Sweet Child Of Mine
The opening of Forks Childcare Center was a major event in the tiny town in Washington State and every mother and even some fathers, with children under school age, turned up at the opening. Even some ladies with pregnant bellies had come, determined to book their future rugrats in before all spaces were taken both for now and next year.
Single parents were given priority over married couples on the waiting list but this years intake was a free-for-all, first in, first served and I counted how many parents were in front of me in the line up yet again. Nope, none of them had disappeared, sadly.
Jessica and her partner in the Center, Lauren, were restricted to twenty pre schoolers and four infants.
I had planned to get here earlier but motherhood means constant surprises and delays and of course, this morning had been no different. Lucy had decided to sleep in, wake up grumpy, gobble her cereal too fast, spill milk down her clean frock and let's not forget the mat in her hair that had appeared overnight. There was no way I could turn up with a child looking like Children's Services should be intervening.
I had bathed Lucy again, applied half a bottle of conditioning detangler and carefully combed out the knot, and braided the end result for good measure. That would not be happening again if I could help it. Renee was forever urging me to have Lucy's hair cut to a shorter, manageable style but how could I ever bring myself to do that?
Every hair on that child's head was incredibly precious and the fact it reached past her waist and ended in beautiful six inch long corkscrew curls...well, it would be a crime to cut them off.
I placed my hand on top of my daughter's head and counted again. With luck, none of these people in front had twins or were booking in more than one child, so there was a chance Lucy would secure a spot. And some must be after placements for infants.
That couple with the matching platinum hair had a newborn only.
One less contender.
The thought of being able to go to work and know exactly where Lucy was and who was minding her would be a luxury I had not experienced yet in my three years of single motherhood. From the start, the baby had been juggled between Renee and myself, and anyone else I could rope in for help. I knew I had initiated the breakdown of my parent's marriage by staying in Seattle and stubbornly insisting Mom come there to help me, rather than face up to what was a done deal and come home again where she could be with Dad.
I'd only been back for one week now, and it could be a temporary thing.
That depended on whether or not I got into the only affordable childcare facility I had any chance of using. Rumour had it it was subsidized by a private company and the parental fees were amazingly nominal, nothing like the charges made in the Seattle Centers that kept me from ever using them instead.
Since I got back, even Jake helped when he could but let's face it, twenty three year old guys have better things to do than mind the child of the girl that they had crushed on but who never returned the same feelings.
We were still friends and always would be, but Jake was building up his walls higher and stronger and refusing to be my puppet these days. In my absence, he had grown a backbone as well as a new physique.
But I was glad, I carry enough guilt already. My parents marriage was crumbling and it really was all down to me.
Renee had spent too long away from being wife and partner, and was wanting to move on and have a new start. Charlie was fighting to salvage what he could and we were in the way.
At least they would both still live here in Forks and help me out when they could, the selfish part of me rejoiced. At some point I would have to learn to stand on my own two feet and manage my job and my child and everything else alone, and a safe place for Lucy would hasten that process.
The brightly painted sign promised all children here would be cared for by professionals in a clean, safe, warm environment and the smiling teddy bear and rag doll seemed to confirm those words.
Look at us, all child friendly, no nasty clowns.
Lucy actually loved clowns and had not inherited my pathetic fear of their ridiculous painted mouths and weird rainbow curly hair. Not to mention their enormous feet. I had nightmares about the length of their feet when I was a child. Renee had assumed she was giving me a treat, taking me to the circus but I couldn't stop thinking about the size of the feet that needed shoes that long. How on earth did they fit them into their beds? The blankets must stick up halfway to the ceiling.
I reread the sign and banished clowns from my brain.
"Newborns to pre schoolers catered for. Opening day this Monday, no pre bookings for this year."
The plaque underneath those words was new.
"This facility has been generously sponsored by the Cullen family."
Of course it has.
No show without Punch.
Oh God, more clown references.
It seemed my life would always be tied in with the Cullen family, but that is what happens when you are mother to Carlisle and Esme's grandchild.
I checked my paperwork again to distract myself from memories filling my head, unbidden.
Birth Certificate, Health record, immunization certificate, I had everything, I just needed there to be one space left when I got to the head of the line.
It had been a long, difficult haul getting to this point but I would manage somehow, even if Lucy missed out on gaining a place.
That's what mothers did, wasn't it? They survived and managed despite the odds.
Jasper Cullen and his wife and my bff Alice walked towards me, Alice waving her attendance book in glee.
"Bella, gosh, I kept a place for as long as we could without the others in the queue attacking us, but you still hadn't arrived when we got called in. Austin's in, Thank the gods. No more scrabbling for someone to take him each day. Now I can work every day and only call on family when he's ill. I shouldn't have said that, don't listen, Universe. He's never ill."
She scrambled for wood to touch.
Austin was only an infant therefore not competition to Lucy. He was one of the four babies allowed.
"Good luck, come around if...I mean, after you book in, okay? Rose is having a baking spree and we are all the lucky recipients of her latest obsession. Her ginger snaps are to die for."
She seemed anxious to leave. Something was up, or maybe I was being paranoid, and she was just feeling awkward because she had ended her babysitting woes and I hadn't, as yet.
"Sure, if I'm lucky enough to get a place, I'll be right around. If I don't, look for me in Jamie's Bar, probably curled in a ball crying, mind you."
"I'm sure it's your turn to deserve a break," Jasper said, patting my arm.
From his lips to God's ears.
He leaned in close to my ear and I saw Alice look uncharacteristically uncomfortable.
"I have to tell you something. Warn you, I guess."
I held up a hand to stop him right there.
"Later, Jazz. I'm on stress overload, I really can't cope with another single hassle. I always knew if I came back, some day you or one of the other members of your family would decide I had to know whatever there is to know about Edward's life these days, but not now. Please," I begged.
His brother was not my problem and his life, wherever he was living it, was nothing to me now.
Tell yourself, that, Bella.
"I'm sorry. I understand, it's just that..."
The couple in front disappeared inside at Lauren's invitation and I searched her face for a clue. Was I wasting my time? Were they taking the last space? She shrugged and held out two fingers.
Two spaces left.
I crossed everything in the hope they only had one child. I didn't recognise them at all, so had no clue.
I felt like my head might just explode and I watched as Jessica consulted with Lauren before turning my way.
The moment of truth.
She would either announce all places were filled or invite me inside.
The words she said were the sweetest I had ever heard uttered.
"Just one space left. Come on in, Bella."
I stepped forward, feeling like Miss America about to accept her crown.
We were in!
Jess checked my details, ticked every box and handed me the pen of freedom and I signed on the dotted line.
"Excuse me," a voice from the past interrupted my daydream as I leaned down for the gold tiara to be put in place.
"I believe an exception has been made for my daughter. I'm here to book her in and if there's only one placement left, it must be hers."
Morning are always hard, well, let's be honest, all day, everyday is hard.
Work, fatherhood, family, at some point I'm really hoping to find time for myself again, one day.
Coming home to Forks had been a difficult decision. I'm a firm believer that the past is the past and cannot be revisited, or cried over but my entire family still lives there so if I need their help, and they have offered it frequently since Tori's birth nearly three years ago, here I must reside.
Her birth wasn't planned but that doesn't change how much I love my daughter and how glad I really am to have her in my life.
Single fatherhood was never my plan and I actually always assumed any girl whom a man who considered good enough to sleep with, deserved a ring on her finger if you knocked her up, on purpose or otherwise.
Victoria would have accepted my ring, but I know why I never offered it to her. Even though it wasn't like there were any serious contenders, for either of us, and we had been expecting a baby, it still felt wrong. Like a betrayal to a girl who didn't even care any more.
I know I should have manned up regardless of old feelings and disillusioned dreams, and I was aware that the reluctance on my part made Victoria doubt we had what it took to make a real, viable couple. As a result, she had given up on us and was road testing other possibilities.
I knew the ball was in my court. I could end this mess and do the decent thing, or I could let things drift on as they had, and probably end up seeing Victoria choose some other man. Men. Maybe amongst her many suitors, there was one whose intentions were honourable. She and I had been a mistake and a bad fit and should never have happened, but when you lose the one thing you want to have in your life, your brain tends to make bad decisions. There's a reason it's called rebound, as you bounce from the one you lost to the next badly thought out option that has little to no chance of lasting. It wouldn't have mattered in the long run, I had needed to draw a line after the end of my relationship with Bella, but my rebound affair had a consequence.
Tori Ann Cullen.
Tori was happy living with just me and seeing her mother whenever Vic decided she had time to spare to visit, and she had pretty much already decided she preferred her career to us, so it was all a pretty moot point anyway. If I wanted to salvage us, I would have to step up fast and put in a whole lot more effort than I had to date. And I would have to 'do the right thing' with the wrong person. That was the only way we would ever be a real family. An all out effort to commit to her , or single fatherhood, were my options.
I just needed to work out in my own time what would be in Tori's best interests because Vic and I would never be a love match, just a union of convenience.
Sleeping in the bed I had slept in during High School was both comforting and uncomfortable. Of course memories were flooding my head.
Bella Swan, beneath me, her chestnut highlighted hair spread out covering my pillow. Her deep brown eyes gazing boldly into mine as I thrust inside her willing body. She had loved me then, just as I had loved her.
We had been quite the couple, for Junior and Senior Year at Forks High and had spent our nights together either in this very bed or in her own, smaller bed at the Chief's house.
Of course we had been too young to handle the situation we were in. Exclusive, first time lovers, never having even dated anyone else. God, if it were more acceptable to get married straight from High School, and had we had a single parent backing us, that's what may well have happened.
Instead, we did as our parents insisted and went off to separate colleges and 'tested our love' like they urged us to do. And they had been right.
The occasional flights from my base in New York, to her dorm in Seattle soon cooled us off and like so many long distance romances, we fizzled out.
So many reasons we would fail. Too many distractions. Too many frat parties, surrounded by so many willing students wanting some fun with no strings attached, and add in the freely flowing alcoholic beverages, and you have a recipe for failure. But they were never the issue.
We never fell out or even split up officially, we just let us die a natural death and the calls and emails and text messages dwindled until they stopped all together. I tried to fix us, but we had a lot of miles between us and my only method of keeping in touch was by phone and text and she refused to answer either, in the end. Of course my pride was hurt and my ego badly bruised that Bella had been so unconcerned that our love was slipping away, and she had been so unwilling to fight to save us, which had been what I wanted. We were so good together, so special, so perfect. How could she just let us go without trying longer and harder? We were worth saving.
Sometimes that's how love ends. More with a whimper than a bang.
Sure we had problems, all the usual issues that arise in a long distance relationship, and add to that, my father was so determined to prove we wouldn't last that he refused to fund any flights to Seattle, so I only had the pittance I saved from my part time job. I saved every penny and visited as often as I could, but, yeah, that still left months between visits. She was lonely, I was lonely, and I guess sometimes four years is a lifetime.
My family had yet to tell me if she was back here, living in Forks again.
Who knows, she had aced her journalism course, I did check her final results out of interest to see if she had lived up to the early promise she had shown, and felt proud to have ever been hers.
My Bella, dux of SeattleU.
She could be anywhere. She could even be in New york, and that would be ironic. Me, crawling back home, needing my family's support, and her, finding her wings and flying free, as she deserved. Following her destiny.
One day she would launch her own magazine and it would put GQ and Cleo and Cosmo in their place, in the shadow of her own publication.
I would have come back and attended her graduation only it clashed with my own ,and I had to be there to give my own speech seeing I too, had topped the class, but at NYU.
Maybe that's one of the reasons Victoria and I had never meshed as well as Bella and I did, Vic was a mediocre student at best. She was at college to party and find a mate, so the unexpected pregnancy had thrown her off kilter.
It had taken a lot of persuasion on my part to even convince her to go ahead with having the baby. She preferred the quick and easy solution but the idea of living with a death on my conscience was more than I was willing to chance. Always knowing I was party to the murder of an innocent? Nuh, couldn't do it. I knew Tori's birth would end any hope of ever reconciling with the girl I loved, but I was sure by then it would never be an option available to me anyway. At least this way I got one of my dreams fulfilled. A baby of my own. Not with the woman I wanted to have a baby to, but I guess beggars can't be choosers.
So I used all my best methods to convince Victoria to continue the unexpected pregnancy and had her so confused the final date where termination was possible slid by and she was stuck, forced to have my baby. It didn't cement us together, God knows a shaky relationship only flounders under that additional strain but we were still coasting along.
Neither willing to make that clean break until I announced I wanted to return to Forks and Victoria laughed in my face and said neither of us were important enough to her for her to move to the end of the earth to stay with us. I guess I'm one of those guys who is easy to leave and forget.
Tori needed us both, that was what I believed. Victoria disagreed, and saw the birth as a temporary setback in her life, easily rectified. She would turn her back on us and move on. One of us had to step up and be Tori's primary caregiver and so, seeing it was me who pushed for the birth, it seemed fair I would be the one left holding the baby.
I regret a lot of things, like not ensuring my child was born into a solid relationship, a marriage even, but I don't regret not tying the knot with Vic. I don't think she is my One and I am not hers, so I guess the solution is to cut our losses and move on.
But is that just my own selfishness talking?
I know I should spring out of bed and join the line up at the Childcare Center but as my father is it's patron, I guess I believe we should automatically qualify for a place there. It would be unthinkable that Jessica Stanley would turn Tori away, not if she wants funding to continue.
My door handle rattles and the sweetest face, topped by a tangle of red curls, peers in.
"Daddy, Nanna Esme says get your lazy butter up."
"Oh, my lazy butter should be up, should it, Princess?" I laugh. I must warn Mom that my child has never even heard the word 'butt' before. Vic and I are very cautious around her delicate ears, thus her conclusion Esme was using the word incorrectly and changing it to the closest word she knew. She's incredibly intelligent.
"Edward, I warned you, there will be a lot of anxious parents in line already. Some of them would sleep out to get to the start of the queue, if they wouldn't have frozen to death. Your father wants you treated like everyone else and no special privileges so if you want a place for Tori, you had better leave now."
She shoved the documentation needed into my hand and I ran to the car and strapped my daughter in.
Mom was already late for work and I had to at least attempt to show Tori was my priority and I wasn't back to unload her onto to Esme.
Mom was right, there was a line up reaching outside the gate and I caught sight of a jubilant Jasper and Alice. So, my nephew had secured a place, now it was up to me to ensure my daughter did too.
The line was breaking up as the announcement was made that they were down to the final spot.
A brunette with a small girl walked inside and I spoke up, reminding Jessica she might want to relax the enrolment method for the grandchild of her patron.
I stepped through the crowd, feeling every eye turned my way as I hurried Tori to the front.
The woman who had attempted to steal Tori's place turned and looked at me, with big brown eyes and I paused. My heart stuttered and stilled and I froze the smile that automatically began to form on my lips.
It was so good to see her again but as the reality hit, how she had let me go without so much as a murmur, or even a lousy single word answer to my calls and texts? It made me harden my heart again and go onto auto pilot. She hadn't wanted me to remain in her life, so I wanted her to know I had survived her rejection. I had moved on, hell, I had a child.
Then I realised there was only one reason she would be here.
She had a child too, and by it's size she had been conceived pretty damned fast after we ended. But then, it was possible hers was as unplanned as my own.
Her little girl stepped out from behind her and I looked from Bella's surprised but defiant face, to the girl's, and then to Tori's.
The two little girls could have been twins.