holes in my perception. I do, too. Emmett apologizes to Tanya, and I continue to communicate with her, but I can see how her attitude toward me is different from her attitude toward everyone else. She's not a bitch, though. I think, as it often happens, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Lauren chose abortion and gets shit talked about her, and I help her however I can, even if the only help I can provide is to be a big ear for her. It turns out it's just what she needs, and when she has cried out her sorrows, she, you know, moves on. It's what you do. I have moments when I catch myself observing the students around me with a new eye that is not necessarily harsher, just—cleaner. Seeing the world and the people in it for what they are, it turns out, doesn't mean that I end up hating everything and everyone. I can reconsider how I've previously perceived something, but I can also add my own touch of perception, my own preference of intent, and live with it. Nobody, after all, sees the world for what it really is. Nobody.
Not even you, Emmett.
I still, no doubt, act like a doofus around my friends, but I sometimes catch Edward watching me, concerned, when I get too quiet. I catch my friends, too, watching me, but whatever differences they spot they either ignore or put down to post traumatic stress.
The rumor that I have PTSD spreads like wildfire, but when I don't act like it (in school), people lose interest and the rumor dies out. It too bad because it's the only decent rumor I've heard about myself that is almost right. Clearly, it wasn't started by Alice. It too close to truth to be of any interest to her.
My first weeks back at school are a bit insane. Even more so than before do people approach me in the hallways, thinking I have some mysterious knowledge about what drove John Newton to do what he did. Or how and why I had the evidence to stop his son, or if I knew all of it all along. Did Michael Newton kill himself out of guilt? I wish he had.
But I don't think he did.
By taking his life, Michael Newton prevented me from having closure. Is it the kind of closure that I wanted to have? Would I have wanted to (or been able to) sit in a courtroom watching him justify and explain and find excuses for what he did?
I don't know. I don't know anything anymore. Life is weird.
The media discusses the events for weeks, but Thomas Kell points out something interesting in an interview. After analyzing the DVD that I gave them, someone notices a scene where, in the far corner of the screen, Shawn Holstein takes off his mask and says, "I'm not doing this." It's barely audible. He disappears from the screen, and the thing is, that is the only video where you can identify him. He did hang around with Newton and Jared at school, but even thinking about the situations in the cafeteria, I can't recall a single situation where it had been him picking on anyone, not even me.
Maybe he hung around because Newton threatened him, maybe he thought his ties to Newton were too strong to tell on him, and maybe it doesn't matter much to the world because he's dead and that's the tragedy of it, but I know. I know that this matters to his family. There's a difference between raising a boy who became a rapist, and raising a boy who chose the wrong crowd to hang out with and found himself incapable of leaving. Eric wasn't in a situation to judge who had done what and to which extent, he was a boy cornered and stretched beyond his limits. He only wanted the pain to end.
I'm confused to understand that my return, the person people think I am, is exciting to many students. Not only do they think I have the answers, they seek out my company, and that is a strange experience. On more painful days, I go to school with my walker and while there are groups who make fun of me, there are more people who tell those groups to piss off, among them my brother and Edward.
I have not been careful enough with my back. I want to exercise too much too soon with too much intensity, and as much as it helps me, it also backfires often. Edward and dad and Emmett hold me back when I'm about to hurt myself, and my physical therapist—now a fifty year old woman named Sophie Lebedeva—patiently assures me that I am doing incredibly well and that I've gained speed and stamina and flexibility, all of which is true.
I haven't taken my walker to school for three weeks, and sometimes I can walk an entire day without holding on to anyone. I can jog short distances, which is thrilling beyond belief, and I've never felt less capable of containing my love for the beauty that is the human anatomy than the first time I'm able to go for a ten-minute jog at five AM. I still have to be careful lifting weights, but to be able to run like that again—it feels like a miracle.
Then there's Alice & Co.
Remarkable, when you think about it, that a girl so desperate to fit into a certain crowd acts no different when said crowd parts company. Maybe, in the back of my mind, I expected something in her to change and reconsider her priorities and the reason she's grown to be who she is. Wouldn't that be wonderful? The antagonist is supposed to learn and change and recognize her mistakes.
But nope. Same comments, same attitude, same ways of integrating into—who she considers—the "in" crowd.
When I first return, she's actively fighting against the fact that most students know me, either by name or by face, and I still don't know where it's coming from. On Friday, the 9th of April, when I've been back for two weeks, struggling with the overwhelming amount of people who seek answers I cannot give them, I corner her because her passive-aggressive comments about the person she thinks I am and my habits and style—oh, yes, the moment I'm able to put ridiculous pantyhose on, I'm doing it—are starting to tire me. She's spreading little tales about my hygiene and loser life. It's exactly like middle school, except there's a focus to her groups' behavior, and it's me.
In my defense, I don't yell. I nicely ask her to step aside with me. She looks at me, defiant but curious, and agrees. I lean against the window sill and wait until she's close enough.
"What's your problem?" I ask, more gently than you'd assume from my words. I feel confrontational—but then again, when am I not?
"I have no problem."
"Clearly, there is a problem. Let's solve it."
"What are you talking about?"
"Did playing dumb earn your brownie points in your last school? You might not approve of my clothing, but I'm not stupid. Why are you singling me out?"
"Oh, please. All those little stories about what I loner I am? You're singling me out. And by doing that, you must feel threatened by me on some level. Because, yeah, I took shit from girls in middle school, too. But nobody focused on me. I was just a passing weakness to be bullied. You, though? You focus on me. Why? Why are you so desperate to prove I'm lower than you?"
"I do not feel threatened by you."
"Whatever you say. But think about it, if that were true, you wouldn't have bothered. But you did. You do. My question is, why? What do you think I did to you?"
She lifts her chin but remains silent.
"Did you help Newton set my house on fire?"
Taken aback, she blinks at me. "What?"
"I know you tore apart my room. Did you do it alone or were you helping Newton?"
"What?" She pales, and grips the straps of her shiny purse. "I've never—"
"Bullshit. You're the only one whose capital A looks exactly like her capital R. It was you. Were you alone?"
"Don't worry, I'm the only one who knows."
"You have no proof."
"You're right," I say. "Because Newton burnt my home to the ground. Were you there, too? Cheering him on?"
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"And you do? Oh, please. Tell me more about what happened that night."
She observes me, eyes squinted, and lets out a huff. "You don't deserve it," she whispers, and her words have sharp edges.
"What? The attention? You think I enjoy this? You can have it."
"And you don't even care that you have it! You did nothing to get popular, nothing."
I can't help but laugh, because Christ, she's melodramatic to the point of deserving her own reality show. How do people like her even exist? This girl has watched too much TV, seriously.
"What kind of a world are you living in? I'm not popular. Students tend to recognize the people they see in the media. That's it."
Her breath is loud and sharp when she pants, and I'd be afraid she wanted to push me (she looks like she's preparing to fight) if I didn't know she would get in serious trouble for causing me any physical harm. But her face clears, and her expression changes; she's looks haughty and determined. It's a bit daunting.
"You don't know who Edward is," she whispers.
"I think I'd have noticed by now if he were a part of the Italian Mafia, but go ahead. Amuse me."
"He's a ladies' man."
"You're damn right. I am a lady, he's my man. Anything else?"
"You don't understand," she says. "He goes through women like he goes through socks. I've been to summer camp with him."
"Then I am happy to be his sock for a while. You went to summer camp with him twice, Alice, get your facts straight. So he had two different girlfriends two consecutive years. Serial monogamist like the rest of us." I stretch my back. It's aching, and I'm exhausted from not understanding this girl at all. "Seriously, Alice, what are you trying to achieve? Why do you hate me? Is it really Edward? Or my appearance? What do you want? Just tell me."
She huffs, twice, takes out her shiny iPhone five hundred, makes a bit of an eye-roll-y expression, and leaves me. A bit anticlimactic, if you ask me.
I don't hear any tales about my hygiene or supposed solitude after that, and I assume it's because she knows I know about my room. Dad still has the picture with her handwriting, and I know I could tell on her and maybe even prove her involvement, but it's enough to know she actually did it.
On the way home, I ask Edward about his previous girlfriends, and we talk about them. There's nothing dramatic. Maybe I should want him to talk shit about them, bitches this and bitches that and they were both ugly and awful, but Edward doesn't do that. He tells me when and how he met them and why they didn't work out, that he'd probably talk to them on the street if he were to meet them. It gives me hope. If the wonder that is our relationship frizzles out and we go back to being friends, maybe a girl in the future will hear about me, not about that weirdo he once dated, but that I was good to him and good with him and that we took care of each other.
Emmett and Rosalie remain to be friends, but they talk on Skype often. I don't know what their deal is. Neither does Edward.
I get involved with a daunting campaign. Zachary North calls me (Emmett might or might not have taken the call and pretended they were talking to a furniture company) to ask if he had my permission to give my contacts to another company. I don't even know why he had to ask. An hour later, I get a call from a woman named Eva G. Burgess who is starting a campaign in the summer called Strong Contemporary Women, and wants me to be the face of their campaign.
The face, not just a face. The face they'd plaster everywhere promoting the campaign.
She says that the moment the direction of their campaign became clear to her, she specifically asked for me, and that is intimidating. It is a campaign funded by a single anonymous donator, managed by twelve people in collaboration with Puma Athlete's Guild in order to promote, you guessed it, strong contemporary women. That's the gist of it. There's a series of open lectures being planned starting in the fall, through the winter and into spring, where well-known women talk about body image and success and equality and discrimination and many important messages I've forgotten.
She couldn't have known just exactly how well her campaign resonates with me. I told her I'd think about it, and then I called her back. Five minutes later.
I haven't dared to tell anyone about it yet (not even Edward) in case it all turns out to be a dream. I'll tell them when I have something solid to show them, but so far, it's incredible. It's vague, too, but we're working on the ideas and I'm sure the campaign will find a shape during summer.
Jacob has come out. He might get sacked because of pressure from some parents, and I just—I fucking hate them. How can we have a gay coach? My son is in that team!
Closed-minded assholes. He's a fucking good coach, you know? Edward and Emmett have gone to off-season training the entire winter. Not every week, but still. Who does that? He's fought for our team to be able to compete with much larger high schools from bigger districts. So maybe we're not the best, but we have a competitive team, and that's all Jacob's work.
But abuse doesn't ask for gender.
I'm pissed by the amount of shit he has to take for his sexuality. It's none of anybody's goddamn business. Even the local newspaper covers the conflict. Mr. Kramer can't legally sack him for being gay (and I've heard he doesn't want to), but I've spoken to Jacob, and it seems the whole fuss around it has exhausted him. He might leave to calm things down, and that breaks my heart.
Shit like this shouldn't happen in the twenty first century. Ugh.
Dad arrives home a few days prior to moving away from the Cullens. Emmett, dad and I spend a few evenings looking at houses that are up for rent. We settle on an old house (it's cheaper) with an unused pool but with a big back garden. One of the bedrooms is dusty and messy and lacking wall insulation which is why it is thirty degrees colder than the rest of the house. Emmett and I are sharing a bedroom until we renovate it, and one of its walls is curved like a half-circle. It's a cool room. The house belongs to Tom's wife's sister (or something), and dad only has to pay the bills and no rent if we renovate that one room.
Nepotism totally works, in case you didn't know.
We've been going to our home, too. It's a battlefield, but piece by piece, we've—by which I of course mean dad and Emmett and Edward—managed to clean the place up, and for a while it looked like grass might start growing where our house used to be, but three weeks ago, the builders dug a hole at least nine feet deep. Edward and Emmett helped the builders pour a concrete slab at the bottom, and it seems the site gains another aspect every week. Edward is ridiculously enthusiastic, jumping to the bottom of the basement and drilling holes and checking if the walls are horizontal and upright with a yellow spirit level, spending his free evenings helping us. Dad doesn't question it.
In fact, one day, when Edward notices a flaw in the way the sewerage is being built and points it out to a contractor, dad oversees it. During dinner that night, he seems more thoughtful than I've seen him lately, and says, "That Cullen boy—he's more mature than any seventeen year-olds I've met."
Emmett, of course, starts coughing because no twenty one year-olds usually behave like seventeen year-olds. (Don't worry, brother, I'm sure you'll be an exception.)
Dad has changed. Since it's been just the three of us, I can't recall a single time dad's been up before me. Of the three of us, I'm the one with a boring un-teenage-y sleeping schedule. Well, not anymore. Dad is awake at six AM sharp to go for a run. He makes breakfast, reads the newspaper. He's started to care about things he used to dismiss: when and what he eats, when he sleeps, being on time. I don't know if he's doing it on purpose or it's a habit from Glynco, but he's keeping a schedule.
He still hasn't told us about Sarah, but I don't think it's far. He doesn't make it a secret that he's not home some nights, and we don't ask. He'll introduce us when and if he's ready.
We fall into our own routine. It's assuring. It's fun, even, when I study around the kitchen table and dad works on his laptop, I read little calculus exercises to dad who sort of snorts when I ask if I could calculate (and check) the necessary measurements for our house. Math is easy. It's always been easy. It's nice to have a subject where I continue to get As even with a month-long gap in my learning.
I think we're too aware of Edward's fights with his dad, because unfortunately, my guess that having a baby isn't going to solve anything is coming true. He never says it outright. He just joins us in the evening and it's there in his mannerisms and the amount of affection he seeks from me. It's breaking my heart. On warm May nights, it's clear that he doesn't want to go home, and we have no heart to drive him away, so we watch him ignore their calls and work until late at night. It is not that we wouldn't have the power to drive him home, it's that the power is not ours to use.
One night, when Edward is having dinner at our place, Al knocks on our door. He's dressed so casually I almost don't recognize him. He steps in, takes off his hat and shakes hands with dad.
"I thought you were still in New York," dad says, smiling. He motions at the dinner table. "Care to join?"
Marshal Stephens shuffles with his feet, eyeing Edward, then me, then Edward again, and I'm not sure I've ever seen him look so uncomfortable. "Actually, I'd like to have a word with your daughter, if that's okay."
Confused, dad gives me a look. "Is she in trouble?"
"No." Al chuckles, but it's inherently uneasy. "I'd prefer to go outside if that's okay with Isabella. It's a beautiful night."
He offers his arm for me to hold as we descend the stairs, but lowers it when I don't take it. It is, indeed, a beautiful night.
"Are you okay to go for a walk? I won't take much of your time, I promise."
I nod, and we walk out of our subdivision and into a nearby park. He's quiet, and I have no clue what he could want from me as he makes light conversation. "How have you been?"
"Much better. I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. How about you?"
"He's… good, I guess. How are you?"
Slowly, we walk in silence. There's weight in his step. Al stops in front of a small bench and I sit when he does. He rests elbows on his knees and observes me. I find it a bit alarming, but I stay silent. He stares at me for the longest time before sighing.
"I went to Vancouver," he mutters, averting his eyes and forming small ridges out of gravel with his feet. He looks up, all light blue eyes and fair hair blowing in the wind, and says, "I want you to get me Edward's DNA."
I blink at him.
"I never told you I was referring to him."
"I know," he replies, simply. He sighs. "I might've lied to you."
I sharply let my head fall backwards and look at the darkening sky. "Why am I not surprised."
"Everybody seems to be lying to me. Apparently, it's written on my forehead that I'm gullible. Or maybe it's just that I want to believe those lies."
"This had nothing to do with you," he replies. "Sometimes it's easier."
When he adds nothing else, I ask, "So you've been to Vancouver before, huh?"
"No," he denies. "I wasn't lying about that." He takes a breath, like he's embracing himself for an answer. "Was Edward's mother's name by any chance—Lizzie?"
"Elizabeth," I confirm.
"She was a prostitute," Al says, quietly. "My wife and I, we took a two year break a few decades ago, and… If it's not me, I might know who his father is."
For a long while, we listen to the birds chirp. I observe the patterns he forms on the gravel with his feet.
"My half-brother. Apparently we have the same taste in women. Up until a few days ago, I hadn't seen him in twenty five years."
"Where is he?"
"Sitting in jail in Vancouver as we speak."
"What's he in for?"
"Rape and murder."
I sigh, with exaggerated sound, and close my eyes. My sunshine and butterflies are starting to suffocate with the reality I'm opening my eyes to. Edward doesn't need any more baggage.
"So you want Edward's DNA."
"Just a hair, fingernail, something small."
"I don't like doing this behind his back."
"I know, but—" He presses his lips together. "I don't want Edward to meet him. Ray is one of the vilest human beings I've met. If it turns out to be him, I'm ready to take the responsibility and tell him it's me."
"How likely is it that it's not either of you?"
"Quite likely," he answers. "But having met my brother, Edward's physical similarities to either of us are striking. I'm sorry I lied to you. It had nothing to do with you and everything to do with me."
Maybe we never do find the right answers, or stop making mistakes, but he's trying, and I value that. Because when a sixty one year-old Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal admits his mistakes and attempts to rectify them, looking like your opinion matters, you reconsider what your life is going to be like. Filled with mistakes. And maybe that's okay.
"For his sake, I hope it's me."
"I do, too," I answer, and offer a small smile.
Vulnerable-looking, he clears his throat and looks me straight in the eye. "Will you please help me?"
Some things in life are utterly predictable, not because of routine or habit or any of the like, but because, if you know someone well enough and see an issue repeatedly being brought up, it affects the problems you're expecting to arise. I wish, with all my heart, that I was surprised when Carlisle called dad to let him know Edward had taken the car and hasn't been seen since, but I was not. Alarmed, yes. Terrified? Absolutely. Surprised? No fucking way.
Dad is ready to take the car and start searching for him, but I convince him that if Edward ends up anywhere but back home, it's likely to be us. And so I spend an entire evening sitting in the hallway, facing the door, text-messaging and calling him in vain. I'm cutting out little poems to stick on my wall (and annoy Emmett with), but my thoughts are with Edward and what kind of quarrel they could have had that ended so badly.
Carlisle, apparently, follows the same logic that I do, which means that in every half an hour, he calls dad to ask if Edward is here. Dad is patient with him. Situations that would've made him red and angry half a year ago only make him react with a calm and determined hand, a change I believe could only be explained by his training in Glynco. He pulls some strings at Kirkland PD and asks them to keep their eyes open for Edward's car. I tell them his license plate number.
And so we wait, until, at half past midnight, the doorbell rings. Edward is leaning against the doorframe, his back bag dangling from his shoulder and sports bag carelessly thrown in front of our door. His jaw is clenched, his eyes fixed on his fingers as he peels old color from the doorframe. Realizing his hand is shaking, he hides it in his pocket. Even as he doesn't make eye contact, they seem bloodshot, and his lips are pressed together tight enough for the pink to disappear. Dad and I stand, staring, incapable of coherent response because finding Edward in a state so ominous, I—I can't even express how empty it makes me feel.
"I don't—" He clears his throat. It's shaky and hum-like as if he's checking if his vocal chords still work. "I know it's late—I didn't, I didn't know." He takes a breath and ends in a whisper, "...where else to go."
He's at the brink of tears.
I don't know if it's me or dad, but the door opens wide and Edward lets the bags fall as soon as it shuts. He leans against the wall and runs a hand over his face as he attempts a smile he might intend to look assuring but instead feels twisted and filled with pain. He swallows, still careful not to look at us, and hides both hands in his pockets.
Dad's phone rings, and I think he picks it up out of sheer habit than anything. Edward's eyes snap to his, and dad, still not saying a word, puts a hand on Edward's shoulder to prevent him from leaving.
Dad listens, just like I attempt to, and in a firm but calm voice, says, "I don't think that's a good idea." There's a pause as dad tilts his head sideways to look at Edward. "No, he's sober."
But the second he says it, I know it's a lie. Edward's posture, the way he slowly turns his head to look at our piles of shoes and boxes, anything but me, it's slower, less calculated.
"No, he stays."
Edward exhales without noise.
"I understand. You're welcome."
When dad has disconnected his call, he holds an empty palm in front of Edward who digs car keys out of his pocket.
"How much did you have?"
Dad's face twists. "If I ever catch you driving with alcohol in your system, no matter how little, I am taking your car. I don't care if you have the height and weight to hold alcohol. Am I understood?"
Edward nods. As ashamed as he looks, it doesn't cover the pain on his face that he so desperately is trying to hide. With shaking hands, he starts to unbutton his coat, but flinches away when I try to help him. Dad leaves us.
After Edward has hung his coat meticulously enough to make a professional proud, he runs a quivering hand through his hair and attempts a smile. It's broken, and when he finally makes eye contact, it's like he's not even there. His mouth twitches but he's silent, and maybe some emotions are stronger than words. When I lead him to the living room, Emmett sees us from ours and yells, "Guys, you don't have to be so snea—holy motherfucker, what happened to Edward?"
"Emmett—don't. Not today."
I follow Edward to the living room, and I don't think he even registers what he's doing as he sits on the couch, rests elbows on his knees and stares at the carpet. He snivels, sharply, and I kneel in front of him.
"Talk to me."
He lifts his head, but it's too dark to read his expression, so I sit in his lap. It seems to be the right thing to do because Edward intertwines our fingers and helps me lie down. He lies next to me, half on top of me, hides his face in my neck and wraps arms around me. I stroke his back. He takes a sharp breath, chest heaving, once, twice, and suddenly, he's rocking with sobs. He's trying so hard to be silent, to cry without sound, but the rough edges of his crying escape, and it's the most heartbreaking sound I've ever heard. Hot tears fall on my neck.
He stops, momentarily frozen and face hidden in my neck, when we hear footsteps. Emmett appears, and I can see more than hear how awkward Emmett looks on the doorway, holding a blanket. He hesitates.
In three quick strides, he's next to us, awkwardly throws a blanket on our feet and rushes away.
He nods, or at least I think he does, but then he's gone and Edward's chest presses against mine as he takes a sharp breath before letting out bursts of cries, pressing his open mouth against my skin to muffle the sound. I don't tell him it's okay. Whatever happened, it's not okay. I don't tell him to keep silent, even though he's forcing himself to be, and I don't ask him to talk. My sweatshirt is getting damp on my shoulder, and my throat gets tight and uncomfortable because I hurt for him, with him, but I can't take his pain away from him. All I can do is be here for him and hope that's enough.
"I'm—so sorry," he whispers as he rocks against me, desperately holding himself back, but his emotions are stronger; a second later, he's pressing his open mouth against my sweatshirt, muffling his cries. I squeeze him and hold him so tightly my back is starting to hurt, but I don't care because Edward is hurting and I will do anything to ease his burden, even a little bit.
"I—I didn't mean to—" he tries again, but panting and sobbing in intervals, he can't get the words out.
"I'm here," I whisper, running hands through his hair. "I'm right here."
Somewhere along the way I've learned the somewhat acceptable response in a situation like this because Edward takes a breath, a breath so deep our chests line up with each other, and muffles a strangled cry in my sweatshirt. He bawls, squeezing me and hiding his face from me. I let him.
I don't know how much time has passed when his breathing calms and he stops heaving with sobs, but I do know that while he's breathing against my neck, he's tenderly encasing my head and brushing his thumb against my hair.
"Are you warm?" he whispers with a hoarse voice.
That's the extent of our conversation for the night. Maybe it's out of fear for losing himself in his emotions, maybe out of embarrassment, but he doesn't say what happened. I don't ask.