SereneIn NC is the world's best beta, in my humble opinion. Writers should all be so lucky to have someone like her in their corner.
I temporarily live in the space of one hundred and twenty seconds.
I try to keep the excitement off of my face and hold it all inside. I stand still, poised, muscles straining just slightly. I feel totally alive.
I silently thank my mother for starting me in ballet when I was six. As a result, I can hold my arms steadily in place and I can move with a grace that only surfaces when I'm on a stage, in front of a crowd.
In my mind I see a flash of her with this big, bright smile on her face. I know it's an old memory from way back in the day because it's diffused with this bright haze like she's a sun catcher, and also, there's no pain in her eyes. The image is gone in a second and I don't really like the memories that pop up in its place: mom skinny and sick, struggling to walk.
I was seven when my dad quietly explained it was my mom's time to go, but sometimes I wonder what it would be like if she'd had a different time - if she were still here. I wonder if dad would have held on so tightly to everything. I wonder if he'd look sad when I caught him alone in the mornings. I wonder if Emmett would be here in New Jersey, and if so, if I'd be here with him at this moment in time.
I wonder what I'd be like – if she were here. I wonder if she'd like me.
I wonder what mom would think of her daughter standing naked in front of thirty strangers. I wonder what she'd think about her daughter enjoying it. I wonder if I still would. I wonder if I'd tell her.
I don't remember my mom so much, but I miss her anyway. I wonder how that works. And now, so far from home, I kind of miss her more. It's like I couldn't bring her with me, and now I'm really on my own… with Emmett – a brother and a stranger wrapped in one.
Someone coughs and I flinch, almost like the sound had reached out and poked me right in my middle. My hip shifts a little to the left and my right foot slips forward. This isn't good. I have to concentrate. I can't spook with every sound like a skittish horse. If I can't stand in one spot for a couple minutes, there's no way I'll be able to hold a pose for twenty. I want to hold a pose for twenty. I want this so badly. This is just… perfection.
There's another cough – deep and warm, and an electric current surges over the surface of my skin. I manage to hold it together, but just barely. He's coughing. Edward's coughing! It's ridiculous that the man's cough should make my body want to jump and wriggle, but it does. I try to make sense of it, but I'm a little at a loss. The best I can figure out is that it's not the cough itself, but the guy that comes with the cough.
He's the owner of that voice: the voice that very calmly and very deeply speaks about parts of my body I didn't even know existed; and he's the owner of those hands.
Edward: hand man… and voice man, and eye man, and jaw man, and chest man. What a man. Oh, no! Now I'm singing Salt 'n Peppa in my head and getting the chills at the same time as I try not to move a muscle. I'm all over the place. I have to pull it together.
I try to focus. I focus on things I know for sure, things that never make me shiver; things like Arizona facts.
State flower: saguaro cactus blossom.
State fossil: petrified wood.
State tree: Palo verde.
State neckwear: bola tie.
Goddamn it! He coughed again. That man can cough to a tune that makes my hip bones hum and Arizona completely fade from my mind.
Thankfully, the soft sounds of a marimba chime from my phone. One hundred and twenty seconds are over. I take a deep breath and move to a new, easier pose. The room is warm, but even so I feel the air stir over my nipples and between my legs as my body shifts. I hold in a sigh and steel myself. I know what I'm about to do is wrong – it goes against everything I've read about nude modeling on , but I can't help it. I search him out as my body sings. I'm shameless.
I guess that's a given, though. I am standing stark naked in front of a bunch of strangers.
My shameless eyes dart. My shameless nipples ache.
He's watching me. I mean, of course he's watching me. He's drawing me. But I get the feeling that he's seen right through to what's going on inside my head, and I'm not talking Arizona state facts. He makes me think that those thoughts about my family weren't hidden as carefully behind my eyes as I thought they were.
In a flash it all hits me again: loss and loneliness, and the pain of memories that only fade, but never grow brighter. My eyes burn with sadness. Pinpricks sting my irises.
Another blink and it's over. The man ducks his head behind his easel and drawing pad. All I'm left with is the top of his messy head of hair, a deflated chest… and those empty windows above his head that I'm supposed to be focusing on.
And his cough. He covers his mouth with his large, fine hand as another rumbling bark rips free from his chest. I have cough drops in my purse. He could use a cough drop. What a worthless thought. I can't call a time out for cough drops. What if I could, though?
"Time out!" I'd call, and hop down from the dais.
I'd rush into the dressing room and the class would murmur, confused. I wouldn't fumble or trip as I made a dash for my purse, like I might in real life.
On the way back to the class, though, I'd saunter a little instead of running. At least, I think that's what I'd be doing. I'll have to look up saunter just to be sure.
"I have something you need." My voice sounds deeper and raspier in my daydream.
I place the cough drop in his large, neat hands. They're smooth and strong. His fingers gently clasp mine.
"Thank you," he murmurs with that voice that could incapacitate the masses – or just incapacitate me. He gives me another one of those x-ray looks, seeing inside my head, into my soul.
"How do you see what I'm hiding?" I ask. "And you should see someone about that cough."
His eyes… they're kind. He's grateful. He's not at all like… other people might be if a naked girl was standing in front of them with a cough drop. He's cool and warm all at the same time, like sunshine in the desert on a winter morning, and –
"Bella?" the professor prompts.
I startle. I glance in her direction.
"Next pose, dear," she smiles.
I've missed the cue from my phone. He glances up from his pad and, (who am I kidding?) I almost don't care that I've messed up… because he sees me. Like, he sees all of me, through and through – cough drop fantasy and all. I blush and move to a new pose.
The rest of the session passes in a swirl of vibration and palpitations. I feel every inch of my body coming into contact with nothing but air and yellow-green eyesight. Every less than an inch of my body. Every mini-inch. Every… centimeter? Not sure. Don't care.
I catch his eyes sometimes when I'm changing poses. He ducks, but the movements of his hands are so sure. I feel like I could watch him and his handstrokes all day. I like that idea: both of us standing across a studio from one another - each watching. The only problem is that I might faint.
Or maybe I could just watch his handstrokes. Is handstroke a word? Not sure. Don't care. Either way, I could gladly watch them forever.
It had to end. With a cheery marimba chime, a warm smile from the professor, and the flurry of students grabbing supplies and backpacks, my time is up.
My robe is on.
That blonde girl is hanging on him again. She's trying to get her hands on his work. I linger just long enough to catch a glimpse of… me sketched in graphite. I'm quite certain Edward wasn't studying my mid-section. I have to try really hard to keep my mouth shut.
Then he's gone without another well-informed word about intimate anatomy, without another cough, without a stray glance in my direction. Without one of my cough drops.
I'm left in a dressing room, staring at my journal, wondering how in the hell this fits into my story. Wondering if I can remember how to translate what he said before I ever saw him, wondering if I can put into words what he made me feel. All I know is that this isn't exactly part of the plan. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about myself. I thought I'd figured it all out. But I had no idea what a boy's voice and hands and his knowing glance could do to me.
And it's over.
I walk outside into cold sunshine, squinting through crowds of kids. It's hopeless that I'll catch sight of him in this crowd. And what if I did? I plunge my hand into my purse feeling for my cough drops.
"Cough drop?" I'd ask.
In daydream number two his hands are still smooth and hard, his smile is still grateful.
"I know you," he'd say. He could mean my body, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he'd mean so much more.
"You saw me earlier," I'd reply, shifting my hips and striking a pose.
"Of course. Anatomical drawing. I was appreciating the gentle rocking of your pelvic floor."
"I was appreciating your hands."
"I was appreciating your gluteus maximus."
The boy I walk straight into doesn't appreciate me at all.
He huffs and rolls his eyes and walks past quickly while his buddies laugh. I make a sincere effort to push past him and push Edward out of my mind so I can concentrate on what's in front of me long enough to at least get myself home. It's not easy. I'm all fluttery inside and my mind wants to fly back to the studio, not to mention that I'm not used to the flat, crowded landscape of Central Jersey at all. I still feel penned in by the crowd of trees, crowded campus quads, crowded sidewalks, and cars full of kids crowding every road.
It feels like there must be a million kids in this town, which is about nine hundred, ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and fifty more than I'm used to. If I don't concentrate I'll be lost down some nameless side street dreaming about anatomical modeling… and anatomical drawing… and that electric feeling that filled the studio less than an hour ago, while dry brown leaves, as crackly as snakeskin, fall from the squat little trees and accumulate over my quaking body.
Against all odds I make it back, though. Emmett's rented place is small and square and pale yellow. It's not much to look at, but I'm not one to judge a person by their home. I have other things to judge my brother by – like his absence for more than half of my life, but even that's not as straightforward as I once thought.
When I first found his home back in September, it sat on the high grassy yard in dappled shade. These days the trees are close to bare and the lawn is gray, the small, single pane windows are fogged over and the bricks look cold and half-frozen.
It's not exactly what I imagined when Emmett told me I should come. He kind of left some… stuff out.
With each mile Jake was more and more morose. I started skipping bathroom breaks somewhere around Chicago, and I offered to drive instead of pulling over for the night once we hit western Pennsylvania. The slow-motion separation anxiety that was filling the cab of his pickup was killing me. I knew my Dodge was in no condition to make the trip, but the puppy dog eyes and sigh filled silences made hitchhiking look like a cakewalk, (not that I have any real idea what a cakewalk is). We made it from Pittsburg to Princeton in just under five hours. In case you're not sure, that's decent time.
Once we pulled up to Emmett's place, I practically jumped out of the truck, but Jake grabbed my wrist and held me back.
"You sure about this?" he asked.
"Um, we just drove like three thousand miles. I'm pretty damn sure, Jake."
"You don't have to go."
"You know I do."
He knew better than anyone.
"But, what about -"
"Jake, chill out, okay?" I huffed, shaking free of his hold. "You'll always be my friend. A few thousand miles won't change that. But I've got to do this."
"What about Arizona?" he asked. Suddenly Arizona was code for Jacob Black.
"Land of free refills?"
"The rest remains to be seen."
That made Jake happier, and it was probably a little unfair. I guess I left the impression that the door was open for him to try to fuck me like a stallion at some point in the future. It also helped me to get out of the car. Go ahead; judge me. I was about a hundred feet from my goal and a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.
I jumped from the truck and ran up the walk. It was the middle of the afternoon, but I noticed that the shades were drawn tight. Weird. Maybe Emmett was a vampire. Maybe that's why he never made it back to Arizona.
I knocked. I waited. Jake joined me on the tiny porch.
"Maybe he's not home?" Jake wondered out loud.
I pulled out my phone and dialed and it rang in stereo. Something crashed inside the house.
"He's here!" I squealed and knocked more frantically at the door. It had been way too long since I'd seen my big brother.
Something else fell inside, and someone swore, and, well, it totally wasn't Emmett – not unless he'd gone and gotten himself a sex change. Maybe that's why he never made it back to Arizona.
When he finally came to the door, though, Emmett wasn't a vampire or a girl – he was kind of the opposite of both. My older brother was a topless mass of glistening, suntanned muscle, wearing just a pair of boxer briefs and a big smile.
In just half a second I was caught in his vice-like, kind of slippery embrace. My brother smelled like vanilla and aftershave. He wore Calvins and had a hairless back. It was too much information too fast.
"Em?" I gasped.
"Jelly Belly!" he boomed, swinging me around like I was still two years old.
"Jelly Belly?" Jake chuckled while I spun.
"Goddamn, Jelly Belly, it's so fucking good to see you," Emmett gushed, holding me tight enough that I started to worry for my life. Just as I was about to start kicking out my legs, my feet were allowed back on solid ground, but my head kept spinning for a while longer.
Emmett held my face in his hands like he was trying to help me out with that.
"Good god, Jelly, you're all grown up. You're tall. And no belly."
He poked my middle to prove his point.
Jake eyed my midsection. "No, no belly at all," he agreed. I kicked his shin.
Em turned his attention to my friend and held out his hand, like greeting people in your underwear was the most normal thing in the world. "You must be Jelly Belly's boyfriend."
Jake looked pleased.
"Um," I hedged, raising my eyebrows.
"Just friends," Jake quickly amended.
"Whatever. It's cool, man. I mean, I would've had to beat you up for sleeping with my little sister all across the country, right?"
Emmett's offered hand suddenly turned into a raised a fist. Jake flinched.
"Emmett!" I yelled.
"Just kidding, Jelly. Get inside. You've gotta meet Rose."
"Rose?" I asked.
"Hey, Rosie!" Emmett called from the doorway as he ushered Jake and me inside.
Luckily for Rose, she'd found the shirt that Emmett forgot to put on. Unfortunately for Rose, all of her own clothing was tossed around the room, and she was working to untangle her panties from around her ankles. To Jake's credit, he looked at his feet.
"My sister's a little early, I guess," Emmett needlessly explained.
Rose concentrated on her underwear. I concentrated on the messy little apartment I was going to be sharing with my very large brother. And then I saw the lacy tablecloth… and the pink curtains… and the picture of Rose, (fully clothed) and at the center of a large family.
"She lives here?" I asked.
"Jelly, this is my girl, Rosie."
I wasn't sure where to look. I mean, with a quick glance I could tell that Rose had nipples the color of the cliffs out in the painted desert, and that she had long thin legs, and, well, that she was a natural blonde.
"Hey," I waved, kind of staring at her ear. I figured her ear was safe. Jake looked right out the window instead of chancing it at all.
Rose smiled stiffly, swept through the room to collect her clothing and then closed herself in the bathroom without a word.
"Rose?" I asked my brother.
"What? Did dad tell you I was a monk?" he asked, eyes twinkling. He grabbed a couple Gatorades from the fridge and tossed one to me, and another to Jake, but my friend didn't have the reflexes for that maneuver, and the plastic bottle bounced off Jake's elbow and landed at his feet.
"I'm not really a monk, Jelly," Emmett chuckled. "That was a joke."
"The name's Bella, Em," I corrected.
"Jella?" he asked with a wink.
"It's Bella, and you could have told me I'd be living with two people, you know."
Emmett sprawled out in a chair across the table from me and took a long swig from his blue sports drink. "JeBella?" he tried again.
"Good one," Jake laughed.
If looks could kill, I would have blasted my friend to bits.
"Listen, BeJelly, I wanted to get to know my little sis, and I had a sneaking suspicion you might think twice about coming if I sprung Rose on you."
"It's Bella, Em. Just Bella, okay?"
I'd had these ideas about Em and I taking care of one another: trading off on cooking, making cleaning charts, going food shopping together, watching Saturday morning cartoons and eating Cocoa Puffs like we used to. I hadn't expected… Rose.
"You look just like her, you know?" Emmett asked, leaning closer.
"What?" I asked.
One look at his dusky green eyes, though and I knew Emmett wasn't talking about Rose. He was searching out little pieces of mom in my face.
I looked at my lap.
"It's been so long, Little Sis. I'm really glad you're here."
Here. Here's a small, square rented house. Here's got an eat-in kitchen, one bedroom and one bath. Here's where I sit: my little corner of the living room. The couch is halfway comfy and I've hung a few of my landscapes on the wall. I've got some space in the closet, a shelf in the medicine cabinet and pretty much the whole bookshelf.
Rose fights the tide and keeps the place pretty tidy. She's constantly picking Em's dirty socks off the floor and corralling his track shoes into a spot in the corner of the kitchen. I try to help, but I don't know if she really likes me touching their stuff. I don't know if she likes me much at all, but I guess I can't blame her. I get the feeling Em didn't really say too much about me coming to stay here.
Don't judge Em too harshly, okay? I haven't really got him figured out yet, but there's something underneath all the muscle and tanned skin, and I'm not just talking bone. There's something dark that goes deeper. Rose deals with me because of it. Em stays away from dad because of it. And sometimes when we sit down to watch Saturday morning cartoons on Hulu with Cocoa Pebbles (I totally got to live out that fantasy because Rose works every Saturday morning), he gets quiet and his eyes look sad and I think he's going to talk about the shadows he keeps hidden. Those are the times I'm the most tempted to talk about my own, too. It only lasts for an instant, though. Instead, he'll end up calling me JebaBelly and telling me to wash his Jeep and earn my keep.
I rest my journal on my lap.
I might have gone back if it wasn't for Angela and art class and that flyer I saw hanging on the wall in the hallway.
I might have missed… today.
There's only one full-length mirror in the house, and it's in the room Emmett and Rose share. I dash into the bedroom, as my breaths come quicker and my heart begins to pound.
I untie my wrap dress and let it fall to the ground
I watch goose bumps rise on my flesh. I tingle all over.
He was there.
I stop trying to figure out why it matters and I just let the feeling wash over me.
I watch myself unhooking my bra. I watch my nipples rise.
My own hands move. Thumbs graze nipples. Fingertips trace my… rectus and down, down to what he was drawing.
His bright sunshine eyes. His deep voice. His hands.
My hand. My chest rises and falls. He saw me at one of the best moments of my –
"Oh, for the love of god, Isabella!"
A/N/Disclaimer: I've never been a nude model. I've never taken classes in Princeton's Fine Arts Program. I've never eaten Cocoa Pebbles.
Thank you for all of the love & support you've given my first chapter. Very much appreciated.
I'm still trying to figure out how to write and keep up with new job, but my regular readers know that I'm not the kind of lady to leave you all in the lurch. Hang in there & I'll find a way to make it work.