Author: Hidden Secret
Summary: "I'm not normal." I don't even realize I've said the words out loud at first. Those words that often worm their way through my mind, that have been instilled into me from birth by Mother. His words shock me. "And what defines normal for you?"
Chapter 1: Tuesday Morning
I place one sneakered foot precisely in front of the other. It's another hot day, not that I expect anything else in the middle of a Phoenix summer. I don't like the heat too much, but I don't know any different so I can make no comparison. My strides are perfectly measured so any cracks in the pavement are expertly avoided. The rhythm of my feet matches my breathing, as I grow nearer to my destination. I know the time is exactly 10.17am as I pass the corner store down from Mothers house. Every day I take this route at exactly this time, and take exactly the same steps to reach my well known, comfortable coffee shop.
526...527...Left turn 90 degrees...528...529...open door.
The bell jangles obnoxiously as it always does, alerting the staff and other customers of my arrival. My arms tighten instinctively around my battered, worn notebook that I hold clutched to my chest as I feel the eyes of several people shift to me, just for a second, before they return back to their lives. I always make it a point to be unmemorable to people. Someone to overlook. I approach the counter, which is already occupied by another customer. He is a tall man dressed in a perfectly pressed, pinstripe suit, the lack of wrinkles satisfying me immensely. My eyes travel up until they reach his head.
My breath stops suddenly.
His hair is an absolute mess.
The strands are a weird colour, somewhere in between orange, red and brown. It sticks up in all directions, with no order or symmetry at all, and it almost seems to defy gravity. I let out a shaky breath as I attempt to control the panic I feel. It keeps growing, threatening to consume me, but I squash it down. I know logically that not everything around me can be perfect. But a small part of my brain keeps telling me it's wrong, that it has to be fixed.
But I can't.
So I shut my eyes tightly and focus on my breathing. In and out. On the inside I'm talking to myself.
Not everything is perfect...I cannot change it...I cannot control it...just let it be...not everything is perfect...I cannot change it...I cannot control it...just let it be...
Eventually I feel my breathing even out, and the chaos in the mind quieten. My grip relaxes from where I've unknowingly clutched my notebook in my panic. I can hear my name being called.
"Bella, are you ok?"
I glance up, my focus immediately shifting to the name tag of the person behind the counter. Of course it's Angela. She always works on Tuesdays. I walk forward, noticing that I'd been so focused on calming down that I hadn't realised the Crazy-Haired man in front of me has moved away, and begin to pull my change out of my back pocket.
"Large hot chocolate please."
Angela smiles sweetly at me. I like Angela. She always makes sure she gets my order right. She takes my exact change from where I'd stacked it on the counter, bills on the bottom, coins stack neatly on top in decreasing order of size.
"Ok, sweetie. Why don't you go sit down and I'll bring it to you."
I smile. I like Angela.
"Thank you," I say, my eyes still focussed on her name tag.
I turn and make my way towards my chair, my comfy armchair in the corner near the window. I always sit there. It's mine. Every day I come here to sit and write. I write whenever I can, but by coming here I attempt to keep myself comfortable out in amongst people.
As I weave in between the scattered tables, I glance up. I'm almost there, but I freeze in place.
The Crazy-Haired man is sitting in my seat.
Panic begins to rise up, bubbling to the surface no matter how hard I try to stop it. I'm frozen in indecision. Should I turn around and leave? But that would mean I'd be home when Mother woke up, and that was never a good idea. Should I sit somewhere else? I haven't prepared myself for an eminent seat change, so I doubt it would go well. My eyes begin to fill with tears and my hands shake as the different parts war within me.
I have my eyes trained on the man's hands as they clutch the daily newspaper. As he turns the page his gaze shifts upwards, and he pauses when he sees me. I suppose I look like a right weirdo, all shaking hands and shallow breaths. There is nothing I can do. I wait for the nasty comment, or to be ignored. Instead, I am startled when he speaks to me.
"Excuse me miss, are you ok?"
His voice is soothing, and although I'm closer to a panic attack than I have been in a while, I feel his voice helping to push down the broiling inferno inside me. I can finally begin to control my breathing a bit. I can do this. I can ask him to move. It isn't a big deal.
But what if he says no?
No, he can't say no. That is my seat. I have to sit in my seat.
"Miss..." he begins.
"Tha...That's my seat." The words seem to burst out of me, racing to reach an unknown goal, to be the first to cross the imaginary finish line. I'm not sure where they even came from. I have never talked to a stranger like that in my life. Mother always told me that I didn't have anything of value to say, so I should never talk, because people were too busy to hear it. She's right. No one ever wants to hear what I have to say. I'm worthless. I can't even be normal. I just had to insist that this man move from my seat. I can't even stop myself. It has to happen or I feel like my world was going to end. There's too much change, too much deviation from the routine. And now the man's going to scoff at me and say no. And then I don't know what I'll do. I can't think...
"Would you like me to move?"
His calm, silky voice interrupts my frantic inner monologue and it takes me a second to understand what he said. I furiously nod my head, which is when I realise one of my hands has unclenched itself from my notebook to tug relentlessly on the perfectly smooth, tidy ponytail. I can feel the burn of the individual hairs at the back of the head, just above the nape of my neck. I must have been pulling hard.
The man quickly folds his paper and stands up, circumnavigating the small coffee table in front of my seat, before sitting down in the armchair across from mine. I don't even think about it, I simply stagger forward and plonk myself down in my seat.
No one else's.
My eyes slip closed as I struggle to get my breathing under control again as the panic begins to settle, the harsh inferno simmering down to a gentle, ever present swell. Not everything is perfect...I cannot change it...I cannot control it...just let it be... My mantra continues, stabilizing me as it was designed to do.
"Bella? Are you ok?" Angela's sweet face is the first thing I see when I open my eyes, which immediately divert to the steaming mug in her hand. She sets it down gently on the table and shoots a suspicious glance at Crazy-Haired man, before returning to me, eyebrows furrowed in concern. Realising I have yet to answer I bob my head agreeably, still staring at the mug. It has stripes of chocolate sauce on top. Perfectly symmetrical strips. And two marshmallows. One on each side. Symmetrical.
"Is this guy bothering you Sweetie?" asks Angela, her hand resting lightly on the back of my chair. I glance up to see the Crazy-Haired man once again reading his newspaper, as if nothing has happened. As if he hasn't just been very rudely asked to move seats, by a shaking, stuttering stranger. It finally gives me the chance to study him.
The first thing I notice is his jaw. It's strong, square and undeniably masculine. The kind of jaw that people would call 'chiselled'. He's clean shaven, but I can almost imagine his jaw lightly dusted with stubble, the same strange redish colour of his hair. His lips are...perfect. Symmetrical, pouty, amazing looking. I don't think I've ever found someone's lips so perfect looking in my whole life. His nose is slightly crooked, which throws me off for a second, but then I realise it fits his face perfectly. His eyes are what draw me in the most though. A stunning shade of emerald green that, coupled with his hair, creates a striking combination.
He's perfectly imperfect.
I can feel my cheeks blazing, and I try to keep up with how I'm feeling. I shouldn't be feeling like this. Nothing's going to happen, so I shouldn't pretend that I have the chance to even have a normal conversation with this man. But that's not his fault, so I shake my head at Angela. He's not bothering me far from it. Angela smirks at me knowingly and chuckles. I don't know why she's laughing. "Well ok then. You know where to find me if you need me." The Crazy-Haired man glances up at her comment and she shoots him a stern warning look. I don't know why. But I like Angela. I trust her. Surprisingly the Crazy-Haired man nods at her in return, like he knows exactly what she's thinking. I don't understand what's happening, but I often don't so I don't dwell on it too much.
I finally release my notebook and rest it on my lap. I scoot forward towards my symmetrical hot chocolate. First I pick up one of the marshmallows and pop it in my mouth, before carefully placing the other one perfectly in the middle of the foamy drink. Grabbing the spoon I slip it into the foam, careful to not disrupt the chocolate swirl or marshmallow, and calmly stir the drink... 'one, two, three' times, the words passing quietly from my lips as I do so. Satisfied, I tap the spoon on the lip of the mug three times before placing it next to the mug on the saucer.
And he laughs.
It wasn't a mean laugh, or an obnoxious one. It didn't carry around the room, and tell everyone in the coffee shop 'Look here, look what this weirdo is doing', but it was a laugh. And it hurt. I don't know why it hurt. I just know that I did, and I didn't like the feeling. It made me feel small, like when Mother talks to me. You will never be normal Isabella. No one will ever be able to put up with you but me. Don't hope for anything else in life. This is it. Be grateful and deal with it.
I can feel the cheeks burn with shame and embarrassment. I try to stop them, to not give away how much he affects me, but between my fierce blush and my now shaking hands, of course he's going to notice my weakness.
However, when his voice comes, it isn't infused with taunting like I anticipate. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean laugh at you, but..."
He pauses. I expect the worst. Something like 'but you're a strange person' or 'but I have to go because I can't be around you anymore'. Instead...
"...but you like things to be a specific way don't you." It's a frank assessment more than a question. I don't know whether it is honesty I sense in his tone or I'm just misreading tone again. It happens. The subtle nuances of speech can be too confusing for me to keep up.
Either way, I know that soon this breathtaking, beautiful man will see me for what I really am. There's no point in trying to hide it.
"I'm not normal." I don't even realise I've said the words out loud at first. Those words that often worm their way through my mind, that have been instilled into me from birth by Mother. Never the less, it's just stating the obvious. My outburst has caused the Crazy-Haired man to frown, his brow furrowed causing wrinkles to mar his perfectly imperfect face.
"And what defines normal for you?" His words shock me. I did not expect him to argue my statement. It's a fact. At least, it is to me. But still, he continues. "Normal is a completely arbitrary word, and has different definitions for each different person. Of course you're going to fall short if you measure yourself against someone else's measurement of what's 'normal'."
And in those few sentences, the Crazy-Haired man sparks a change in me.
It isn't an immediate change, like a rubber band snapping into place, or being hit by a bus. It's more a knowledge that something is pressing in on me, begging for attention, wanting to show me something. It's scary, because I know it means more change, so I do what I know I shouldn't.
I push it away.
I shove the man's presence out of my thinking and flip open my notebook, which falls to where a pen is shoved in the centre. And without a second thought, I sink into the pages, my pen letting loose the story that is constantly roaming around my head like a leaky tap, consistently dripping with no way to stop it.
By the time I resurface half an hour has passed and I've filled up over ten pages with my cramped, messy handwriting. My knees are pulled up towards my chest with my notebook resting on them. My return to awareness is a sudden occurrence, so there are several things I notice at once.
Firstly, the coffee shop is more crowded than when I went 'under'. I expected this. Nearer to lunchtime it begins to fill with corporate office workers grabbing coffee and/or lunch, workman from whatever construction work is in the area, and bored stay-at-home housewives that need an excuse to get out of the house and meet up with other stay-at-home housewives. My arrival is perfectly timed to coincide between the early-morning and lunch rushes.
Secondly, in the general upset and confusion that was caused by my interaction with the Crazy-Haired man, my hot chocolate was left to cool without me drinking it. I can only stand to drink it with its piping hot. I try to push it out of my mind with a short round of Not everything is perfect...I cannot change it...I cannot control it...just let it be...
And Thirdly, the Crazy-Haired man is staring at me.
The thought isn't as unsettling as I thought it would be. His newspaper is folded neatly and tucked down in between his briefcase and the armchair, indicating that he was obviously finished reading it but had not left to continue on with his day for some reason. His hands are clasped in front of him, with his elbows resting on the arms of the chair and his legs jut out on a diagonal to avoid the coffee table, crossed one over the other. Everything about his posture says he is completely relaxed, but when I glance up quickly I see his eyes, directed on me, studying me, are intense as ever. I'm not sure how his gaze makes me feel. I'm self-conscious, and a little flustered by it, but at the same time it causes my belly to flip and my heart to race in a delicious way that I've only ever read about before. I need time to study these emotions, but I know I must wait for later.
An empty coffee cup is on the table between us, on his side. He must have gotten his coffee while I was out. It's one of those small mugs that generally hold something strong, for seasoned coffee drinkers...or children who want to look grown up by drinking a mini mug of frothy milk. The image of this man drinking frothy milk and sporting a milk moustache makes me forget the previously tense atmosphere and crack into a smile, a smile that is soon matched by one of his.
"What's so funny?" his voice is gently, almost teasing, but cajoling at the same time. I answer without thinking.
"Do you drink really strong coffee, or frothed milk?" What made me say that? Now he's going to think I'm really strange, asking if he drinks a kids drink. I start to fiddle with the fabric of my jeans, the fingers aching to keep occupied as my embarrassment returns full force. Until I hear him chuckle.
"No, I don't drink steamers. My niece enjoys them though." I nod my head, relaxing a bit. I can't help notice that his shoes are really nice, black and super shiny. "My name's Edward. What's yours?"
I looked at him puzzled. "But y...you know what it is. Angela said it before."
"But I want you to tell me." His lips quirk into a sweet smile, his eyes sparkling with mischief. For some reason I know that with that look, he will get me to tell him anything.
"Bella." His smile widens.
"Well, it's very nice to meet you, Bella."
I nod, still uncertain. We fall into a mostly comfortable silence as I look out the window, admiring the hot sun on the dusty roads and the blue sky that stretches for miles in all directions. I wonder why he sticks around, surely he has better places to be than sitting here, talking to me?
"Do you enjoy writing?" I nod in agreement. He is looking at me, and I know he wants me to elaborate. Everything about my interactions with the Crazy-Haired man, Edward, is contradictory to any of my past interactions with anyone, ever. Mostly, people aren't interested in what I have to say or what I enjoy doing. They treat me like a child, barely worth acknowledging, let alone engaging. This attention Edward is giving me is both refreshing and slightly scary at the same time. Never the less, I find myself answering, more sure of what I have to say than I ever have been.
"It helps me escape; from my life, from myself. I use it as an anchor I suppose. It's the only way I feel safe, happy. It makes me feel..." I stop, knowing that he would not agree with the end of my sentence. However, he seems to know what I'm going to say, so much so that he can finish my sentence.
"Normal?" This makes him frown again. I feel bad. Someone like Edward should never have to frown. "Something must be pretty screwed up in your life if you don't feel like you can be normal."
For the first time since meeting Edward, I look up and meet his gaze. His eyes seem to stare straight into me. Past my plain features and awkward interactions. He looks worried, like the trivial problems of my life are of the uttermost importance to him, which I know is absurd. How can he be interested in me, in any way, shape or form? But no matter how fraudulent I may believe his concern to be, I know that I'm going to answer with the truth, to myself, and to another person, perhaps for the first time in my life.
"I suppose there is."
A.N: Be gentle...