A/N: My thanks to katmom, who was kind enough to beta this story for me, and made it a wonderful experience.
Some Say in Ice
by Lissa Bryan
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
- "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost
He'd stayed up all night again, guarding the wood pile.
Bella sighed as she sat up in bed and pulled her sweater on over her head. Her feet felt like blocks of ice despite the thick socks she wore. They were always cold unless he was in bed with her to keep them warm, tucked against his calves. She stuffed them in her fur-lined boots (Edward had traded half a cord of wood for them, despite her protests) and pulled on her gloves and knit cap.
She went to find Edward and opened the front door an inch or so. She knew better than to open it wider. As she'd known he would be, Edward was seated on the porch swing, wrapped in layers of blankets. Only his eyes were visible, but even through all the layers, she could see how he shook from the cold. The shotgun rested against his thigh.
"Come in and have something warm to drink," she coaxed. "It's light out now, and we can watch the pile from the window."
He hesitated, but he finally rose to his feet. She stepped back so that he could perform the quicksilver dash of opening the cabin door for as little time as possible in order to enter. He caught the edge of the blanket in between the door and frame and he cursed. He turned the knob and pulled the blanket inside like magicians used to pull tablecloths from under a place setting.
She helped him unravel himself from the blankets and laid them over the back of the bench. The scarf around his lower face crackled with ice when he pulled it off, his breath frozen in its fibers as soon as it left his lips. "I can get the rest," he said. "You keep watch."
She didn't argue. She knew it was pointless. He leaned the shotgun against the wall by the door and continued to peel off his layers, his movements stiff and clumsy from the cold.
The window had been covered with a sheet of plywood Edward scavenged from a half-built house that would never be finished. They'd filled the space between the window and the board with the stuffing from her father's favorite recliner, which was the only insulating material that they could find by the time they realized what a liability the window was. Still, approaching it reminded Bella of those coolers they used to have in grocery stores. Opening the glass door would cause a stream of cool air to spill out, like stepping into a waterfall. On hot summer days, she'd relished that sensation, as hard as it was to believe now. But then again, hot summer days seemed like a myth told of an enchanted kingdom, a fantastic realm of tank tops and blazing sunlight.
A small slit, smaller than the one which used to be on their old house's front door for mail delivery, was cut jaggedly through the wood. Through it Bella could see the woodpile which was covered with snow, beneath its protective tarps, an almost imperceptible bump easily overlooked in the pallid light. But that wouldn't hide it from the freezing townsfolk, the people who used to be her friends in that magical time of long, long ago but were now her mortal enemies, competing against her for survival. A week ago, a woman who had been the mother of one her friends in high school had tackled Bella in the grocery store parking lot and tried to tear the precious pair of poly-filled ski pants off Bella's body. The pants were badly ripped in the scuffle, and Bella had been reminded of that old Twilight Zone episode in which the neighbors bashed down the door of a man's fallout shelter to escape the bombs they thought were falling, ironically rendering it useless. She'd wept while she mended the pants, wept for the breakdown of the social bonds of civilization, and wept, too, for the can of beans that had rolled away when she fell, snatched up gleefully by a bystanding neighbor who ran like hell with her prize clutched between her mittened hands.
Outside the cabin the wind howled and drove bits of ice and snow to tap endlessly against the corrugated metal siding, a sound like dropping grains of rice into a pot, one of the new background noises of life. When they'd first come here, she'd thought that constant tapping would drive her mad. She remembered when she was a little girl and her father, Charlie, would bring her here on weekend fishing trips, and the sound of the rain pattering on the metal roof had been soft and comforting. It had reminded her that she was warm and safe from life's storms. Now, there was no more warmth nor safety for anyone.
Once he saw the way things were going, Edward had quietly retrofitted Charlie's fishing cabin. He had smashed through the drywall and pulled the pink insulation out of the walls of their house in town, which he had brought down to the cabin and stuffed behind the wood paneling, bit by bit. Bella had known he was right. There was no way they could heat their house once the electricity grid failed (and that happened long before it was predicted to, leaving many people freezing in modern houses which didn't even boast a fireplace.) The cabin had a cast iron stove in the main room and a tiny bathroom off to the side. It would be much easier to heat. Still, Bella had cried as she helped him break down the walls of their beautiful little house.
He'd cut down every tree on the property using Charlie's chainsaw. He wouldn't let Bella help with that, and she supposed that he was right about that, too: as accident-prone as she was, she'd be likely to stumble right into the path of a falling tree. Instead, she'd broken walls and made piles of insulation while he worked on the riverfront lot, and always worried about him until the moment she heard his key turn in the door. He'd chopped the wood through that last autumn, the last autumn that earth would have, at least for a very long time. She'd put ointment on his cracked and bleeding hands every night. He'd dragged Charlie's prized fishing boat outside (and Bella had been a little glad her dad hadn't lived to see his "baby girl" being treated so cavalierly) and filled the garage to the rafters with wood, and then made long piles in front of the cabin. There used to be four. Now there was only one. Half of one, actually.
He'd been so enraged the first time they'd woken to find their neighbors stealing wood that Bella had to restrain him from going after them with his shotgun and pistol. People crawling over the piles, stuffing split logs under their arms. They scattered like roaches when Edward opened the door and shouted. By that time, the garage had already been emptied of wood and those piles were all that they had left. Edward had re-stacked it afterward and come back into the cabin, where he sat down heavily at the table and buried his hands in his hair. "They stole a month from us," he said. "A month." As he spoke, Bella had looked out the window to see them creeping back. This time, Edward took out the shotgun and fired a round into the air. The thieves became much more cautious after that, but as time went on, they also became more deadly determined. Sweet old Mrs. Cope, the school secretary, had once clubbed Bella over the head with a chunk of firewood, then filled her arms and ran, leaving Bella dazed and bleeding in the snow.
They planned to move the wood pile into the garage but before they could, it was burned down. The culprit was likely someone resentful to find it empty after they'd made the effort to break into it. It was hard not to let the rage make you bitter, Bella reflected as she stared at the diminishing pile. But, as she'd told Edward, "You would do the same to keep me safe." And possibly worse.
He'd always been her protector, starting their first day in kindergarten when Mike Newton had pushed her down because she wouldn't give him a cookie from her lunch box. Edward helped a sobbing Bella to her feet and escorted her to the school nurse to get her scraped knee bandaged, and then went back out to the playground and punched Mike Newton in the stomach. After that, everyone was too intimidated by Edward, the biggest kid in class, to mess with Bella. By the second day of school, Bella had decided she was going to marry him someday. She'd never changed her mind.
After Charlie died suddenly of a heart attack when Bella was seventeen, she'd moved in with the Cullen family. She didn't want to live with her mother in Arizona, so far away from Edward, and Renee had never been much of a mother to her anyway. She'd sent three year old Bella to Charlie to raise after she'd remarried because she'd wanted to be able to travel with her new husband, a minor-league baseball player.
Edward's mother, Esme was the one Bella considered her real mother. She'd accepted Bella as her inevitable daughter-in-law very early and had taught Bella the things that Charlie either didn't know or omitted: how to cook and clean, how to apply makeup and choose clothing that was flattering, how to care for her maturing body, all of the things that Bella had missed out on by not having a mother around.
Carlisle, Edward's father, had a crafty lawyer who delayed the custody hearings long enough for Bella to reach legal age. She and Edward married on her eighteenth birthday. Renee hadn't attended and thereafter, their only contact was birthday and Christmas cards.
Bella and Edward's life together hadn't been easy, but it was happy. They'd gone off to college together (rather, Edward had gone to college. Bella just went along with him and worked two part-time jobs to help pay for what his scholarship didn't cover.) They returned to Forks after he graduated and he became the youngest English teacher the school had ever employed. It was a job he had loved with a passion, though his salary was paltry. Bella had worked part-time at the library to help make ends meet. They'd never be rich, but they were happy, which is a sort of wealth many people never attain. For years, they scrimped and saved to buy their little house. The realtor had called it, with a hint of condescension, a "Starter Home", but Edward and Bella intended to live in it for the rest of their lives.
Until the Strike.
The asteroid was supposed to miss them by a comfortable margin, but someone had forgotten to do the conversion between metric and English. By the time they caught their mistake, it was too late. It probably was always too late, according to the scientists. Hollywood's movies to the contrary, it would have been unlikely they could have deflected the asteroid with missiles even if they'd had the lead time and a way to launch them.
The Strike had impacted in Siberia and the photos of the crater the satellites had sent back, before the dust and smoke had permanently blocked their view, had been astonishing. There was a massive pit in the earth, with a starburst ring of debris around it, and a mushroom cloud of dust and debris tens of thousands of feet high. The news anchors had superimposed images of cities and states over the image to try to give people a sense of scale, but it was almost too much for the human mind to comprehend.
Reverend Weber had been convinced the asteroid was the harbinger of the end times foretold in Revelation. He and his congregation had waited outside in front of their church the day it struck, dressed in their Sunday best and clutching their Bibles, expecting to be Raptured and swept away to Heaven before the Strike. They were still waiting. In the face of their continued existence, Reverend Weber then decided he had misread the Scripture in regards to believers being Raptured before the Tribulations. Seven years, he now said. They had to endure for seven years, and then they would be taken on to their reward. Many would not make it through one.
The Strike had caused earthquakes all over the globe along fault lines as the plates shifted from the impact. Even places which normally saw little to no seismic activity were shaken. In Forks, they were fortunate. The quake had toppled a couple of brick or masonry buildings and cracked foundations, but they escaped the catastrophic devastation which hit places like California. She'd heard it was even worse for those who lived near the New Madrid fault line. At least buildings in California were built with quakes in mind.
Bella thought of the images the news had shown, of massive miles-long traffic jams as the quake survivors tried to flee the coastal cities before the tsunamis reached them. She wondered how many evacuees had made it out of places like New York and Los Angeles, and how many of them had still been sitting in their cars when the tsunamis struck. Even the roads around Forks had been blocked with endless lines of cars, many of them carrying refugees from the coast, trying to head inland. They were stopped in their tracks when an accident or breakdown somewhere up the line had caused the flow of traffic to halt, and the tow trucks never came to clear the road. The cars still sat where they had waited, now entombed up to their windows in snow, quietly rusting away, their trunk lids and doors left ajar after scavengers searched them for supplies.
Knowing that the roads were blocked and they couldn't get away, Edward and Bella had decided to stay in their little house to face their fate together. They had huddled together in a door frame during the quakes, as the news anchors had advised. Edward confessed later that he'd been sure that they would be suddenly crushed out of existence by the tsunami when it struck their house, but the tsunami had not reached that far inland, due to some geological quirk of the sea bed that blunted the waves' power.
A few hours later came what would be known as the Rain of Fire as many of the heavier bits of rock and soil ejected into the atmosphere by the Strike fell back to earth as blazing mini-asteroids. One of the sheriff's deputies had gone door to door, asking all of the men to come and help fight the fires.
"I'm going, too," Bella had tried to insist, but the deputy would not be budged from the rule, "No women."
In this temperate rainforest area, the fires were more easily contained. The men wore helmets and coats scavenged from the fire department (its building had been one of those collapsed by the quake) to try to protect themselves from the burning embers. Edward had returned, nearly seven days later, trembling with exhaustion but proud they had managed to save the town and much of the forest around it.
Other locales were not as fortunate. Even if the dust thrown up by the Strike had not blocked the sunlight, the smoke from the world-wide fires would have. All of those particles in the atmosphere rubbing together created horrific lightning storms, which set off even more fires.
After the earthquakes, tsunamis, lightning and fires, down came poisoned rain, from the gasses and minerals thrown up into the clouds by the Strike. People grimly joked that God was running out of disasters to unleash on them. They had forgotten famine.
Even if the plants hadn't been dying from lack of sunlight, the poison rain falling from the sky probably would have killed them off. The plants and trees died, and then herbivores who fed on them, then their predators. Birds no longer sang in the blackened and bare trees. The collapse of the food chain was swift and merciless.
Edward had tried to stock up on food for them, but even before the Strike, the grocery stores were bare. The government now issued rations, a bag of groceries for each person per week, if they could provide a driver's license to prove their citizenship. It wasn't nearly enough. People scavenged in the dead forests and barren fields, hunting for anything that they could eat. The problem of stray dogs and cats was solved forever.
The rain turned to dirty gray snow as the earth cooled, because of the particles in the atmosphere which reflected the sunlight away. They said the dust would settle in a few years, and then they could expect a period of intense warming from the imbalance of gasses in the atmosphere. Maybe plants would then grow again in areas undamaged by the acid rain, but for now, the earth was locked in an icy, perpetual twilight. The rainforest was gone now, the trees hacked down for firewood, even their stumps wrested from the earth to burn. Nothing remained but the few charred trees that had been burned to black cinders by the Rain of Fire.
Bella heard Reverend Weber's little church was packed every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, standing room only. Religion was the only comfort left for many. Bella wished she could share that faith. It would be nice to believe that there was a benevolent force that was looking out for her and Edward, who cared what happened to them. But there hadn't been any miracles for the millions who had died, and she didn't expect one for them.
She was glad now they'd never had a baby. Prior to the Strike, they'd tried for five years. Neither of them had a fertility problem the doctors could find, but it simply never happened. Now, she was grateful, for few children had survived. Children and the elderly were both especially vulnerable to the toxins in the air. Edward had experienced the double tragedy of watching his little brother Emmett, a toddler adopted by Carlisle and Esme two years before the Strike, wither away and then both of his parents shortly thereafter.
Bella shook herself out of her reverie and saw that Edward had finished unwrapping himself and now sat at the table, dressed like Bella in a coat, cap and gloves, still shaking from the cold. His burnt umber hair stuck out from beneath the cap, and as always, she had the urge to play with it, to tease him and tell him that he needed a haircut. But instead, she turned to the stove and picked up the heavy cast iron teapot and poured some hot water into a mug, along with a small scoop of powdered hot chocolate mix.
"Thank you," he said as steam curled in the chill air above his mug. He took a sip and sighed with pleasure.
Bella poured herself some of the hot water and pretended to scoop chocolate into it before she set the tea kettle back in its place. The kettle was an antique that had once belonged to Esme, as was most of their cookware, suited to use on this stove. The water level was low. She needed to go look for some clean ice, but she wanted to spend a little time with Edward first. He'd need to go to bed soon; she could go out once he was asleep.
"It's Ration Day," he reminded her.
Bella groaned. She'd forgotten. They had to go in separate trips, or they would come back to find the place stripped bare or another family in residence and ready to defend their claim with firearms. She'd heard this had happened to the Clearwater family. They hadn't been heard from since.
"Try using Alice's license again," he urged.
Alice had been the Cullens' only natural-born child, born three years before they adopted Edward. Right before she passed away, Esme had given Alice's license to Bella. No one knew what had happened to Alice, who had gone out into the woods one day to collect branches to burn in the fireplace and had never returned. An anguished Carlisle had searched for weeks and never found a trace of her. Alice and Bella looked enough alike that she could sometimes use the card since most of the guards barely glanced at the licenses before running them through the reader. But Bella shook her head. "They've had the same guards for two months now. They recognize me and will remember if I try to make two trips through the line."
Edward cursed softly. She knew he was always hungry, though he tried to get Bella to eat a larger share of their scant meals. She was hungry herself, though she used the tricks Esme had shown her to try to make the food stretch as far as possible and fool their stomachs into thinking they were full. Still, there was no way to turn barely enough groceries for one into enough nutrition for two.
"I'll go first," she offered. "That way, you can get all of your chores done early and when you come back, you can take a nice, long nap."
Edward nodded. He finished his watery chocolate and put the mug into the sink. He got the pistol from the shelf and checked the load while Bella went over to the pegs on the wall where her ski pants were hung. Long-johns under her jeans, ski pants over them. She wore a thermal shirt Edward had found at Newton's camping store after the place had been ransacked, and a sweater over it. She put on her outdoor coat over the one she wore indoors. It was a knee-length, down-filled parka with a fur-edged hood, which Edward had brought home for her one day after going out to pick up his rations. Because of the expression on his face, she'd never asked how he acquired it. Thick outdoor gloves with mittens on top. Her license was slid down inside her glove against the back of her hand where it could neither be lost nor stolen. Losing it would mean almost certain death.
Edward had rigged a compass in the case of an old wristwatch. Strapped to the wrist, it could never be dropped or lost, something Bella was in the habit of doing. The compass was difficult to read because the mineral deposits had done-something-or-other to the magnetic poles that she didn't fully understand, but Edward had taught her how to use it in case she was ever caught in a sudden snowstorm. He'd also made hash marks on the few charred trees left standing and as long as she followed the train of dead cars that marked the road, she wouldn't get lost.
Edward kissed her before he rolled down the rim of her cap, covering her face with the ski mask. "God, I hate sending you out there alone." She could see the anguish in his eyes. It was something they'd had to accept, a situation which could not be helped, but it tore at him every time she headed off to town. Every time, it became more dangerous as people grew more desperate. "I love you. Be careful." He slipped the pistol into her pocket and closed the zipper.
"I love you, too." She gave him a squeeze and he wrapped her neck and lower face with a thick scarf and then perched a pair of eyeglasses on her nose to protect her eyes from blowing ice particles. Another thing that had once been Esme's. She got a headache if she wore them too long, but sunglasses wouldn't work in this dimly-lit world.
She picked up her backpack, the one she'd once used in high school . It still had a faded Nirvana sticker on the front, a ghost from a time when there once was music. She slung it over her shoulder. Inside, she had the knitted and crocheted scarves, hats and gloves that she made in her spare time. (Bella silently blessed Esme for teaching her how to do both when she was young.) The stores were empty of blankets, coats and warm clothing, but the yarn in the craft store downtown was mostly untouched. Few young people knitted or crocheted these days and they were the only ones who were left. Bella could sometimes trade the things she made for food while she stood in line to get her rations.
Bella slipped out the front door, closing it behind her as quickly as possible. As always, the cold made her gasp. The icy wind cut through her coat and ski pants like they were made of gauze. She walked quickly down the path that Edward cleared of snow every day toward the road, and kept her face hidden as much as possible behind her scarf. Exposed skin froze quickly out here. She was shivering before she even reached the road, and from there, it was a exhausting slog through the deep slate-gray snow. The effort helped to keep her warm, but it also made her hungrier. Near town, she was able to walk in someone's footprints, which helped. She only hoped her own tracks wouldn't be filled with the blowing snow before she made the return trip.
Bella was glad to see that the line wasn't very long today. She didn't dwell on the significance of it, nor the fact that it got shorter every week. They were let inside the building one at a time to collect their paper bag of groceries. Those in line shouted what they had to trade at the people who walked out, their bag in hand. Usually, some lingered in this impromptu marketplace and called out the things they needed. Today, though, no one emerging from the building seemed willing to trade. They scurried along, their eyes firmly fixed to the ground in front of them.
"Gloves! Hats! Scarves! Shawls!" Bella called, pointing at the two examples she wore. Only one man stopped. He wanted a shawl for his wife. He offered her a packet of tuna for it and wouldn't budge when she tried to get more. She eventually acceded. She couldn't eat the shawl, after all, and it did her no good just lying around the cabin.
Finally, it was Bella's turn. A guard opened the door for her and she stepped inside the building, the empty, echoing grocery store. A man in an army uniform - one she'd never seen before - was seated at the desk and two camouflage-clad soldiers with machine guns stood on either side of him. They'd always reminded Bella of the Buckingham Palace guards, expressionless and stiff. A heater, wired to the truck that idled outside, emitted a small aura of warmth that she gladly stepped into, and a set of flood lamps threw off the brightest light she'd seen all week. She rolled up her ski mask, took out her license and handed it over. He looked critically at the picture and then at Bella before putting a bag on the desk beside him. She was glad she hadn't tried to use Alice's license. He swiped her license through his reader device and then shoved the bag toward her. She picked it up, surprised at how light it was. "This bag is missing something," she said.
"That's all there is," he snapped and slapped her license onto the table in front of him. She realized she was getting the residual irritation that spilled over from all of the other times he had this argument today, so she said nothing as she picked up her license and slid it back inside her glove. She turned to go and caught a bit of a surprised look on his face. He'd been expecting more of an argument.
"No rations next week," he added.
The words punched into her like a bullet. She blinked at him. "What? What are we supposed to do?"
He didn't look at her and instead fiddled with his license reader. "Wait until the week after next. Move on, lady. You're holding up the line."
Bella felt tears sting her eyes. "Please, my husband and I - "
"Move on!" He slapped his hand down on his desk and it made her jump. The tears spilled down her cheeks. His face softened a little. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do. Move along now."
She nodded and walked to the door, and stuffed the light bag into her backpack. She pulled her ski mask down over her damp cheeks, knowing the moisture would freeze on her cheeks within moments if she didn't. Like the others, she hurried past those waiting in line outside, ignoring the calls of goods for trade, and like the others, she didn't pass on the news that the rations were light and there would be none next week.
She slipped her mitten off and stuffed it up her sleeve, and her gloved hand clutched the gun in her pocket. The danger now came from the ones who'd already heard the news and might be lying in wait down the road to take what they needed from the next person who emerged.
For a moment, she considered doing it herself, using her gun to take away someone else's living to save Edward and herself. Why was she still playing by the rules of a society that was dead and gone? They had robbed her and Edward, stolen a precious month's worth of heat from them. Why should she feel guilty for doing the same?
She looked over her shoulder and saw Mrs. Weber emerge from the store. If it was survival of the fittest, Bella was much more worthy than Mrs. Weber: younger, stronger, better-armed ... Bella bit her lip and faced forward. She couldn't do it. Maybe that proved that she wasn't one of the fittest, because she wasn't able to do what it took to survive in this brutal new world.
She unconsciously straightened her shoulders and set her jaw in a look that Edward would have recognized, what he teasingly referred to as "Bull-headed Bella." Stubborn determination. They would survive this. She would figure out a way to make the food last. She had to.
Edward helped unwrap her when she came through the door, shaking from more than cold. He inserted another precious piece of wood into the stove, despite her objections and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "What is it?"
She handed him her bag. He hefted it in his hand and gave her a startled look. "Did someone steal from you, Bella?"
"That's all there was, the man at the desk said. And he said there won't be any rations next week."
He sat down heavily on the bench, his face as pale as milk. "You're sure that's what he said?"
She nodded. "I asked him when we'd get them again and he said the week after next."
Edward surged out of his seat and began to bundle himself in his own outdoor clothing. He gave Bella the paper bag from inside her backpack and pulled the bed away from the wall. He'd left one of the wood panels loose after insulating, and in the small cavity, he had stored their most valuable treasures. He took out a bottle of whiskey. "May I take one of your shawls, Bella?"
"Sure." She unfolded one and handed it to him. He carefully wrapped the bottle and put it into the backpack. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to find out what's going on." His voice was grim. They kissed at the door and he left. A bit of snow swirled in and fell on the floor. It was so cold in the house, even with the extra wood in the stove, it did not melt. Bella stood by the window and watched the wood pile, waiting for his return. Whenever he was gone, it took what little sunshine was left out of her world.
Neither of them had ever so much as gone out on a date with anyone else. Edward had endured the teasing of other little boys when having a girlfriend was still "gross" to them, but that teasing had turned into envy when they were teens, because they had the rarest of all blessings: true love. Theirs was a relationship built on mutual respect, friendship, passion and a commitment so deep and true that it was unspoken, a simple, immutable fact of life, like breathing air.
She plucked a can of beef stew from the shelf and put it on top of the stove so it would start melting. There was a tiny bit of cornmeal left, enough to make two sticks of cornbread. She mixed the paste while keeping an eye on the window, looking more for Edward than for protection of their wood pile. She lit the lantern on the table. Lamp oil was something they had plenty of, since Charlie had bought gallons and gallons of it at one point. Probably had seen a sale for it and bought a lifetime's supply because he was saving a few dollars. That was like him. The lamp gave off a cheerful glow and a sweet citronella scent. The smell always made Bella think of backyard barbecues, memories that always became painful when she thought of the massive amount of food they'd once wasted.
Edward was gone longer than she expected and she gave a sigh of relief when he came up the path toward the house. She felt like she could breathe again. She ran into his arms as soon as he shut the door and laid her head on his chest, ignoring the chill that clung to his clothing. She helped him remove the layers and he sat down at the table. His pack was heavier than the load she'd returned with; the whiskey must have convinced the soldier at the desk to be more generous.
The way he pulled off his cap and raked his hands through his hair repeatedly told her that something was wrong even before he said softly, "I need to talk to you, Bella."
She sat down on the bench beside him. For a moment, he was silent, his eyes searching her face. He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "Bella, I was able to convince Sergeant Tyler to tell me the truth. The government is consolidating what's left of the army and heading south, where it's a little warmer."
"What do you mean?" Bella asked slowly. She was pretty sure she understood, but she wanted to make sure. Absolutely sure.
"There won't be any rations next week," Edward said. He swallowed as though his throat hurt. "Nor the next week ... or any other week after that. They're pulling out, Bella. They're leaving us here to fend for ourselves."
She slumped forward onto table and stared at the lantern's flickering flame. Her mind was blank and numb.
"I was able to trade the bottle of Jack for a good bit of supplies," he said, attempting to sound optimistic. "That will last us until I figure something out."
Figure out what? There were no animals left to eat in the frozen wasteland where nothing could grow.
"Will they let us come with them? You have another bottle in the cache, don't you? And Esme's pearls. We could - "
"No, Bella," he said, his voice soft but firm. "They've been given orders: no civilians."
"You could join them, then! You could -"
"No. They can barely feed the troops they have." And he never would have left her; she knew that. Though she was desperate to find a way for him to survive, she knew he wouldn't take it if she could not come along.
"Can we ... Can we follow them somehow? Down to where it's warmer? Is there any way - ?" Her voice cracked and she stopped. She was searching for any hope, any chance, any oasis in the desert of ice. But she knew that if there was any way, any of their valuables they could trade, anything they could offer, Edward would have found it.
He shook his head and drew her into his arms. Bella was too stunned to cry.
"Don't worry, Bella," he said. He drew back and tilted up her head and his beautiful emerald eyes, the same color that the lush, verdant forest that used to be around them, pierced deeply into hers. "I swear to you that I won't let you starve."
She nodded and rose to her feet. The can of stew felt warm and so she used the can opener and dumped it into a pot to heat up the rest of the way. She added water, so much that it probably would be more accurately called beef soup than stew, and a pinch of their precious flour for thickening. She scraped carefully with her spatula, collecting every molecule from the sides of the can, then put the cornbread into the oven mounted on side of the stove.
Edward came up behind her and bent to kiss the side of her neck. "Smells good," he praised.
"It'll be done soon. Get us down some bowls, please."
When it had reached a simmer, she poured it into their bowls, with the same careful scraping of the pot that she had done to the can. She put both cornbread sticks onto a plate and put them beside Edward's bowl.
"Bella ..." His eyes were pained.
"Please, eat them. You know I don't like cornbread." She checked the window once more and put two bricks into the oven before taking her seat.
Edward picked out all of the carrots from his portion and put them into her bowl. He disliked carrots, though she knew it was more to make up for the inequitable distribution of the bread than his preferences. That was love, she thought. Finding ways to share, to match generosity.
They ate slowly, drawing out the pleasure of it, a pleasure only known by those who also know constant hunger. Afterward, she insisted that he lie down and nap. "I'll guard the wood. You sleep for a bit."
"Wake me for my turn," he mumbled as he burrowed his head into the pillow. She opened the oven door and used a towel to lift out one of the bricks, which she put under the covers with him. "Sleep well," she whispered.
He murmured something unintelligible in return.
It was too dark to watch the woodpile from the window, and so Bella bundled up again in her coat and layers of blankets and took the other hot brick with her out onto the porch. The swing creaked a protest as she sat down upon it.
She must have dozed off at some point (as incredibly dangerous and stupid as that was) because she awoke with a start when she heard the clunk of a falling piece of wood. "Hey!" she shouted.
The man who was picking them up didn't even pause. Didn't even acknowledge her. Bella jumped to her feet and then realized she'd forgotten to bring the shotgun. She dashed back into the house, accidentally leaving the door ajar so that snow and cold wind swirled through the room and it woke Edward. She didn't stop to explain. She charged back out onto the porch with the shotgun propped against her shoulder. "Drop it!" she shouted.
The thief saw the gleam of the gun barrel and froze. The chunks of wood fell from his hands as he lifted them in surrender. "Please," he whispered. "My wife ..."
Edward came up from behind Bella, the pistol held out in front of him, clasped in both hands. "I don't give a damn about your wife," he spat. "I care about keeping my wife warm with my firewood."
The man let out a ragged sob. Bella peered closely at his scarf-covered face and realized she recognized those eyes. She said in surprise, "Jacob? Jacob Black?" They had played together as kids because their fathers were fishing buddies. Jacob had married Lauren Mallory, the bug-eyed blonde who'd tried so hard in junior year to break up Bella and Edward by trying to convince each that the other was cheating. Unfortunately for Lauren, Bella and Edward communicated instead of flying off the handle and they had a level of trust that Lauren could not comprehend. People who lacked virtues often didn't understand or expect them in others.
"You fucking thief," Edward snarled, and like the man at the ration distribution, his anger at what others had done to them before was taken out on the person before him. "Give me one reason I shouldn't blow your goddam head off right now."
"Lauren is pregnant," Jacob pleaded.
"Jesus Christ." Edward dropped his gun to his side and Bella lowered her shotgun. His voice was sharp with disgust. "Get out of here, you fool. And don't come back, because next time I won't be so generous."
Edward waited until Jake's retreating form had faded into the darkness before he picked up the chunks of wood Jacob had dropped.
"You'd do the same," Bella reminded Edward softly.
"I know," Edward said. He held up a chunk of wood. "This is one hour. Every one of these pieces is an hour of life. And I shouldn't be amazed any more at how ruthless we humans are, just to obtain that one hour. That's been one of the worst parts of this, Bella, to see that mask of civility slip and realize how truly ugly we are beneath it, and realize that the same ugliness is in me."
"Things fall apart; The center does not hold," Bella quoted. "You aren't ugly, Edward. You spared his life. We could have shot him and looted his body. We could have even ... ate him." She whispered the last two words. There had been rumors lately, rumors of cannibalism, of people captured and butchered like cattle, skinned human bodies seen hanging in sheds like sides of beef. No one wanted to believe it.
Edward shook his head. "I won't go that far, at least. Come on, Bella. Let's get you inside and warmed up. You're shaking like a leaf."
Was she? She hadn't realized. Edward carried the wood Jacob had tried to pilfer into the house and put it in the rack by the stove. "Do you want some hot chocolate?"
She smacked her forehead. "I forgot to search for clean ice. I'll bet the kettle is almost dry."
"I'll go," Edward said. "I'm rested. You get into bed and warm up and I'll be back soon."
She didn't like him to go out alone in the dark. "No, it's okay. We can wait until morning."
"Just to the river and back," he promised. Down there, he would scrape off a layer of filthy snow and use the pickaxe to chip free a chunk of ice. Inside, he would put it in a pot which had a smaller pot suspended above with a cone-shaped sheet of plastic pointing down into the second pot. As the water boiled, the steam condensed on the plastic and ran down into the second pot. It was the only way they had of purifying their water, besides to run it through a few layers of coffee filters.
"Please, be careful," she begged.
He checked his pistol before putting it into his holster. "I always am."
Over the next few days, Edward brought most of the wood pile into the cabin. He'd chopped up the oak bookcase along the wall that Bella had been using as a pantry back when they still had food to store. He stacked wood everywhere he could find a spot: in the bathroom they no longer used because the pipes were frozen solid, under their bed, against every bit of open wall space. He even stacked some of it on top of the cabinets. The remainder he dragged up onto the porch itself, hoping that the proximity to the cabin would deter any thieves. After Bella had fallen asleep out there, he deemed it too dangerous to sit outside keep watch. As exhausted and weak as they were, either of them could nod off and freeze to death in their sleep.
He went hunting every day, just as he had done since the Strike, but he always came back discouraged when the only living things he encountered were other hunters, just as desperate to feed their families as Edward was. He began to venture further and further afield, always returning in a state of hypothermia. She warmed him in the safest manner: her naked body pressed alongside his in their bed and he shook so hard, he made the bed squeak. She was so afraid that he'd get sick from the repeated chills. She knew Edward had some antibiotics stashed away in his hidden cache, but would she know how and when to use them if he got ill?
One day, he came upon a treasure trove: a little gas station on a forgotten back road. It had already been looted, but the previous scavengers had missed a few things, cans which had rolled under shelves, a couple of bottles of soda in the coolers, and under the counter, a battered copy of Jane Eyre, which made Bella sob with happiness when he gave it to her. Her beloved books, except for a handful of favorites, had all been abandoned in their old house, and the ones she had saved had to be sacrificed for kindling when their fire had gone out unexpectedly. The find had stretched their food supply for a few more days.
She often caught him wearing a dark, brooding expression, tinged with despair. She knew he was considering something that he would regret, and so she told him of her temptation when she saw Mrs. Weber, knowing that she could overpower the other woman easily. But she couldn't steal someone's life to preserve her own. Just as he had held up a chunk of wood and said it represented one hour, each can of food represented one more day. She couldn't steal anyone's days to add to her own. He looked away in quiet reflection when she said that, and it was a long moment before he nodded in agreement.
He was the one who did the cooking now, and she thought it was because he didn't want her to see their dwindling food supply and fear. She knew, of course, and she could also see their shrinking supply of wood. All that was on the porch was gone, and they had only what was left in the cabin. The few trees left standing were charred and useless and anything worthwhile had already been taken for miles around Forks.
It was hard not to fall into despair herself. She watched the pile of wood around them diminish, the hours of their lives disappearing in a starkly quantifying fashion. One night, she could not resist the urge to count them. Edward had stopped her and she had wept against his chest. When her sobs finally diminished, he drew back and looked down at her. "Better now, love?"
"I'm just so tired," she whispered. So tired of the cold, the hunger, the fear. "So tired."
The next morning, she woke as he rose from the bed. He kissed her softly and told her to go back to sleep, that he would probably be home before she woke again. There was a rush of cold air as he opened the door and she burrowed deeper into the blankets. She must have slept deeply because she didn't hear him or feel the blast of chill air when he returned.
He woke her with kisses. It made her giggle, as it had during their honeymoon when he woke her like that every morning. Throughout their married life, he had done it when she needed to laugh, when he needed to hear her laugh. He smiled softy. He closed his eyes, as if adrift in the memories, and then pressed a kiss to her forehead and told her to get dressed.
As she pulled on her clothes, Edward sat on his side of the bed. That brooding expression was taking over again. She reached out and trailed a hand down his back and he turned to her with a gentle smile.
Bella felt something ... different. It took her a moment to identify it. The cabin was warm. She looked over at the stove and saw that the top of it glowed red-hot. She stretched out her arms and sighed in bliss. "Oh, it feels so nice! And what's that smell?"
"Dinner is ready," he replied.
Dinner? Was it that late? She'd been sleeping more and more these days, probably her body's way of conserving energy because of how few calories she ingested each day. But sleeping the whole day away? That was new. Something caught her eye: the panel that hid their cache had been removed and the cavity was empty.
She saw a meal spread out on the table. A bowl of beans and a bowl of corn. Fried Spam slices and thin pancakes, made from their last bit of flour. She gave a small gasp and looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "Oh, Edward ... thank you," she said.
They sat down at the table and ate, ate until their shrunken stomachs felt like they would burst. Bella got up to put away the leftovers (they actually had leftovers!) and he murmured, "Leave it," and kissed her in a way that he hadn't for quite some time. Starvation and stress and clinging to the edge of survival ensured that neither of them were very often in the mood. But now, her body came alive with a savage vengeance. She tangled her fingers in his hair and kissed him back, just as passionately.
Their clothes drifted to the floor and they stumbled back to the bed, their mouths never breaking contact as they sank down onto the mattress. Edward seemed determined to make up for lost time with thoroughness, worshiping every inch of her body, from her lips to her toes. He came back up to kiss her again and she sighed from his delicious weight, his smooth skin sliding against hers.
It was slow, and it was sweet and it swept her away in a tidal wave of all-consuming bliss. Afterward, she was still so dazed that she hadn't realized Edward had left the bed until he returned with a steaming mug. "I made you a cup of tea," he announced with a small, sad smile. It was her very last teabag.
She sat up and took a sip and her eyes widened in shock. "Sugar!" she gasped.
He nodded. "I've been saving it."
She smiled at him, a smile filled with love and happiness, because right now, at this moment, everything was perfect.
"Thank you." It seemed like such a small thing to say, but she wanted him to know how happy this evening had made her. A precious, golden moment in this sunless wasteland.
She drank down the cup faster than she should have. As she drained the last sip, she wished she'd drawn out the experience more. But it was a perfect end to the day. Edward took her mug and set it down on the floor beside their bed. Odd for him not to take it right to the sink. But he sat there beside her, stroking her hair, love shining in his eyes.
A numb, buzzing sensation bloomed in her head and she swayed as a wave of vertigo washed over her. "Edward, I feel strange."
Tears welled in his eyes. "I know." He leaned in and kissed her forehead, then her lips. It was a soft, gentle touch, much like their first kiss and she closed her eyes from the power of the memory. "I love you, Bella. I made you a promise."
She tried to reach up and brush his tears away, but she couldn't make her hand cooperate. It flopped back on the bed, useless and limp. He picked it up and laid it against his cheek before he nuzzled into it and kissed her palm. He closed his eyes for a moment and then laid her hand down on her lap.
He retrieved his pants from the floor. His holster was still attached to the belt. He opened it and withdrew his gun, which he laid on his pillow after checking the load.
Bella wanted to tell him something, but her mind couldn't form the words. She swayed again and he gently guided her down to lay back against the pillows. He joined her from the other side of the bed, spooning his body against hers. He pulled the covers up over them, tucking them carefully below Bella's chin. She felt his warm breath against her ear as darkness overtook her.
"I'll be right behind you, love."
~ Finis ~