CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: SOMETIMES
I am brave. Bella was always the brave one. Maybe we can both be brave.
I sit on the park bench watching Wren as she digs in the dirt next to the sandbox. She's already filthy and we've only been here for seven minutes.
I try not to stare at the parking lot. She said she'd be here. It was her idea.
"Hey stranger," Bella calls out as she approaches.
I jump to my feet. "Hey." Stranger.
I hug her and she hugs me back. When we let go, she holds on to the edge of my shirt for half a second and I feel like a teenager.
"You look good, Edward."
I'm not sure if I'm supposed to say thank you or return the compliment or ignore it entirely. I hold the small bouquet of flowers out to her. She startles from my sudden, awkward movement.
It's the first time I've given her flowers.
She smiles, shaking her head like she doesn't quite believe it.
"Thank you. For the flowers."
Wren comes running over shouting about something she found in the dirt. She stops in her tracks when she sees Bella. Approaching cautiously, she eyes Bella like she's not trustworthy. And I wonder why she's never looked at me that way.
"Wren, do you remember Bella?"
She doesn't answer, she just stares at her. I'm embarrassed by her lack of manners.
"It's nice to meet you, Wren."
She still doesn't answer, poking her tongue around inside her cheek while she stares Bella down.
"She's shy around strangers." It's a total lie and I know it the second I say it. "That's not really true. She's not shy at all she just, I don't know..."
I turn to Wren, begging her to save me. When she finally decides to speak she asks, "Are you Edward's wife?" And I want to die.
"Wren, we talked about this."
Bella places her hand on my arm. "Edward, it's okay."
She turns to Wren and I wish we weren't doing this. "I used to be, once upon a time." And the way she smiles, like that time in her life wasn't consumed by my addiction.
"Once upon a time?" Wren asks.
"Do you know what that means?"
"Of course I do. I'm not a baby."
"No, no you're not a baby. How old are you anyway, eleven?" Bella winks.
Wren laughs. "No, I'm seven."
"Okay, I'm five. But I'm almost seven. Do you want to see something cool?" she asks in her husky little voice.
"Always," Bella responds, like they're old friends.
"I found four roly polies," she boasts, uncurling her fist to show off her treasures. "If you hold real still, they unroll and start walking around on your hand."
Bella holds her hand out and I watch Wren pinch the little bugs into Bella's palm. She stops suddenly, one of the roly polies between her fingers. She looks like she's about to cry. "I think this one's dead." She holds it out to me and by the looks of it, it's long dead.
"It's okay, Wren. That happens sometimes," I try to explain.
"You always say that and I don't even know what that means."
"It means it's a part of life. Even if it's sad." I can feel Bella's eyes on me, but I don't look in her direction.
"Can we bury her?" Wren asks.
I look to Bella for guidance. "I think that would be a nice thing to do, Wren."
"We have to find a good spot so the squirrels won't eat her up."
"Do squirrels eat roly polies?" I whisper to Bella.
"I have no idea," she whispers back.
We follow Wren to the grouping of trees that line the park. She picks up a large stick and starts poking around the tree trunks, not satisfied with what she's finding. She insists on wearing rain boots, even in the summer. It's endearing in moments like this.
"She's pretty special," Bella says as we watch Wren search for the perfect tree.
I don't dare look at her. "Yeah. She is."
Eventually Wren squats down and starts digging a hole at the base of a tree with her stick. It's the only willow tree I've ever seen in this town. I think Bella and I both stop breathing.
She shouts and motions for us to come over. Neither of us moves or says anything. Bella starts walking first. And I guess that's the way it's always been with us. I run to catch up instead of following behind.
We stand side by side as Wren covers the roly poly with dirt. "Now you can go up to Heaven and be with your family," she tells the little bug. "Don't be scared."
She wipes her dirty hands on her shorts and I wish I knew what to say.
I carry Wren back to our bench, her head resting on my shoulder, her rain boots smearing dirt all over my clothes.
"I brought you something, Wren," Bella tells her. She talks to her like she knows her.
Wren eyes her suspiciously. I can only imagine the number of times her mother has told her the same thing.
"I heard you like princesses."
"I do," she smiles, her eyes shining.
Bella pulls a sparkling, plastic crown out of her purse. It's the most god-awful thing I've ever seen.
Wren stares at it, like she doesn't believe it could possibly be hers. She runs her fingers over the fake stones like she's never been given anything in her entire life.
Bella helps her put it on before Wren runs off toward the playground screeching with excitement.
"Bella, you didn't have to do that."
We watch Wren go back and forth across the monkey bars a hundred times, her crown hanging from her hair.
"I wasn't sure if you were going to come alone."
"I know." I know.
She's looking at me so strangely. "What?"
"It hurts a little to see you with her."
I swallow the lump in my throat and try to figure out what to say.
"You're good with her."
"I see you in her, you know. You've taught her a lot."
I shake my head because I don't know how to take that. "She's taught me far more than I could ever teach her."
"What has she taught you?" Bella asks, not because she doesn't believe me but because she genuinely wants to know.
I think about it first, because I don't want to get this wrong. "She taught me how to take care of someone."
She places her hand on top of mine. "She taught you far more than that. She taught you how to love someone." I don't know how to swallow or breathe.
Wren appears out of nowhere. "Are you gonna kiss?"
"No," Bella tells her before I even have time to process the question. I don't know why I thought this was a good idea. We are no longer touching and I feel the loss everywhere.
Bella fidgets with her hair. "Where should we go for lunch?" Her voice sounds strange.
Wren whisper-shouts in Bella's ear. "Edward made a picnic."
"We can go somewhere if you want." The picnic idea suddenly seems ridiculous.
"No, a picnic sounds nice."
"Where's the picnic basket?" Wren asks, looking around.
"I didn't bring one."
"But you said we were having a picnic," she challenges me.
"We are. I promise."
I unfold an old blanket and lay it down on the sparse grass. Bella helps to smooth it out and I wish I knew what she was thinking.
I pull out the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I made this morning from a paper bag, shrugging in embarrassment. "I wasn't sure what to make."
"Peanut butter and jelly is a favorite."
I can't help but smile wide. I don't care how stupid I look.
Wren eyes me. "Did you brush your hair today?" she asks, her eyebrows arched as high as they go.
I can feel my face redden. "Yes, did you?" I ask back while raking my fingers through my hair.
"You're making that face again," she scolds me.
"What face?" I realize after I ask that I shouldn't have.
"The one where you look like you have to poop." She immediately covers her mouth with her hands, remembering our conversation this morning about bathroom words. This would be a lot easier if I could muzzle her.
Bella's hand covers her own mouth, her eyes giving away the laugh that she's suppressing.
"Can we please just eat?"
Wren nods her head and I can tell she's sorry.
"Thank you for lunch, Edward."
"Um, you're welcome. I'm sorry, I forgot napkins."
Bella reaches into her bag and pulls out those wet wipes that they have at grocery stores by the carts. She wipes Wren's hands clean and then offers me one.
I just stare at her like an idiot. She holds it out for what seems like an eternity before I take it.
Two bites into her sandwich and Wren is already off and back to the playground.
Bella and I finish our peanut butter and jelly and this is so weird. To be sitting on a blanket in the park having a picnic with my wife. Jasper says I need to stop calling her that.
She peeks into the paper bag and gives me a questioningly look.
"Wren picked it out at the store," I try to explain.
"Peanut butter and jelly and cake," she laughs. But I don't think she's laughing at me.
When I told Wren she could pick out a cake from the bakery, she wanted to know if it was my birthday. I didn't know how to explain a sobriety birthday to a five-year-old.
Bella clears her throat. "What are we celebrating?"
I take out the grocery store cake and struggle with the plastic case for a good several minutes before I realize that I forgot to bring forks. "Shit."
I don't answer her question because I don't know how. "I forgot forks."
Wren comes running back. I swear she can smell chocolate. "I wanted to get candles but Edward said it's not that kind of birthday."
I don't want to look at Bella but I do it anyway. She's staring at me like I'm a stranger, or maybe like she's proud. I don't know. She glances at her watch before I have time to decide. "I should get going."
"Please, please stay," Wren begs.
"Stay." I try not to sound as desperate as the five-year-old.
"I have to get home," Bella explains, her eyes trained on mine.
"Of course." Of course.
"It was very nice to meet you, Wren."
Wren blinks at her, her face expressionless. Just as I'm about to remind her that it's rude not to answer people, she tackles Bella in a hug. Bella is just as startled, but she wraps her arms around the little girl named after a bird and hugs her back. Wren looks up at Bella longingly and something inside of me breaks in two.
"You smell good and you have pretty hair," Wren tells her. And it's about all I can take.
"Likewise," Bella winks at her.
Wren wrinkles up her nose. "What's likewise?"
"It means you smell good and have pretty hair too."
Wren runs her hands over her tangled mess of hair and smiles. And I'm so grateful to Bella for giving her that moment.
"Alright, Wren, Bella has to get home."
Wren lets go of her reluctantly. With her head tilted to the side she asks, "Where do you live? Edward's house has stairs that squeak."
Bella doesn't laugh nervously the way I do. "And old wood floors and wallpaper in the dining room," she tells Wren.
"Yeah, that's his house!" she laughs.
"If you go in the bathroom upstairs there's a secret door with a tiny little ironing board inside," Bella tells her. Wren starts giggling even though I'm pretty sure she has no idea what an iron is, let alone an ironing board.
Bella and I lock eyes for a second and it's heavy and light. I want to apologize for so many things.
She looks back down at Wren. "Thank you for the picnic."
"It was Edward's picnic," she corrects her.
And then she's looking at me again and I want to disappear. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," I manage, before I need to stare at the ground.
We hug goodbye and I hold on a moment too long. I can't help it. She feels even better than I remember. But when I try to let go, she is the one holding on to me.
From the park bench, Wren and I watch Bella walk, flowers in hand, to her car. We sit together quietly, and she's the best person to have silent conversations with. She leans against me, curling her feet up under her like a cat.
I can remember being terrified that Bella was going to look at me one day and see me for the failure that I was. I was so afraid that she would see the liar, the addict, the thief.
Today, for the first time, I wanted her to see me. I don't know if she did.
I wonder where she lives, if she still drinks her morning coffee at the kitchen table with the newspaper. Somehow I doubt it. I'm not the only one whose life has changed.
I try not to think about her anymore but I'm no good at that game.
Luckily there is a little girl by my side to distract me. "Do you think Bella is likewise?" Wren wonders.
"Do you think she's likewise?" she repeats, a little exasperated with me.
"I don't know what that means."
"Do you think she smells good and has pretty hair?"
I can't help but laugh. "Um, yes, I would have to say that Bella is definitely likewise."
"I knew it!" she shouts, grinning from ear to ear. "You should marry her again."
"She thinks you're likewise too. I saw her smell your hair."
She smelled my hair. I don't know what to do with that.
"You're always smiling about her," Wren says, reaching up to touch my face.
"You always smile about her too, you know," I tease her, covering her little face with my hand.
She swats me away and shrugs. "She's my friend."
I poke her in the ribs and tickle her silly until she's begging for mercy. "You're gonna break my crown!" she shouts.
"Alright, alright, I should take you home."
"Let's watch the birds for two more minutes."
So we watch the birds. For a lot longer than two minutes.
She starts to whine as I pack up our things. "Alright, someone's cranky. Definitely time to get you home."
She scowls at me and then gets really serious before she tells me, "Sometimes when my mommy is really cranky, she puts a needle in her arm to be better."
I feel like I've had the wind knocked out of me. "What did you say?"
She holds on to her elbow and looks up at me with eyes that could break a man. "Does that happen sometimes, Edward? Because it's part of life because it happens sometimes?"
My heart is beating like a ticking bomb.
"Does it happen sometimes?" she nearly begs.
I pick her up and hold her tight. "No, Baby. It doesn't happen sometimes."
To Susan for the roly poly. I can't handle how smart you are. To Kim for noticing every word. Thanks for being my people.
I know, I know, second update in a week. It's amazing what I can accomplish when I don't have to work. Thanks to those of you who are sticking with this story.
I have a one shot called A Lonely Life entered in the Ho Hey contest. Go check out the entries and vote for your top three favorites. The ffn page should come up first if you google search "Ho Hey Contest". The Lumineers are a favorite band of mine. While I never thought I'd write vamp, there really is a first time for everything.
I hope to have the next HL chapter for you in a week :)