CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: HEARTBEAT

The Country

Before


I am her fiancé. It sounds fancy and stupid but it's still true. She has a ring made from a tree branch that's been sitting in her underwear drawer for two months. One day she'll wear a real ring on her finger. One day she'll wear a white dress, but the ring will stay forever.

I refuse to look at the willow stump. I pretend our tree is still there in the distance, limbs hanging.

The ducks swim around in circles waiting for one of us to throw some bread their way. Bella and I watch them as they dive under the murky water of the frog pond.

It doesn't seem possible that they are the same two baby ducks that Bella brought home and begged me to let her keep. I felt their heartbeats in the palms of my hands.

"Ducks are waterproof, you know."

She smacks my arm. "No they're not."

"I swear."

"You know weird shit."

She stands up, brushing herself off. I want to pull her back down but I don't. I have to remind myself to be gentle with her now.

The ducks swim to the edge of the pond and shake like a couple of dogs as they waddle onto dry land. They follow Bella around as if she's their mother. Even now that they're grown.

I laugh at the sight of them, covering my eyes with my arm, a strange feeling bubbling in my chest.

Elbows on my knees, I can't stop smiling at her. She seems happy. She is happy, I think. Even though we're just kids and we're going to have a baby and none of this is the kind of life she said she wanted.

My father's a drunk. Her mother is scared for us and her father doesn't know what's happening right under his nose. But none of that matters.

She's marching around the star thistle, laughing at herself or the ducks, I don't know.

I grab her when she passes by, pulling her on top of me as I lie back in the hot dirt. Her hair hangs around my face, casting us in shadow as I press a quick kiss to her lips.

The ducks flap their wings and yell at us but I don't care. We're going to have a baby. We're going to be a family. And I can feel her smile in every inch of my skin.

I follow her over the fence and into her house. I follow her up the stairs to her room. I'd follow her anywhere.

I sit on her bed and stare out the window while she's in the bathroom.

She's in there forever.

But then she's in the doorway and I know something's wrong before she can even speak.

"Bella?"

"I'm bleeding."

I hold my breath before letting it out all at once. "What does that mean?"

"I don't know."

Her face is as white and hard as stone. My blood feels cold in my veins.

My first instinct is to go find Mrs. Swan, but Bella grabs ahold of me. "Where are you going?"

"To get your mom."

Her eyes are wide and dark. "No."

"Just take me."

"Take you where?"

"To the hospital."

I rummage through her nightstand until I find the keys to her father's Mercedes, my hands shaking and my heart pounding.

I follow her down the stairs and into the garage. She is expressionless.

"Are you okay?" I practically beg her.

"I don't know."

The vultures swarm overhead as we speed down the barren road. There are too many to count. I want to shoot them dead and watch them fall from the sky.

I hold her hand as I drive. I hold it too tight but she doesn't complain.

We live too far away, too far from hospitals and doctors and places that are important.

"Slow down," she tells me. But I don't listen.

And when we finally pull into the lot, she doesn't even try to get out of the car. She just sits there.

I walk around and open her door like they do in old movies. But it's not a date and it fucking hurts everywhere to see her doing nothing.

I crush her hand in mine as we walk into the emergency room.

A woman with big hair sits behind the counter. She doesn't look up, even when I clear my throat.

"Insurance card," she says casually as she shuffles papers.

Bella is quiet by my side.

"My... girlfriend is bleeding."

And when she still doesn't respond, I slam my hand down on the counter, smacking the plastic with an open palm. She flinches but it doesn't make me feel any better.

"She's pregnant. Are you just going to sit there?"

She looks up then, her eyes shifting between me and Bella, judging us with her eyebrows for being a couple of kids.

"Fill this out, take a seat, we'll get a room ready for her and take her back as soon as we can."

I keep asking Bella questions, but all she does is nod or shake her head. Her silence is deafening.

She's slow to stand when the nurse calls her name. She looks at me for the first time. "Come with me."

I feel sick.

We follow her through a maze of hallways and into a tiny room with bright lights. I can't remember the last time I've been in a doctor's office.

The nurse asks Bella a million questions. She answers all of them even though she wouldn't answer any of mine. I just watch Bella's face and try to figure out what's happening.

"The doctor will be in shortly."

She leaves us alone and I wish I knew what to say.

Bella stares at me. "Will you turn around?"

It seems stupid, but I do as she asks, facing the wall as she takes off her clothes and puts on the paper dress.

She doesn't tell me when she's finished. I wait for minutes, listening to the sound of crinkling paper.

"Bella?"

She doesn't say a word. I turn around to see her staring straight ahead, her jaw set tight.

"When we came for your appointment, your doctor said everything was fine. She said everything looked good. That was just a few weeks ago. She said."

I sound desperate. I am.

We sit in silence. I try to take her hand but she doesn't let me. It doesn't hurt nearly enough to take away the worry.

The doctor knocks before coming in, as if she's afraid of disturbing something.

She has a soft smile and kind eyes. She looks like a mother. The good kind.

"I hear you've experienced some bleeding. Sometimes that's completely normal. Let's just take a look, shall we?"

Bella lies back and stares up at the ceiling. I watch her face as the doctor gets everything ready.

This lady keeps talking, narrating everything she's doing, but it's too fast and too much.

There's a pause and my heart sinks. I look up at the little screen to see what she sees. To see what she doesn't see.

To hear what she doesn't hear.

And it's nothing like the first time.

It's Bella's voice that cuts the silence. "There's no heartbeat."

"I'm sorry."

She's sorry.

Bella stares at the corner of the room where the wall meets the ceiling.

"It looks like your body has done most of the work already."

Stop talking.

Bella nods, but I don't want to understand. Because we don't have a baby anymore. We're not parents. It feels like we're nothing.

The doctor keeps looking back between the two of us and I hate it. I hate her for being here at all.

"Were you trying to get pregnant?"

"No," I answer for Bella.

"Do we need to go over your options for contraception?"

"No. We've got it." But we don't have anything.

"I'm going to send you down to the lab for a blood sample so we can check your hormone levels."

I stop listening. She tells her about girl things that don't make any sense to me.

Bella nods a few times, even forces a smile.

"I'll leave you to get dressed. I'm so sorry, Honey. Sometimes God takes care of these things on his own."

My mouth gaping as she leaves the room, Bella is up and getting dressed. This time she doesn't ask me to turn around. It's like she doesn't even know I'm here.

I keep waiting for her to cry but she doesn't.

I grab at her hand, catching her fingers as she tries to open the door to leave the sterile room.

"What are you doing?" I beg.

"I'm going downstairs to get blood drawn," she answers, her voice hollow. She won't look at me.

I drop her hand, watching it fall limp back to her side. She stands in front of the closed door and I don't know what to do.

So I wrap my arms around her gently and pull her to my chest. She is statue still, arms at her sides, taking shallow breaths.

"Tell me what to do."

She tells me nothing.

Eventually, I let her go and open the door. I watch her walk silently through it, her shiny hair hanging down her back.

I stand by her side when they put a needle in her arm. I watch as they fill several vials with her blood.

She pretends like I'm not even there.

The drive home takes forever. She reaches over and turns the radio off. Maybe she wants to talk. But she says nothing as she faces the window, staring out at the hills, watching the weeds pass in a blur. Her hands are tucked away where I can't reach them.

And when we get back to her house, she's out of the car and through the front door before I can even turn the ignition off.

I leave the Mercedes in the driveway and follow her in. I stand in the foyer and listen for her. I'm met with silence. I climb the stairs and pray that nobody else is home.

She's in her room, standing by the window.

"Bella..."

"I'm fine."

"You don't have to be fine, Bella. Jesus."

She gives me nothing but her back. "I want to be alone."

I stay put as she crawls onto her bed, not even bothering to kick off her shoes. She covers her face with a pillow, only the ends of her hair sticking out.

I stand frozen in place, wanting to cry.

I can see the crows outside, sitting in the oaks, screaming like they know. Like they're mourning too.

She doesn't say anything as I take her shoes off for her and set them gently on the ground, laces hanging.

"I want to be alone," she tells me again. But it's empty and she's a liar.

I lie down next to her, covering her with my arm and pulling her body against mine. I hold on to her as tightly as I can because she's all I have.

She seems so small, folded up in my arms. Like a crumpled bird.

I can feel her cry before I can hear her. Her entire body tensing before she begins to shake violently, her sobs stuck in her throat until she can't keep them anymore.

And then we're the same. I'm choking on this day and this life. The tears are harsh and violent, like it's their only chance to escape.

It feels like drowning slowly. And we're both being pulled under.

I drag the edge of her quilt over us the best I can, wishing it was darker. Wishing it was night so the black would swallow us up.

I hold on to her as she turns over, refusing to let her run away from me. But she's not running. She's facing me now, grabbing at me. Crying into my shirt.

"I didn't want to be a mother."

"I know," I say, my face crumpling.

"Then why does it feel like this?"

"Like what?"

"Like I'm... empty."

I want to tell her that I feel it too, but I say nothing. Because I've only ever had one heartbeat inside of me.

"Make it stop," she begs me.

I cling to her, so afraid of what we are and so sad for what we're not.

I don't know how.


-HL-