AN: I originally wrote this for a fundraising effort in support of the Colorado communities destroyed by wildfires. Thanks to everyone who gave to that effort! Many thanks to happymelt, who served as beta for this outtake, as well as midsouthmama and faireyfan who preread. If you haven't read Always an Edward, this won't make much sense (so go read it!) . . . but if you have, this is taking place around the end of Chapter 5 (and flashbacks).
The Bella Pages
(An "Edward One" POV from Always an Edward)
Evergreen branches. A study of window panes in different qualities of light. Window ledges. The hospital parking lot, viewed through yet another window.
It's been years since I was in the habit of carrying my sketchbook everywhere. Now that illustrating is my livelihood, I tend to work during specific blocks of time I schedule for myself. Otherwise: burnout. All bets are off now, though. The book is a crutch, for sure. It doesn't bother me to admit it. I'm grateful to have it. To have something to do, some comfort. It always helps. Always.
Here in this hospital cafeteria booth, under fluorescent lights and with sleep deficits stacking up, I need whatever I help I can get. I tried making a few gesture drawings of strangers deep in thought. Deep in the clutches of some feeling, uncaring whether anyone sees.
I gave up after filling a single page. All that emotion right there on the surface, and me not in the mood for voyeurism.
Then there are pages and pages of "pattern studies"—also known as doodling. More organic sketches. Rings from our coffee cups, grease spots from . . . I don't know. Top Pot donut crumbs, I guess. And here are Mom's notes from when Jasper's doctor called and she didn't have a pad handy.
The dashes are a nervous habit of hers. And the way she scrawls even the commonplace words. I've been in that moment. You write everything down, not knowing what might be significant. We know by now VS stands for vasospasm—a serous risk in the aftermath of an aneurysm. But what did we know at the time? Hanging on the doctor's every word, straining to turn the cell-phone-roughened edges of words into promises and meaning. I'll tease Mom about it later: "He says the outlook is good, Edward. Do you think outlook is an acronym for something? Should we WebMD it?"
But the teasing will wait. He's not out of the woods yet.
Out of the woods. Odd figure of speech. He prefers it the other way around. We all do, to some extent—tree-hugging comes packaged with the island homesteading life—but no one quite matches Jasper's level of enthusiasm for the forest. I was surprised, and then again not surprised, to see more evidence of it in his desk drawer when I went looking for his health insurance policy the other day.
It was stuffed in there amongst the orderly files of paid bills and income statements. I didn't even try to stop myself from pulling it out when I saw her name on the edge of a piece of paper. On letterhead, in fact. Isabella Swan, Executive Director. Wild Clallam, Founded 2004. Forks, Washington.
Forks. What are you still doing there? was what I thought. All these years later. At the same time, did I mentally calculate the distance? The route, the ferry schedule? Maybe—as an escape. As the first place I'd turn if something made me flee the hospital where my brother, my best friend, was being held hostage by his own brain. Something, I say. I can't name it. Unhelpful train of thought. I'm so tired.
And then, flipping through the brochures and annual reports, I'd thought: This is what you're doing. Look what you built. I didn't wonder if she was free of the ghosts that pulled her out of herself so often when I'd known her. Not yet. No.
What I wondered was what she looked like. I thought of her eyes, the way they might crinkle at the corners, more knowing than innocent. Then her hair. What if she wears it short? Silly.
There was other stuff in there. A stack of receipts for gifts processed through Jasper's attorney. All anonymous. All roughly equivalent to what he used to call, bitterly, his recklessness budget. He'd come to hate that money. We all hated what it allowed him to do. Until one day, deep into rehab, he stopped mentioning it. I guess he'd found a way to make peace with it.
How long ago was that? A week? It had to be after that first 48-hour window when none of us even left this building, when the outside world didn't exist. Back when all we could do was scour the second-floor library and the Internet for anything we could learn about brain injury recovery. But before the calls with Jenks about me filing for temporary guardianship, before Mom's idea about the tribute gifts to Wild Clallam, before realizing the only decent thing to do was to call the person who would be on the receiving end of those checks. Isabella Swan, Executive Director.
I don't like to revisit those 48 hours. One minute he was giving me shit about my record collection being an old-fashioned pain in the ass, and the next he was face-down and moaning in a pile of safety glass where my coffee table should have been. My first thought, ridiculously, was that he'd been shot. I tried to pry his hands away from where he was clutching his head, hoping to staunch the blood, but there wasn't a scratch on him. I remember looking for my phone and finding it already in my hand, my thumb already punching 911.
Calling Mom that day was possibly the hardest thing I've ever done. Among the hardest. I've had to call her before when Jasper was in trouble, but none of those incidents were a surprise. Not like this. This time . . . he's been sober for years, for one thing. He's in the best shape of his life. Was in, anyways.
Thanks to the verbal shorthand my family shares, the product of spending formative years sequestered on an island like a sociological experiment, conversations like this one are efficient.
"You sound . . ." Meaning: I've never heard your voice like this.
"Yeah. Don't panic, but it's Jasper. Can you come? Dad, too."
"Where?" Meaning: I'm trying not to panic. Trying not to let you hear my panic.
"Seattle General. When can you get here? Get Garrett." Garrett pilots a light plane. It's faster than the speedboat and ferry combo.
"Oh. Is it . . .?" Meaning: overdose?
"No. He just collapsed."
"Who's with you?" Meaning: you're my son, too.
This is the hard truth. I have some friends, and sometimes I'm dating someone, but he's the only permanent one. If he's not with me, no one is. I can't lose him.
And so the rest of those initial 48 hours are shut away behind a memory firewall.
There's a crowd of teenagers in the next booth. Somebody's cousin had a baby or something. One of them is drinking tea. I want some tea, I think. But I don't want to walk across the room. I'll eat my orange, maybe.
I turn my attention back to my sketches. Here's some sort of figure hunched over a book; I can't see a face. I've drawn the figure repeatedly, in variations on this posture. Don't feel compelled to draw a face. I think it's me. Self-portrait, facing away.
When I need an outlet, the sketchbook always works. But there's this other thing. Something more potent but less practical. Less under my control. It's a dream. A self-induced dream. Always her.
It starts with a sort of slideshow in my head: a lock of hair tucked behind a pink-white ear; snowflakes on a wind-chapped cheekbone; homemade breakfast sandwiches on a cast iron grill. Almond pastries and the impression of a too-tight ankle strap on her cool bare skin; the soles of her feet dirty from the dust of a disused balcony. The Eiffel tower, seen through a narrow gap between buildings.
Nobody ever told me falling in love was an upward sensation. Nobody ever told me it felt like being lifted and going backward at the same time—backward only because you keep searching your memory, thinking: I've met her before, haven't I? Why do I already know her? When did we meet? How did she learn to make me smile with her smile like she's been doing it all her life? All her life and mine? Or is it our life? Or was it our life?
And then when we met again and I really had known her before, the sense of déjà vu was enough to make me dizzy. The spiraling upward and backward yet again. Again.
The sequence gets confusing, see. The pronouns and the tenses, the plurals and singulars. This isn't the only reason why I draw instead, but it's a reason. Drawing excuses me from assigning past and present values; a drawing just is. This is her on the page. That's her. That's her, too. Bella.
When I met her again that time, it was because I broke my promise to myself and went looking for her. I told myself I was only going to Rome to study the Masters, not because it put us both in Europe for the summer. I told myself it made sense to see Paris before the start of my semester. I told myself it wouldn't hurt to reach out to some people who knew some people who would know her. And when she was standing next to me in the middle of a sweaty house party, I told myself I couldn't very well cross paths with her halfway around the world and not make friendly conversation. As if I hadn't engineered it exactly that way.
But what I wasn't ready for was how changed she was—changed and also still mid-change. How tentatively confident, how out of place and how striking. The new strength in her thighs. The struggle in her eyes when she looked at me.
She used to say to me, I know you're going to change me. I want you to. It scared the living shit out of me. You don't know what you're saying, I told her. Be true to yourself. And other nonsense people say when they don't trust themselves to leave the right kind of impression on another person.
And so here she was changing herself, just as I'd hoped. What was I meant to do? I wanted to feel her underneath me on the dusty fieldstone balcony, to know those new muscles with my hands, with my mouth, to coax that whimper of pleasure out of her that I'd never heard from any other girl's lips.
But then I would have been letting her go again. Trying to. Failing.
She's nearby now. In the city, anyways. When Jenks called this morning to recap the discussion with Wild Clallam, I felt an odd rush to hear her name being spoken out loud. As if in confirmation that she's real, not just a figure in my memory. Of course she's real.
And she's here in town. She came for the meeting, only to leave the meeting. This gives me a puzzle to sort out. To be totally honest, I felt an odd tug of hopefulness in my gut when Jenks mentioned it. People recuse themselves from meetings when they have a conflict of interest. Divided loyalties. I wanted it that way, I realized. It was nonsense, and selfish, but I wanted it to be about me. I chalk it up to exhaustion. So be it.
I'll see her again. I don't consciously decide this, but I know it nonetheless. Maybe now, or soon. What the hell. I'll seek her out when this is all behind me. I know I will.
I peel and eat my orange, then tidy the peels into a pile. I put my sunglasses on and observe the teenagers until they stumble out, sneakers squeaking on the linoleum. I'll head back up soon.
With each passing day, I feel the effects of adrenaline less and less, true exhaustion more and more. And I've passed a threshold of understanding what traumatic brain injury entails, such that my mind is constantly running through a circuit of possible futures to prepare for. He'll regain consciousness, but not speak. He'll speak, but with great difficulty. He'll never play the drums again. Never hold a pen or a fork again. Or he'll be perfectly healthy again within weeks. Or something else in between these extremes. Like I said, it's exhausting. I need a hot shower. I need to eat a proper meal.
So maybe I'll sleep. Maybe just rest my eyes.
When the dream begins, it's something new. I see her ear and her cheekbones like I always do, but this time I'm trying to draw them. Only I can't. My sketchbook keeps steaming up. I wipe the steam away like I'm wiping a window, and my ink smears. It's no use. Steam is everywhere. Then she's taking the book out of my hands, saying Is it ready? Ready, spaghetti? It's a cold day in my college kitchen. Not any cold day—that cold day. That pasta dinner. Our first date.
Even in my dream, I'm not sure if I can see it through. Because I know what's coming next. I've never dreamed of this. Haven't thought of it in years. Should I? I think. I look around—in dream mode—for a Close Screen button, just in case. Then I give up and I look around for a Save and Print Screenshot button instead. I know what's about to happen, and it does happen: she looks at me with those eyes that already know me and wipes the hair away from my steamed-up forehead. She says I just want to try one thing and she kisses me, smiling and relaxed as can be. She turns the burner off under the pot of noodles. She turns the burner on under me, inside me, slow and steady. I don't stop touching her until I have her in my bed and I never see even a glimmer of hesitation in her wide-eyed face. Nothing but trust. And this time I know it when I see it: Trust. And I don't stop dreaming of it. She shows herself to me like she's known me forever, shows me where she wants my hands, shows me where she wants me. She is beaming and pink, panting. I did that. Did I do that?
Then we're asleep, and I'm watching her sleep, watching myself sleep. I hear my roommate in the kitchen, murmuring about wasted food, cold pasta and sauce on the stove. Bella stifles a giggle against my shoulder. The alarm goes off and I unplug the clock.
And then things start feeling familiar in a different way, like déjà vu. I'm in the cafeteria, smelling of mint tea and oranges, and she's here, too. The light makes her eyes glow. Her hair is messy and long—longer than I usually imagine it, even. I feel for the strength of her arm under my hand, and it's real. It's damp, and warm, and real.
She's real. I'm awake. "Oh," I say. "Sorry. Hi."
"Hi," she says, smiling and blinking. Hi.