Disclaimer: No beagles will be harmed during the process of writing this story.
"You should just forget about her, man. She sounds like a bitch. Girls like that aren't worth the hassle."
Garrett's words are cliché; expected of a friend after hearing a summarized version of what happened last night.
He offers this advice easily, as if it's something he's dealt with before. But the only girl Garrett has ever been hung up on is Kate—she'd never act the way Bella does. She doesn't hate herself that way.
I can't blame him for speaking his mind, though, because he's right—I know he's right. And I'm trying to process it, but it's not that simple. This thing between Bella and me passed uncomplicated weeks ago.
Garrett leans against the side of the house as I rake a hand through my hair, saying nothing. I can sense him watching me as he exhales between his teeth and shifts his feet against the ground. We're both quiet after that.
"She's really gotten inside your head, huh?" His words puncture the silence.
I find myself glancing across the street, like I can't help it. Mrs. Clearwater's car fills the driveway today, back from wherever it is she's been. The front door to her house is open and boxes sit beside the rear tires of her Suburban. I wonder if this means the others are leaving now… if Bella is.
Her truck was missing when I woke earlier. I'm not sure if she left last night or this morning. I'm not sure it matters either.
Turning my attention back to my friend, I lie. "No." Because saying she's gotten inside my head is an understatement.
Grabbing a smoke from my pack, I light it quickly before getting back to work. Garrett and I have been doing some jobs outside of the house for my mom: mowing, pulling weeds, and shit like that. With a cigarette in my mouth, I'm about to get started on the weeds around the patio when I notice Sue Clearwater heading our way.
I nod at her, blowing smoke to the side as Garrett wipes sweat from his face with the hem of his T-shirt.
She comes to a stop between the two half walls that encase the property. "You boys mind helpin' me load some furniture into my car?"
Garrett nods, shooting her a friendly smile. "Yeah, sure, whatcha got?"
"A small dresser, two end tables, and a few boxes," she lists off. "I can make two trips into town if it doesn't all fit."
My eyes travel across the street to her Suburban. "It should all fit," I tell her, swallowing back the things I want to ask.
I want to know if she's moving. I want to know if Bella already left. I want to know why I care.
I choose a question that doesn't involve her niece's friend. "You moving?"
"Just gettin' rid of things I don't need. I'd ask the girls, but those little shits are lazy. I swear, if they think they're gonna spend their summer here sleeping until noon and eating all of my food, they've got another thing comin'."
My face stays blank at the mention of Bella. If things were different, if she were any other girl, I'd add to this conversation. I'd be able to react—make a joke or laugh. But I can't, so I pretend like I don't know her.
"Where're you taking the furniture?" Garrett asks.
I drown out their conversation, not paying attention until I see them make their way toward Sue's house. Garrett looks back at me in confusion, and I hold up my cigarette.
"I'll be over in a minute," I say.
I smoke until there's nothing but filter and ash.
I haven't been inside this house in years. I think the last time was when my mom made me come by to pay condolences after Harry Clearwater passed away. The decor is as dated as I remember: floral wallpaper, pink carpet. It's oddly comforting to know some things have the ability to stay the same.
I'm standing on the tile in the foyer when Garrett walks past me, carrying an end table.
"This shit's light," he says. "Might be too heavy for you, pussy."
"Shut the fuck up," I laugh.
He attempts to flip me off as he heads out the front door.
"Edward," Sue calls out, appearing from the living room. "There're some boxes in the room at the end of the hall. Can you grab those and take 'em outside?"
I nod, quickly glancing around the house before I head down the hallway. It's dark and windowless and significantly cooler with the AC pumping through the vents.
With my hands in my pockets, I glimpse through the half-open door at the end of the hall only to find it's a bathroom. When I turn and open the one opposite, I freeze.
This room isn't empty.
Bella is lying across the bed, staring up at the ceiling as she scratches Cinnamon behind the ears, while Leah is sitting against the headboard, watching me. The blinds are open, flooding the room in light, and there is music playing lowly from a small radio on the dresser. Neither one of them speaks, or changes their position—I know Bella knows I'm here, though. Her hands go to the hem of her T-shirt before moving to her hair: it takes me a moment to realize the shirt is actually one of mine.
Diverting my attention, I try to act indifferent. But in the end it doesn't matter, because Bella doesn't acknowledge me—she keeps her eyes to herself.
"Can we help you?" Leah asks tersely, cutting through the silence.
I draw in a breath, hold it for a second. "I'm helping your aunt load some stuff into her car. She said there were boxes in here."
Leah has one knee up by her chin as she motions to the other side of the room. "On the floor by the window," she replies, not looking away from me.
I nod—I don't want to thank this girl for anything.
Ignoring them both, I rub a hand over the back of my neck as I walk. I'm deciding if I can manage both boxes at once so I can get the fuck out of here, when she speaks again.
"Did you two have fun last night?" Her gaze drifts from me to her friend.
I clench my fists; I don't answer. Tension is piled high like the books in the box at my feet.
I'm tempted to leave this shit exactly where it is when Bella sits up, gaining my attention.
It's evident to see she hasn't been awake very long. Her hair is down and her legs are bare and I hate that I'm noticing any of it.
I hate that I don't hate the very sight of her.
Her knee bounces, and she starts pulling at a thread in the covers, like she's trying to remove something. Maybe she's imagining it's me.
"That bad, huh?" Leah adds when neither of us attempts to give an answer. From the expression on her face, it's clear she's getting a kick out of this. This girl I have no trouble hating.
Bella's mouth twists, a bitter sound escaping through her lips as she shakes her head and pushes herself from the mattress. Brown eyes meet mine for a second, and then they're gone; and then she's gone. I swallow roughly and haul one of the boxes into my arms. It pisses me off that she's once again the one who gets to walk away, but I'm not sure her sitting on the bed saying nothing was any better.
Silence crashes over my head, louder than a room full of people as I head for the exit.
I'm almost to the door when Leah's voice stops.
"You really thought you were different?" Her tone is mocking.
I turn to face her, not so hesitant to speak this time. "Fuck off. You don't know me."
She's waiting for it, ready. "And you don't know her," she shoots back, leaning forward. "This is what she does—sucks someone in until there's nothing left."
I feel my teeth grind. "You don't know shit."
She laughs. "I know a lot more than you do."
I think of the Bella who clung to me in her sleep. Who picked up a stray dog from the side of the road because it had nowhere else to go. The girl who watches cartoons and watches me when she doesn't think I'm looking.
I exhale through my nose. "No, I really don't think you do," I tell her.
Leah's face hardens and the muscles in my jaw tick.
I walk out before she has the chance to say anything else.
When I step out of the room, I find the girl I was defending standing across the hall from me. I shut the door, and pause for a second, wondering how much she heard and if she was listening. Her hands clutch the frame on either side of her, and it hits me how so many people can look at one person and see something different. When I look at Bella, I don't see the same girl Leah does… but I don't quite see her as I did before last night either. I feel like I don't have a clear grasp on her anymore, which is hard to digest. I'm starting to think that maybe I never did.
Leaning back against the wall, I consider asking her why the fuck she does the things she does, because none of these versions of her add up. But maybe she can sense this. She takes a deep breath, and I watch as her shoulders fall.
I watch as she closes the door between us, sucking the remaining light from the hallway.
It's almost two when Garrett and I are finished helping Sue. She offers to make us something to eat in exchange for our help, but I decline, not wanting to be in this house any longer than I have to be.
We head back to mine with the intention of finishing the yard work, but after the heavy lifting and awkward interaction with Bella, I decide I'm done being productive today.
I try to keep out all images and thoughts of the girl across the street, and it works for a while. Until I'm in the kitchen, grabbing my third beer, and spot the box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch on the counter.
I toss the box in the trash can.
Garrett's mom calls around four, and after a few uh huhs and yeah, I know, moms, he tells me she's inviting me over for dinner. I don't bother telling him I'm not really up for it, because I know she won't let me say no.
When we arrive at his house, his mom is sitting under the covered patio, drinking wine, and his dad is hovering over the grill, keeping an eye on the steaks. His mom immediately starts talking our ears off. She asks how my parents are doing, and how school's going. But before I have a chance to answer either question, she goes on about something that happened back when she was in school.
Mrs. Fuller's in the middle of some story when Kate arrives. I had no idea she was even going to be here. She waves, apologizing for showing up late and telling us she made brownies.
"Kate Denali, you come give me a hug right now," Mrs. Fuller says, placing her wine glass on the table.
Kate smiles shyly and walks over to Garrett's mom to give her a hug.
"I swear, you just keep getting prettier every time I see you," Mrs. Fuller coos.
Kate's attention shifts to Garrett, who's staring at his phone. He hasn't looked up once. I'd kick him for being such a clueless dick, but he's too far away.
"You made brownies?" I ask, grinning. "Are you sure you didn't buy them from the bakery?"
"No, you jerk," Kate laughs. "They came in a box, but I mixed the ingredients together. It still counts."
I pull a face, teasing her about her boxed brownies. She tells me to shut up, so I tease her about something else, and this goes on for a while until dinner is ready.
Garrett's parents serve a meal that could feed at least fifteen people—there are only five of us sitting at the table. We're halfway through dinner when Garrett's mom decides she wants to talk about our love lives. She asks Kate if she's seeing anyone back in Florida, and when the answer is no, she not-so-subtly mentions that her son is single, too. Both of them pretend the notion is ridiculous.
"What about you, Edward? I thought I saw you in town the other day with a pretty brunette. I would've stopped to say hi, but I was running late for my hair appointment."
Her mention of Bella isn't something I was expecting. Caught off guard, I merely shake my head in response, but it's not good enough.
She sips her wine, smiling. "Oh, don't be shy now."
"I'm not," I tell her, staring down at my plate.
She catches on, and moves on to another topic; the atmosphere lightens back up, but my mood doesn't.
I hate that Bella has that effect on me, even when she's not present.
After we've finished eating dessert, Mrs. Fuller declines our offers of helping her clean up. Garrett asks Kate and me what we want to do, but I just want to go home, so we call it an early night.
Goodbyes are said, and Kate offers to give me a ride. I nod, silently following her to her car.
Once we're inside, she messes with the radio for a minute, settling on some country station before pulling away from the curb.
It's still early, not even eight. The sun is fading slowly, like it doesn't want to leave this day. I stare out the window, watching images blur past, not attempting to make anything out.
Kate's voice fills the car. "You were quiet during dinner."
I turn my head to look at her; she keeps her eyes on the road. "You know none of us can get a word in edgewise when Garrett's mom is around," I say with a smirk.
She snorts out a laugh. "That's true."
We're silent again after that.
Kate pulls up in front of my house, putting us in the shade for a second. I stare out the windshield, at the sky streaked with color, and think about heading back to school early. Life suddenly seems a lot easier there, in the city—less distractions.
"You wanna come inside?" I ask, drumming my fingers against my legs.
She looks like she's about to answer, but then her mouth closes, her attention stolen by something past my shoulder. Confused, I turn, following her gaze.
That's when I spot Bella sitting on the half wall that surrounds the front of the house. She has her hands on the outside of her thighs, swinging her legs back and forth; her attention is firmly on her boots, but it's obvious she's waiting for me. Like she didn't completely ignore me earlier today. Like we didn't exchange words last night that ended things before they really began.
"Want me to drive around until she leaves?" Kate asks—I don't think she's joking.
I shake my head. "No, it's fine." I tear my gaze from the window to the girl at my side. Kate's eyes bounce between Bella and me, her hands high on the wheel. "We'll hang out tomorrow?" I prompt when she seems to hesitate.
Focusing back on the road, my friend nods. "Yeah. Tomorrow. Don't flake on me, Cullen."
She wishes me luck as I unbuckle my seat belt. But it's not luck I want or need.
I can feel Bella's gaze on me the moment I step out of the car. I don't allow myself to look at her, though—not yet. I know it's childish, but I hope it makes her feel like shit.
I wait for Kate's car to disappear from view, and then I make my way toward the house.
When I'm a few feet away, I finally give Bella the attention she wants.
She looks up from her lap and holds my stare—weirdly, the weight of this connection feels heavier now that there are two us. This girl is all skin, all eyes, all sober tonight. It blows all of my expectations to pieces, because this version of her wasn't something I considered finding.
"What are you doing here?" The words sound harsher than I intended.
Bella's eyes are no longer on mine, her face blank, her lips pressed together. It's frustrating, this expression she wears.
"Can we go for a walk?" she asks. "Go somewhere to talk?" Her voice gives nothing away.
I swallow, and stay where I am, letting her know I'm not going to be the one to make the first move here. She hops off the concrete wall and takes a couple of steps in my direction.
"Just to talk," she repeats, maybe because I haven't said anything yet.
I grit my teeth as she pauses in front of me. With my hands in my pockets, I search her face—not a trace of makeup and her eyes aren't bloodshot.
I wonder if she's feeling as vulnerable as she looks.
I wonder if I look as indifferent as I'm trying to feel.
Bella starts walking, and like I'm somehow tied to her, I follow.
The sound of our boots crushing gravel is the loudest fucking thing right now: it eats the silence, but not the tension.
We walk until we're no longer on our street. Until the road beneath our shoes turns to dirt and rocks. Until the sun has dipped below the horizon, muting the colors around us.
I don't speak, and neither does Bella. I don't want to be the first, because I know that's what she probably wants. And this is her deal, not mine. If she wants to talk, she will.
We come to a fork in the road, and I wordlessly point toward the one on the right; the one that will take us around town instead of through it.
Our pace slows when we reach an area that overlooks lights in the distance. The view isn't much to look at—this place is pretty desolate—but it's better than nothing.
Stopping completely, I stare ahead at the small town. After a minute, Bella sits; I stay standing.
"I like it out here," she offers. "I wasn't sure I would, but I do."
Caving, I drop down beside her and watch as she pulls her knees to her chest, her boots kicking up dust for a second before it settles.
I fight the urge to ask her things, like why she likes it out here, and if that means she's going to stay. But I keep these thoughts to myself.
When she speaks, her next words are not what I expect.
"Do you hate me?" she asks, and for a second, I catch a glimpse of a girl who might actually care.
"That's what you want, right?" I reply, not wanting to answer her question.
If I hated her, I wouldn't be here right now.
Cutting her eyes to my face, she says, "No." She doesn't elaborate further.
I frown, looking out toward the town, thoughts of what she said and did last night running through my mind. I don't want to remember that version of her. But out here, drowning in so much space, there's too much world to lock out.
"That's not how you acted last night," I say. My fingers curl into a fist—I hate myself for even being here with her right now.
She's so quiet, it makes me wonder if she even remembers half of what she did.
"I was drunk," she tries explaining.
"That's a shitty excuse."
"It's the only one I've got," she says simply.
That isn't true, but I think she believes it.
I wonder if this is her way of asking for acceptance, not forgiveness.
It's the hottest night of the year so far. I can feel the dampness around my hairline, the sweat that has gathered along my spine. I rest my forearms over my knees and stare out at the town in the distance. Watch as lights begin to flicker on and off, like the air is trembling.
Growing up, I would spend nights crammed inside a tent with Kate and it would seem like there were states of space between us. We'd be camping out in her backyard—her knees would dig into my back. And it was never an issue, because she was my best friend. I didn't think of her like that; like a girl. But sitting out here with Bella is different—I am all too aware of her nearness.
I wonder what it is that tells our bodies, This girl. This one is different. This is the one you like, even if they're not thinking the same thing.
Maybe something chemical in the blood. Something stubborn in the brain. Something I wish I could control.
"I think I was around four or five the first time I heard my mom say that."
I'm so caught up in my thoughts, I almost don't catch her words.
I hesitate. "Say what?" I ask, brows pulling together in confusion as I crane my head to look at her.
She's staring up at the sky, lips mashed together, like she doesn't trust herself to speak.
"That she was drunk. That she was sorry for this or that. It was her go-to excuse," she says blandly. "Sometimes she'd say something different, like she was tired or work had been shitty, but they were all lies. Each time she fucked up, like majorly fucked it up for us all, it was because she'd been drinking."
This is the first time Bella's ever spoken about her life outside of Corona, and a hundred things suddenly come to mind. The questions tick at the back of my throat like a bomb, but I don't know how to voice any of them without causing her to close up, so I let the words disintegrate in my mouth.
"She'd take me for drives at night: something special that was ours alone, she called them. It didn't matter if I was sleeping, and she had to wake me, because she made them sound so exciting. And they were at first—we had fun. She'd buy me ice cream and let me eat as much of it as I wanted. And the radio was always playing…" Her voice begins to trail off, doubt present. "The only rule I had was to never tell my dad about them." She gets quiet again, stuck in her memories. "This was when he was working nights and wasn't really around, so it was easy to keep it a secret."
Bella hasn't looked at me once during her whole spiel, as though the sight of my face will put a stop to her words. And I'm kind of glad, because she has a tendency to disarm me during the exact moments I need to not be disarmed. I know she's not telling me any of this to gain sympathy, but it doesn't mean I won't feel it. It doesn't mean I'm not fighting my natural instincts to comfort her. It's hard to act cold in this heat.
"Eventually I realized we kept heading in the same direction," she says. "We'd pull into this parking lot across from a strip of motels, where she'd leave me alone in the car for brief periods of time until they weren't really that brief anymore."
The atmosphere turns thick in the heat, the rock in my throat lodged as I see where this story is headed. A path with potholes lining its center, waiting for something to trip.
"I was scared at first, because I was only little, like eight or something, but the place was surrounded by streetlights: she said that's how I knew it was safe, all lit up like that, like Christmas. And I believed her, because she was my mom, and your mother isn't supposed to lie to you about things like that."
Her voice doesn't break like I expect. Like someone else's might do in this same situation. It's as though she's so detached from it, the memory isn't hers at all; as though she's pressed play on these scenes so many times she's become bored with what she's watching.
It's as though she's doing everything she can to stop these memories from hurting.
"So I'd stare at the nearest light to me until she came back, sometimes falling asleep, sometimes not. And then one night, one of them switched off, went black, submerged the car into darkness, and I remember crying so loud. Screaming for my mother. Sobbing so hard my ice cream came back up."
She closes her eyes at this part, like she's back there, eight years old again and screaming for her mother.
"Anyway, I must have exhausted myself because I woke up in my own bed." She licks her lips. "We didn't go on any more road trips after that."
I stare at this girl, at the way her lashes flicker, gaze pinned to the stars that begin to prick the darkness, and suddenly I'm angry, but I don't know who I'm angry at: Bella for complicating this even more by telling me this fucked-up story; her mother for treating her daughter that way; or me because I'm sitting here listening to it. Because I'm supposed to be keeping my distance. Because I'm smarter than this. Because though her hand is right next to me, I can't take it. Because she wouldn't like it.
"Of course, as I got older, I realized none of those trips had been for us. They'd been for her and him. The nobody she was too busy fucking."
She pushes her hair over one shoulder and exhales slowly; I wonder how one person can be so broken yet seem so strong, all at the same time.
I want something from this girl. I'm not sure what it is or what to call it or how to get it, but I want it.
How the first thing I noticed about her was that I noticed her at all. How she's kept me awake ever since.
"I'm a lot like her, you know," Bella says after a moment.
Rubbing my palm over my stubble, I question, "Your mom?"
"Yeah." A bitter expression has taken over her features. "It's something my dad would always tell me. Big brown eyes. Heart-shaped face. Stubborn nature. Even our fucking laughs are the same."
I try to remember if I've ever heard Bella laugh. Not the mild kind, but the kind that brings tears to your eyes and hurts your face because it can't be controlled.
I think I'd remember something like that if I had.
"It's why he left in the end," she says. "He couldn't stand to be around two of the same person. Not after what she did."
I watch her closely. "You didn't go with him?" I prompt.
I know I'd find it hard staying with a mother after discovering something like that.
She flicks her gaze to mine before settling it back on the darkness in front of us. "No."
"Because he didn't want me to," she says with a shrug. Like it's something simple. Like it hasn't been tearing her up inside ever since.
After that, I stop asking questions.
The lights begin to dim in town, slow and subtle shifts happening all around me.
One of those shifts is Bella.
"I'm tired of feeling like I'm fucking crazy."
Her voice is so quiet, I'm not sure she meant to say it.
It knocks down something inside of me, the sadness in her tone. I stare at her profile: eyes shut, mouth closed, and watch as she draws in a deep breath. A second passes where I think she's about to cry, but then she turns and looks right at me, something she's been avoiding. And it's like a punch to the gut, holding that stare, because I haven't seen this from her before.
Her eyes are swimming and her swallows are heavy and it's almost like she's challenging me to get up and walk away.
I know that's the smart decision. I know that's what she's asking. But I can't move. I can't fucking move.
She's the one good at running, not me.
Bella's lips part and her eyes dart down to my mouth, her intention clear—this is the moment when I should tell her no. But that look is eating away at me and I've been wanting this for too long.
With her face so close, I try not to think about the last time we were in this situation. Try not to think about her expression in those early morning hours. How her mouth opened; how my words stole hers; how she left me with something heavy on my chest.
When I feel her breath hit my lips, it's both better and worse.
Her movements are slow and timid and her hand is on my leg, squeezing my thigh, like she's trying to stop herself. Like she just can't fucking stop herself. And I know I want this girl to kiss me. I like the hotness of her breath and the pressure of her fingers too much to pull away.
Her bottom lip brushes against mine, our noses touching, our mouths aligned—I try not to be affected but I can't help it and she knows that she's got me. My hand finds her face; I touch her gently, my thumb at her mouth, right at the edge, my fingers on the side of her cheek.
We stay like this for a while, not kissing, just touching, her eyes opening and closing as I nudge my face a little closer: same war, different battle. But it's not enough.
I'm about to give in and just kiss her, when she presses her lips to mine fully; it lasts for a second before she draws away. Her breath stutters and I think she's changed her mind, but then her mouth returns: something shy, something nice, something I want more of.
With my fingers under her chin, I tilt her face up and kiss her back, my pulse racing. It's brief and sweet and something I know she's not used to. It's something I want to do again.
Bella responds immediately.
She pulls at me, coaxing me closer—fisting my shirt and my arms and my hair—and then she's up on her knees, arms around my neck as she tries to get nearer still. But our positions are awkward. There are too many limbs. Too little restraint. Too much desperation.
I groan and she makes a sound, something impatient and small that feels needy and big as she climbs over my lap and straddles me. She pushes us torso to torso, and I like her like this, all instinct, all girl. Her lips are warm and soft and demanding, and my breath rushes through my nose when she puts more force behind her lips.
Without even thinking about it, I push my tongue into her mouth and grab her hips to hold her steady.
Bella's small moans start driving me crazy—I think she knows how much I like them by now. Her fingers trail from my jaw to my neck, and that one little movement sets something off inside of me. All of my frustration, all of my want, it leaks into this kiss. My grunt gains a reaction from her, too. When I slide my hands up her ribs to her face, she angles her head and pushes her tongue deeper. When she grinds down on me, I match her need.
Everything turns frantic after that. Her hips roll and my dick is hard and I have to break our kiss to calm myself down.
Fisting the back of her hair, I try to catch my breath.
I want this; I want her. I've been wanting to fuck her for the past month. But it's also more than that. And while I could try and convince myself differently, I think all she's grasping for is to feel wanted. She's still so vulnerable, too: I can feel it in her bones as she shakes when she realizes my lips have stilled; when she notices my movements have stopped.
When Bella opens her eyes, she won't look at me—maybe she's afraid at what I'll find.
Breaths ragged, she presses her face close, hiding what I want the most.
"You scare me." She whispers the words right into my mouth.
I swallow roughly and try to imagine how I could possibly scare her when she's the one who calls all the shots.
Bella keeps her gaze down and presses the pads of her fingers against my bottom lip, like she's trying to keep her admission right there. Like she's stopping it from escaping so she doesn't have to carry it around with her anymore.
Sliding my hands from her hair, I stroke my thumbs across her cheeks and wait for her eyes to return.
When they do, I bite one of her fingers gently, and then her bottom lip, and catch her sounds in my mouth.
I know I could give her false assurances like her mother. Turn her down like her father. But I do neither.
With Bella, I feel like actions speak louder than words.
So I kiss her again until she forgets she has anything to be afraid of.
Hiii. Thank you so much for reading. And for your continued patience. You don't have to punch us in the face this time. We can do it ourselves.
Susan beta'd, and Jen and Nic pre-read. We're so grateful for their help and love them a lot.
Reviews get a teaser for the next chapter.
See you next time! xx