I felt the stirring as soon as I saw her. I knew it was coming, but I was powerless to stop it; the roar in my head, the squeeze of my heart. My fingers trembled and I clenched them into fists; my only hope of disguising the outward physical reaction I had toward the new girl.
Mr. Mason had seemed to understand my separation from society on the first day of class and had therefore left the seats next to me and in front of me empty. Unfortunately, they were now the only available desks and she would be within two feet of me for a full hour each day for the remainder of the school year.
I heard her quiet voice as she asked Mr. Mason to please call her Bella. I somehow heard that sweet music through the rushing wind that seemed to fill my ears. Through the stars that filled my vision, I watched as she approached the desk to my right. Her eyes were glued to the floor.
The sensation of falling finally overtook me as she plopped gracelessly into the chair. It was always the last step, and the hardest for me to work through. I pulled in deep, cleansing breaths; holding them for several seconds before expelling the air slowly and silently. I could feel her eyes on me, making the falling sensation even more intense. I clutched the edges of my desk and fought to remain conscious.
I heard her speak, but I was afraid to turn my head. I knew the moment I looked directly into her eyes, my battle against self would be lost. I wanted to answer her. The sincere desire to speak to her warred with the need to stay upright. For a moment, the desire actually won and I turned my head, eyes still glued tot he pages before me, and offered her the best smile I could muster. I knew it was probably more of a grimace at that point, but the pride I felt achieving such a small victory must have softened my features enough that I didn't scare the poor girl.
"I'm Bella," she continued.
Again, I wanted to reply. I might have, if Mr. Mason hadn't cleared his throat to begin the lecture at that point. Relief flooded me and washed away the remainder of the anxiety.
With my breathing normal, my heart no longer pounding painfully, and the roaring in my ears slowly receding, I decided it was safe to look. I knew there would be brown hair and a slender frame. I knew she was wearing a blue sweater. This knowledge was not enough to truly prepare me.
She was beautiful. And she was staring right at me with deep brown eyes full of understanding and compassion. They sparkled with just a bit of humor, but not enough to make me feel as if she might be amused by my distress.
Mr. Mason continued to drone from the front of the classroom as my eyes greedily drank in the lines of her face. She offered a half smile as she allowed my appraisal, and my gaze traveled over creamy skin with a hint of flushed heat. I wondered if my intense scrutiny was making her uncomfortable, but I just couldn't stop. A small sprinkling of freckles dusted her nose and my fingers itched to brush over them. She dipped her head with a smile and her lashes fanned across her cheeks. I was smitten, and then immediately heartbroken.
To avoid completely embarrassing myself, I turned my concentration back to the notes in front of me and tried to focus on what Mr. Mason was saying. I bit back a groan when I realized he was explaining our next assignment, a partner project. He gave me a sympathetic look, but it didn't ease the new attack that was slowly building steam. Just as I felt my heart give a great thump, a folded piece of paper landed in the middle of my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I stared at it for a moment and then looked up at the ceiling as if it might have fallen straight from there. A soft giggle alerted me to the only other possibility.
I shot a glance her way out of the corner of my eye and picked up the note from between the pages of the novel. My mind barely registered the fact that the anxiety attack seemed to have lost its power as it raced over the possibilities of the many combinations of words that might lie within.
Is this easier for you? – B
My jaw dropped. How could she know? I chanced another glance at her and saw that she was smiling warmly in my direction. I plucked up my courage and my pencil.
Yeah. Thanks. I'm Edward.
She reached over and slipped the paper from my grasp when she noticed I was finished. I found myself staring yet again as her polite smile grew into a wide grin. She pulled the pencil from its perch in her ponytail and began to scribble furiously. A glimpse of tiny pink tongue appeared at the corner of her mouth, as if she were concentrating very hard on her chosen words. As she reached out to hand me the note again, I looked back toward Mr. Mason to make sure we wouldn't be caught. He was looking right at us, and I felt my stomach drop in panic. Mr. Mason just smiled and nodded, though, causing my eyes to widen in wonder. Before I could question the exchange further, the paper was thrust into my waiting hands and I was distracted once more.
Take pity on the new girl and be my partner for this project? I promise it's my favorite book and I won't hold you back. And it's nice to meet you, Edward. –B
I smiled involuntarily and began writing even before I had thought out my response. Something about the girl loosened the knot that had taken up permanent residence in my chest, and I found that I was able to take full and even breaths for the first time in my recent memory.
How do you know I won't hold you back? I could be dyslexic or a horrible speller. I could be convinced that Dill was named after his favorite kind of pickle and argue that Scout needed to learn a woman's place is in the kitchen.
The way she snatched the page out from under me let me know that she'd been reading as I wrote. A small chuckle escaped my lips as I watched her furiously phrase her response. I expected a diatribe about modern society's view of women, or how Dill was not to be made light of, as he was just as lonely as Boo Radley. I tried to read as she responded, but it would have required leaning closer to her than my fragile psyche would allow. Instead, I skimmed a few pages of the novel and waited as patiently as possible. The nearly full page was placed in front of me, and my gaze lingered on her slender fingers as she pulled away.
You spelled dyslexic perfectly, easily proving that you neither possess that particular learning disability, nor are you a horrible speller. As for your grasp of the underlying themes of the book, I imagine you understand them better than any other student in this school. I understand your reticence, and I'll never challenge it. Not purposely, anyway. And I understand the underlying themes as well as you do- perhaps more now that I'm the new girl. If you'd like to focus on Scout's understanding of the role of women in society, I'm sure we could still do a kick-ass job. So? Partners?
I read the note three times, almost laughing aloud each time. For the first time in years, I looked directly into the eyes of someone other than my family and smiled.
I didn't realize just what a calming presence Bella had been until I had to suffer through the next two hours without her near me. She had left me with a shy smile, and approached Angela Weber for help getting to her next class. I liked that she knew that I wouldn't be able to talk to her enough to help her, and she didn't push the issue.
Calculus was bearable because Mr. Varner never expected me to talk, but Spanish was distressing. Mrs. Goff seemed to have missed the memo alerting the teachers that I don't speak aloud. She called on me no less than three times. Truthfully, my Spanish is probably better than hers but just the thought of twenty-six other kids hearing me conjugate the verbs sent me into a frenzy of tremors, and I almost had to excuse myself.
I briefly considered taking the entire lunch hour in the men's room or the library, but I knew that Alice would manage to find me anywhere. She was fully aware that I didn't enjoy socializing, and took perverse pleasure in making me do it anyway. I knew she and Emmett were just trying to help, and to be honest I didn't mind Jasper's company at all. Alice's boyfriend was as laid-back as she was twisted, and I actually found him to be a calming presence on most occasions. Since I knew the issue would be forced, I decided to make things as easy on myself as possible and dragged myself and my bag of lunch to the table in the corner.
There was someone filling the sixth seat, and my heart give its usual thump. Alice knew better than to invite others to join us, but she'd done it anyway. As I got closer, I realized that the brown curls were familiar and inspired a new kind of calm in me. The feeling was akin to the comfort one might get from a favorite blanket. The irony did not escape me that she had been the reason for my most powerful anxiety attack in weeks, and was now the very thing that could calm them. And I had known of her existence for just over three hours.
"Hi, Edward!" Alice said happily.
I nodded at her and Jasper as I took the seat next to Bella. She smiled at me, but didn't attempt to speak. Alice filled the silence with chatter until Emmett and Rosalie joined us. Emmett accepted the addition to the group with grace, but Rosalie froze and raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow.
"Oh! You're here!" Alice said, clapping. "Now Bella can meet everyone properly. She met Edward in Lit this morning, and we met last period in Physics! Now she gets to meet everyone else!"
Rosalie eyed me cautiously, waiting for one of my famous breakdowns, but I gave her a smile and a shrug. Her eyebrows rose even higher and she offered a small smile to the newest inhabitant of the lunch table. Bella dipped her head shyly under Ro's intense scrutiny, but she did smile back. Alice jumped in immediately, chattering throughout the whole lunch hour. Emmett's booming laughter caused Bella to jump a few times, but she always laughed quietly after the shock wore off.
Through Jasper's gentle questioning, I learned that Bella had moved from Phoenix and she was not thrilled at all with the rainy weather in Forks. I learned that her mother was a free spirit who decided to travel with her baseball player husband, and that she was happy to spend her last two years of high school with her father. We all knew that Charlie Swan was the Chief of Police, but none of us mentioned it. It seemed to embarrass her a bit, and no one at the table wanted to make the new girl feel uncomfortable. Well, Emmett might have given it a go, but Rosalie elbowed him sharply as he opened his mouth and we were not subjected to the brilliance that was sure to have followed.
When the bell rang, signaling the time for fifth period. I had a free period that I usually took in the music hall. I was almost to the door of the cafeteria when I felt a piece of paper pressed into my palm. I turned quickly and saw Bella behind me, smiling shyly. Without even thinking, I closed my fist around the note and clutched it to my chest. She waved and headed off after Emmett who had promised to show her where her Government class was.
When I reached the music hall, I waved at Ms. Tucker. She waved back, but didn't leave her office. She, too, understood that I wouldn't talk. Instead of playing immediately, as I usually would, I unfolded Bella's note and spread it gently across my lap.
I hope you don't mind that I'm writing you a note like a silly seventh grader. I somehow guessed that you'd prefer to make plans for our project without having to speak about it.
Before I get to that, I want to say thanks for agreeing to work with me and saving me the agony of sitting like a dolt and waiting for someone to take pity on the new girl. I imagine you understand when I say I didn't want to have to approach someone.
Your silence is refreshing. I don't normally like to be around people that chatter like crazy, but your sister is right next to me at the moment and she makes me laugh. Who knew? She's filled me in on your entire schedule for some reason, and I know you're probably sitting at a piano right now. Alice says you're really good, and I'm glad that you have something into which you can pour your emotions. I like to write, so this method of communication works very well for me.
My dad doesn't get home from work until very late usually, so we'll have a silent house for our work if you want to start this afternoon. I have a huge stack of notebooks, so talking won't be a problem. If you're not ready, I'm perfectly fine with that. I can write out my impressions tonight and let you read them tomorrow.
I have stupid gym last period, so if you want to work this afternoon you can meet me there. It's seriously cool if you don't, so please don't upset yourself over it.
I read the note three times and wondered how I felt about meeting her. Her words about Alice made me laugh, and Ms. Tucker looked through the window in surprise. I cleared my throat and folded the letter carefully before placing it in my pocket. I wanted to play a happy piece, and Mozart seemed to be just the thing. After playing through a few of my favorites, I transitioned into Mendelssohn and then onto Gershwin. By the time the bell indicated it was time for my Government class, I was smiling like a madman. I would meet her after her gym class.
"Edward?" a soft voice dragged me from my reverie.
Rosalie stood a few feet away, careful not to step into my space. I cocked my head and waited for her to continue.
"Are you coming with us this afternoon?"
I shook my head and pulled my bag up on my shoulder.
"Bella and I have a project for Lit class," I told her quietly.
"Are you okay with that?" Rosalie asked, her face a mask of concern.
I did like my brother's girlfriend very much. They had dated since eighth grade and I had watched her grow from gawky preteen to stunning lady. Through it all, she had maintained her grace and humility. Even in her more shallow moments, I knew that she cared for my brother and his whole family by extension.
"She's nice," I said, realizing immediately what a gross understatement that was. Rosalie seemed to understand what I hadn't said and she nodded with a smile.
"She is nice. Alice is already quite fond of her. I know Alice seems to like everyone unconditionally, but she really thinks a lot of Bella already. We'll have to keep Emmett from scaring her off."
My blood ran cold at the thought, and I felt that familiar sensation of falling again. Rosalie's eyes widened in concern as she recognized the signs. "Oh, honey, I won't let that happen. I promise, Edward. She's not going anywhere."
The doors to the gym opened at that moment and students began pouring through. Mike Newton stopped short at the sight of me and then almost tripped over his feet when he saw Rosalie next to me. He had probably considered trying to talk, but Rosalie intimidated the hell out of him. It's not that he was a bad guy, really. Just... incorrigible. No matter how steadfastly I refused to speak to him, he still persisted in trying to be friends. I think it sincerely hurt his ego that there was at least one person in the school that wouldn't be his friend.
Thoughts of Mike left me the moment she walked through the door. Even with her damp hair piled on top of her hair in a messy bun and the ferocious scowl on her face, she was lovely. I sighed and Rosalie huffed a laugh through her nose.
"Hi," Bella said, her face suddenly alight with happiness.
"What was the frown all about?" Rosalie asked, knowing that I would want to know but would never have the courage to ask.
"Ugh. General disgust with all things athletic," Bella said, and I watched in fascination as she laughed.
Her head was thrown back just a bit, exposing even more of her slender throat, her smile wide and inviting. Her eyes met mine, and the smile changed. It was still present, and was still just as wide, but suddenly seemed to be something between just the two of us. I couldn't help but smile in return.
As far as people went, I liked Chief Swan. He and my dad were pretty good friends, and he never really talked much. That meant he never expected me to answer. Like him or not, I was glad that he wasn't home when Bella and I arrived. I parked on the street so that his space would be open, but Bella had assured me that she'd get me out of the house well before he arrived.
The house itself was nothing more than a cottage nestled among the evergreens. The paint was fresh and the shutters clean; its inhabitants expressed their pride of ownership through regular maintenance. Pots of flowers adorned the porch and I instinctively knew they were Bella's handiwork.
She was watching my naked appraisal with a shy smile. "The poor place just needed some more color."
I wanted to tell her that her flowers were beautiful- that they were small and delicate and soft and shy- just as she was. Never before had I been so eager to speak my thoughts.
I opened my mouth and managed a croak before my chest seized and my heart began the familiar palpitations. My jaw closed with a snap and I sucked in the deep breaths that I knew would fend off the attack. I wanted so desperately to say the words! Bella, you're beautiful. In my mind it was so easy. My tongue had other ideas.
I hadn't realized my eyes were closed until Bella's soft voice crashed through the roaring in my head. "It's okay, Edward. You don't have to say anything. Let's get you inside."
Again, the words rushed forth and I opened my mouth to free them. And again my body rebelled. She ushered me gently through the front door without touching me at all, and yet I felt her all the way to my soul.
We were just finishing up when I heard her father pull into the driveway. Once more, the anxiety flared up. Bella flashed me a sympathetic look, but somewhere in her expression I read that everything would be okay. I zipped my bag as the front door opened and Charlie Swan stepped into view. He looked surprised to see me, but didn't utter a word. Instead, he looked to Bella.
"Dad, you know Dr. Cullen's son, Edward?" Charlie nodded, still silent, and turned to place his hat and gun belt on the table behind him.
When I glanced back at Bella, she was smiling widely and offering me a piece of paper.
He's quiet, too. He likes you, though. I know because I've learned to read him. And he didn't shoot you.
"Is Edward staying for dinner?" Charlie finally asked. His voice was low and soothing, just like Bella's.
The words still incited a spark of panic in my chest and I whipped my gaze back to Bella.
"Perhaps when he's a bit more comfortable, Dad," she said, without even looking at me.
She had known. She didn't even need to see my reaction and she had known.
She was beautiful.
School days had been something of a chore for me before Bella's arrival. The hours I spent without her were still excruciating, but seeing her in Lit class and at lunch seemed to calm me enough to make it through the remainder of the day. She never pushed, always accepting my silence with a smile. I found that shorter answers were easy enough to give verbally, and she would listen carefully with an expression of delight.
She fell in easily with the friends I had, though she acquired quite a few on her own. Angela Weber would often approach at lunch and talk with Bella for a few minutes before moving on to eat with her boyfriend, Ben, and his friends. I found Angela to be almost as restful as Bella, for she had a kind heart and soft voice. Bella never failed to join our little group at lunch, though, even when she was invited elsewhere.
Alice asked me one morning if she could invite Bella over for dinner, and my mind went blank. The thought of Bella in my house, at my dinner table, and maybe even seeing my bedroom caused my heart pound. Alice watched me carefully while awaiting my answer, but I couldn't form the words. I was too busy coming to the realization that the thrumming of my heart was not from anxiety, but from excitement. There was no holding back the broad smile that crossed my face and Alice bounced once and clapped her hands.
"I'll ask her at lunch today!" she laughed.
I spent the day scared senseless that Bella would say no, but I needn't have worried. She seemed absolutely delighted to have been included in the Cullen dinner plans. I smiled into my sandwich as I listened to Alice chatter ceaselessly about what Mom might cook and the things we might do afterward. Rosalie and Jasper had standing invitations to dinner at any time, so having them over was nothing new. Bella, however, was something about which she could be excited. A note was shoved under my hand, and my heart skipped a beat.
Seriously. She's this excited about dinner? Is the President going to be there?
I laughed out loud, causing all talk at the table to stop. Bella huffed and made a motion with her hand, telling everyone to continue as they were. I had laughed more with her around than I had in years, but she couldn't know that. Everyone else realized that it was very unusual for me, and they couldn't help but stare in wonder for a moment. Bella, growing tired of the silence, made the motion again and added the words, "Continue, please." Her eyes never left mine. When the conversation picked up again, after a few awkward stops and starts, I accepted her offered pencil.
You're the only new element to the equation. All the excitement is for you. How does that make you feel?
She read my words and rolled her eyes. Everyone was watching the interaction closely, but continued to discuss the games we might all play as if nothing unusual was happening.
That was the only response Bella gave, but it made me laugh again.
Rosalie waited with me again for Bella to leave gym class. She didn't say a word, but I felt her support as acutely as if she had spoken it. It had become our new ritual, to stand together and watch for Bella to appear. My breath still left my lungs in a rush every time I saw her flushed and breathless from her quick shower. Mike Newton would walk next to her sometimes, causing a little flame of jealousy to ignite when I saw them, but he always marched away abruptly when he saw me and Rose waiting. Whatever jealous fire he left burning was always quenched when I saw Bella's face light up at the sight of me. She would stand and talk with Rosalie for a few minutes before gently leading me to my car. We would then ride in comfortable silence to her house to continue work on our Lit project.
That day was a bit different, though. I could feel the thrum of excitement as I considered showing her my home- my bedroom, my piano. These things had always been private, sacred spaces meant only for me. For some reason, I could not wait to invite her in. We had to finish up the last of the paper before we could escape to my house, but there was not much left to complete. Working with Bella had been as easy as she had promised. Our time was always spent without spoken word, but we had somehow amassed fifty some- odd pages of notes for the project and a full notebook of conversations. Her brilliance astounded me, as well as her tender heart.
She had a passionate view on the mistreatment of Boo Radley, and she never failed to express it. Her eyes burned with love and understanding as she scribbled furiously; she thought he was beautiful. We put the final touches on the rough draft, and I felt sadness knowing that our time together was coming to an end. Without the excuse of the project, I knew I'd never have the courage to ask her for more time together.
As she shut the notebook on our weeks of work, I stood and helped her from her chair. She took my hand with a smile and allowed me to lead her to the car. I wanted to describe my parents for her, but the words still just wouldn't come.
I did manage to say, "I'm glad you're joining us tonight."
Her face lit up as if I'd told her she'd won the lottery. She never pushed me to speak, but her happiness when I did encouraged me to try more often.
I was certainly more comfortable in my house than anywhere else. It had been ages since I'd had a panic attack while awake. I still sometimes woke up in the throes of an attack, but they were not nearly as common as they once were. I often found myself speaking aloud to my family and friends when in my sanctuary, and I wondered how Bella's presence would affect that. I opened the front door and escorted Bella inside, knowing I was about to find out.
"Edward!" Mom called.
Bella froze as my mother came into view, and for a moment I looked at Esme Cullen through the eyes of a stranger. Her face was smooth and unlined, and bore the smile of a truly happy person. Caramel hair fell in silky curls around her face, and her brown eyes were alight with wonder.
"She's beautiful!" Bella breathed, and I smiled in pride.
My mother was, indeed, beautiful. Mom rushed forward and pulled me into a hug, as she did every time I arrived home. She then turned and opened her arms to Bella.
"We've heard so much about you, love, " Mom said, briefly embracing my friend.
"We've been looking forward to meeting you. Come, now. Dad's putting the finishing touches on the table. Emmett has already been into all the food, so I only hope we have enough for everyone."
Bella laughed and took in her surroundings with wide eyes. "Your house is lovely, Mrs. Cullen."
"Oh, Lord. Call me Esme," Mom said with a grin. "Mrs. Cullen makes me feel so old. And you'll call my husband Carlisle, please. Otherwise, I'll feel like I'm married to a septuagenarian."
Bella giggled again, and I found myself laughing with her. We followed Mom to the dining room where everyone was already gathered. Alice was smacking Emmett's hands away from a dish of scalloped potatoes while Jasper looked on lazily. Rosalie was talking with Dad about the new Mercedes he'd bought, begging him to let her behind the wheel. I knew if he let anyone drive it besides Mom, it would be Rosalie. Her respect for automobiles was unmatched by any male I'd ever met.
"Bella!" Emmett yelled when he noticed we were standing in the doorway. Bella jumped a bit and turned to me with wide eyes.
"Don't scare her, you idiot," I said before thinking. Everyone froze, eyebrows raised, and stared at the two of us.
"Hi, Emmett," Bella said, filling the silence as only she could.
Dad smiled at both of us and walked around the table to meet Bella. I could tell that he was just as taken with her as the rest of us, but his reasons were much the same as mine. He could see the shell drop away from me when she was around, and it eased his fears a bit.
I managed to talk a bit during dinner. It wasn't unusual for me to converse with my family, but they didn't expect me to contribute much since there was a guest. Bella was involved in every topic of conversation, though, and I responded to questions easily. It was almost as if Bella was a part of the family. As we stuffed ourselves with Mom's homemade cheesecake, I even teased Alice about her shoe collection. My shell lay cracked at my feet.
I opted out of the board games so that I could give Bella a tour of the house. We promised to join them all later, but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to escape the wondrous gazes of my family. If I was uncomfortable, I could only imagine how Bella felt. She followed me quietly from room to room, smiling proudly as I explained each room. I debated quickly between showing her my music room before my bedroom and saving it for last. If I showed her the bedroom first, I might actually work up the courage to play something for her. With the decision made, I led her shyly to the door at the end of the hall.
"My room," I said quietly.
Her eyes took in the king sized bed covered with a navy blue spread. A glass desk held my laptop, and matching glass shelves housed my extensive music and book collection. She headed straight for the books, as I knew she would.
"Brilliant," she muttered, touching my copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time with a smile.
I wondered if she thought I might be autistic as she watched me out of the corner of her eye. As I was trying to figure out how to differentiate between autism and crippling shyness for her, she grabbed my hand and squeezed. I felt an electric jolt through my whole body, forgetting for a moment to breathe. Then, carefully, I squeezed back. With that one tiny act, she had her answer.
"Come," I said, pulling her out the door and down the hall to the steps.
Her physical expression had given me the courage to tear down that last wall and share my music. I could hear everyone else in the house going about their normal lives while feeling that mine was about to change immensely. No one had ever heard me play; no one except my family, Jasper, Rosalie, and Ms. Tucker. Ms. Tucker had only heard because I had to accept her presence if I wanted to use the piano at school. Bella would be the first person I willingly played for, and I bit my lip in a panic wondering if she would like it.
She paused next to the piano, waiting for me to sit. I thought for a moment before inviting her to sit next to me. She almost tripped over her feet in her excitement and it made me smile. Suddenly, any panic I felt was gone. She was just as excited to hear me play, as I was to share with her.
She didn't sit close enough for our legs to touch, and I felt myself longing for the heat of her body as I poised my hands over the keys. Under the guise of making myself more comfortable, I scooted toward her just enough to hear the fabric of her jeans rustle against my own. Then, I began to play. My eyes drifted closed and I put every ounce of my undefined feelings for Bella into the music. I knew she was beautiful, not only outwardly but on the inside as well. She had a tender, caring heart. Somehow, she understood me without needing me to explain myself. Her very presence calmed me and prompted me to speak in a way that nothing else had for as long as I could...well, nothing ever had.
When the notes had drifted to silence in the room, I opened my eyes and turned to her. There were tears streaming down her face, and I ached to wipe them away. She gave me a watery smile and held out a piece of paper with a sheepish grin. Before taking it, I gave in and traced a thumb across her cheek to collect the moisture there. Her eyes fluttered closed and she leaned into my palm. With my free hand, I lifted the sheet of paper and braced myself for her words.
It's beautiful, Edward. You're beautiful.