Okay, so I wanted to give you this before I disappear for a month to do NaNoWriMo. I'm calling it my warm up, since I started it yesterday afternoon and worked on it till midnight, then started up again this morning and have literally just finished. The result is my longest chapter of anything EVER, and it's only a one shot. It's 10,053 words long, 51,375 characters, 331 paragraphs and 15 pages on OpenOffice Writer.
I feel a sense of achievment. :)
Now if you'll excuse, I'm going trick or treating in less than an hour, and I still have to get ready.
Happy Halloween, and I'll see you in December.
The Check-In Desk
Everyone always said being dead would be peaceful. That whatever waited for us after death was wonderful, unlike anything else.
Turns out they were wrong.
Death is exactly like life, if not worse. The Afterlife looks like one giant city, sprinkled with suburban terraced houses, giant mansions, high rise apartment blocks and the occasional retirement home. Though why anyone would want to spend eternity as a frail, wrinkly bag of bones when they could be any age they want is a mystery to me.
The only difference between life and Afterlife is that nobody dies here. Ever. So it just keeps growing and growing, getting bigger everyday as more people arrive. People have jobs here, people make lives that didn't happen when they were alive, sometimes with completely different people. They have kids that didn't exist on Earth, they have jobs they only dreamed of having, they do whatever they want.
Me? I'm not so lucky.
See, where you end up in Afterlife has a lot to do with how you lived, and how you died. There's no Hell, but people who did bad things end up in the less attractive housing, and people who died in accidents or from illness get the better houses. Bottom of the heap are vampires and suicides – we're on the same level in the eyes of whoever it is that decides everything around here.
You're probably wondering which category I fall into.
My death was an accident. That's what I tell everyone, and that's the truth. But the all powerful being, whoever they are, decided that since I intentionally jumped off a cliff, my death counts as suicide even though I wasn't trying to kill myself. Which is extremely annoying, because it means I'm stuck doing the job that no one would willingly do, something that only exists in Afterlife and is the fate of every suicide victim.
I work at the Check-In desk.
Allow me to explain. The Check-In desk is actually an entire building full of desks with people sat behind them. It's the first thing anyone sees when they arrive in Afterlife; a person behind a desk who asks you who you are, where you came from, and tells you where you're going next. Who you get is completely random; there are people working the desks from all walks of life, with all kinds of attitudes. If you're lucky, you get someone perky, someone who will explain everything to you calmly and cheerfully, and give you a positive outlook on Afterlife.
If you're not so lucky, you get someone like me; grumpy, surly, and borderline depressed or worse, completely hating their new life and making you think that Afterlife is going to be a disaster. Which it isn't, to be honest. Most people are perfectly happy with the way they live now, even if they're working the Check-In desk and living in a cruddy little apartment with vampires for neighbours. Although that's mainly because most of the people in that situation are happy to be dead. They wanted to die.
Despite everything - despite having my heart broken by the only person I ever loved, despite losing my best friend to a weird secret cult, despite getting him back only to find that he now changes into a giant wolf at regular intervals, despite all of that – I didn't have a death wish. I didn't want to kill myself, and so this new life is enough to make me properly depressed, even if I wasn't before. Doesn't help that suicides have a visual representation of their death on them at all times; my skin is blue from hypothermia and I'm still coughing up water after almost a year of being dead.
I sigh. That's Jenna. She's my boss, sort of. All the people who work here are divided into teams of four or five, and Jenna is the head of my team. There's me, her, a middle aged lady named Betty, and Simon, who pretty much wins the prize for the gayest person anywhere ever.
I turn to face Jenna. "I've told you a thousand times, call me Bella."
"Yes, yes, I know you have." Jenna says, bustling around my office like some kind of beige coloured hurricane of order, straightening everything that I have out of place. She has this thing about having everything exactly as it should be, and never deviating from regulation. I've seen her check someone in without once making any kind of personal comment; she just works her way through the fields she has to fill in on the computer and tells them what to do next like a robot.
"You have another soul coming in in about ten minutes," she informs me in that clipped tone of hers, tucking her mousy hair behind one ear and fidgeting with the collar of her turtle neck sweater. She always wears those things, in various nondescript colours, trying to hide the ruined skin of her neck. Jenna hung herself.
She's still talking. "And then you're finished for the day. Tomorrow you'll need to be in at precisely six o'clock -"
I cut her off. "What! That's two hours before my shift starts!"
"I am aware of that." she says patiently, sounding slightly bored. "But we need you to do a run to Limbo to pick up a vamp who is finishing their time at 6:30 tomorrow."
I sigh and go back to leaning on my desk. "That's not my job, it's Benji's."
Benji is the person in charge of Limbo – which is kind of like a waiting room that you sit in for a certain amount of time to make up for the bad things you've done in your life – and he usually brings the vampires up himself. They always have to stay in Limbo for at least six months, and some of them end up being there for years. They tend to get kind of annoyed by that, so there's a reinforced containment unit that is used to bring them up to Afterlife, and Benji has to make a special run up here to deliver them.
"Benji will be busy tomorrow. There's a flood about to hit Thailand, and he will have to deal with a big influx of new arrivals, as will we. He won't have time to bring this vampire up here, so you will do it." Jenna nods to herself, as if she has said something very sensible. "You will also be checking this vamp in."
Now I'm worried. "But I've never checked in a vamp before. What if they're angry?"
She shrugs. "It's not like they can hurt you."
"Because that makes me feel so much better." I say sarcastically, trying to hide the fact that my stomach is fluttering with a million nervous butterflies.
"If it's any consolation, you're getting the rest of tomorrow off once you've finished with the vamp, so there's really no need to complain."
I frown. "But my day off isn't until Friday."
Jenna shrugs again. "Don't ask me why it's happening, I'm just following the instructions I've been given."
The light above the door opposite my desk flick on, informing me that I have a soul to check-in. Jenna takes that as her cue to leave, flitting out of the door to my right with a cheery, "See you at six Isabella!"
I sigh and turn to face the new arrival, a rather confused looking young gentleman who as obviously come straight from Earth; the ones that go through Limbo know what's going on already, so you don't have to go through the whole, "Sorry, but you're kind of dead," spiel.
"Afternoon sunshine." I say, pulling his attention to me. "Welcome to Afterlife. Let's get this over with so you can get on with being dead, shall we?"
I'm out of the building as soon as I've sent the poor sap on his way. Lucky thing's got a wife waiting for him in a nice little house in Suburbia. Good for him.
I jump on the street car as it passes the offices, as do five or six other people heading my way. You can almost see the pity hanging in the air as the other passengers turn to stare at us. Most people don't care, but I find it annoying. Why do we need to be pitied? Why are we singled out at all? I never will understand why suicides get so much grief from everyone else, like we've done something horribly wrong by killing ourselves.
And now I'm including myself as one of them. Great.
Even better; there's no free seats in the whole car. It's not that crowded really, and there's a few empty seats, but that means sitting next to someone, and I don't want to ruin someone's day by being me. I sigh and reach for a strap above my head, pretending that I prefer to stand.
"Excuse me dear," says a kind voice from my left. I look down to find a pretty woman smiling up at me, patting the seat next to her. She has big green eyes that crinkle at the edges, and her hair is tucked up into a tight up-do and hidden by her hat. Her dress is long, touching the ground, and I can see black lace-up boots peeking out of the bottom. Walking around Afterlife is like stepping into a living history museum; everyone tends to dress according to the fashion when they died, so her turn of the century garb doesn't draw half as many stares as it would do on Earth.
"I don't mind if you want to sit next to me." she says, still smiling.
Honestly, I'm a little stunned. I don't tend to talk to many people here, only the ones I know and the people I work with. I've never had a complete stranger talk to me before. In my surprise, I run on instinct and sit down beside her.
"Thanks," I mumble, trying not to look at her. She sort of reminds me of Esme, and I really don't need to be reliving those memories right now, particularly with my assignment tomorrow.
"You're quite welcome my dear." she says, sounding cheerful. I'm jealous.
I hope she'll leave it at that, but she doesn't.
"Have we met before? I'm positive that I recognise you from somewhere."
I look sceptically at her clothing. "I don't think so ma'am." I reply, wondering if she's mixed me up with someone. That's pretty difficult, I think; I've never seen anyone else with blue skin, even around here.
"I'm sure I know you." she insists. She studies my face for a moment before her eyes widen and a smile stretches across her face.
"I remember now!" she exclaims, and I glance around to make sure no one is looking at us; she is very loud. Her next words make me whip my head back around to stare at her in shock.
"You knew my son!"
I frown in confusion, almost completely convinced that this woman is a nut job.
"I did?" I ask. "When?"
"In Forks, remember?" she insists, looking very excited. "Oh, you helped him so much dear. He was never the same after he met you. So happy, after so long of being sad. And then he went and ruined it." Her expression is suddenly murderous, and makes me feel sorry for her son, even as I rack my brains trying to figure out who he is.
"I never will understand why he left you. Or why he made everyone go with him. He really should learn not to over-react so much." She looks at me again, smiling softly once more. "But then, he always was one for dramatics, my Edward. Don't you agree dear?"
I freeze and my eyes widen. "E-Edward? You're... you're Elizabeth?" I can hardly believe it; to have stumbled across her by accident is the most enormous coincidence. The hole in my chest that even death has not granted me release from rips wide open as all the memories come flooding back.
She looks rather surprised. "You know about me? I never saw him tell you."
I shake my head. "Carlisle told me about you. What he knew anyway, which wasn't that much, but still," I shrug.
The bell over my head clangs. I check out the window. Not my stop yet.
Elizabeth is speaking again.
"I can't tell you how sorry I am for what Edward did to you. I honestly don't know what he was thinking." She shakes her head, her face full of sorrow. "He's been a mess ever since."
That confuses me. "What do you mean, he's been a mess? He left me. He said he..." I swallow. "He said he didn't love me anymore."
"He lied." Elizabeth says, sounding almost angry. "He thought it would be better for you if he wasn't around, and he didn't think you would be able to move on unless you thought he had too."
I shake my head vigorously, trying not to hear her, trying not to hope. Why should I hope? It won't make any difference now anyway.
The bell clangs again. My stop.
"I'm sorry," I say hurriedly, grabbing my stuff and standing up. "I have to go."
Elizabeth grabs my hand. "At least tell me your name." she begs.
"It's Bella," I say. "I'm sorry, I really have to go. This is my stop."
She nods and releases me. "Look me up if you ever want to talk!" she calls after me as I jump off the street car just before it pulls away. I don't think I'll be taking her up on her offer. I don't think I can handle it yet, which sounds ridiculous; I've had almost a year and a half to come to terms with what happened, but I have a feeling it will take much longer than that to get over him and move on. Especially when reminders of him seem to pop up everywhere I turn.
Speaking of which...
As I climb the stairs to my apartment – there's no elevator; the reason why is unknown to me, especially since it's a 35 floor block – I can already hear them banging around doing who knows what. I'm tempted to pass my floor and climb to the next one to give them a piece of my mind right away, but I know that won't do much good. I complain everyday, and nothing ever changes.
So I stop at my floor – 13, as if I need any more bad luck – and unlock my door, ignoring the noise from upstairs. I go about my routine, changing out of the clothes I wear to cover as much of my skin as possible and into a tank top and sweats. I have to crank the heat up; I'm always cold these days.
The banging continues as I start to make dinner, soon accompanied by loud moaning and groaning. I ignore it, pausing in my preparation of mushroom ravioli – because I'm feeling nostalgic today – to cough up yet another lung full of water. I manage to get through my meal and start washing the dishes before the shouting starts and I can't take anymore.
"That's it." I grumble to myself. Time to give the Terrible Twosome what for.
I stomp up the stairs, not that you can hear me over the racket, and bang on the door of apartment 14. The door opens, revealing the bane of my existence in a silk robe, her fiery hair tangled and sticking out at odd angles. She sneers at me.
"Would it kill you to keep it down Victoria?" I say angrily, hands on hips. Sure, the bitch tried to kill me, but it's not like she can do anything to me now.
"Well, perhaps if you had a life it wouldn't bother you so much." she sneers her high, reedy little voice grating on my last good nerve, as usual.
"One, that makes absolutely no sense," I point out, "And two, didn't you two spend enough time terrorising me when we were all still alive? Can't you let me have some peace now?"
James sticks his head around the corner, crimson eyes blazing, minus a shirt, and cackles loudly. "But it's so much fun, sweet Bella!"
I glare at him, which only makes them both laugh harder.
"Just face it, little girl," Victoria says leaning towards me and trying to look threatening. I hold my ground, but I can't help but be a little afraid of those red eyes. "You don't have your precious toy boys to save you now. And we may not be able to kill you, but we're still stronger than you, so making us angry would not be in your best interest."
I can see that I'm not going to win, but I won't give them the satisfaction of letting them think they've beaten me. "I don't want or need saving. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself."
I turn and walk calmly back downstairs, not allowing their cackling to affect me, and attempt to get some sleep.
The next morning I am in an incredibly bad mood. Almost zero sleep combined with everything that happened yesterday makes for a severely pissed off Bella. Doesn't help that it's so friggin' early either.
The street cars run round the clock on an automated system, and it only takes ten minutes of waiting before the one I want comes along. I am tempted to nap a little while I ride, but with my luck I'd end up missing my stop, which would make Jenna very unhappy; she hates when things don't go exactly according to plan. So, I don't let myself fall asleep, and I get off the car at the Check-In building at exactly 5:57.
Jenna is waiting for me at the entrance to our section, tapping her foot and looking at her watch every few seconds. It makes me wonder how long she's been here; I'm right on time.
"There you are," she says when she sees me, sounding exasperated. "Come on, you have to get going now if you want to get there on time."
I just grunt in response, still not awake enough to speak coherently. I yawn several times as Jenna leads me down three flights of stairs to a part of the building I have never even been in before. The containment unit is waiting in what looks like a concrete delivery bay for a factory. It's all grey steel, and looks like a small moving van that's been high jacked by the secret service.
"It's not wonderful," Jenna says, making a face as she observes the van. "Old, outdated, clunky and awkward, and it's a manual." She says it like a dirty word. I can't help but chuckle.
"That shouldn't be a problem," I assure her. "I drove a 1953 Chevy truck with a sticky gear box for over a year. I think I can handle this."
Jenna nods her head primly. "Very well. Off you go then, don't want to be late."
Jenna's always so blunt and to the point. She can come off as unfriendly to some people, but once you get to know her she's actually not that bad.
I climb up in the cab of the van and survey the dashboard and the controls. It's not really all that bad; I have to crank the seat forward as far as it will go to reach the pedals, but once I do that everything else is in a pretty comfortable position. The keys are waiting in the ignition.
I roll the window down and lean out.
"Hey Jenna, how do I actually get to Limbo from here?" I ask.
She points to a set of large rolling doors in the far wall. "Just go through there and there's a road that leads directly to Limbo. It should take you about half an hour to get there, and another half hour to get back. When you return, back up to that opening over there," she points to a hole in the opposite wall, "and someone will sort out transferring the vamp to your office. You'll need to get up there as soon as possible so that you don't keep them waiting."
I nod. "Thanks."
She waves and goes back through the door we came in by. The rolling door opens, and I turn the keys, feeling oddly comfortable with the roar of the engine starting; it really does remind me of my truck.
The road to Limbo is twisty and turny, but there isn't much to look at. There's a radio, surprisingly, so I turn it on and start humming along to the songs I hear. Every so often I yawn and curse Jenna's name for making me get up so god damn early.
Half an hour later the road ends and I pull up to a building very similar to the Check-In building. There's no concrete bay here, but there is a door in the wall that lines up with the back door of the van, so I pull up behind it and jump down. There's another door beside it at a more normal height, so I go over and knock. Benji pokes his head out; I recognise him from the two days I spent here when I first died.
"Hey," I say, trying to smile and not quite succeeding. "I'm here to collect a vampire?" I I don't know why I make it a question; it just seems right.
Benji nods and smiles tiredly. He already looks exhausted, and as far as I know that flood hasn't hit yet.
"Come on through," he says, "I'll help you get him settled."
I follow him down a long corridor, past the rather dreary waiting room with its myriad occupants, and on to anther corridor that loops around back the way we came.
"We keep them over here out of everyone else's way," Benji explains, "That door there," he points to a steel door part way up the wall, "is the one you backed up to outside. I'll help you get him settled in the van so you can get on your way."
We've entered a big store room that looks kind of like the bay back at Check-In; all concrete and sharp corners. Here though, it's not a big open space. It's full of white boxes with doors in them. Each door has a number on it in black stencil, and they're lined up in rows in numerical order, the spaces between the rows large enough to drive a small car through; the room really is huge. There are gaps in places, and I guess that the boxes will be moved around to make space when more come in.
"24601, 24601, where are you 24601?" Benji mutters, already moving along the rows to find the box he wants. I hurry after him, not wanting to be alone in what is basically a room full of vampires. He finds the right row, then begins to move along to the place he wants. The numbers in the row are all bigger than 24601, so they must have arrived later. I get the feeling that this vampire has been here for a while, judging by the difference in the numbers; some of them are almost up to the 40,000s.
"Here he is!" Benji exclaims, coming to the very end of the row and stopping in front of a box baring the number 24601. I can see dust all over the surface of it, and there's a cobweb stretching between the top corner and the wall.
"Wanna have a look at him?" Benji asks me.
I shake my head frantically. "Don't let him out!"
"I don't have to," he says, pointing to a little hatch I hadn't noticed before in the top part of the door.
Still, I shake my head. "No thanks. I've had enough of vampires."
"Oh really?" Benji looks at me curiously as he rolls over a little cart and slides it into a slot in the bottom of the box.
"Yeah," I reply, nodding. "My ex boyfriend was one, and I've had several try to kill me, two of which are now my upstairs neighbours and seem determined to irritate me for eternity."
He whistles. "Wow. Vampire's girlfriend, huh? You must be one tough cookie."
My smile is wry. "Maybe. I wasn't enough to hold him though. He left me."
Wisely, Benji doesn't continue the conversation, and we walk in silence as he wheels the box back to the main part of the bay.
"I'm warning you now," he says as he cranks the box up towards the door on a little scissor-lift, "this one's a wild one. He was banging around in here for months before he gave up, roaring at the top of his lungs. I wouldn't be surprised if he starts again when we get him in the truck."
He gestures with his hand that I should go through the now open door, and I jump up quickly, hurrying around to the door of the van and backing it more securely against the door. There's a series of pneumatic hisses as Benji seals the space between the van and the box, then a loud bang as the door springs open. I wait for some sign that's it's okay to proceed.
The other door in the wall opens, and Benji comes out. He jogs to my window.
"He's inside." he informs me. "All you've got to do is hit that button there," he points to it, "to shut the door, and then you can be on your way."
"Thanks Benji." I say.
"No, thank you sweet cheeks. You just took one thing off my to-do list for today." He grins at me widely, and I can help but offer him as close as I can manage to a smile in return.
Benji backs off, I hit the button to close the door. It slams shut with a satisfying clang. I turn the key and shift into gear, then pull back onto the road up to Afterlife and get on my way.
As Benji suspected, my passenger is rather rowdy to begin with. I can hear him slamming his fists into the walls of the van over and over, and through the grill beside my head I hear him growl and snarl unintelligibly.
After a while, the noise starts to give me a headache.
"Hey!" I yell, and the noise stops.
"Keep it down, would you?" I continue. "You'll be out of here soon enough. Just be glad you're not stuck in that box anymore."
He doesn't respond, but he doesn't make a sound for the rest of the drive back, so that's a blessing.
When we reach Afterlife, I pull into the bay and back up against the door. There's a person directing me into the right place, and he tells me when it's okay to open the door.
"See you in a minute buddy," I call back through the grill before I jump out of the cab and head up to my office.
The light is on over my door when I get there. I take a deep breath and log into the computer on my desk, quickly pulling up the database filled with dead people and clicking into the vampire section. I'm scanning through the fields, trying to figure out if I need any information different to normal for my query, when the door opens. I don't look up, I just start talking.
"Okay, here's how this is going to go. I ask you questions, you give me answers, we get through this as quickly as possible so we can both leave. I had no sleep last night and I've come in early just to come and fetch you, so I'm not in the best of moods right now, got it?"
"You lose all your brain cells sitting in that box?" I say, looking up from my screen.
White skin. Sharp jaw. Lean figure, skinny with a hint of muscle. Gold eyes. Crazy bronze hair, sticking out in all directions.
We stare at each other, mouths and eyes wide open. I idly wonder if Jenna knew our history, knew it was him she was sending someone to fetch, and chose me specifically. If she did, I might have to re-evaluate whether or not I like her that much; this is guaranteed to be heart breaking.
"Well," I say, breaking the tense silence. "That certainly speeds things up."
I turn away from him and start entering his information into the computer. I have to remind myself to put Masen instead of Cullen; it won't find the right person unless I use his birth name. I'm almost finished when he speaks.
"Bella?" he chokes, his voice as hoarse as it is possible for a vampire's voice to be.
I look at him then, really look, and realise that he is a mess. His eyes are wild, he's torn his clothes, and he doesn't have any shoes on. The look in his eyes is one of pure agony, pain so deep it makes me catch my breath. Now I can't speak.
"Is it really you?" he prompts me, taking a step closer.
I nod and turn back to my computer, tapping in the last few bits of information and hitting Search. I keep my eyes locked on the screen as it processes the query.
"Are you going to talk to me?" he whispers.
I sigh and look up at him. "What do you want me to say?"
I quirk my eyebrow at him when he doesn't answer. His eyes close and he hangs his head. I sigh again and look back at the screen. The query is finished, and there he is. Name, date of birth, parents, creator, date and cause of death. That's always the interesting bit, seeing how someone died, but I almost can't bring myself to read Edward's. But I do, because I need to.
Edward Anthony Masen Cullen
Born June 20th 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, USA
Changed September 25th 1918 by Carlisle Cullen
Killed March 20th 2006 by Aro of the Volturi
I look up at him, surprised. He's been in that box for over a year. He's been dead for almost as long as I have.
"Edward?" I ask. His name almost hurts to say.
He looks at me, eyes burning with pain, but slightly hopeful.
I can only speak in a whisper. "Why is your date of death only four days after mine?"
He frowns and tilts his head to the side. "Was it really that long? I lived for an entire 96 hours in a world where you didn't exist?"
I'm frowning too. "Okay, now you're confusing me."
Edward looks at me intensely; I'm tempted to look away, but cant bring myself to do it.
"Don't you remember what I told you?" he asks.
I nod. "Of course I do." With painful clarity. "But I thought you changed your mind when you realised you didn't want me any more."
His eyes widen, then tighten, then drop in shame. He puts his head in his hands and starts to shake while I watch, growing more concerned with each passing second. Even after everything that has happened, I still love him – always have, always will – and I can't help but worry that he is having a breakdown.
He looks up at me again before I can get too worried.
"I lied." he whispers. "I'm so sorry Bella. I lied to you."
"About what?" I ask, dreading his answer.
"About not wanting you. About moving on. Everything I said that day was a lie." He shakes his head, looking more sad than any creature ever should. "I know there's no chance that you'll forgive me, but I have to tell you how sorry I am. Sorry doesn't cover it. I thought you would move on, I thought you would be happy, I thought..."
He chokes, unable to finish. I can't speak; I'm too shocked. Was Elizabeth right after all? Or am I dreaming all of this?
Edward collects himself and starts to talk again.
"But you didn't move on." he whispers. "You weren't happy. Alice saw you jump off that cliff, and Rosalie called to tell me what had happened. I went back to Forks and watched your funeral, then I went to Italy and asked the Volturi to kill me. They refused, so I walked out into the square in their city, exposing myself to all the humans gathered there for a festival. Of course, they couldn't forgive that-"
"Wait," I say, cutting him off. "What exactly are you saying? You asked them to kill you... because I was dead?"
He nods. "I love you Bella. That will never change, and I couldn't stand to live knowing that you no longer existed."
Edward's eyes burned into mine, full of ancient grief. "Say you forgive me Bella. I don't need you to love me. I don't expect that you can after everything I've done. But please say you forgive me."
I stand up and walk around my desk, coming to stand in front of him. Our eyes stay locked, his pleading, mine searching.
"How can you say that?" I whisper. "How can you think that I don't love you? I do love you Edward, with everything I have. Really, I didn't die that day at First Beach. I died the day you left me. I died the second we were apart."
He looks shocked. "You love me?"
I smile. "Of course."
I realise, slightly belatedly, that I just smiled my first real smile in... I don't even know how long. The thought makes me smile wider. Edward is smiling with me, and he ducks his head down, hovering for a moment before he presses his lips to mine. I sigh with satisfaction; I have missed him so much, and now I feel like this might possibly be real.
We walk out of the Check-In building together, hand in hand. I have Edward's new address and instructions to get there printed out and in my hand. Most new arrivals have an Eternal – a sort of angel – to guide them to their new home, but I can't bear to let him out of my sight, so I'm taking him.
We get on the street car, and he seems to find it all incredibly interesting. He's looking all around him and trying to take in everything at once, and I can't help but giggle at him, which makes him smile.
When we get off, we're in a nice neighbourhood, all flowerbeds and suburban glory. Edward's house is a big one, which surprises him.
"I thought rewards went to people who did good things in their life. Surely that doesn't include me." he says.
I'm surprised too, but not for the same reason. "You really need to stop thinking of this as Heaven. You go where you want around here. Though, I have to say, most of the vampires end up in the apartment blocks. One thing that whoever controls all of this doesn't like is killing, particularly killing large numbers of people or yourself. Vampires and suicides are the least well off of anyone, with less freedom."
He looks at me curiously. "Where do you live?"
"Apartment." I answer. "With some very obnoxious vampire neighbours upstairs who never shut up. They're the reason I didn't get any sleep last night."
Edward is about to speak, but a voice calls out, cutting him off.
We turn to see where the voice comes from. Elizabeth is running down the steps of the house next to Edward's, hair loose and flying, smile splitting her face.
"Mother?" Edward says, astonished. I just grin as she slams into him, crushing him a warm welcoming hug.
I stand back as they greet each other, not wanting to get in their way. Edward seems utterly astounded and kind of unsure about what to do, seeing her again after all this time. I'm pretty sure he's crying.
"Oh my Edward, I have missed you," Elizabeth says, running her fingers through his hair as she pulls back to look at him. "I've been watching you of course, but that doesn't quite compare to having you here in front of me. My, what a fine young man you've become!" She smiles widely at him, and he shrugs as if it's no big deal.
I realise that they have a lot to catch up on, and I don't want to intrude. I almost wish I had to go back to work, just to give me something to do besides just going back to my apartment. I turn to go, hoping I can slip away while they're distracted.
No such luck. Of course, Edward notices me trying to slink away.
"Where do you think you're going?" he asks teasingly, grabbing my hand and pulling me to him tightly. "You're not leaving my sight any time soon Miss Swan."
I smile self-consciously and duck my head, peeking up at Elizabeth. She's smiling at me warmly.
"Would it be rude to say 'I told you so'?" she asks, and I laugh.
"You know each other?" Edward seems surprised.
"Not well," Elizabeth admits, "We happened to meet by chance yesterday on the street car. I must say dear, it's nice to see you smiling. You seemed so despondent yesterday."
I shrug. "What can I say? My outlook just got considerably brighter."
They both chuckle, and Edward kisses the side of my head. Elizabeth's smile is gloating, with a little bit of a knowing smirk to it.
"I'll leave you too to take a look around now." she says, then gives Edward a stern look. "But you and I are going to talk, mister. Soon." She smiles and goes back to her house giving us one last wave. Edward shakes his head indulgently, but I can see that he looks very slightly nervous.
I laugh. "Come on you, let's go inside."
He nods, and I lead the way into his house.
It's big, open and bright. It looks kind of like the big white house in Forks, with a little less decoration. The entrance hall opens into a wide living room with several comfy looking couches, a big television and a large sound system. There's a piano, of course, and big French doors that open onto a wooden terrace and a big grass lawn. There's sunlight everywhere, and Edward's skin glitters, making everything look that much more unreal.
We don't speak as we move around the house, exploring all the different rooms. There are several bedrooms upstairs, a library full of books, a whole room of CDs and vinyl records, which gets Edward very excited. I'm wondering why one person needs all this space. It's odd; there are bathrooms and a kitchen here, things he doesn't need, and I wonder why.
The last room we enter has what looks like a little pond set into the floor. It's a very small room, barely big enough for both of us to stand in, with tiling along the walls. My breath catches in my throat. I'd heard about these things from people at work who moved out of their apartments when loved ones arrived in Afterlife. Each house has one, but not the apartments; suicides have to wait two years to use the communal ones in the central offices. They're called Pools, and they can be used to view people that you've left behind on Earth, to make sure that they're okay. You can also go through them and appear to people in their dreams, to help give them closure by assuring them that you're alright. I've never seen one before, and I'm instantly jealous of Edward. He gets to use this any time he wants. What I wouldn't give to be able to see Charlie and Renee, just to check on them, just once.
"What's this?" Edward asks curiously.
I explain. He looks curious, tilting his head to the side. Then he sinks onto the floor at the edge of the Pool and closes his eyes. I lean over him, watching the water.
It swirls slightly, the plain blue twisting into a rainbow of colours and strange, distorted shapes. After a moment, they adjust themselves into something vaguely recognisable.
"Look Edward," I whisper. He opens his eyes, and we both watch the scene play out before us.
The remaining six Cullens walk together through rows of grey headstones. The day is overcast and dreary, thick clouds looking set to dump rain on them at any moment, but this doesn't seem to bother them. They walk in pairs, all in black, each clinging to their mate as if nothing else can hold them to the Earth. None of them smile, not even Emmet, who never seemed able to be serious for more than a few minutes at a time. He holds Rosalie tight against his side; her face is just as grief stricken, and horribly guilty on top of it. She carries a bouquet of flowers in her hands. Carlisle is stoic, trying to be strong, but the pain is there in his eyes as well. Esme clings to him, sobbing uncontrollably. Alice and Jasper walk at the back of the little procession. Poor Jasper looks as if the sorrow is about to crush him, and Alice does not look dreamy and far away as she usually is, lost in the future. She is utterly focused on the little urn in her hands, clutching it tightly to her chest. One of her big purses swings from her arm, looking almost empty.
They stop at a small nondescript stone in the middle of the graveyard, and Alice reaches into her bag, pulling out a small shovel which she passes to Emmet. No one speaks as he begins to dig at the far end of the grave, away from the headstone. When there is a small hole, only about a foot deep, he steps back and Alice takes his place, giving the urn a soft kiss before placing it in the hole.
"I'm sorry brother." she whispers. "I'm sorry it took us so long to bring you back to her. I'm sorry I couldn't save you."
Jasper crouches down beside her, wrapping his arms around her little frame. "It wasn't your fault Alice. Edward made his choice."
She just shakes her head and buries her face in his chest, crying. Esme drops down as well, unable to stand any longer as her sobs shake her body. Carlisle bends down and begins to use his hands to cover the urn with dirt, and Emmet leans down to help.
"We'll miss you, my son," Carlisle murmurs, and the sobs kick up a notch; Rosalie has joined in. she goes to stand by the headstone, placing her hand on it and whispering her own words as she lays the flowers gently on the bit of grass that has begun to grow over the earth.
"Take care of him for us Bella." she whispers. "We know he'll find you, wherever you are."
Edward looks up at me, his face in agony again.
"I don't understand." he croaks, "What are they doing?"
I look back into the Pool, studying their faces for a moment before I answer. I can't look at him, knowing I'll break down too if I do.
"I think... they're burying your ashes in... in my grave. I think they hope that will help us find each other, if... if our bodies are close together."
We don't speak, watching the little funeral play out.
Once the urn is completely covered, Alice once again reaches into her bag and pulls out a little engraved foot-stone that matches the headstone exactly. The words are just visible from this distance.
Edward Anthony Masen Cullen
Beloved son, brother and soulmate
Edward chokes on a sob. I kneel down and hug him, letting him lean against me. In the Pool, the Cullens are in similar positions, using each other for support as all façades of strength crumble into dust.
"I want to say goodbye," Edward whispers after a minute. "Can I?"
I bite my lip. "You can try. I've never done this before, only heard about it from someone at work."
He nods, looking down at the water. He readjusts himself do he's sitting on the edge, his feet just touching the surface. Ripples spread across the surface, but the picture is not distorted.
"Will you come with me?" he asks, looking back at me pleadingly. "I don't know if I can do it alone."
I don't know if I can, but I nod anyway, sitting beside him and holding his hand tightly. This isn't enough for him; he pulls me into his lap and wraps his arms tightly around me, clutching me close to him like a life preserver.
"How do we get back?" he asks in a whisper.
"I think we just... choose to come back." I say, just as quietly. "I really don't know that much about this Edward. Perhaps we shouldn't."
He shakes his head. "I have to do this. For me, and for them. I'll take whatever risk I have to." His voice and expression are both determined, and that gives me confidence too. I put my arms around his shoulders, holding on tight.
"Let's go." I say, squeezing my eyes shut, and feel him nod.
He shifts forward a little, and my stomach turns inside out as we drop into the Pool. The drop is fast, but it feels as if we are falling a long way. As suddenly as we began, we stop.
I don't move, not sure I want to. My feet are on... something. Not ground, but not nothing either. I crack my eyes open and look down. I can see my feet, hovering about two feet off the ground, looking slightly translucent. Edward still has his arms around me, holding me close, and he is the same; partially see-through. I look up at him and he smiles down at me.
A soft gasp pulls our attention away from each other to our surroundings. We are in the graveyard, and I recognise the little church in Forks over to one side. The Cullens are still huddled round my grave, only a few feet away, and most of them are facing away from us. It is Rosalie who gasped, and she is staring straight at us.
"Guys," she whispers, pointing to us with a shaking finger. "Please tell me you see them too."
"What?" Emmet looks at her in confusion. "See who Rosie?"
Alice turns to where Rosalie is pointing and lets out a little shriek of surprise. All the others turn their heads quickly to see what she is looking at, and there are several gasps and shouts as they see us too.
I can't help but laugh at their faces, and Edward joins in. Our voices are faint and ethereal, almost getting lost on the light breeze that runs through the graveyard.
"Edward?" Esme chokes. "Bella?"
"Hi Mom," he says calmly. I wave.
"What are you doing here?" she asks, astounded.
"We came to say goodbye," Edward tells her.
"And thank you." I add. "For everything."
"We wanted you to know that we're okay." he continues. "That we're together and happy, and that there's no reason for you to be sad."
I take over. "I've been here for a while, but Edward only just arrived, so he wanted to make sure you were okay." I smile up at him proudly, and he kisses my forehead.
"Did we keep you away Edward?" Alice asks, looking concerned. "We've had that urn sat on the mantelpiece all year. Did that stop you from reaching her?"
Edward shakes his head. "Don't worry little sister. None of what has happened to me is your fault. Don't let it trouble you."
"It's okay Alice," I say, smiling at her. "I'll keep an eye on him."
She smiles back. They're all smiling, and the sense of fulfilment at having put those smiles there is wonderful.
"Is this the last time we'll see you?" Carlisle says, stepping forward. I look at Edward; it's his choice after all.
"I'm not sure." he hedges. "Perhaps we'll come back someday, if we feel there is a need. But even if we don't show ourselves to you, we'll always be watching."
I nod in agreement, squeezing him tight and loving that he says 'we', including me in his consideration of the future.
I can feel something tugging at my back, and it's not Edward. I look at him, and I can tell he feels it too.
"We have to go," I whisper sadly. He nods, resigned. I turn to the Cullens.
"We love you," I remind them. "Forever. Never forget that."
They all nod, and wave as we begin to drift upwards again. Just as we're about to disappear from their view, Edward dips down to kiss me, and Emmet lets out a loud wolf whistle.
All eight of us are laughing when Edward and I rise up past the clouds and return to the Pool in his house.
I'm going back to my apartment, trying to make the most of my unexpected day off, and Edward insists on coming with me. I wouldn't mind that much, except that I don't really want him to see where I live. I think it will make him angry, and I don't know if I'll be able to restrain him if he sees who my neighbours are.
I'm very surprised, when we arrive, to find Jenna, Betty and Simon in my apartment, packing all my stuff into boxes and suitcases. There's not a lot of it, admitedly, but it still seems like an odd thing to do.
"Hey babe!" Simon yells when I open the door, waving from his spot on the floor, where he is stacking my books into a cardboard box. "We were wondering when you would show up."
He springs up off the floor and comes to give me a hug. Edward growls softly, alerting Simon to his prescence.
"Well hello hansdome!" he exclaims, "Where did you come from?"
He pushes me aside, already moving in on a rather astounded Edward. I roll my eyes and step between them.
"Sorry Si," I say, wrapping my arms around Edward's waist and leaning up to kiss his jaw. "He's mine."
Simon pouts, and Betty comes out of the kitchen, laughing. Jenna is behind her, smiling for once, with a clipboard in her hand.
"What are you guys doing here?" I ask, because I am supremely confused right now.
"Oh honey, we're helping you pack." Betty replies, bouncing over to pull us further into the apartment and shut the door. Betty is plump and bouncy, sort of resembling a beach ball, with a penchant for spotty dresses and red lipstick. Hers is the kind of good mood that never seems to end, and she's very motherly and warm.
"Pack?" I prompt, still needing an explanation, "Pack for what?"
"You're moving." Jenna states, blunt as always. "Now that Edward's here, you're moving in with him, just like Betty moved when her husband arrived."
I smile widely. "Really?"
"Really." she says, seeming bored. "Now, come on you two. We've got a lot of work to do, and not enough time to do it in."
We all pitch in, and my home quickly gets transferred into the various storage boxes and packing cases Jenna has acquired from who knows where. Betty has put some of my music on, and we crank up the volume and dance around goofily while we work.
We're almost finished when someone bangs on the door.
"Would it kill you to keep it down?" Victoria's shrill voice yells.
"Oh boy," Simon mutters as my eyes narrow and I stomp towards the door. "Bitchy Bella's come out to play."
Betty titters, and even Jenna laughs a little. Edward just looks confused.
"That's a little hypocritical, don't you think?" I snap as soon as I open the door.
"Whatever," Victoria says, sounding bored. "Just tell us what's going on and when it's stopping."
I smile smugly at her. "I'm moving. We're packing. It will end when we're finished, and then I never have to deal with you ever again. So you might as well run along back upstairs to your sorry little life, because this," I lean in to whisper my last words right in her face. "is revenge."
"Who is it Bella?" Edward calls, and Victoria freezes. He comes up behind me when I don't answer.
As soon as she sees him, Victoria bolts, disappearing up the stairs.
"Was that who I think it was?" Edward asks me.
I nod. "I told you upstairs neighbours were obnoxious vampires."
He shakes his head. "Now I'm really glad you're moving in with me."
I just laugh and close the door, eager to get back to packing.
We're sitting together on the couch later on, watching a sappy feel-good movie. I'm curled into his side with my feet tucked up under me, his arm around my shoulders, holding me tight. I sigh contentedly, perfectly comfortable.
"I've realised something." Edward says out of nowhere, sounding thoughtful.
"What have you realised?" I ask, still smiling. For over a year smiles refused to come; now I can't seem to stop.
"I spent so much time thinking I had no soul, thinking that there was nothing good for me on the other side. I can't help wondering, if I had known that it was like this," he gestures vaguely around us, "What might I have done with that time? I can't help feeling like it was all wasted."
I'm not sure what to say, but I try anyway. "There's no way you could have known. And there's no use in reliving the past now. It doesn't matter anymore."
"I know that," he assures me, "and I'm happy now, I promise. But I can't help feeling annoyed..." He trails off.
"All that worrying for nothing," I muse, finishing his sentence.
He hums in agreement, then is silent for a moment.
"I've been holding off on asking, because I didn't know if you would be offended..." he pauses. I look at him expectantly, waiting for him to speak. He takes a deep breath, then blurts it out.
"Why are you blue?"
I laugh out loud; I can't help it. I'm still smiling as I answer.
"Hypothermia. I froze before I drowned." I tell him. He nods as if that makes perfect sense, running his fingers along the skin of my arm.
"In that case, shouldn't I have scars and scorch marks?" he asks, sounding genuinely curious.
"No," I answer, looking down. I can't help the petulant tone in my voice. "Only people who commit suicide have outward signs of their death. You were killed by someone else, so you're as good as new."
"Why do you say it like that? Surely... if you killed yourself, you wouldn't mind. Your friends seemed okay with it."
I smile wryly and shake my head. "That's because they really were trying to kill themselves. They had nothing left for them on Earth; they were ready to go." I look up at him. "I didn't want to die."
Edward seems confused. "Then why did you jump off a cliff?"
I can't look at him as I speak, so I don't. I can only manage a hoarse whisper as it is.
"Do you remember Jacob Black?"
"Well, after you... left, we kind of got closer and closer. I started hanging around with him all the time and... I saw some kids on the reservation cliff diving, and it looked like fun, so Jake said he'd take me to do it. Only, something came up, and he couldn't, but I still wanted to go, so I went on my own. I didn't realise how rough the currents were getting until I was in the water." I look up at him then, pleading with my eyes for him to believe me. "I honestly wasn't trying to kill myself. It was an accident. But, because I jumped, they classed it as suicide, and," I gesture to myself. "Here I am."
Edward doesn't speak. He just stares at me, searching my face for... something. I'm not sure what.
"There's something else," he guesses, "The reason why you wanted to go in the first place. You have to tell me Bella."
I shake my head. "Not now. Later. I've ruined the mood enough as it is."
He looks like he's about to argue, but decides against it, simply nodding. "Fine. But you will tell me."
"Of course," I say, "Just not tonight."
That seems to satisfy him. We settle back into comfortable silence. After a while, he starts to kiss up and down my neck, his lips tickling my skin with each pass, until I start to giggle.
"What are you doing?" I ask.
"Exploring," is his response. "You feel different, and yet the same." He licks my neck softly, making me shiver. He's never done that before.
"You taste like salt water," he observes.
I giggle again, and he chuckles with me. I realise, out of nowhere, that I don't feel cold. His body is right beside mine, and still as cold as ice, but I don't feel it the way I used to. The perpetual chill that I have lived in since I arrived here is gone as well.
For the first time in a long time, I feel... warm.
All of a sudden, I yawn. It's one of those big, all encompassing yawns that makes the sides of your mouth feel stretched and seems to come from your very toes. Edward chuckles.
"Time for bed, I think." he says.
And he scoops me up into his arms, making me shriek in surprise, before running upstairs to the master bedroom.
I don't know where we're going to go from here. I don't know what I want to happen between us. But I know that I am happy. I know that I feel loved and that I love him in return.
When I go to work tomorrow, my smile will be genuine, and I will no longer be the surly kind of Check-In girl. I will be the happy one, who smiles and is helpful. The kind that people will be lucky to be checked-in by.
I can't wait.