Well, the end is here. Thank you so much for reading, encouraging and being patient with me while I work through this story.
Big hugs to Alby Mangroves for going above and beyond for me. She's magical. Any mistakes are my own since I added after she finished looking over everything.
[My next projects will be the continuation of House of the Horde and the short sequel to Lions Eat Lambs.]
I hope you enjoy this last chapter, and again, thank you!
For The Love of A Princess
~. . . . -=|=- . . . .~
When her eyes are closed and she's quiet, she doesn't look real. Her smooth skin and curly, auburn hair are only disturbed by the flickering from the oil lamp. She resembles a porcelain doll, more than a little girl. A porcelain doll holding a less desirable doll so one could compare their beauty. There's no comparison. I stroke her hand, then kiss her forehead. She's undisturbed.
I love her, but I can't help thinking of Alice's notion of having children. She was a romantic, a fool. I can't change the world May's growing up in. I have no hope for her small generation. I have no hope for her here, at the farm, but it's pointless to abandon it now, like it was pointless to abandon it so long ago. We had everything we needed here, everything we needed to live.
On the road we would have nothing except hunger and the cold. There's death out there. There's death in here. It's starting to not matter where we are. We're idle as we wait for death.
My eyes burn from the narrow light, and as I close the door to her room, stepping into the hallway, I know I should rest. It's been a long day, and I'm tired.
Surely, Bella's asleep by now. I glance into the partially open door of our bedroom, looking for a candle's subtle glow, but find darkness and stink of an extinguished flame in its place. I should walk into this room. I should. It's what I need. There is a layer of sweat, and another layer of dirt clinging to my skin: an honest day's work waiting to be wiped away. The same, comfortable routine I fall into each night will take place if I walk in this room. Wash, climb into bed, listen to the creaks of the floor above, sleep, wake, dress, work, eat, work, wash, and sleep – a carbon copy of the day already passed.
Tonight, there's no comfort, no peace, no desire to lie next to her and pretend to sleep while my mind runs rampant with thoughts emerging from my past. There's only her,calling me between the dark and the moonlight.
I stacked the rocks high in front of the pond. That image.
I back away from the door. I should check the locks, just to be safe.
Downstairs, the air is warmer, less stagnant than the claustrophobic bedrooms. For the second time tonight, I check the locks at the front and back door, then glance at the window locks in the living room, dining room, study and kitchen. They're all in place.
I guzzle a glass of water before snagging an apple from a bowl on the counter and pulling a chair close to the large hearth. Even though the fire has died, the embers are enough to draw sweat, but I welcome the warmth.
It'd been a cold, long winter. I'm ready for the miserable heat. I'm ready for the hot nights without blankets, the wanted cold of the water which sat too long in the basin so we can wash with it. It's been too cold for too long.
Using the iron poker, I sift through the embers and ash, revealing the hot spots underneath. A small flame begins to flicker against the charred wood. It's hesitant to grow larger, but still, I watch and wait while minutes begin to reverse.
The silence grew the more we moved against it. The longer we moved past each other without speaking, the more it resolved my decision to leave her.
I often asked myself how I could stay there. How could I breathe that musty air? How could I eat in the dining room, or sleep in their beds? How could I carry on without thinking of Alice, of what transpired behind my back and in front of my eyes? All these questions without answers.
Those emotions caged me in darkness, left me feeling hopeless. I was a betrayer, murderer, liar. Death and selfishness moved me forward. Fear left me in agony.
Fear of what? What was I so afraid of when I had nothing more to lose after entering that house once more? I'd already lost everything. Yet, when she touched me I shuddered. She wanted to help, wanted to pull the bullet from my shoulder.
My palm rests over the old wound, and while I can still feel pressure around the scar, the touch is dead.
She sterilized needle-nose pliers in hot water, allowed them to cool, then with my careful direction began to pry into my tender flesh while I lay on the oval table in front of the burning hearth.
It isn't a feeling one forgets. It's an old memory, but fresh. My eyes close and my brow furrows.
I mumbled obscenities while she dug and prodded, searching for the small piece of metal wedged between tissue. Her eyes were intense, focused, and I concentrated on them. They kept me grounded and sane, kept me from flying off the table. "God," I breathed out, as if he would answer someone like me. My eyes watered.
Her diligent eyes found me then, leaving her task to search my expression. Her voice small, she said, "I'm sorry," before returning back to my wound.
After the extraction, and with my instruction, she cleaned the wound. It was our only communication for hours that afternoon. Still, I wanted to walk out the front door and never look back. But, as I sat in front of the fireplace and watched her prepare fresh water and move around the kitchen, I began to imagine her by herself. It wasn't hard to see her life alone and how simple it would be for her to become prey for a passer-by desperate for food or water.
Her eyes would land on mine, and every time the same thought became stronger: I know this girl.
I know this girl. She wasn't someone I simply passed on the street. I spent time with her, knew things about her other people in this world didn't. I was, perhaps, the only person left to know her name. And yesterday, she kissed me as though I would fall apart if she pressed too hard. That is what I couldn't forget, thatI couldn't force away even though the pain from my shoulder had become aggravated once more from digging the bullet out.
"We can't leave them out there," she said, her voice was soft and broken as she leaned against the door frame, her arms crossed in front of her. "Coyotes will make off with them."
I looked up from where I sat at the kitchen table with a blood-soaked cloth to my shoulder. The glow from the last remaining daylight was on her. "What do you suggest we do?"
I could see the ideas passing through her mind as clearly as the light touching her face. She turned to me after an extended silence and garnered her solution.
I recall the weight of those four bodies, and sometimes seconds exist, mere seconds, when I can feel the heat trace my shoulder like the bullet and wound were fresh. It feels like it once did, the slight tingle buzzing through my bones. The pain is brief, but it reminds me, regardless of its span, how I got here.
I rub my fingertips against it through my clothes. The scar tissue is numb.
I glance to the corner of the kitchen, the back door locked and in place, then glance to the fireplace. It's not truly ablaze, only flickering among the orange embers. I stack three hefty logs onto the cast iron grate, then poke the flames awake. They catch and burn. The wood screams under the intense heat, then pops and hisses as it settles.
And I was in front of that roaring fire once more, watching the tree line for the eyes of animals who would smell the burning flesh drifting on the wind. She was on the other side, and tossed another small piece of wood onto the high flames. Tears hung on her lower lids, causing her eyes to shimmer in the orange glow.
I caught those tear-filled eyes, and I could feel mine begin to prime as well. "I'm sorry," I said over the crackle between us.
She didn't move, just stared for a long moment before her lips parted and a tear ran down her cheek. "I'm sorry," she repeated.
An understanding had settled between us, a familiar emotion we both possessed while her family turned into ash. "We'll have to keep it going all night," I said. "So there isn't anything left. If there is... " Coyotes. Scavengers.
She nodded. There was no need to finish my sentence. She understood.
"There's no telling what else they'll try to get into." I eyed the barn. Even though the doors were locked, Charlie told stories of animals getting into the shack to steal food. The type of meat wouldn't matter to them. Even if it was dead.
"I can't bring myself to burn her."
I have almost forgotten what it's like to feel the pain exploding inside my chest. I try to forget. I try to keep the past from shouldering my present, but this fire and May's bedtime story have resurrected everything I hate about myself.
I take up the iron poker and continue to shuffle the embers, watching them grow brighter each time they are touched. I should go upstairs. I should be in bed. I should be sleeping. I don't know how long I've sat here. I don't know how much longer I can. My back is beginning to tingle, the old man inside my body wanting the younger man to climb the stairs to lay down so he can rest, but to lay in that room would be more harsh than a wooden chair.
There are too many memories, now. Too many details I remember, too many thoughts which will pass in that room. So, I'm idle in this chair, in front of a small fire, fighting emotions from six winters ago still clinging to my ribs with such ferocity it's making me sick. I sigh, taking another bite of apple before dropping the remainder on the table behind me. I place the iron poker against the stones, and resolve to leave the kitchen with nothing more than an old man on my back, soot on my fingers and a candle in my hand.
I won't find sleep or rest. Not until I settle this.
Once more, I turn the knob on the lamp, bringing the small flame to life. It guides me to the second floor. I'm quiet as I move up the stairs, into the bedroom where I begin to search for the small white cloth in my sock drawer. I haven't touched it since before May was born, but it's here, in my hand. The familiar weight of such a small thing tugging inside my chest, weighing me down and seizing my breath.
How could a bedtime story do this to me?
I stuff the white, handkerchief-wrapped thing into my pocket then leave the room with the oil lamp in hand.
I linger at the back door, hanging from the sanctity of the warm house and into the cool night air. The restless dark echoes through the trees – a whippoorwill call, followed by chirps of crickets and frogs. A breeze blows across my face, the fresh scent of nature engulfing me. Basil. There's always basil in the air from the corner of the garden.
I step down and still, staring straight ahead. My breaths are shallow, quiet as I search for movement in my peripherals. Nothing. I lock the door behind me, shove the key in my pocket and begin to walk away from the house. My steps aren't slow, but they aren't fast. My heart is pounding, and I'm not sure I should be walking away.
I'm an idiot for this. This isn't a good idea. Bella will wake up. She'll look for me downstairs, and when I'm not there, then what? Will she leave and look for me? No. She wouldn't leave May alone. She'll trust me to be back. Walkers haven't been by all winter. One night wouldn't be any different. They'll be fine without me for a while.
Surprisingly, I remember the lot, though the site is barely visible under the dead leaves and brush grown up around her. The moon ripples across the low water, the leaves rustling overhead as I stop in front of her. Everything changed here. It's wild, overwrought with weeds, as though nothing has stepped foot on this ground in ages. The air is moist and foul. I can almost taste rotting eggs.
Through the unrestrained tangle of green and brown, is the pile of rocks I erected over her. Their height is odd in this landscape, not a natural formation. Anyone would know what it is upon seeing it – a tomb.
I set the lantern down and begin to brush away the fallen leaves. Soon, it's how it was the day I left it so many years ago, the day I buried her. I stand now where I stood then, at the foot of her grave, looking down at the rocks. Some have toppled from the pile.
Darkness sinks into the trees. Back then, the sun was beginning to set, shrouding the forest in orange as if the sky had caught on fire. The heavy pile gave me comfort, then. She was safe under it. Now, it's tormenting. She's died all over again.
"I haven't been here in so long," I begin, shaking my head and knowing I'm ridiculous, "even though I said I'd visit every day." My chest tightens and I scratch the back of my neck, thinking of what else to say. What can I say to someone who isn't listening? Anything, I suppose. "I wasn't a good friend to you. If I was then none of this would've happened. I would've kept my eyes on you that night, not've been selfish like I was by staying up in that room."
My skin rises at those words.
"Even now, you deserve better than me. I abandoned you, but I've never forgotten. I dunno, I... I can't forget when I re-live the past every single day in that house; in the kitchen, on the stairs, in the barn, the shack, the garden, Bella."
I swallow. "You don't know how may times I thought of leaving her in the middle of the night, even when she was pregnant. I couldn't stand the thought of her giving birth. It made me sick to think of bringing a child into this world, or her dying or the baby dying." I shake my head. The thought turns my stomach: May, dead. "Am I a bad person for this?
"I never told you, but I almost did it to you, thinking you'd be better off without me, but I couldn't. You've held me here. Even after this," I gesture to the ground, "it's been you."
A warm tear runs down my cheek. "And it's funny because I never came to see you again. I kept telling myself to do it, but I'd make an excuse and say I'd go the next day, and then the day after that, then the day after that. You became an unbearable thought. What does that say about me, that I remembered, but refused to come back here? But, I told May a bedtime story about a knight and a princess. They lost their kingdom and went in search for a new one. It reminded me of us, and I told her everything I could remember about our life together." I smile. "You would love her, Al. She's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I get why you wanted kids.
"I was afraid when Bella told me she was pregnant, had nightmares. If she died, I would've been alone and not've known how to care for a baby. We probably would've starved." I take a breath, stabilizing my own thoughts from sinking further into the dark. "Bella's fine, though. She's healthy, May's healthy, and I'm healthy. We're a family. We're survivors. Bella teaches me, and I teach her."
Bella, the same girl who didn't tell us about her family.
No. I can't think of that. "I've forgiven her. She did what she had to do to stay alive, and so did I." We both did what we knew, and we're still here today. She played a game of silence, and I played chess in the dark. Her silence, my silence, they were the same. I hid who I was, and so did she.
I brush a palm over my face. I'm exhausted and ready to wash the day off my skin. "I just wanted to come and talk to you. I know you said you didn't blame me for what happened. I did, and part of me still does, but I don't want to feel that way anymore. I'm tired of living in the past. It's killing me slowly, every single day. I brought you something, hoping it will help. I don't need it anymore. I'd rather it be with you than in my sock drawer."
Inside my pocket, my fingers brush against the cloth. I pull it out, peaking at the contents protected inside. The metal, once clean and steel-like, appears rusty. I run a thumb over the impression. All the information is still there. I don't need the light to recognize each line.
And still, in the corner, scratched into the surface by one of my friends from my same company, is 'Red'.
It's rough, oxidized after I threw my tags into the pasture, never wanting to see them again. The following summer, Bella found them and wrapped them in the handkerchief.
"It's sorta-like a going away gift, I guess," I say, digging my nails into the cool dirt next to the rocks. I wrap the tags once more and place the handkerchief into the hole. "I can't be reminded anymore." I pat the dirt so it's firm, like a hole had never been dug.
"You deserved better than me," I say as I gather my still-burning lantern, and with its weight I feel a burden lift from my shoulders and chest. "I'm sorry."
With a sigh, I turn away from Alice for the last time. My heart begins to ache less. I have forgiven Bella for her wrong-doings, like I hope she has forgiven me for mine, but I've never had a chance to forgive myself, afraid the monster I was so long ago still lingered in my bones. He still might.
Inside the house, the warmth greets me. I drink several cups of water to soothe the dryness in my throat before carrying myself up the stairs. May is still asleep, and Bella stirs when I walk into the bedroom and begin to undress. The basin water is cool, but it's a welcome relief to the gritty film on my skin. I catch my darkened reflection in the mirror, as I do every night in this routine, noting the way my face has changed slightly since first arriving here. My eyes appear sunken, the result of many sleepless nights. Lines in the corners of my eyes are a testament to how old I really am. I pull at them with a finger to smooth them out.
My hair has patches of gray. Those lines around my mouth weren't there before May was born. I've slowly watched myself decay.
"You're not as young as you used to be," Bella says, her voice a quiet break from the silence. I see her reflection, her pretty face staring at me from our bed. Even in the faint moonlight, I can see a grin gracing her lips. "No matter how many times you look it's not going to change."
"I keep hoping it will," I say, dipping the rag back into the basin then wring it to wipe my feet. "At this rate, I'll be an old man in no time."
My skin is still damp as I move through the room to search for a pair of boxers in the chest of drawers.
"You're already an old man. What took you so long? I waited up for you, but I couldn't wait any longer."
I turn off the flame in the lamp and climb into bed, turning to face her. "May was adamant about a bedtime story."
Bella tucks her hand underneath her pillow then smiles; her face is all the focus I need to adjust to the lack of darkness. "What did you tell her?"
"Something about a knight and a princess."
"I bet she loved it."
"She fell asleep in the middle of it. I think it bored her."
She chuckles. "I'm sure was great."
The cool room turns to embers and with a swing of my leg, the blankets are off me. "It reminded me of us, before." There's the word I hate to emphasize because we both know what it means. Something so meaningless can change the demeanor of her and me, of the room. It makes her withdraw, and I regret it.
"No, it's not what you think," I'm quick to respond, trailing a finger down her arm, but she retracts further and turns her back to me. It iswhat she thinks, but I can't tell her. "Bella," I plead, "what do you want me to say? I can't help what reminds me of us."
"You hate me."
Not this again. "Why do you think I hateyou? Because I'm reminded of something? I'm not blaming you."
"You can't tell me you don't think of the past."
She's silent for a moment then looks over her shoulder, "I try not to."
"But you can't help it?"
She shakes her head.
"I can't either, and I'm tired of it. I want some peace."
"What are you trying to say?"
"I want to tell you what I did, what took me so long to come to bed wasn't just because of May's bedtime story. I went to see her."
"I'm feeling better tonight, better than I've felt in a long time. To be honest with you, I've never been okay. I've never felt good until now. I've always felt... guilty."
"I know," she says, still turned away from me.
"You and May deserve better, and I'm sorry for not being completely here all these years." She says nothing as I trace the line of her arm with my fingers. "What do you think of?" This is something we've never discussed beyond what we've needed to.
"On good days, I wish my mom could see May, my dad, too. Then, sometimes I think of him."
Him. "What about him? What reminds you of him?"
"This room, the footsteps upstairs, you."
I'm leaning on my elbow, my heart beginning to pick up the pace. "Me? I remind you of him? How? Bella, tell me." I grip onto her arm, wanting her to turn and face me. She doesn't, so I scoot closer to her and swing an arm around her waist to pull her to me. Her skin is cool on my chest, and even though she's resisting by trying to pull away, she doesn't fight me off. I loosen my grip around her slightly, not wanting to feel as though I'm trapping her. Our movements, as always, are a careful dance of push and pull.
My lips are against her ear, her soft hair tickling my face. "How do I remind you of him?" I whisper.
"When we... and you're rough."
The first night, after months of looks and passes in the hallway, I'd dissolved and lifted her against the wall, fed up with the restraint I had upon myself for longer than I cared to recall. I needed to feel warmth surround me, needed to be inside her. She rocked into me, then, the last brick of her wall crumbled at our feet, melted by sweat.
In this room one night, I moved toward her selfishly. Her tongue still tasted of the sweet strawberries from dinner as I pushed her hair away from our lips. Her breath hot on my face, I pushed myself onto her, holding her hands in mine, pinning her against the bed. All those times, I was never as careful as I should've been. "I would never do that. I'd never hurt you."
I press her body to mine, holding her back to my chest. I wonder if she doesn't think about himwhen I'm touching her like this. Do her memories lie here, in this touch?
"Don't you trust me?" I ask.
Panic is evident in the rise and fall of her chest as she turns to face me. "There are some things I want to forget, but can't. When you touch me like that, it's him. I try to tell myself it's you. My mind thinks differently."
"It can't be helped," I say, brushing her cheek. "I should've known better. I didn't think about how it could affect you."
She shakes her head. "I know you'd never hurt me, Edward, and I'm sorry. "
I scoot closer, our chests pressed together in this new position. Her eyes glint in the small light. "This okay?" I ask. My nose glides against hers before our lips meet. Our kiss is only a moment, it's soft, but ignites the passion burning through me. I pull away, but she finds her way back. Her mouth is on mine once more. A push, a pull.
"I'll be gentle," I whisper against her. "I'll be gentle." I embrace her top lip, seeking permission. My palm cups her shoulder, her fingers glide across the stubble on my chin.
I kiss her again, my hand sliding to her waist, my hips finding hers as I explore her gown beneath the sheets. I hate this thing. It's too long. I can't find her skin quick enough.
Knee. Thigh. Hip. The feel of her on my hands. Warm and ache. There is nothing else in this room, now. The shadows and the moonlight disappear. The walls fall away and there is nothing else I want more. She drives me crazy. The thought of being inside her, feeling her around me has me mesmerized.
Slowly. Go slowly.
A rattle across the room distracts me. May is standing in the doorway, she lingers for a moment before stepping in, holding her doll to her chest. She's next to our bed, sliding into the moonlight. Her eyes are droopy, her face expressionless, her voice soft. "Daddy, that man is in my room again."
That man. These words frighten me. My memories aren't the only ghosts in the house unable to find rest. I move from the bed, tucking my erection between the elastic of my boxers in a swift motion.
"Come on," Bella says, as May crawls over her. She kisses the top of her head. "Do you want to sleep in here tonight?"
From the hall, I hear May's little response, "Yes," and with it, my plans go out the door. I rub my face with my palms.
My steps are slow, unlike my heart which feels like it's in my neck, waiting to sink back into my chest. I don't know what I'll see in this hall or in her room. The hairs on my arm stand on end as I push her door open a little farther.
It's darker than it was earlier, the moonlight no longer favoring her window. Nevertheless her room is normal, no figures or dark shadows floating in the corner. I step further in, etching my way across the old floor, daring myself to whisper into the dark.
"What do you want?" I ask softly. "Why do you keep scaring her?"
For a moment, I expect a response, but I know this is ridiculous. Whatever resides here has never spoken to me, but I know it's there, watching out the highest windows of the house, seeing what I can't.
I push the curtains until they can't be moved further along the rod, hoping to reel in more light. From her window, I can see the white picket fence around the property, pushed to the gravel stretching parallel to the house. The moonlight is soft, touching each surface with a gentle glow. In the distance, the woods are nothing more than shadow.
My forehead rests against the cool pane, my reflection much like a ghost, itself. I was in those woods earlier, hoping to settle my mind. It'll take time, but I'm starting to feel the ease on my thoughts. I feel my heartbeat everywhere at once as a tall, slender shape begins to form, floating along the dirt and gravel. It's familiar, intriguing. Is there any possibility I'm dreaming? Have I caught myself in the middle of a fantasy? No. I'm not sleepwalking. I remember how I got here. A glance to May's bed confirms it. It's empty. She's in my room, lying under my sheets with Bella's arms around her.
No. I couldn't be dreaming. I know of every sensation around me: the cold breeze coming through
the cracks between the frame and the window; the dread, the excitement spreading across my skin,
raising the hairs on my arms; the feel of the glass against my fingertips. I watch the shadow advance with curiosity. The shape is familiar, yet I can't make out any of its features. It's a shadow of the past haunting me. It's her. Is she real? Could she be...
No. No, Edward. She's not. She's dead, remember? Her heart stopped. She was blue and purple. Dead. She's dead. You saw the grave.
But, why am I seeing her now?
My cheek is pressed to the cool window, my fingertips against the glass as though the answers would be whispered to me. My breath fogs the pane and I wipe it away with anxious speed, pressing my forehead against it once more. I fill my lungs and hold my breath and the swell of hope, grinding in my chest, is almost painful. There's no room for any air with all the emotion locked inside.
The shape advances. Small details begin to emerge. Hair, shoulders, torso, arms.
My once-seized breath fogs the glass again with the declaration, "Alice."
I'm away from the window. Out of the room and down the stairs with such speed that I've barely known what I've done by the time I'm unlocking then pulling the front door open. The night air whips around me with ferocity. I step off the front porch, my nerves knotting in my stomach as I search down the road.
"Hello?" I call out. "Anybody there?"
The only response is the wind rattling the oak branches above my head. It's quiet out here, otherwise.
I turn and look to May's window, and I remember what it was like moments earlier, watching the figure glide down toward the house. My gaze turns back to the dusty road, the field of tall grass on the opposite side swaying gently. Could I imagine such an apparition?
I breathe in deeply, wanting to slow my quick heartbeat. There's a noise now; the animals in the barn alerted to something. Has this night been unsettling to them as well? Perhaps I didn't imagine what I saw.
Around the corner of the house, I can see the barn. The worn tin body reflects little light, but it's enough to make out an indistinguishable figure at its doors. Someone, or something is there. No. Someone. A man with a backpack is pushing the barn doors open. I'm not imagining this.
I have nothing to defend myself with, but I'm not without means. I watch him, peeking around the corner of the house until he disappears into the dark opening. I'd imagine he won't stay in there long. He can't see anything. He'll come out soon, looking for something he can take. I'm quick, but silent, on my feet and I'm at the side of the barn within seconds of leaving the corner of the house.
Should I call out to him, let him know I know he's there? But, what if he's armed? I can't misstep. If I do, it's death. There's rustling inside, careful footsteps and the sound of Sam snorting. That horse never took kindly to strangers. Is the man trying to steal him?
"I know you're in there," I say. "I've got a gun, and I will shoot you if you don't come out right now with your hands in front of you."
"I mean no harm." I was right – a man. His voice isn't deep or threatening. In fact, it sounds youthful, innocent.
"Come out, now!"
"Okay, okay. Please don't shoot."
I stand against the side of the barn, watching the door, waiting for a figure to emerge from the darkness. Finally, hands appear, fingers splayed. Arms, chest, shoulders, face. He's young and dark-skinned, like he's stayed in the sun for days at a time without burning. His straight, long, black hair is pulled away from his face. The full moon reveals his fear, and in that moment I find a little of myself in him, and I wonder if he can see the fear in my eyes, too.
Even in the dark I can see his clothes are torn and dirty. His jeans have holes, and the exposed white shirt, under his dirty jacket, is ripped in several places.
"What are you doing here?" I ask, inching away from the tin wall I'm against.
He looks over me. "You don't have a gun," he says and puts his hands down, relaxing.
"I didn't say it was on me. It's inside; easy to get to if you don't answer my question."
"I'm just looking for a place to stay for the night."
"Why are you so far from the highway?" I ask.
"I was told to come here. A woman said there was food and shelter."
"This woman told you wrong. There's nothing here for thieves."
"I'm not a thief! I'm an honest man!"
"An honest man doesn't take. He gives. You were clearly looking to take."
His eyes flutter over me once more as his lips part. His chest rises and falls. He's nervous. "Are you an honest man, sir?"
I step toward him, suddenly losing all fear of this boy. "I'm a killing man, who will slit the throat of anybody trying to take from my family."
He moves away from me. "Look, I don't want any trouble. I'm not looking to steal. I just want a place to sleep for one night, maybe some water and food. I can give you something in return." He begins to take off his back pack and unzips it.
"Don't reach in there," I say, knowing he could be searching for a weapon.
"No, it's just this." He reaches anyway, a stupid move on his part. Does he know nothing about self-preservation? Do I, because I don't stop him? He pulls out a tall, slim drawstring bag.
My curiosity piques. What could he have to offer in exchange for food, water and a bed? Is that? No. It can't be.
He slips the bag down over the glass bottle. I recognize the blue wrapping around the neck instantly. "Vodka?"
He nods. "Barely used," he says while handing it to me, and it's the truth. The bottle is full. I twist it open and put my nose to the mouth, taking a deep inhale of the pungent liquid inside. Vodka.
"How much are you willing to part with in exchange for food, water and shelter?" I smell it again and I'm reminded of my life before the war; bars, late nights, fried food, hangovers. I grin.
"How much would be worth your while?"
I'm thoughtful for a moment. "Two cups?"
He nods. "I can do that."
I twist the cap on. "You've got yourself a deal. I must warn you, though, I don't allow weapons – other than my own – inside my house. If you have a knife or gun, leave it out here."
"I have a pocket knife, sir." He retrieves it from his pocket and hands it to me. "I told you, I don't mean any harm. You're free to look in my bag."
I turn the knife over in my hand. It's old, but still in good condition. "This is all you have?" I ask as he shrugs his pack on his shoulders. "It's dangerous out there, and you have thisas your protection?"
"It was my dad's. It's all we had, and I'm not going to kill to get something better. I stay out of people's way, mind my own business. I've learned to become invisible, survive."
"And where's your dad now?"
"He died just this winter. Went in his sleep."
Poor kid. "I'm sorry to hear that," I say.
He shrugs it off, keeping his tone about him. "Don't be. I'm not. It probably sounds bad, me saying that. I miss him, but he's in a better place, not freezing to death or going hungry. I'm glad I don't have to see him suffer anymore. He was old."
"No, I understand what you're saying." I can feel my body finally begin to relax as I lead him toward the front of the house. At the front door, I ask. "What's your name?"
"Jacob Black, sir." He offers his hand, and I take it, giving him a firm shake.
"I'm Edward Cullen."
He marvels at the large hearth in the kitchen as I pour him fresh water into a pitcher. From the laundry room, I grab a ceramic basin and wash cloth then add it to a wooden tray along with the pitcher. We have deer jerky in a container on the counter. I hand him a strip and put five more on the tray. He begins to eat it right away.
I measure out two cups of vodka and store it in a glass container on the shelf. "Thank you," I say, handing him back the bottle.
"You're welcome," he says, jerky between his teeth as he pushes the Gray Goose back into his bag.
"Here, you carry this." I hand him the tray. "Let me get some candles and I'll show you to your room."
We'd only offered a room to one other person before, an older woman looking to stay for shelter for a few days, but only ended up staying half a night, leaving before the sun rose. Holding a single candle in front of me, I lead Jacob up the stairs to the third floor. Usually, there's no reason to venture to this part of the house. It's always the same feelings up here, like something is chasing me. I'm scared of what I'll see in the corner of my eye, but I don't want Jacob on the second floor with Bella, May and me.
"We never use this part of the house," I explain as we reach the third landing. "So, excuse the dust. This is your room here." I open the first door on the right. "Make yourself at home." I set the candle and holder along with the spares on the nightstand.
"Thank you, sir."
I nod, stepping back into the hall. "My family and I are on the second floor if you need anything. I should warn you that I'm very protective over my wife and daughter. If you should so much as look at them in a manner which I find offensive, I have no problem cutting you up and using you as fertilizer for the garden. If you can remember that, we'll have no problems."
His relaxation is gone and his face becomes serious. "Understood."
I nod, closing the door, then stop. "Oh, and Jacob?"
He turns to face me, beginning to shrug off his jacket.
"You might hear some noises up here, but it's nothing to be afraid of."
I grin. "Something like that." And with that, I close the door and leave him for the night.
~. . . . -=|=- . . . .~
[A Few Weeks Later]
At first, Bella didn't take kindly to having a stranger in the house. May slept with us that night and the following week because I couldn't find it in my heart to send Jacob on his way. I found myself wanting to talk to him, wanting to know what he knew about the outside world. He said he didn't remember much before the war. He and his father lived in Portland at the time, and remembers nothing but traveling from city to city down the west coast, searching for civilization. They never found much except ruin, ash and bodies.
They stayed in abandoned buildings and tried to live off whatever they found, but mostly ended up going hungry. After the explosions, cities were bled dry within months so it didn't surprise me when he said there was hardly anything. He was so young to experience life on the road. I'd guess fifteen years.
"I need to get some air," I say to him, drawn to the noise out the shack doors. I place my knife on the table as he continues to cut into the deer carcass, the first we've had this spring. "Keep going, you're doing good. Don't force the knife; gentle motions, but firm." I put my hand on his and demonstrate. He nods once and eases the tension from his fingers to the handle, slitting the skin from the meat. "There you go."
I pat his shoulder, smiling. His forehead glistens with sweat; his dark eyes seem to laugh when he grins. There's so much life, so much spirit in this boy. It's contagious.
I lean against the frame of the shack, breathing the fresh air. May and Bella kneel at the corner of the garden, picking herbs. I don't interfere with their interaction, only marvel at their similarities. They share the same profile, their straight noses and dainty chins, even their lips are the same. Her red-brown hair reflects the sun, almost glimmering; the only part of me.
Bella picks through the basil, then tucks it into her and May's apron pockets before leaning in and whispering into her ear. May's smile appears, mimicking Bella's, and I know what's been said.
"Why do you do that?" I asked as I watched her stand after stuffing the freshly plucked herb into her dress pocket.
"For protection," she said, her eyes falling away from mine for a moment before lifting once more.
"Does that work?"
She laid a hand on her swollen belly and said, "It brought you here."
Of all the places I could've ended up, it had to be here, on this road, in this house with this woman. She gave birth to our daughter – a child with more mental and emotional strength than me at her age. She carries on with her life, as if this survival is normal. Hunger isn't known. Greed doesn't exist between us. There are no what-ifs, there's only what tomorrow brings. There's purity and light in her heart, while sadness and anger consume mine, but I'm getting better.
She's her own future after we're gone. Perhaps by then, the old world will be underway. People will put trust in others and come together. May will be next to them. A new generation. This gives me hope.
"How does this look, sir?"
I turn away from the fresh air as Jacob turns the carcass on the line to face me. The entire deer has been skinned. I step closer to inspect his work, running a finger along the newly exposed muscles. It's impeccable: no cuts in the meat whatsoever.
"This is perfect. Have you done this before?"
"Well, you're already a pro." I pat his back. "C'mon, let's get out of this heat, drink some water, then I'll show you how to cut it all up. Maybe we can talk Bella into a roast tonight."
As I shut the doors to the shack, I'm drawn to May's laughter in the garden. Bella stands, the breeze caught in her hair, a shallow wicker basket hanging from her hands as she watches our little girl skip down the plowed row to pick a single tomato from the vine. Her little dress swings around her knees as she skips back. Bella takes the bright red tomato from her small hand, and as if called, she looks up at me, still smiling. It fades to a grin, lighting up once more as if she and I our sharing the same thought.
Of all the places I could've ended up, it was here. It had to be this house, these choices, this life. We were so wrong for each other; the farm girl who never saw anything, and the soldier who witnessed more than he ever wanted to see. But, we smile because there's no other place we'd rather be.
Metamorphosis Two by Philip Glass