CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: STAY

The Town

After


I am saying goodbye to a house that will no longer be ours. We're sort of doing it together.

My apology remains on the wall, tattered wallpaper hanging, like the house itself has been ripped open by the words.

"Most people would trash the place," Bella teases me as I put a final coat of white paint on the baseboards in the dining room.

"I guess I'm not most people."

She exhales in frustration, more with herself than with me. "I didn't mean it that way."

"I know," I reassure her.

We've both been saying all of the wrong things lately. Or maybe we're just saying everything that we kept to ourselves before.

I watch her put her hair up into a ponytail and I can't figure out why it's so sexy.

She grabs a spare paintbrush, and I try not to cringe at the thought of her helping me. I've seen her paint. I won't be able to watch.

"Sorry we don't have any music." I'm not sure why I'm apologizing.

"I like the quiet." This makes me happy. I find myself trying not to smile, but there's no reason to deny myself something so simple. Even if she sees.

We paint in silence. I watch her from the corner of my eye as she scowls at the baseboards.

"Why can I see so many lines in the paint?"

Because you're doing it wrong.

"You have to make long, continuous brush strokes."

"I am."

I promise you, you're not.

As I walk over to her, all I can see is the mother of my child. Sitting on the floor with a paintbrush. In our house. It feels like the rest of it doesn't exist.

"Like this," I tell her, placing my hand on hers. We both pretend like it's nothing. But I can hear her breathing. I can feel her breathing.

With my chin over her shoulder, I show her. It's the most erotic moment I've experienced in years.

I wish I could kiss her. I want to throw our brushes to the ground and kiss her until she can't breathe. With my hands tangled in her hair, I want to press her to the hardwood with the full weight of my body.

We don't do any of those things. We sit on the floor and laugh about stupid shit for almost an hour. Maybe we're both just high on paint fumes.

Forgetting that there is nowhere to sit, we move to the living room. What was left of the furniture has all been moved out. Except for the mattress on the floor in the bedroom. Tonight will be my last night. And then Jasper's couch.

"Do you want to see the upstairs?" It sounds like a proposition. But I don't mean it that way. I don't think.

She doesn't answer as she heads for the stairs. Pausing as she walks up, she turns to look at me. "They don't squeak."

I forgot what it was like to see her smile like that.

I stand at the bottom and smile too, waiting for it. I watch her feet. And when she hears the obnoxious squeak of the final step she stops. She doesn't turn around right away, but when she does her face is worth it.

She doesn't say a word. Neither of us do. But it's like a piece of us is being left behind. Old houses have stories, Bella used to say. Today, for the first time in a long time, maybe forever, I feel like we match.

"Are you coming?" she asks, her voice light. If I didn't know better, I'd say the last few years never happened.

My heart thunders in my ears as she stands at the top of the stairs. I left the door closed, unsure if I wanted her to see. I don't stop her when she turns right, her hand resting on the closed door.

I watch her disappear into the room that has been nothing but empty. Except for a stash of pills that used to live under a floorboard.

I give her a minute before climbing the stairs, resting for a moment on the squeaky one.

Standing behind her, I can tell that her mood has changed, even without seeing her face. At her side, I force myself to look at her. Her eyes are trained on the corner of the room, where the walls meet the ceiling. It's what she does when she's trying not to cry.

The woman behind the paint counter helped me pick the color. And when she asked me how old my little girl was, I said two and a half. Like it was nothing. Like I see her every day. Like I tuck her in at night. She called the color lilac. It's a flower. I think.

Bella's fingers brush across her cheek as she shakes her head. I want to say something but nothing seems like enough.

Maybe it was cruel to paint this room. Standing here with Bella, it seems like I was trying to prove something. I probably was. But it wasn't an empty gesture.

We stand in silence until I can't take it.

"How is she?"

She looks surprised by the question. It hurts, but I understand. She doesn't know how much I think about her. How could she know?

"She's good." She's smiling now. Her cheeks are red, like they get when she's been crying. But maybe she's not sad.

"Is she talking?" Does she ask about me?

She doesn't look at me when she speaks. "Full sentences. Although her favorite word is still no."

I can't stop staring at her face. She looks different when she's talking about her. Our daughter.

She sits down on the floor and I follow without thinking about it. She tells me more than I would even know to ask. I wish I already knew everything she is saying. And she laughs when she tells me about our daughter's love for spaghetti. Because it's my favorite. And maybe she's my daughter too.

She laughs a lot and it's all right there in her face. How much she loves her and adores her and would do anything for her.

I watch her run her hands along the floorboards as she talks, like she's trying to memorize them.

"Sometimes when I look at her, I can't find any part of me. I only see you."

I don't know how to feel, so I feel everything and nothing.

She's serious now and I want to go back to before.

"All that time I was trying to get pregnant... I thought there was something wrong with me. I felt like a shell of a woman."

"Bella..."

"You need to hear that, Edward. You need to understand what it did to me."

I nod. Because she's right. I want to understand. I want to know.

"I thought I was defective."

"Bella..."

"I thought I was broken. And then you said I couldn't be pregnant. You were so adamant when I was so sure. And when I heard what you had done... it destroyed me, Edward."

"Bella, I..."

"Let me finish."

I close my mouth, nodding.

"More than anything I was mortified that I could love someone who was capable of hurting me so much."

I don't know what to say. I never know how to tell her things out loud. But I have to try. I have to fucking try.

"I was the broken one."

She presses her lips together, like she's trying to keep the words in. "And now? What are you now?"

There isn't a single lie trying to escape my mouth. Not one. "I'm trying to pick up the pieces," I tell her as honestly as I know how. "I'm trying to live."

We end up knee to knee. Touching without touching. It's what could have been. If we had been different. If I had been different.

"You have paint in your hair," I tell her, reaching out to show her. She reaches at the same time and it's awkward until we're somehow holding hands. She won't stop looking at me and it feels so good and so terrifying that I can't stop either.

I take her other hand in mine and I think I'm shaking.

Cross-legged on the floor, we stare at each other until our faces are too close to stare. Until our eyes are forced closed and our lips are almost touching.

"What are we doing?" I blurt out, my lips brushing hers as I speak.

"I don't know," she whispers back, making no effort to pull away.

And so we stay like this, our mouths hovering and our fingers intertwined.

Until her lips are moving against mine. Until we're kissing. And not the way I imagined downstairs. I can't think. I can only kiss her back. And hold on to her.

It lasts seconds. Or an hour.

"Why did you do that?" I ask, my eyes still closed, my mouth seeking hers again before she can answer.

And she lets me. She lets me kiss her like this. She lets me forget.

"I think I wanted to," she tells me between kisses. I think I wanted to.

I had forgotten the way she tastes. I had forgotten what it was like to feel alive. Maybe I never knew.

We are no longer knee to knee, no longer holding hands. Her fingers ghost over my arms. I pull her to me. Or maybe she's the one pushing my back to the floor.

Our bodies are pressed together, but it's her weight on top of mine and I don't know how this is real. Her hands rake through my hair, fingers tracing my scar.

She kisses the same and feels the same and when she moves against me it feels like nothing will be the same ever again.

We're both fully clothed, but the sounds coming out of our mouths. I just. Want. To fuck her.

"Edward."

What?

"Edward," she says half-heartedly as I continue to kiss her. I can't get enough of her mouth.

"We should stop."

The full weight of her body is on mine and we should stop.

"Okay," I tell her as I kiss her again.

"Okay," she says as she kisses me back. As she moves her hips against mine.

But we don't stop until it's almost dark and our lips are swollen. And even then, her fingers still trace my skin leaving goose bumps in their wake.

"We should get some dinner," she says, breathless.

Dinner is the last thing on my mind.

"Dinner sounds good. Just give me a minute."

She blushes even though we spent the last hour making out, her body doing things to mine that I know she could feel.

She leaves me there on the floor of the purple room and I don't know what this is.

I spend a few quick minutes in the bathroom jacking off while she's downstairs. And while it feels wrong, it's the most satisfied I've been in years, since a time when it was her hand instead of mine.

We get take-out and sit on the floor of the dining room eating out of styrofoam. It feels like we're just moving in. But we're not. That part of our lives is long over.

"What time do you have to get home?"

She looks away from me when she speaks. "My mom took her for the weekend."

For the weekend.

She bites her thumb and I don't remember her ever doing that. "I've never actually been away from her overnight. I'm kind of freaking out." She's never been away from her and I've never been with her.

She pulls her keys out of her purse and I have to do something.

"Don't go. Please." I want to kiss her. But not kiss her goodbye.

She exhales, shaking her head without breaking eye contact. "What do you want, Edward?"

"I want things to be different."

"Then make them different," she practically demands, her mouth curling into a frown.

I reach for her. She doesn't protest. She lets me swallow her in my arms. She lets me crush her to my ribs.

She looks up at me as if I have all of the answers. She has always seen something in me that I could never, ever see.

"I told myself I wouldn't do this." I'm not sure if she's talking to me or herself. I don't even know what we're doing.

"Bella, what do you want?"

Her face looks tortured. "I want to sleep. With you."

What?

"I mean sleep. I want to stay here with you. I want to spend one last night in this house. More than anything, I want to wake up and feel you next to me. And I hate myself for wanting any of those things." The last part gets me in the gut.

I feel the need to start kissing her but that wouldn't be fair. She's confused. And she'd kiss me in spite of it.

She'd kiss me and she'd stay and I'd feel like a thief.

I let my arms fall to my sides and she takes a step back. Just like that, we are simply two people standing in the same room.

And then she says the last thing I'd ever expect. "Please don't stand there and let me walk away."

I feel paralyzed, afraid I'm going to do exactly that. Let her walk away. Because that's what's best for her. But Jasper says that's not up to me.

She shakes her head, as if she knows I've already decided. But I refuse to let that to be the end of our story.

I reach for her hand, barely catching her fingers. Her eyes shoot to mine and there are questions there that I wish I had the simple answers to.

I hold her fingers in the living room. And when I lead her away from the front door, she follows.

We take the stairs slowly. I feel like we should talk about this. But maybe there's nothing left to say.

In our bedroom, I kick off my shoes before I let go of her.

I can't stand the loss of contact for more than a second. I'm holding her face in my hands and when her eyes close, I can feel her eyelashes against my thumbs.

I kiss her eyes. "Stay with me."

She nods without opening her eyes.

"Look at me. Please."

She blinks and I don't know what to do now that she's staring at me. But I needed her to see me.

"I'm sorry for making you feel like a shell of a woman."

"I know."

"I'm sorry."

"I know."

Her fingers rest on my belt loops, pulling slightly, before finding their way under my shirt.

I shiver at the feeling of her hands on my bare stomach, my eyes closing on their own accord.

"I just want to feel your skin. Is that okay?"

I swallow and nod because it's the only answer I know how to give.

Her hands travel over my flesh before I help her pull my shirt up and over.

She turns around and I watch as she removes her own shirt. The sight of her naked back, if only for a second, makes me feel like I'm made of sand. She quickly picks up my T-shirt and puts it on before removing her pants.

Her shirt, bra and jeans lie in a pile on the floor. She slips under the light blanket that lies across the mattress without saying a word.

I'm not sure how to do this.

She stares at me as I stand frozen, shirtless and terrified.

"What do you want, Edward?" she asks again. Her voice sounds melancholy. I think that's the right word.

"I don't want this to be the last night."

She bites the inside of her cheek and I'm not sure what any of it means. I watch her pull her ponytail loose and I want her so badly it feels like I've been lit on fire.

And just like that, a different kind of longing comes creeping in. My body forgets that my seven places are long empty. I wonder if she can see it on my face.

"What?" she asks. And there's my answer.

"I'm supposed to talk about it when it happens."

"When what happens?"

"When I have an urge to use," I tell her. I thought I'd feel ashamed, but I don't.

She nods, her face giving nothing away. "Come here."

And so I do.

She's smiling and I'm confused.

"You have a half naked girl in your bed and you're thinking about getting high."

"I know," I laugh. "I'm a fucking idiot."

"You're not," she tells me, shaking her head. "And thank you."

"For what?"

"For telling me."

"I don't know if it will ever go away."

"Yeah."

"What does that mean?"

"It means I don't know either."

We're both under the blanket but we're not touching. I want to feel her skin too.

"Edward, I know you don't sleep with jeans on."

I laugh nervously. They're off and thrown to the floor, leaving us in our underwear, and her in my shirt.

Her hand finds mine under the sheet and it reminds me to breathe.

I curl myself around her and I'm amazed at how easily we fold into each other. My chin over her shoulder, I hold her firmly against my chest. I can feel the warmth of her body everywhere.

With every breath she takes, every single fucking breath, I realize how much I still love her.

Her shoulder peeks through the neck of my shirt. I want to kiss it. With her hand still in mine, I press my lips to her skin.

She exhales long and low. I wish I knew what she was thinking.

"Goodnight, Edward."

I kiss her shoulder and breathe her in and try to be right here in this moment. We both lie awake in the dark, just holding on to each other.

Until at some point I drift off.

I have dreams about fucking her on a mattress on the floor. And when I wake in the middle of the night everything feels soft and warm.

She's awake too, staring back at me. Her body is still pressed to mine but she's facing me now.

"You're handsy in your sleep," she whispers.

It's only then that I realize that my hand is up her shirt.

"Sorry," I smile.

"You're not sorry."

"I'm a little sorry."

She leans in, kissing me softly on the lips. Just once. But our mouths don't separate.

So I kiss her back. Just once. My lips pressed gently to hers.

And so it goes like this: her kissing me, me kissing her. It's different than making out with all of our clothes on.

My hands slide over her skin, my fingers climbing up her ribs and we're no longer taking turns kissing each other. We're just kissing.

And remembering how it used to be.

Imagine what you could do to me right now if this was our home.

I can't wait for our first night in this bedroom, Edward.

Our first night. Our last night. I kiss her like she's everything. Because I need to her to know. I need her to feel it. My mouth tugs at hers with an uncontrollable longing. Because I don't want her to be the girl I kiss. I want her to be my wife.

She starts to pull away and the panic tries to strangle me.

"Stay," I plead, gasping for air. Stay.

She shakes her head before pulling my T-shirt off and I feel like an idiot.

We're in bed together and she's topless. I'm so fucking desperate for everything that she is. I can't help but stare.

She looks different but the same.

My mouth immediately goes for her tits. She shivers as I kiss her, my hands finding hers again.

"I never held your hand enough."

A noise escapes her mouth and I think I might die if this is the end.

Her skin is hot, even under my mouth. Like she's burning too.

"I miss you."I say it out loud. Do you miss me? Is that all this is?

We're completely naked. And this is happening.

I kiss the corner of her eye.

I'm too selfish for this to be goodbye.

Our legs tangled together, we kiss and kiss and kiss. Like the first time in this bed in this room in this house.

What's your favorite thing, Edward?

Kissing you naked in our house. I want to kiss you naked in our house forever.

Forever.

Caging her beneath me, I kiss and touch every inch of her too hot skin. Her knuckles. The soft side of her elbow. Her hip. Her face. I kiss her face.

Her hands are hesitant at first, like she doesn't remember me. Like she doesn't want to remember.

"Stay," I beg.

"I'm here," she pants against my neck.

Stay.

But she can't stay. We can't. It's not that kind of mattress on the floor.

She closes her eyes again and I can't bear it.

"Stay with me. Bella, please."

When she looks at me, her gaze is feral. "You stay."

I feel like I'm choking. I could lie and tell her that I don't know what that means, but I won't. "Okay," I tell her. "Okay."

We stare and stare and stare. We kiss and touch and try to hold on to each other. She pulls my bottom lip into her mouth and I want to be inside of her in every possible way.

And when I find myself right there, she nods as if I've asked a question.

This is happening and I need her so much.

We hold hands as I slowly push inside of her. And it has never been like this.

I watch her face as her eyes close and her jaw goes slack. And the way she moans my name, I have to stop for a second. Because I never thought that we could have this and yet it feels like we will always have this. I almost believe that this could never be goodbye.

And when her eyes open, black and bottomless, I start to move. I can't help but move inside of her. It's been years and it's been months and days of trying to remember this. Us.

It's too much.

Her breathing is already erratic, and I've hardly been inside of her for a minute. She sounds like she's about to cry.

"Bella."

She won't answer me.

"Bella."

"Don't stop."

I don't. I can't.

Her legs wrap around me, pulling me closer. Her hands squeeze mine tight. As tight as they go. I'm not the only one holding on for dear life.

I press her to the mattress until it doesn't matter who we were or where we are. All that matters is the building ache.

And I know that I'm sorry shouldn't be enough. And love isn't supposed to be enough. And I will never, ever be enough. But right now it feels like this is all we need.

We are nothing but summer sweat, rocking together on a mattress on the floor.

Love me. Fuck me. Love me. See me. Don't leave. Please.

I love her slow and gentle until we both want more. Until the last several years apart catch up with us and we can't get close enough. I love her until her voice fills the empty room and her body goes limp.

I love her.

We spend the rest of the night under a sheet. Remembering what it's like to feel good.


-HL-


A/N:

To Susan and Kim for reading this chapter 80 thousand times.

And to you, for reading it at all.