PROLOGUE: Freshman Orientation
"Emmett, that is so not helping."
"Trust me, you will thank me later, baby bro, when you're not caught wearing something that screams 'high school.' Right off the bat, anything yellow goes home with the folks." As he says this, he plucks my Southern Conference Golf Championship polo from the pile and tosses it by the door.
I roll my eyes beseechingly toward Mom, hoping she'll rein in her older son, but nope. "He's just sharing his accumulated wisdom with you," she explains, watching Emmett tear brutally through the baskets of clothes in the middle of my dorm room floor.
Dad enters the room, buckling under the weight of a large box. "I wish he would share his accumulated muscles instead. Why am I doing all the heavy lifting when I sired two strapping sons?"
Mom signals to both of us to relieve Dad, and we hop to it on her orders. Some things never change.
Taking the box from his weary arms, I chuckle. "Sired, Dad? Seriously? Are you going medieval on us?"
"Oh good. That's the box with the bedding." Mom gets right to work fluffing the soft, clean sheets that will attempt to compensate for the standard dorm issue extra-long, extra-thin mattress. I try to pretend I don't see the years of splotches and stains marring the blue pinstripe design of the crinkly plastic outer coating.
"Mom, you don't have to—"
Dad pulls me back with a hand at my elbow. Quietly, he says, "Let her be, Edward. She needs to do it."
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Emmett sending my favorite T-shirt to the discard pile. "Oh, hell no, Em. That one stays!"
He grimaces at my light blue tee loaded with little green happy faces and the corniest slogan ever, but finally surrenders it to my waiting hand. "Give Peas a Chance? Ugh, you do know I have an image to uphold?"
"I seriously doubt one little T-shirt is going to spoil your reputation as the hottest tight end ever to play at Holden," I respond, knowing full well the compliment will win me back my shirt.
He breaks into a full-on grin and tosses the shirt at my head. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"All right, guys, that just about does it." I turn back and see my parents standing together on the opposite side of my freshly made cot.
Emmett leaves his spot on the floor and jumps up onto my comforter like he owns the place. Folding his hands behind his head on the pillow and dangling his feet just off the end, he sighs loudly. "Nice work, Mom. Why don't you come over to my house next and set me up?"
"Sorry, Emmett. You know it's a once in a lifetime deal, and you already cashed in three years ago."
"Yeah, yeah, I get it. You just want to get back to your empty nest and start…what are you going to do anyway? No more high school football games, golf matches, cupcake baking…"
I catch Dad giving Mom a not-so-secret little wink. "Well, it will be awfully boring without you two, that's for sure. We'll probably pick up a new hobby to occupy us—jigsaw puzzles, stamp collecting, chess, something exciting."
"Don't worry about us, we'll be okay," Mom says. Despite her words, I see that she's getting teary. Dad pulls her toward me, and the two of them surround me in a tight hug.
"My baby." Mom sniffs. Aw, hell.
"Sorry," she says, pulling back. "I promised myself I wouldn't."
Dad gives me a final pat on the back and says, "Be smart, be safe, and—"
"Don't do anything you'll regret," Emmett recites along with him.
We all chuckle, alleviating the sudden tension that seems to have sucked the oxygen out of my tiny room.
"Get up here, Emmett," Mom says, pulling him in for a hug.
"Oh, so you won't make my bed but you still want a hug?"
"Yeah, that's how I roll."
"WHAT?" I laugh out loud. "Have you been watching MTV again, Mom?"
"Listen, don't let 'em bang you up too badly on the field," Mom admonishes Emmett, ignoring me. "I've kind of gotten used to that face."
Dad steps in, "We're going to get up here for as many of your football games as we can."
"Don't sweat it, Dad. It's not exactly like walking across the street."
"You know we'd be here every weekend if we could."
"I know," he answers, falling into Dad's hug.
"You two watch out for each other, now."
"Right back at ya," Emmett says.
Everything has been said and we've reached that point where someone just has to cut the cord. We can always count on Emmett for that.
"Don't you two have a flight to catch?"
Dad clasps Mom's hand. "That's harsh, son."
They're almost at the door when Mom turns back and says, "Don't forget to call."
"Did I leave you quarters for the laundry?"
"Don't need 'em. We use our card."
"Oh," she says, turning back and moving through the doorway.
She stops suddenly and spins around, "Don't forget, I put all your sweaters inside the suitcases."
"Got it," I smile. Poor Mom.
"I left you some Windex and a rag…"
"Come on, Esme." Dad wraps his arm around Mom's shoulders and coaxes her toward the door. "He'll figure it all out."
She gives me one more brave smile, and I do the same right back. Dad winks at me, and they turn the corner.
"I thought they'd never leave," Emmett says. "Let's blow this pop stand and check out the fresh meat!"
"Warwick, 303," Dad says. "Home, sweet, home."
I turn the key and open the door to the double. My roommate hasn't arrived yet, so I commandeer the cot by the window while Dad slides the remaining boxes through the doorway.
"I guess elevators hadn't been invented yet when they constructed this dorm," he says. His T-shirt is soaked through, and I can even see little water droplets at the ends of his moustache.
"Sorry you had to do all the work, Dad."
The single apology held dozens more in its arms:
Sorry I wasn't born a boy.
Sorry I've been so hard to live with.
Sorry I made Mom leave.
Sorry I made you worry all the time.
Sorry I'm leaving you all alone.
"That's no problem, Bells. So, can I help you unpack before I go?"
"No, I got it. You've done too much already."
He swipes the back of his hand across his forehead. "How about getting a bite to eat then?"
"I think I'm supposed to eat at the Dining Hall with my roommate tonight."
He takes a brief look around the room and steps over to the window. I recognize that look. He's doing surveillance. "Make sure you keep the shades closed at night. There are boys right across the courtyard."
"Don't worry," I tell him. There are most likely boys right across the hall, too, but if he hasn't noticed, I'm not going to point it out.
"Oh, here, I almost forgot," he says, digging a can of mace out of his pocket. "One for the road."
"Thanks. I'll put it with the others."
He smiles sheepishly. "And Bella, all the blue boxes all around campus, those are for—"
"Dad, I know how it works. There's security everywhere. Besides, I'm in Stockton, New Hampshire, not New York City. I'll be fine."
"I know, just promise you'll never go anywhere by yourself after dark."
"I know. First, a knee to the groin, then a firm jab under the chin…"
He laughs quietly. "Actually, I was going to say, 'Have a great time.'"
I smile with him. "Oh."
"Am I too sweaty to hug goodbye?"
"No," I answer, getting up to receive his hug. Feeling his bones right through his shirt sends a new stab of guilt right to my heart. "Who's going to cook for you while I'm away?"
"Oh, uh…don't worry. I've got it covered."
I pull away so I can see his face. "What do you mean? You've got plans already?"
"Well," he looks down at his boots. "Sue Clearwater may have offered…"
"Well, what do you know? The Chief's got game."
He smiles and chances a look in my eyes. "That's okay with you?"
"Of course. Why shouldn't you get to be happy?"
He hugs me again. "Thanks, Bells."
"Run along, now. Your patrol car is in a tow zone."
"Nobody tows a police car."
"Even with out of state plates?" We inch toward the door.
"Seriously, you can stop worrying about me now. I'm good. And you're gonna do great here."
"Thanks, Dad." One more quick hug and I send him on his way. I watch his sure steps heading down the hall. As he rounds the first landing, he pauses to wave back at me without a word.
"Love you, Daddy," I say only to myself, turning back to my room and searching for my bedding.
"Knock, knock!" A singsong voice at the door calls out, pushing her way into the room. A stunning blonde woman, impeccably dressed in what appears to be a St. John suit in bright pink, crosses the floor and extends her perfectly manicured hand. If I didn't know better (and I don't, really), I'd think she just mugged the actress playing Elle in Legally Blonde and stole her costume.
"You must be Isabella," she gushes.
I stand up and take her hand, suddenly feeling grossly underdressed in my cutoff sweat pants and Muse T-shirt. "Bella."
"I'm Abilene Hale, and over there's your roommate, Rosalie."
I turn to the doorway, where a more youthful version of Abilene Hale is bounding into the room. I recognize her immediately from Facebook. She smiles broadly and rushes to my side, throwing her arms around my shoulders. "Bella! It's so great to finally meet you in person!"
She is impossibly more perfect than even her Facebook photos would suggest. An athletic build atop miles of slender leg, intense blue-gray eyes, a delicate button nose, a set of lips just begging for company, cheekbones fit for a queen. Basically, the definition of feminine right down to the very last blonde hair follicle.
I hug her back, wondering what she and her mom must think of me. Surely my profile picture hints at overweight, but was she expecting a Size 16 roommate? If they're disappointed, they're both too polite to let on.
Her father's entrance completes the royal family portrait. He's dapper in his gray slacks and navy blazer. And the pink bow tie is the accessory de resistance. He crosses the room to introduce himself. "Gordon Hale. Pleased to meet you."
Their three perfect faces stare at me expectantly, as if by being here ten minutes earlier, I hold all the secrets. "So…. I put my stuff over here, but if—"
"That's fine," says Rosalie agreeably. "Ugh, I can't wait to change out of these stockings! Daddy, would you mind?"
"Oh, of course. I'll just go…" he spins around the room, looking a bit lost.
"We'll just go have ourselves a drink or two down the street while you two girls get acquainted," Abilene says. "So nice to meet you, Bella," she adds breezily, shooing her husband out the door and closing it behind them.
Rosalie rolls her eyes and laughs. "So."
Plopping herself down on the bare mattress opposite the room from me, she kicks off her shoes and rolls down her nylons unceremoniously. She shucks off her jacket to reveal a spare, white tank top.
"Well, that's a little better," she says, getting up to dig through the box labeled "CLOTHING 1: SHORTS AND TEES." She plucks out one of each and tosses them to the bed. Without one iota of modesty, she peels off her top and shimmies out of her skirt. I have to remind myself not to stare. In general, I'm not attracted to women, but Rosalie has a body that is worthy of ogling, even by a non-lesbianic girl.
Most of her backside is revealed to me; only her lavender thong covers the thin line between her well-toned cheeks. With practiced ease, she pops each foot through its respective hole, then slides her tiny denim shorts up and over each ankle, wriggling her tush and yanking on the scrap of fabric, alternating sides until it rests perfectly on her ass. I see now why she wears a thong- anything else would risk poking out below. The tiny tee is equally revealing, hugging every curve and leaving very little to the imagination.
She spins around and catches me staring, despite my resolve not to. It doesn't seem to bother her in the least. I'm guessing she's used to it after eighteen years of living with a perfect body. "So," she says, "should we unpack or go explore?"
"Let's go!" Now that my roommate has met me "in the flesh"—all 190 pounds of it—I'm feeling braver. My instinct would be to hibernate in the room, but roaming the campus with this exotic creature could be mighty interesting.
"I just got a text from Jasper. He's just made it to the room. You wanna come up and meet him?"
"Sure, why not?" Emmett says. "I want to see this hot shit who won the All-America Golf Scholastic Award."
"Em," I warn, sensing his competitive side, "Give me a chance to get to know him before you pounce, will you?"
"Don't get your briefs in a bunch," he says, pushing open my unlocked door.
Jasper drops the shirt he was folding and turns to look over his shoulder. A wide grin breaks across his face. He rushes to me, with his hand extended. "Finally, man."
He looks every bit the part of All-American athlete. Blond hair just long enough that it needs to be swept from his eyes every once in a while, perpetual tan, strong build but not steroidal. He has an easy comfort in his own skin.
Why does it feel like I'm on a first date? Freakin' hell, I'm nervous. "I know. We've been Facebook chatting since what—last October?"
"Yep, and we're finally here."
I nod. "Oh, this is my brother Em—"
"Emmett Cullen, #84, 6'3", 230 pounds. Average 60.8 yards, 65 receptions, 12 TD's, 57.1 first down percentage…"
Clearly flattered, Emmett reaches for Jasper's hand. "Dude, cut it out. You're putting my own mother to shame," he says with a chuckle.
"It's great to meet you, Emmett. I'm a big fan. In fact, the football team's winning record is one of the reasons I picked Holden."
"Yeah, I bet you had some sweet choices."
Whoa, that is not the kind of response I'd expected from Emmett. Jasper has not only disarmed him; he's got him wrapped around his little finger after thirty seconds. Impressive. If this skill translates to picking up girls, I am signing on as his permanent wingman.
Jasper seems embarrassed by Emmett's attention, so I step in to break up the love fest. "Have you been out to the course yet?"
"Yeah, my dad and I grabbed a quick round before he dropped me here. Have you?"
"Not yet. Looking forward to it, though."
"We'll hit that in the morning," Jasper says.
"Holy shit!" Emmett runs to the window. "I think I just saw her!"
"Who?" I ask, peering out the window.
"Later!" Emmett manages, running to the door. He catches himself with one beefy hand in the doorframe, "Nice to meet you, Whitlock." And he's gone.
I watch with amusement out the window, trying to identify which girl caught his eye. Seconds later, Emmett shoots through the front door, looking frantically left then right. His body language, coupled with the fact that I can hear him swear, "FUCK!" all the way from the third floor, tells me he's lost his girl. Easy come, easy go.
"All right, we've got twenty minutes left. Should we go for a bunch of easy ones or one high point value?"
"We already have 225 points. I think we're in good shape. Let's just pick one last thing and make sure we get it," I answer.
"Okay," Jasper says, reading over the scavenger hunt instructions. "We've got two choices. Submersing ourselves up to our necks in Lake Chickami gets us fifty points."
"Ugh, what's the other choice?"
"Getting two girls to trade clothes with us for 75."
"If we get 50, we'll probably win. If we go for 75, it should seal the deal."
"And where are we going to find two girls who want to switch clothes with us?"
Jasper smiles and points across the street. "Two girls just our size at 2:00. Come on."
Fuck. As much as I didn't want to get soaking wet tonight in the cold lake, this option doesn't seem much more comfortable. In just three short days, I've learned to let my roommate do the talking. I follow a half-step behind and let him work his magic.
"Boys," they giggle back.
"How would you like to earn 75 easy points right now?"
The one who appears to be in charge looks over the list, then she looks back at us with a long once-over. "What size are your jeans?" she asks me.
"31. What are yours?" I ask, knowing they're smaller than mine.
"Close enough," says Jasper, immediately pulling the shorter girl to the nearest tree. Over his shoulder, he calls out, "Hurry up, Edward. We only have twelve minutes left."
My girl picks out another tree and I follow closely, one of us on each side of the wide trunk. I hear scuffling, and pretty soon, she's holding out her jeans. They look really fucking tiny.
I send up another "Fuck" to the universe for good measure as I unbutton, unzip, and peel down my own jeans. She grabs them away quickly and I hear the rustling as she pulls them up her legs.
"Don't worry," she says. "My shirt's really long."
I push one leg into her jeans and I realize right away they're not going past my thighs. I am going to rip Jasper's head off later. What's first prize anyway? Better fucking be worth it.
Her hand reaches around the tree again, and this time she's holding out a thin white tank top. I am too preoccupied by its length—or lack thereof—to properly enjoy the face that the girl on the other side of the tree is topless. I quickly slide my own black tee over my head and trade.
I pull one arm through her tank, and then the other, and for one scary moment, I don't think it's going to fit over my head. "Shit!"
"It stretches like crazy," she says. "Don't sweat it. I've got like twenty more."
"Thanks," I answer gratefully. She's being a champ. I twist and turn my torso until finally I've got the thing pulled down over my head, then my chest. It wants to stop at my waist, but I give it a few good tugs, and she's right—the thing stretches and expands like it was just waiting for the invitation. It doesn't quite meet the pants sitting on my legs, but it does cover up my junk and most of my ass. Good enough for the picture.
Jasper and his girl reappear, and I can't help but burst out laughing. His girl had been wearing a very short skirt and halter top, now transferred to Jasper's muscular frame, and they've switched shoes as well. Damn if Jasper doesn't look good in fuck-me pumps!
"Fuck, you look hot, Jas." I give him a wink.
"Yeah, you're looking pretty awesome yourself," he says. "Switch shoes with her. Quick!"
I kick off my flip flops, and she hands me her flats. I slip my toes in, but that's about all that's going to fit.
"All right, someone snap the picture," Jasper's girl says.
"I got it," I say, pulling out my phone. We line up and I reach my arm out as far as it will go without causing my shirt to ride up.
"Can you send that to me?" my girl asks.
"Sure. What's your number?"
"Gee, I thought you'd never ask."
I roll my eyes and she tells me her number. I type it in and send her the photo.
"Thanks. Can I have my clothes back now?" she asks.
"That sounds like a fantastic idea."
We head back to our tree and exchange clothes and names.
"Well, you've got my number," Bree says. "I guess the ball is in your court. Gotta run!"
She's got my number, too.
"Edward, come on!" calls Jasper. "We've got four minutes to get back to the Student Union."
We take off after the girls and quickly overtake them.
"Hey!" cries Jasper's girl. "No fair!"
"Sorry, Alice!" he laughs as he passes her.
Six minutes later, we reach the Union. Jasper turns in the paper and the guy at the desk marks a huge "LATE—minus 50" on the paper.
"Seriously? Two minutes late?"
The guy shrugs, unrepentant about our penalty. "Let me see your picture for number 27."
I show him the photo I just took, and he initials the box.
The girls rush in a few minutes later to the same fate. Bree pulls no punches. "That sucks."
"I know, right? All that work for nothing!"
I look at my roommate, who's not paying a bit of attention to our score. His laser sharp focus is pointed in one direction, Alice. Not taking his eyes off her for a second, Jas answers my complaint. "Oh, I wouldn't say it was for nothing."
I now know what hell feels like. My throat and lungs are burning, I am dripping with sweat, my feet feel like they're running over hot coals, and I fall farther behind Rosalie with every one of her freakishly long strides. I can't spare the breath to ask her to slow down, so I do the only thing I can at this point. I bend over, placing my hands on my knees, and try desperately to pull some oxygen into my system.
For about the tenth time, Rose halts and turns back. "I'm sorry, Bella."
I shake my head side to side, but I can't say what I mean to say:
I'm sorry I'm such a pathetic loser that I'm making you stop for me every three minutes.
I'm sorry you're saddled with me when you could have won this whole thing single-handedly.
I'm sorry we're going to go down in the annals of freshman week scavenger hunts with the lowest score in the record books.
I finally pant out, "Sorry."
She shakes it off. "Bella, really. Who cares about the stupid scavenger hunt, anyway? I just feel bad you're having such a rough time."
"I…didn't….know…we'd….be…running…" That's it. I've used up my available air supply. I crumple to the ground in a miserable heap.
Rose leans over and places her hand on my shoulder. "Bella?"
I look up into her irritatingly unsweaty face.
"There's something I'd really like to say to you, but I'm afraid."
Well, I give her credit. She waited three whole days. That's almost a record.
"Go for it," I say, granting her permission to rip my heart out of my chest and stomp all over it.
"I can help you."
The anger building inside of me helps me gain back my voice. "How?"
She kneels down so our eyes are even. "I know about fitness."
I snort in her face. "Obviously."
"No," she says gently. "I mean, I can help you reach your goal."
"No offense, Rose, but what does a skinny bitch like you know about helping a fat girl lose weight?"
She laughs quietly. "None taken. And I've done it before."
"Do tell. I haven't seen any stretch marks on your body, so you can't have lost that much." Oops, I think I just admitted to ogling my roommate's naked body. I shift my eyes away.
"Not me. My little sister."
My eyes drift back in surprise. This is news. Was there another mini-Abilene at home? Someone less than perfect in that gene pool? Hard to believe.
"Hope was always a little overweight, but a few years ago, it just got out of control. One day last year, she hit rock bottom. I found her on her bed with a bottle of pills in her hand. I don't know if she would've done it, but clearly she was crying out for help. I convinced her to trust me. We walked together three times a week and went to a trainer twice a week. I went on her eating plan with her. We did the whole thing side by side. Six months later, she's a new person."
"That's a nice story, Rose, but what if I don't want to be a new person?" I am fighting tears and losing.
"You just don't seem all that happy with…the situation, Bella."
"Look, I get that you're trying to help me, but if you can't accept me the way I am, we're not going to be friends."
She falls away from me suddenly, as if I've slapped her across the face. I gather my feet and lift myself off the ground. "We should get back."
Now I'm walking and she's following behind. Neither of us says another word to each other all night. When my head finally hits the pillow, I fall into a mercifully deep and immediate sleep.