AN: No getting around it. I suck. Here's a really long chapter to make up for it.
The check had arrived. Eight days late, but at least it had arrived. I felt my shoulders relax as I brought in the mail, tapping that particular envelope on my chin. Ava stood in the playpen, her arms held out to me as she bellowed for me to pick her up. I pulled her up onto my hip and then propped her on my thigh, my foot on one of the kitchen chairs as I ripped open the envelope.
One hundred dollars. One hundred measly dollars for two months of diapers, of food, of toys, of check ups and clothes and shoes because somehow Ava only ended the day with one shoe. She'd left a trail of shoes all over the greater Seattle area and my desire for my daughter to wear matching shoes was waning.
Especially if her dad was only going to send me one hundred frigging dollars.
Slamming the check down, I yanked the phone from its cradle on the wall and dialed.
"Uh-oh," Ava observed, reaching up to tap me on the cheek. "Uh-oh, uh-oh."
"Uh-oh indeed," I agreed. The call rolled to voicemail on the second ring; Matt was too big of an idiot to even try to make it look he hadn't just rejected my call.
"Yo, you got the one and only Matt! I'm too busy doing something important right now, so leave a message and I will hit you back if your reasons are compelling. Yo . . . go!"
"Matthew Francis, pick up your damn phone," I growled. "You know exactly why I'm calling. One hundred dollars! What are you thinking? How am I supposed to raise a child on . . . what, like ten dollars a week? Are you kidding me? That was supposed to be a three-hundred dollar check! You promised us that much. What, did you buy some new basketball shoes? Your daughter needs the money, Matt. You have a child. It's time for you to stop being such a child yourself and contribute something to her upbringing."
I slammed the phone down and sighed. Ava sighed. I sighed because she was sighing.
Only minutes later, the phone rang.
Before I could even start yelling, Matt assured me, "I have the rest of the money in cash in my hand right now. I swear, Bella. I'm going down to the bank right now and I'll have the check in the mail by this evening. I just didn't have it at the time but I wanted to send you something. And I have the money from donating plasma this week I'll add in just for . . . for a late fee. Buy Ava a new toy or something. Okay?" I banged my head gently against the wall while Ava did her jazz hands. "I promise I'll make this right." Without a word, I hung up the phone.
The greatest thing about Matt was that he always came through at the last minute. The worst thing about Matt was that he never came through until the last minute.
"I love you, you love me," Ava sang, making her hands 'talk' to each other. Then she kissed my cheeks with her hands, a stupid little game I'd come up with when she was a baby and I was trying to get her stop crying.
"I love you I love you I love you," I returned, suddenly kissing her all over her face. She squealed and squirmed.
Why couldn't everything just . . . work?
I arrived at the diner two minutes before my lunch shift, which was good as far as my timing went. Once upon a time I'd been compulsively early, but now a mixture of wanting to spend every minute I could with Ava and having to work with other people's schedules meant I had to be content with being on time, if I was lucky. Charlie had taken his sweet time getting home from work, so I barely had time to grab my apron from the dryer and run back for my no-slip shoes that smelled like coffee and fries from the back porch before diving into my car.
Fortunately - or unfortunately depending on how you looked at it - the diner was mostly empty. All four people of the breakfast "rush" had cleared out and two of the openers had been sent home, leaving only one poor waitress to handle rolling silverware and restocking sugar caddies all by herself. She glanced up as I entered with all the warmth I expected, her eyes darting next to the clock over the door. But I wasn't late, so there was nothing she could say.
Most of my co-workers hated working with me. I knew that. I was so desperate for money that I sharked more tables than I could handle, wound up in the weeds, and then have to run around, red-faced and frantic, until someone did some favors and refilled drinks or delivered food for me. This wasn't usually much of a problem for the lunch shift, which only ever got hectic on the weekends, but I made up for the lull by dropping stuff and ringing things up wrong. I was a mess of a waitress but no one had the heart to fire me because I was Chief Swan's daughter and because I tried so damn hard. I really did.
Because Jessica had been there longer, she got the privilege of "catching me up," or telling me what to do. Of course she set me to the menial tasks, filling salt and pepper shakers and rolling even more silverware. This left her to seat the first table in her own section, even though she already had a table and she still lived with her parents so it's not like she needed the money so badly anyway. Sure, she was saving up before her first semester at USC the next semester, but I had a baby to feed!
When I heard the door open again, I was just about to launch myself through the window to stab Jessica and steal all the tables when she called into the back, "Bella, you have a request." I could hear the annoyance in her voice, because who in their right mind would request me, other than my dad? But Jessica was only ever sunshine around my dad.
I retied the apron around my waist and peeked out through the window in the kitchen door, curious to see who would request me, and immediately recognized the spiky black head. Instantly my thoughts turned to Jacob and Sue's warning.
But at the same time . . . I mean, Alice was a bit strange, but she was nice. Nicer to me than anyone else my age had been since I'd moved here. And anyway, she was a customer now, which meant I had a basic service to provide. I had every reason to be polite. Being nice back to her didn't mean I was inviting her into my home to bathe in the blood of my child or anything.
Pad in hand, I approached the table where Alice sat alone, already spreading her books out.
"Hey . . . Hi, Alice."
"Bella!" she beamed at me.
There was an awkward pause before I remembered what I was supposed to do and asked, "So, can I get you something to drink? Are you ready to order of do you need a few minutes?"
"Well for right now can I just get a water and a coke? Edward should be here soon. I brought our group project to work on with you."
I was writing down 'coke,' so it took me a second to understand what she'd said, and ask, "What group project?"
"The one Dungee assigned after we'd left."
I gasped, "So he knew-"
"No way. I signed the three of us up as a group as I was leaving. He just thinks we were eager to all work together."
"But how did you even know he was going to assign a project?" With a sigh, I guessed, "Did I doze off in class and miss something? I try so hard to stay awake but sometimes I just haven't slept much and-"
"Don't worry about it, Bella. Edward and I have it all together. Edward offered for he and I to do the project all on our own."
"No, I couldn't let you guys do that. I want to earn my grades-"
"I thought you'd say that," she smiled. "That's why I thought we'd get our work done here, so you can help as you walk by and not take time away from Peanut."
I was shocked at the generosity. Obviously it wasn't totally ideal since I'd like to be a better group partner than this shift would allow if things picked up. But I could really use the leg up that this could give my grade. Wasn't I entitled to catch a break every once in a while?
"Besides, Edward loves doing the leg work. Don't you, Edward?"
I hadn't notice him sneak in behind me. He slid past me into the booth, somehow managing to not bump me at all even though I was right there.
"As long as we're not having study parties at each other's houses," he grumbled. Always grumbly. I wondered if he ever smiled about anything; he always seemed so serious.
"Okay, well, do you guys want anything to eat or drink-"
"Coke, water," Edward nodded, not even bothering to look at me. He'd already buried his nose in one of the books Alice had spread out; I turned my head to try and get a look at it, which clearly bothered him.
"What's the project on?"
"We have to make a large map of what Europe looked like in our time period and make a timeline for each territory. Our timeperiod is the 1400s."
"Sounds . . ."
"Don't worry about it," Alice assured me, patting my hand. "History is sort of our thing."
The shift continued to be so slow that Jessica ran out of inane jobs for me to do. For over an hour, we didn't have a single table other than Alice and Edward and even Jessica grew bored and took to playing some game on her phone. I sat in the booth with Alice and Edward, copying dates. I had decent handwriting, whereas Edward's was remarkably scratchy and Alice's almost as swirly as a junior high girl's. Edward was an excellent artist, though, and seemed a little less grumpy when Alice ordered him to draw the map.
Eventually two tables came in at the same time and I used the minute it took Jessica to put her phone away to nab one of the groups, a party of two elderly women. Elderly women always knew my dad and always thought it was adorable how much I looked like him and always left me mediocre but acceptable tips. I regretted I'd be able to help less on the project, but somehow Edward and Alice seemed to work faster when I wasn't around. By the end of my shift at five, they hadn't moved from the table once, had barely touched their drinks, but the project was almost done.
"You can color the map," Edward said as I brought them their check. I felt bad charging them for the two cokes but Jessica would make sure they were accounted for and if I paid for them out of pocket, I'd negate my paltry earnings for the day. They didn't seem bothered by it, though, and Edward tossed a credit card onto the table as he pointed to the maps. Alice picked the card up and handed it to me, giving him a look.
Even as I ran the credit card, Jessica pressed, "You're charging them for the sodas, right? No freebies for friends here-"
"Obvs!" I assured her with the most sarcastic smile and imitation of her I could manage.
Back at the booth, I set the card and receipts down with a pen. They'd cleaned their work stuff and piled the straw wrappers together so that the table was basically already clean.
"Okay, well, if you don't mind coloring the maps, Bella, we'll tidy up the time lines and that'll be the end of it!"
"Great," Edward mumbled, rising from the table and heading out without waiting for his foster sister.
"You guys really don't waste time, huh?" I asked Alice when she just watched him go and rolled her eyes. What had sounded like a huge project to me had been accomplished in one shift other than a bit of coloring I could easily do while I made dinner. I'd really lucked out and didn't quite know how to thank Alice. So I said simply, "Anyway, thanks."
"You don't have to thank me, Bella," she assured me. "It was just a school project. I'll see you at class!"
I watched out the window as she got into the passenger's seat of Edward's car. He sat behind the wheel waiting for her, looking every bit the petulant child, and took off before she'd even buckled her seatbelt. I didn't know what his problem was but clearly his foster parents had decided to take in one of those really troubled kids. Rather than offending or even annoying me, it just made me sad for him. I was sure he had his reasons for being the way he was. After all, good things never landed kids in the foster care system.
I pulled the signed receipt up and took it to enter into the computer. Not until I was typing them in did I look at the numbers. A $40 tip onto top of $5 worth of sodas. Atonement for sins? Was I just so pathetic that even a trouble teen took pity on me? Or was Edward just trying to be nice? Was there a genuinely nice guy somewhere underneath all the surliness?
Or maybe I was overthinking it all and Alice had made him leave the tip. I refused to feel pathetic about it and silently gloated that I'd made more than Jessica, even though her shift had been longer.
It felt like I'd just gone grocery shopping, but when I got home from my comparative literature class Thursday evening, I discovered we were out of milk, eggs, apples, bananas, bagels, bread, peanut butter, toilet paper, sponges and Goldfish -that is, every essential grocery item other than diapers. Dad had earned the evening free of childcare duties by watching Ava while I was in class and, anyway, it was good to get Ava out of the house, even for something as trivial as a trip to the grocery store, so off we went.
The store was relatively quiet. I'd once made the mistake of shopping on a Saturday when 75 % of the residents of Forks purchased their food. I would definitely never make that mistake again. But a Thursday evening trip meant we had plenty of time to idle along and more than enough space to push the cart without bumping into anyone.
The frozen foods section was where I first got the feeling that we were being followed. As I'm sure is obvious by this point, though, I'm occasionally inexplicably paranoid and have somewhat learned to squelch the unsettled feeling in my stomach and smooth down the hairs rising on the back of my neck. I subtly glanced around as I picked Ava's stuffed giraffe from the floor - Bebe ranked before both myself and Charlie on the totem pole of irreplaceable things in the house. The only other person on the aisle with us was a middle-aged brunette woman who was clearly more interested in the nutritional information on a box of Toaster Strudels than in me.
We moved onto the junk food aisle where I tossed in two of those big gallon cartons of Goldfish. While they were supposed to be exclusively an Ava snack, I had made many a meal of handfuls of them and I had a sneaking suspicion Charlie was doing the same.
I spun suddenly in the hopes of surprising whoever was following us, but there was no one there and I just looked like an idiot.
"I'm losing my mind," I whispered to Ava. "Don't you think?"
"I say . . . no!" she answered. Jacob had taught her this phrase, along with holding up one finger in the air as she said it.
"Yes, I'm losing my mind?"
"Oh, so I've just already lost it."
"Yes!" I yanked her shirt up to blow on her stomach, which made her squeal with laughter a bit too loudly. My fault. I shrugged somewhat apologetically at the older man who looked over at us from choosing his off-brand salsa.
We moved to the next aisle to grab sponges, which I let Ava hold because she enjoyed just mindlessly squeezing them and listening to the wrapper crinkle. As we rounded the corner to the next aisle, I thought I heard footsteps behind us, footsteps that stopped when we did. But we were in a grocery store, so of course I heard footsteps. I tried to remind myself that I was a calm, rational person who shouldn't get freaked out just because there were other people walking around the grocery store, some of which might even be staring at me trying to decide if Ava was my sister or my daughter.
I grabbed the biggest jar of peanut butter (36 whole ounces!) and an equally large jar of grape jelly, even though we weren't quite out yet because it's just one of those things you should make sure you never run out of when you've got a toddler. As I set them in the cart, Ava giggled and waved. I waved back at her until I realized she wasn't waving at me, she was waving at someone behind me.
I spun around and there was no one there.
Then a voice beside the cart greeted, "Hi."
I spun again, getting somewhat dizzy by this point and nearly cracking my wrist on the handle of the cart. It was the blond girl, Alice and Edward's sister . . . I couldn't remember her name.
She looked uncertain of herself and didn't exude the confidence and anger she had the only time I'd seen her before. Her eyes kept flitting between Ava and myself, like she was waiting for one of us to say something.
So I replied, "Hi." A lengthy pause during which she just continued to stand there awkwardly gave me the confidence eventually to ask, 'Were you following me around the store?"
"I didn't mean to frighten you, I only wanted to say hello," she answered in one rushed breath. It sounded like she was reciting lines off of a teleprompter and I got that urge again to shield Ava from her. She stared almost blankly at me for another second, then gaped instead at Ava. Her expression softened. "Her name is Ava?" I nodded. "She's . . . beautiful."
"Thanks." Another uncomfortable silence.
"I'm sorry. I'm being creepy," she suddenly apologized, seeming almost panicked at the realization. She still spoke with uncertainty, though, like she was just waiting for me to push her away or start yelling. Each phrase came out sounding like a question, like she was constantly checking whether it was okay for her to be talking to me. "I'm Rosalie. You have class with my brother and sister, and we met-"
"Right, I remember. Thanks for your help."
"Of course." Desperate. That's what she seemed like, I realized, like she was desperate for my permission to be here, desperate to please me but also desperate just to watch Ava. Weird was an understatement.
Cautiously, I asked, "Are you okay?"
"I can't have children," she blurted out. I was stunned into a deeper silence. Her face clearly showed distress and I worried she was going to start crying. My instinct when anyone cried was to run away. I also was at a loss as to what an appropriate response was because here I was with my unintentional child and there she was with no child when she clearly desperately wanted one.
"I'm sorry," I offered.
"We move a lot, so we don't really get to form friendships and especially not with anyone with children and there aren't any babies in the family so . . . I've never stood so close to a baby before." She wanted to pick Ava up. I knew she did. I could see the pleading in her eyes but I just couldn't do it. I couldn't let this crazed girl hold Ava because I was secretly terrified she was going to try and kidnap her. She didn't ask to pick her up, though, and I certainly didn't offer.
"I'm sorry. I know I sound crazy." She tried to laugh and so did I to make her feel better. Gone were the long pauses; now she talked quickly and animatedly, determined to convince me of the awesomeness of her sudden idea. "Maybe . . . maybe we could be friends and then sometimes I could babysit for you. You wouldn't even have to pay me. You don't have to answer - I know you would need to get to know me more first, especially after I just told you I have no experience whatsoever. I've read a lot of books, but I know that's not the same."
"I wish I'd read some books," I admitted, not sure what else to say. This made her face light up - perhaps she thought I was honestly considering it? Or maybe she just appreciated that I wasn't running away screaming, clutching my child to my chest.
She continued, still hesitantly, almost submissively, "If you feel like it, I'm having a tea party this weekend. Dress up a little, eat dainty foods, play some lawn games. I know it sounds silly but-"
"No, it sounds nice." Shit, what was I saying? I just felt so bad for her. No one that beautiful should feel so awkward.
"I'd love it if you and Ava came. You can bring your dad too, if you want. I don't know which of the boys will stay - sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get them to dress up."
I nodded and commiserated, "Yeah, good luck getting my dad to wear anything but plaid." Had I just inadvertently agreed to go? She seemed to think so judging by her suddenly radiant smile.
"It's on Sunday. I'll send you an invitation." An invitation meant I could still bail! I nodded that this was fine, because there wasn't any harm in receiving an invitation. My faux-acceptance gave her new confidence and she beamed at me as she explained, "I'd better get shopping. There's a lot to do before the party. See you Sunday, Bella. Ava." Her gaze lingered on Ava long enough to almost be overwhelmingly creepy again, then she smiled at me and disappeared.
I didn't get the sense of being followed the rest of the shopping trip which meant I was completely right that Rosalie had stalked us around the grocery store before finally approaching. My extreme discomfort about being stalked, even if the excuse was just social awkwardness or an inherent weirdness, made my decision, if nothing else did: I was definitely not going to Rosalie's tea party.