"Are you okay, Miss?" the rental agent asked. I looked down to see my hands white-knuckled and shaking around the newly acquired key to my rental car. I peered up at her through my hair to find her concerned gaze. Her eyes kept darting to her left towards the phone, as if she'd need to call help for me.
"Y-yeah," I stammered. "Thank you." Great way to bring even more attention to yourself, I thought. I'd already attracted the attention of most of my fellow plane passengers. I'd taken a late flight from Phoenix to Seattle, choosing that flight specifically because I knew it would have the least amount of passengers. While the other passengers had gladly accepted blankets and pillows and dozed off to sleep, I had sat, huddled against the window, my arms around myself shaking and sobbing as quietly as possible. I was sure I was keeping other passengers awake as the flight attendants kept nervously checking on me and trying to calm me down. Now I was on the next terrifying leg of my journey.
I made sure to choose a car that had GPS capabilities, because I knew that in my current mental state, I would probably completely lose it if I ended up lost. I hadn't been to Washington since I was a little girl, probably four or five years old. I also chose a nice shiny Volvo that I knew was known for its safety features. One can never be too careful. As I turned on my heel and hastily made my way to the parking lot, I struggled to recall the last hazy memories I had of living in Washington.
My parents fought a lot of the time back then. The night I remember most clearly, the fighting had gotten pretty heated. I remember sitting behind the sofa, holding a blanket over my head, thinking it would make me invisible. They were fighting about me. I kept hearing my name over and over between their name-calling and cursing. I remember that, Renee, my mother, had taken me in the middle of the night one night. She didn't tell me where we were going, and she didn't allow me to say goodbye to my father. I hadn't seen him since. It seemed that he was comfortable with this arrangement, though, as he never tried to contact me. It had been twenty years since I'd seen my father, Charlie, and now I was back in Washington, nervous as hell, searching for answers.
I couldn't even recall Charlie's face clearly. Renee had destroyed any pictures of him and refused to talk about him much. All I had of my former life were hazy memories and frightening dreams. The dreams terrified me, though - at least the most recent ones. During the last year or so, I have had a recurring nightmare about an unfamiliar baby. It was a little boy, about a year old, with dark curly hair and piercing blue eyes. But in my nightmare, the blue eyes were terrified, and his tiny pink lips were open in a silent scream. He was drowning, and I kept trying to save him. My mother's voice was in the background of the dream. She yelled, "This is all your fault," over and over again until I woke up. I didn't know what the dreams meant, but I also knew that coming to Washington might help me find some answers I was looking for.
I wasn't even positive that Charlie even lived in the same house. However, from the little Renee told me about him, I knew he was reluctant to change. His father and his grandfather before him had lived in the same quaint house in Forks, Washington. Renee was always trying to convince him to leave and move to a bigger city, and I think that this is what they fought about most often.
I climbed into the rental and familiarized myself with the car before programming the GPS to the address my childhood home. I was grateful that it was still very late at night, or very early in the morning, depending on how you looked at it. There were fewer cars on the road, which made me more relaxed. I followed the GPS instructions diligently as I made my way to the address. After only having to pull over five times to compose myself and calm my nerves, I was parked outside his house a few hours later.
The house I was currently sitting outside of was totally unfamiliar to me- I didn't have any real-life memories of it. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, so I was able to get a more appropriate view. It was a small, two story white house with green shutters and a green door. The paint of the trim was peeling in some spots, and some shingles were missing from the gray roof. It looked old and lived in. It was cozy, I guessed. It was unlike the motel rooms and cheap apartments in which I was used to living. A warm, comfortable feeling crept into my heart, but I quickly pushed it away. Becoming too comfortable here would be dangerous for me. I didn't even know if Charlie actually lived here.
A police cruiser was parked in the driveway, and I remembered Renee once telling me that Charlie was a cop. I frowned, realizing how little I knew about him. The sight of the cruiser was comforting though, because it helped assure me that it actually was my father living inside, and not some other family.
The thought of family made me shudder. What if Charlie had another family? What if he didn't want to see me? What if I reminded him too much of my mother? Was that why he didn't want to see me all these years? As these thoughts of doubt began invading my mind, tears began to stream down my face. Despite the feeling of impending doom I had almost all the time, I couldn't bring myself to leave this place.
On shaky legs, I got myself out of the car and made my way up to the doorstep. The trademark North Pacific rainfall didn't disappoint as it soaked me almost immediately. I stared at his door as the rain soaked me, but couldn't find the strength to knock. Fear gripped me as I stood freezing on the doorstep with the rain pounding down on me. I didn't even own a jacket that fit, having spent the last two years in Arizona with my mother.
It was late enough in the morning now that I knew I probably wouldn't wake Charlie up, if he were even living inside. As I stood deliberating on whether or not to knock, my decision was made for me. The door swung open to reveal a man in his mid-forties, with brown hair like mine, graying around the edges. His eyes were tired, but warm, and they were the same chocolate shade of brown as mine. There was no more doubt in my mind that this man was my father. I was a spitting image of him.
"Can I help you?" he asked. I realized I had been standing silently gaping at him. Unable to form words, I continued to stare. His eyes grew concerned. "Are you in trouble, miss?"
I nodded my head slowly.
"What can I do for you?"
Finally, I found my voice and was able to choke out only one word. "Dad?"
Chapter 1- Charlie
He searched my eyes for what felt like minutes, before they lit up in recognition. "Bella?" he asked in a whisper. I nodded my affirmation, and before I knew it, he was throwing his arms around me. I immediately cringed at the contact, not because I didn't welcome my father's arms around me, but because I disliked being touched in general. I lightly put pressure on his shoulders to urge him to back up. He did but didn't stop touching my shoulders. "Oh, my God, Bella, I thought I'd never see you again!" he exclaimed, and I noticed his eyes begin to water.
None of this was computing in my jumbled mess of a brain. He was happy to see me? He thought he'd never see me again? He was so happy, he was starting to cry? He abandoned you, I reminded myself. He never came for you. I centered myself. I was here for answers, not hugs. And why was he calling me Bella?
Charlie continued to stare at me, and I shifted my feet uncomfortably. I remained silent, eyes trained on the floor.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "Where are you staying? Are you living around here?" His questions were coming so fast that I was having a hard time keeping track of them. I decided to answer only the last one.
"Um, no. I'm between places I guess. I was hoping I could stay here a couple of days?" A part of me felt guilty for asking, considering I hadn't seen the man in twenty years. The other part of me was desperate and had no place else to go. I'd left behind my life with Renee, and I knew I wasn't going back - even if I meant I spent the rest of my days in a dingy motel room, never seeing the light of day.
"Of course, stay as long as you want! Do you have bags?" He was literally vibrating, much like an excited little boy opening toys on Christmas. Before coming here, my mind had rehearsed many scenarios about how our first meeting would take place, most of them bad. I didn't expect this excitement and warm welcome
I only had one bag. It was fairly small, and it held all of my worldly possessions. It was all I had left of the life I'd decided to leave behind. "Just one," I whispered, still shaking off the cold. "It's in the car." As I turned to get it, his hand stopped me.
"Please, let me. Go inside and get warm," he suggested, then shuffled past me before I could object. I hit the electronic trunk opener and stepped hesitantly into the house.
I took a deep breath and looked around. I noticed pictures of me all over the place, which surprised me. All of them were of me when I was four years old or younger, but they were scattered in mismatched frames on every surface. Interspersed with the pictures of me were pictures of a boy, spanning many years of his life. Who was this boy, and why did Charlie have pictures of him? I was angry to see that he had so many pictures of another child growing up, when he never even bothered to see what had become of me. Maybe if he had, maybe my life wouldn't be such a mess. Maybe I would be smiling like the boy in these pictures. I picked up one of the frames. I was holding an older picture of the boy who had clearly developed into a pretty good-looking, well built man. He looked to be about my age, maybe slightly younger. In the photo, he was holding a football and wearing a college sweatshirt. I gingerly put the frame down and picked up another. This one was of presumably the same person, but as an infant. My breath hitched as I examined the photo. I realized that I was looking into the same piercing blue eyes that had been haunting my dreams for over a year.
Charlie opened the front door, and it swung into the wall with a bang. Startled, I dropped the photo, hearing the glass on the frame shatter. I wasn't even in his house for two minutes before I destroyed something. No wonder he never wanted anything to do with me. My instinct told me to turn and flee, lest hear him yell at me, but my more rational side pleaded that I was so close to answers now, and I couldn't run away just yet.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!" I rushed out in a panicked voice.
He carefully set my bag by the stairs and chuckled. "It's just a little glass, Bella. Don't worry yourself; I'll get the broom."
My heart was thundering in my chest as he disappeared from the living room. I kept my hands firmly at my sides, not daring to touch anything else. He came back with a hand broom and made quick work of sweeping up the glass. Then he took the photo and set it back down on the table, disposing of the glass. "See, no harm done."
"I'm so sorry!" I said again. "I'm in your house two minutes, and I'm already a walking disaster. I should just go." My eyes were darting frantically toward the door, but Charlie practically lunged at me then, one arm stretched out towards me. I let out a startled yelp and staggered backwards. He halted immediately and put his arm back down by his side, looking at me intently with a concerned gaze.
"Please, don't go Bella. I just got you back!" He seemed frantic now, as if I was about to vanish into thin air.
"You really want me to stay?" I asked, confused, yet humbled.
"Of course I want you to stay. Please sit and make yourself comfortable. Break anything you want," he joked. I managed a small, sad smile at that. I sat gingerly on the very edge of the couch, not wanting to ruin the fabric from my soaking wet clothes. We shared an uncomfortable silence for a few moments, but he broke it quickly. "Well, I guess you want to get changed and settled in then. You can stay in the room at the top of the stairs. It used to be your old room. I'll start a pot of coffee and call the station to let them know I won't be in today."
I reached for my bag hastily, anxious to get myself dry, changed, comfortable, and hopefully calmed down. As I made my way for the stairs, I realized that I was being selfish. "Please don't call out to work on my account," I pleaded, not wanting to bring any more drama into this man's life than I already had.
"Bella, I haven't seen you in years. Wild horses couldn't drag me from here now. Please, go get yourself dry, and come down, and talk to your old man." His eyes were pleading now, as if he expected me to disappear at any moment. I nodded in agreement and slowly made my way up the stairs.
The room he directed me to was small - it barely held the twin bed in the corner, leaving just enough room for a small chest of drawers cockeyed in the corner next to it. There was a small wooden rocking chair taking up the rest of the floor. There were no sheets on the bed nor pictures on the wall. It was barren like a prison, but I certainly didn't mind the simplicity. Besides, I didn't plan to stay here long. I fished out a dry pair of jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt from my bag and changed quickly. I laid my wet clothes on the bare mattress to dry. Finally, I ran a brush through my hair quickly, anxious to get back downstairs and talk to the man who had been a mystery to me for twenty years.
Charlie was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, by the time I'd finished. He was still wearing his uniform, but his gun belt was now hanging on a rack by the door. "I didn't know how you took your coffee," he said, shuffling his feet. "I guess I don't know much about you at all." His eyes were now downcast with a trace of sadness echoed in them.
"Black is fine," I stated simply and followed him into the kitchen. He directed me to the breakfast nook, and I sat nervously as I warred with myself over what question I would ask him first. After a few minutes of silently sipping my coffee, I decided to be direct and ask the most important question first. The answer to it would determine whether I would stay and chat or run away and never look back. "Why didn't you come for me?" I whispered.
He seemed to understand my question immediately. "Oh, Bella…" he started. The sadness in his eyes was overwhelming. "Your mom took you away from me when I was at work one night. I looked everywhere for you, but Renee obviously didn't want to be found. Anytime I got a new lead on where you were, you guys were moving again. I looked years and years for you. You were my baby girl, Bella, and she just took you away from me. There was nothing more important to me than you, baby. Well, you and, of course, your brother."
I nearly spit out the mouthful of coffee I had just taken. "Brother?" I choked. Of course, now all of the pictures made sense. But why did this brother I didn't even know about get to stay when I had to leave?
"You don't remember, do you?" I shook my head. "Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Renee never mentioned him after what happened?"
"What do you mean, after what happened?" I asked nervously.
Charlie sighed and rested his hands on his forehead. "It's the reason your mom left all of a sudden. Your brother, Emmett, is about three years younger than you. Your mom loved you to death, but she never wanted any more kids after you. When she found out she was pregnant with him, something in her just changed. She became angrier and more distant, and we started fighting a lot more.
"After Emmett was born, your mom started showing signs of postpartum depression. It was worse than just the increased anger; she was like a different person. She was neurotic, and she acted like Emmett didn't exist. She put all of her energy into you, as if you were an only child. I tried to encourage her to get help for herself, but she acted like nothing was wrong.
"I basically cared for Emmett alone. Your mother mostly ignored him, but I never thought she was a danger to him. If I did, I never would have left her alone that night…" Charlie made a noise that sounded like a cross between a sob and a cough before he continued.
"One night, I had to work late, and I guess your mom just snapped. From the minute I left for work, I just felt like something was wrong, and it nagged at me for about an hour when I finally told my partner that I had to go home. I walked into the house to find you and your brother alone. Renee was nowhere to be found. Emmett was… floating in the bathtub, but he was still alive." Charlie let out another cough-sob before continuing. "I'd gotten there just in time before he drowned. You were sitting next to the tub, and when I asked what you were doing, you just said you were giving him a bath. I couldn't believe Renee had left you two alone."
"Oh, my God. I almost killed him?" I asked, shocked. Maybe this explained the dreams. Maybe it was the guilt coming back for me. I wondered if I would have been better off not knowing this information, but the floodgate was already opened. My heart was pounding anxiously in my chest, and my hands were clammy now. The telltale feeling of impending doom was beginning to wash over me, and I didn't think I'd be able to push it back this time. My eyes darted for my purse, which was on the living room couch. It held the precious few anxiety pills I had left. I urged myself to stay strong, though, and I silently nodded for Charlie to continue.
"It wasn't your fault, baby," he said, reaching over the table to squeeze my hand gently. He must have sensed my anxiety. "You had only just turned four years old. Hell, you couldn't have even filled the tub by yourself, which means she filled it up and left it that way! That crazy bitch probably told you to give him a bath!"
I cringed at the mention of my mother. It sounded like "crazy bitch" might have been the understatement of the decade. "So, then what happened?" I asked quietly, afraid to hear the answer.
"I called the station and had a couple of guys wait at the house to arrest her. I felt awful doing it, but I knew she needed help. She'd put my kids in danger. I couldn't let her around you guys. She only stayed in jail overnight, though. I paid for her to get a hotel room after that, but she kept calling constantly, demanding to see you. You were her whole world, then. I ended up having to get a restraining order against her until we got the mess worked out, because I was so scared she would do something to hurt you. It turns out my fears were warranted.
"One night, while I was at work, I had my father staying over with you guys. I guess he put you two to bed and dozed off himself. When he woke up, Emmett was in his crib, but you were gone - vanished into thin air. I knew it was Renee. Oh, honey, I looked for you everywhere, but she was so careful about covering her steps. I pulled in all the stops, used all my resources, and we still couldn't find you. I'm so sorry, kid. I missed you so much!" Charlie was fully crying now, tears streaming relentlessly down his reddened cheeks.
I was, of course, crying now, too, from hearing his heartbreaking story. "You looked for me?" I sobbed. Rage at my mother was building. I couldn't believe, even after all the crazy shit that she'd done over the years, that she would have kidnapped me. "All this time I thought you didn't want me! I used to stay up at night wishing you would come and save me!"
He reached across the table for my hand again and gripped it tightly. "Save you? What do you mean, Bella? Did something happen to you? Did somebody hurt you? What happened to you, baby?" The sadness in his eyes was instantly replaced with anger - no doubt directed at Renee.
I remained silent, unwilling to talk about how horrible growing up with Renee had been. He sensed my hesitation and moved on with the conversation. "Are you still living with her?" He spat the last word, now unable to even speak her name.
"Until yesterday. I'm so sorry to just come here unannounced, but I didn't know of anywhere else to go. I just needed a clean break from her. A couple of years ago, I tried living on my own and moving away from her, but it didn't work out." I didn't offer any more information than this. I needed to go slowly with my story. Charlie, however, seemed desperate for answers.
"What do you mean, it didn't work out, honey? If things were so bad for you with your mom, why didn't you leave sooner? You're an adult now; you don't need to be subjected to her, if you don't want to. I wish you'd have come back here sooner, especially if you were having a hard time where you were."
He was right, of course, but there was something he needed to know in order to understand. I took a deep breath and started. "Charlie… there's something you need to know. I'm… not well."