On a Limb
With a teary hug and an "I'll miss you," my mom stuck a one hundred dollar bill in my hand just before I boarded my plane for a one-way trip. She had a lot more money to throw around now that she'd been promoted. It was the promotion that had sent me packing. I was perfectly OK with moving back to California. Even if I took my dad and Edward out of the equation, I always felt like I belonged there more than in Arizona. The tanktop days and sweater nights, the trees, the birds, the creek, the air, the smallest town ever next to bigger towns with everything you could need. My mom had moved from local sales to international sales, a position that would involve frequent travels out of the country. She thought about not accepting the position as I still had a year and a half left of high school. I easily said that I would not hold her back and offered to move in with my dad so she could "find fulfillment," words I'd heard her say through many of their arguments. In March I moved back to my father's house. Next door to Edward.
I hadn't seen Edward since I was fifteen.
I'd written him an email the year before to tell him I wasn't coming back for the summer, that I would be traveling Europe with my mom instead.
She had put major pressure on, pulled the "you're growing up and away" card, and cleared it with my dad as an educational, cultural experience for me. I hadn't put up much of a fight. There was a part of me that really wanted to go, a part of me was even excited.
The email Edward had sent back was: All summer?
I answered: All summer. That part, I wasn't excited for.
He hadn't replied. The night before our flight, lights off in my room, I called him. He was quiet, as silent as Rosalie. One word answers and that sort of thing.
"Are you mad at me?" I asked into darkness. Sometimes, when I heard his voice in the dark like this, it was as if he was right next to me, talking right into my ear. If only I could feel his breath.
"No." I heard his breath come out with the word.
"You're never this quiet."
He didn't answer.
"We're leaving tomorrow."
"Well, at least I won't have to see Rosalie." I tried to make a joke.
Again, he didn't say anything.
"Yeah, well, I'm glad you can get something positive from this."
I walked over to my wall and leaned against it. "It isn't my fault."
Silence lasted between us long enough for me to chew on a nail, split it, and tear a part of it off. Maybe if I told him about it, he'd start bugging me about biting my nails. Anything would've been better than all this quiet.
"I gotta go," he said.
My heart sped. I didn't know when I'd get to talk to him next.
"Wait. Say something first. Talk to me."
"Why? What's there to say? What I say doesn't matter, does it?"
"Just, give me your voice. What you say always matters."
I closed my eyes and waited for his voice. I waited, and waited.
"Read me something from one of your stories."
My heartbeat picked up a little just with that one word. If only he would keep talking.
"Not right now, Bella."
I opened my eyes. "Tell me what you're thinking."
That was okay. Hearing him say my name twice in a row was good, and hearing him take a breath.
"You don't want to know what I'm thinking right now."
Sliding down the wall, I tried to still the quiver in my chin. "Yes, I do."
"One year is one thing, right? Two years? Two fucking years?"
I pulled my legs to my chest. "No." A tear spilled and then another one. "Not two years. One year already passed. Just one more year, okay? One more." My voice was quivering and cracking, my nose was running. I wiped it. He was too silent again.
"Edward. Edward? Please."
"Please, what? Wait for you? To maybe come next year or maybe not? What, Bella? Please, what?"
I was shaking my head even if he couldn't see me. "Just forget it, then. Forget it."
"People think I'm a fucking monk, you know?"
"Who cares what people think?"
"I'm not living. I'm not even living. I'm only waiting. And for what? I don't even know what I'm waiting for anymore."
My stomach tightened up. As tight as a fist.
Wiping my face dry, I moved to sit down on my bed. There were no more tears. Sad wasn't what I was feeling any longer. All the muscles in my face tensed. I could feel my skin stretching.
"Well, live, Edward. Don't let me hold you back from living. Who am I anyway? Right? Who? Nobody, obviously. You don't even know. Is that right?"
My name was not enough that time. I clicked end call. And then I stared at my phone.
I recognized that argument. It was like when my parents argued over where to put the sofa. Edward and I weren't just arguing about Europe. It was so much more than that. It was all the waiting. All the in-between. We were great when we were together, but when I did the math on my fingers, we would have been together six months out of almost forty by the time I'd see him next. What was that?
Like the dryer tumbling, clothing spinning and dropping, I was cycling, too. I wasn't angry anymore. The anger left with the click of that button. Sadness circled around again. Crawling toward my pillow, I cried—tears dripping over sheets—for something I couldn't even really name. I understood what Edward had meant when he'd said, "For what?" He didn't mean me, exactly. Although I was part of it.
You know what it is, you know what it feels like. But you can't name it.
Maybe it was simply life. Edward was angry at life. I was crying over life.
Maybe I should've told him I loved him. Maybe then he would have known what he was waiting for. But he hadn't said it to me, and my friends told me, they said that if the girl says it first, she scares the boy away.
Turning onto my back, I held my phone above my face, typing, "I love you."
I stared at the words until all they were were words. I didn't press send.
I scrolled through my pictures to one of Edward and me from the summer before—one he'd taken, holding the phone out far in front of him. You could see the tree trunk behind us, and actual small leaves that looked really big in one corner. I typed: "Remember." And I sent it, tears rolling. I turned over and fell asleep with a wet face, and my phone in my hand.
I went to Europe with my mom.
We climbed the Eiffel Tower, took a boat ride along the Seine. We saw the Italian Ruins, listened to guitar-playing on the Spanish Steps at night, even saw a bride and groom getting pictures taken there in the day. It was beautiful. I loved the cobblestone streets and the people walking everywhere. The smiles. The arguing we came across—women with long brown hair, men walking after them or away from them—even those fights were beautiful. I thought that someday I could live in Italy.
My mom and I would sit in outdoor cafes, watching the people, talking for them, making up scenes that cracked us up. There was passion and drama everywhere. Maybe it was Italy or maybe it was just in our heads.
I thought about Edward a lot. I thought about him in quiet, romantic places and in busy, dirty places. I thought about him when some guy flirted with me in Italian, and then when he found out I didn't speak Italian, he flirted with me in English. I wondered if Edward had thought of me, too.
I emailed Edward when I got home. I told him that I would definitely be back the next summer. No question.
The email bounced back.
School was out for Spring Break when I returned to California, so I had time to get reacquainted with life in town before heading straight to school. It was a rainy spring—floods happening in the nearby towns, levees breaking. Mud all over our yard. In our house.
I helped Mary mop the floors.
Rosalie was away at college. I didn't have to worry about seeing her until summer.
My first night back, I arrived in town pretty late. I slipped through the sliding glass door to look up at the tree. Our tree. The lower branches had been removed; there was no way to climb up. With my head tilted skyward, I just stood there, reminiscing—birds, hands, kisses, arguments.
Rain sprinkled down.
Moving closer, I reached up to rub over where one of my climbing limbs used to grow.
Turning to head back into the house, I noticed shoe marks in the mud. Maybe Edward had been here recently. Maybe doing the same thing. Looking up. Remembering.
I followed the tracks to the back of the Cullen house.
I hadn't heard from Edward. Not by phone, not by email. My heart drummed nerves at the thought of seeing him. I tiptoed around.
They were on a canopied porch swing that was perched between two big bushes. And they were all over each other. Hands moving fast, girl and boy traded moans. I covered my ears, stunned by what I was seeing. It didn't register to me to stop looking, to turn around and walk away. The girl, with a knee bent upwards, and Edward between her legs, saw me first.
"Who are you?" She pushed at Edward and he turned around. Heavy-lidded eyes that widened. A panting chest.
"Bella?" Too out of breath.
Too out of breath.
I shook my head.
"What're - what are you doing here?"
This was when air had weight.
It was so heavy my knees were weak. If there'd been wind it would've knocked me over.
"I don't know." And at that moment, I didn't know. Why was I standing there, hair getting wetter and wetter, watching Edward make out with someone who wasn't me? Some pretty, tiny girl with doe-eyes, and a dress, and short, fun hair. He could wrap his arms all the way around her. She was still holding on to his shirt.
I turned around, squishing through mud back to my own house.
I left my shoes on the porch.
"Edward didn't know I was coming back," I told my dad, accusing.
He was on the sofa, relaxing in front of a movie with Mary. Unrelaxing, he sat forward when he heard my tone. "His parents said they wanted him to be surprised, knowing how much he thought of you."
"Well, he was surprised," I said under my breath, heading for my old room, my new room. I closed my door. "It seems he wasn't thinking of me at all," I said to my childhood walls, the walls that held so many of my best memories. My first kiss memories, my first love memories. But the bad ones, too. The fighting. The divorce. And here was one more. Not learning, not being told, that Edward had a girlfriend, but witnessing it in all its body against body, lips against lips, hands under shirts glory.
Was he in love?
There were mud splotches at the bottom of my jeans.
In the morning as I sat in the living room with my bowl of cereal, Edward knocked on the back sliding glass door.
I stared at him through the glass and then slid the door open and stared some more. His shoulders were wider, his face more chiseled. His eyebrows were tight. And even if he looked a little different, he didn't look like someone else's Edward.
I forced myself to look away, behind him at our old tree.
"What happened to the tree?"
He turned, following my gaze. "Your dad's gardeners cut it up." He turned back to me. "They'll grow back." He rubbed his fingers over his lips two times. I remembered the touch of his lips. "The branches."
I looked down, touching my lips. Did he remember mine?
"Can we talk?"
I brought him to my messy room, clothes falling out of suitcases instead of in drawers. I didn't close the door. He did.
Neither of us said anything so I broke the silence, just got it out there, what I'd been thinking since I'd found Edward with that girl the night before.
"You didn't keep your promise to me, did you?"
He stared at me. I closed my eyes.
"Bella, we haven't seen each other in almost two years."
I opened my eyes and nodded, my hand on my chest, moving up toward my throat where I held on.
"I meant it when I said it, but I thought- I thought-"
He shook his head, his hand now on his forehead.
"I meant it when we made that promise. When I said it, I meant it."
"So, apparently, as long as you mean the promise when you say it, it makes no difference whether or not you keep it." A burn rose to my eyes, tears threatening, blurring. I clenched my jaw and that was the extent of it. I would not let the tears out.
"Bella." His hand came to my face, his thumb running along the bone underneath my eye, making it harder for me to keep my tears back.
His touch, I'd missed it so much more than I'd known.
Don't let go, I thought, but still, I whispered, "No." More to myself than to him. I would not cry. Not in front of him. He withdrew his hand. "I guess I pretty much figured anyway, after what happened the last time we talked. But I thought. I just thought, maybe..."
"Didn't you... I mean, didn't you date anyone else?"
"Yeah. I did. I dated. But-" No longer able to look at him I moved over to the window and looked out. It was our other neighbor on this side of the house, not the Cullens. He was out mowing the lawn, grass that reached his knees. The mower almost seemed to be ironing it flat rather than cutting it. "When it came down to it, I turned them down. I made a promise to a boy. And to myself."
"Really?" His voice was deeper than before. And closer. He was right behind me now. I turned around and saw the beginning of something in his eyes that started out with narrowed brows and ended up resembling hunger.
I swallowed and nodded.
The hunger darkened into more and he looked like he was about to kiss me.
I recognized that look.
He'd better not even try it.
"I have a girlfriend. I have a girlfriend."
Of course I already had that impression, so he must have been reminding himself. I wondered who he'd told her I was. Just some girl? Just a neighbor who comes and goes?
"Well, you'd better go find her, because I know that look on your face and you're this close to getting yourself in trouble with two girls." I pinched my thumb and forefinger together like a kissing couple, didn't bother leaving even an eighth of an inch between my fingers. I dropped my hand to my side.
"I'm sorry," he said.
And he didn't leave.
"I can't believe you're here." His fingers brushed down my arm until he clasped my hand, like he wasn't aware of his actions. I remembered this feeling, the way his simple touch could make me shiver when I wasn't even cold. "Living here."
I could've sworn his eyes were wet. I would've bet my life on it. But in the next blink, they were dry again.
His chest was right in front of me, broader than before. I wanted to put my head against it, feel his fingers in my hair. I lifted my eyes to his face and he was looking down at our hands. He let go, and I was left with a coldness that didn't feel nearly as good.
"You should go find your girlfriend." I wished he would've said something then. Something like: I'm ending it. But that didn't come.
All he said was, "Come on, Bella."
"Come on, what?"
"Don't be like this. You're here. I'm here. Be my friend."
I was so used to hearing him say Be my girlfriend, but I'd never heard this from him before. Friend.
I was starting a new high school in a few days, I could use a friend, so I nodded. But I didn't promise.
The high school was in the same town where Rosalie and I had taken our self-defense classes. Through golden-brown foothills dribbling trees, I drove myself there in a truck my dad had bought me.
Most of the kids I'd known before were there, but they took about one-twentieth of the junior and senior classes combined. Angela welcomed me back right away, introducing me to her new best friend Lauren. I tried not to be jealous. I had no right to be. Making other friends seemed easy anyway. People wanted to meet the new girl, especially the boys.
The boys loved my truck while the girls with their petite cars wondered how I climbed in and out of it.
Sometimes I would look around for Edward during lunch, over where the seniors hung out. Other times I didn't even think of him.
One Saturday, Angela and I walked to the restaurant-bar in town. It was a warm day for April, a shorts and tanktop night where each breeze was like a welcomed whisper. It blew little wisps of hair at my neck under my ponytail, tickling me.
I tucked Angela's bra strap under her tank as she ordered her burger at the counter. A large family had taken over the whole center of the restaurant with pushed-together tables so we headed to a small booth by a window.
I did my best not to notice Edward and his group across the dining room from us, but they wouldn't let me.
"You can sit over here," Riley said, from one table behind Edward's. They were too big of a group and took up three different booths back to back along the wall.
"Yeah," said Edward, "sit over here." He waved one arm while the other arm rested over Alice's shoulders. She said hi as we approached. I waved to her.
We joined Riley's table, the only one with open seats. Angela scooted in next to Ben as I slid next to Riley.
"Thanks," I said.
Riley and I shared English and Geometry together. He'd made me laugh out of control one day in English when Mr. Banner tried to make him look stupid by throwing an easy question at him. Riley had been talking, so Mr. Banner turned and asked him, "Who is Atticus Finch?"
"Gregory Peck," Riley said in the most serious tone, and that set me off, covering my mouth, trying to hide it. I couldn't stop, though, because the answer was so ridiculous and Mr. Banner actually believed Riley thought that.
"Have you done any of the assigned reading?"
Riley picked up the book from his desk, flipped through the pages and said, "I thought it was a movie."
The whole class laughed at that one.
"If you'd like to make a joke of my class, Mr. Biers, there's the door."
I thought it was funny the way teachers wanted you to address them as Mr. or Mrs. out of respect, but whenever they addressed a student by Mr. or Miss it was usually in a condescending way.
Across from Riley and me, Angela and Ben were in some conversation that didn't seem to be much more than breaths. I knew Angela was in heaven right now the way she always talked about Ben. Whatever he'd just said as he pushed his glasses higher on his nose made Angela laugh. Her laugh was loud and cackley and with the way Ben smiled, I thought he probably liked her just as much as she liked him.
Riley brought his arm around me and his lips to my ear. "We should go out sometime."
"Bella!" Edward said, and I stretched my neck to see him over Angela and Ben. He stood up, no longer touching Alice. "Catch this."
He tossed a fry at me, and I bit at it but it landed on my eye. He tossed another one I couldn't catch. I laughed. He laughed. And even from across this distance, it was like it was only Edward and me. That was, until Riley started laughing, too.
I turned to him, almost shocked that he was there—Riley and his laughing blue eyes.
"Will you?" he asked, his laugh mellowing into a smile. "Go out with me sometime?"
I lifted one shoulder. "Sure." I aimed my smile down at the table.
Riley nudged my arm and as I looked up, I involuntarily glanced across at Edward, whose gaze was still on me until our eyes met and he looked away.
Riley was not a soft kisser. His kisses were rough, his tongue sharp. It took some getting used to when he first kissed me on my doorstep, dropping me off after the movie. His kisses told me he wanted more than I was ready to give. I put my hands on his face and slowed my lips, forcing his to slow, too. That was better.
Still, after each date, each kiss demanded more than the last.
Two weeks after we started dating, he took me to junior prom. Afterwards we were in his car, hidden when he unzipped the back of my dress, pulled the top of it down and snuck his hand under my bra as he kissed my jaw.
"I want you," he said.
I pushed him away. "Not yet."
I thought about it in my room that night. I decided I'd wait. But when he brought me into his room, onto his bed to watch a movie the next weekend, he kissed me throughout the whole thing. When he got my shirt off and his lips touched my breasts, and his hand slid into my panties, and when he rolled a condom on, I didn't stop him.
He wasn't as rough at sex as he was at kissing. Not the first time, especially.
He didn't like to talk afterwards. He liked to sleep.
"You always want to talk so much," he said, closing his eyes.
We were on his bed again. On the days we were together, we always ended up on his bed.
I shook his shoulder. "Talk to me," I said, fake-whining.
He laughed and opened his eyes. "About what? What is there to talk about after what we just did? We said it all already, didn't we?"
"Why is the sky blue?"
"Sleep." He put his hand over my eyes.
"Is it really blue, or do we just think it's blue because it's been programmed into our minds since birth?"
"We'll talk about mind control in thirty minutes. Thirty."
"I have to be home by one."
He checked his bedside clock. "That gives us over an hour. To sleep."
I rolled to my back and stared at the ceiling. A few minutes of ceiling watching went by before he picked up my hand, placing it flat between his palms. "Okay, you want to talk? What's up with you and Edward?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's kind of like, you know, when he's around... I'm not."
I turned my head toward him. "Riley. No. We're-we've known each other since we were kids."
His hands rubbed mine. "So, is it like a brother-sister thing?"
"No," I said, maybe too fast. I slowed down. "Not exactly. Not like that."
He let go of my hand. "You have... history or something?"
"Doesn't seem like there's much historical about it." He rolled over, his back to me.
Nothing more was said. And when I closed my eyes, it wasn't Riley I thought of.
Two Saturdays back, Edward had caught me staring up at our tree. "Can't climb it anymore," I'd said, blocking the sun from my eyes.
Without answering, he'd gone away and come back with a ladder, situating it up against the tree, testing it for support, signaling with an arm for me to go ahead, as if he was some nobleman who said things like, "M'lady."
Edward hadn't followed me up that day, but he had joined me a few times since.
The day after Riley had asked me about Edward, I climbed the ladder up the tree to think about him, Edward. And he, Edward, came up shortly after.
We were sitting on different limbs across from each other. We never talked about Alice or Riley when we were up in the tree, so I was a little surprised when he said, "You and Riley still together?"
I looked at my hands.
"He's cool. I hear his brother grows weed in their backyard."
"In the garage. He showed me."
"It's true?" Edward laughed. "Does he smoke it?"
"I don't know."
"How can you not know?"
"We don't do everything together, not like when you and me were-" I looked at him and stopped. "But he probably does. Who doesn't around here, right? And with easy access..."
It went quiet, no sound but the leaves shaking. Not even a bird chirped. I shifted on my branch, my fingernail between my teeth.
Just to fill the silence I asked him if he still wrote. I already knew the answer.
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a little notebook. He handed it to me. I flipped through the pages, seeing his handwriting all over the place, on just about every page. I got to the first blank page and a miniature pen holding the spot fell out, bouncing off branches, landing on the ground. He said he'd get it later, his hand motioning for me to give him the notebook back.
"Does Alice read it?" I thought that since he'd brought up Riley, Alice was an acceptable subject, too.
"Nobody reads my stuff. Ever." Tucking the notebook into his back pocket, he looked directly into my eyes, both of us, of course, knowing that when you added it all up, I'd read a lot of his writing, and what he'd really meant to say was, "Nobody but you has read my stuff."
"I feel kind of caged up here with you."
"Why? Should I go?"
"No, I mean. I just miss how free it used to be with us. Up here."
Not a muscle in his body moved. Not a nod or a blink, nothing.
"Just because you have a girlfriend and I have a boyfriend, does that mean we're not allowed to touch?"
He reached out and touched the back of my hand that held the branch.
My eyes began to sting. "No, it's that for the first time, we never hugged when I got back here and that just feels so wrong. I mean, doesn't it?"
Without answering, he moved over to my branch, leaned back against the trunk, and pulled me toward him. I stopped midway. One more tug on my arm and I relented, resting my head on his chest, giving all of myself over to him, rising and falling with his breath. But I felt too much. Way too much. I was all filled up with Edward. His breathing. His heartbeat.
"You were far away when you first got back. Because of - because of me. And Alice." His voice echoed through his chest.
Too close to tears, feeling something I never felt when I was with Riley or anyone else, I'd answered my own question. As long as we had other people in our lives, Edward and I shouldn't touch. I pulled away and climbed down the tree, down the ladder.
Rosalie had moved back in for the summer. It had been my job to vacuum her room and put fresh sheets on her bed. "Hospital corners," Mary had said in a sing-song way, dragging out the last word, as she poked her head into the room.
"I know. I know."
She came over and helped. "It's the way my mom showed me how to do them. It just stuck. Some things just stick." She smiled at me, pulling her side of the sheet tight.
My dad didn't seem like a hospital-corner kind of person. He was more like a wrinkly, loose-sheet kind of person. But Mary wasn't completely hospital-cornery either. They did these silly, ridiculous things together when they thought nobody was paying attention. Like when my dad buzzed his hair all off, she called him Mr. Bigglesworth for a month. And at night, if Mary went to bed first, she'd say, "Say goodnight, Gracie," making my dad say the woman's line, and he would. He'd say, "Goodnight, Gracie." And in the morning's she'd say, "Tell me you love me, Jack." And he'd say "I love you, Jack."
It made me laugh, but when either of them looked at me, I stuck a finger in my mouth and made a gag face at them.
Mary said, "She's here!" when Rosalie drove up and we went out to meet her in the driveway. She hugged all of us. Yes, all of us. Including me. It was a timid, loose hug, but it happened, and when she pulled away, she smiled.
Last time we said goodbye, she'd stood on the driveway giving a wave, eyes averted.
I knocked on her bedroom door that night as she unpacked. She welcomed me in.
"What changed?" I asked, sitting on her bed.
"Don't tell my mom." She brought a finger to her lips and lowered her voice. "I'm moving in with my boyfriend when I go back in the fall." She smiled at the finish.
"I meant what changed with me."
"Oh." She sat with me on the bed. "Grew up."
"I grew up?"
"No, I did."
I sat there staring at her, sort of expecting an apology. Waiting for it. It didn't come.
"You have hospital corners," I said, and she rolled her eyes.
Because Rosalie couldn't decide what to wear, and then when she did, it needed ironing, we were late for church. We sat in the very last row. The place looked strange from way back there. I had to strain to hear the pastor.
Rosalie nudged my shoulder and pointed to the back of the pew right in front of her. I heard her laugh a little and she said into my ear, "Someone has an admirer."
There, carved into the wood was my name.
"Unless you did it yourself," she said, before her mother shushed her and Rosalie looked straight ahead like she'd never said a word or noticed a thing.
I couldn't stop staring at my name, and my heart wouldn't stop hopping around inside my chest. I knew, or at least I thought I knew, I was pretty sure I knew who had carved my name. But when? How long ago?
The county fair always began the second week in June, and ended with a fireworks show two weeks later. A huge group of us planned to meet there on opening night, including Alice and Edward.
I took Riley's hand as soon as I saw Edward, and then, realizing what I'd done, I wanted to drop it, but of course, I couldn't. So I loosened my fingers, hoping Riley would let go. He held tighter as Edward stepped closer. And as I looked around for Alice I discovered that she wasn't there. It was just Edward. Alone. I caught his eye, and he looked away fast, sliding his hand through his hair. I saw his chest rise and fall like he took a deep breath. I couldn't stop feeling Riley's hand, his fingers feeling so big in between mine that my fingers were starting to ache. That was how it seemed just then, anyway. Although we'd held hands in the past without that problem.
I was sweating under my hair and my armpits and behind my knees. We had these little paper fans that did no good, but we kept flapping them at our faces anyway.
"It's hot," I said, pulling my hair up into a ponytail.
Angela took some ice from her cup and rubbed it on the back of my neck, and then turned around and said, "Do me," which made the boys chuckle.
We ate all the junk food we could and rode rides until it was time to sit down to eat more junk food for dinner. We had corndogs and pizza slices and coke. Angela, Lauren and I tried to be a little healthy with our corn on a cob on a stick, only it was seeping with butter, so that didn't work.
Left-handed Riley was to the right of me; our elbows kept hitting as we ate, as if in battle. He nudged me and I laughed, catching Edward's eye from across the table. He was staring at me, not smiling. My smile started to fall into a frown. He looked sad.
"What's wrong?" I mouthed at him. "Alice?"
"Not Alice," he mouthed back.
Through the rest of dinner, I couldn't keep my glances from landing on Edward, and every time, even if he tried to hide it by averting his eyes fast, I saw him looking back at me.
I took advantage of Riley's trip to the bathroom to pull Edward aside, asking him what was really wrong.
"I'll talk to you about it later."
But his eyes were too tense, his brow too crinkled, for me to let it go. "But are you okay at least?"
He tugged on my pinky. "Later." He smiled and I could tell it was forced.
Riley returned and pulled on my arm, leading all of us back toward the midway. I kept glancing over my shoulder at Edward.
As the sky darkened, the lights were as noisy as anything else.
"Bella, hurry, there's no line!" Edward pulled me to the Ferris Wheel, handed tickets over, and we were barred in. I looked out at Riley who was frowning. No doubt he would be mad when we got off the ride.
The ride moved, lifting us slowly. "Why did you do that?"
"Do what?" he asked, but he knew very well what so I didn't answer. I folded my arms across my chest and tried to show frustration in my face, a lift of my eyebrows, while I waited for his answer.
"The only way to get you alone."
"My boyfriend's down there."
We rose higher and cycled around. I lost my stomach on the descent when the ride sped some.
"And your girlfriend is... somewhere."
"I broke up with her."
I looked at him.
"I wanted you to know." He picked up my hand and toyed with my fingers.
"I hope you didn't break up with her because of me. Or for me. I still have a boyfriend. Or did you forget?"
He let go of my hand. "I didn't forget. How can I?"
"What were you thinking? You practically kidnapped me."
"I didn't kidnap you." He scoffed. "You could've gotten away if you really wanted to. You didn't even resist for a second. I felt your hand hold mine back, Bella. And I just wanted to get you alone for a second."
He tilted his head to look at me. "I don't know why here. I didn't plan it. I swear. But I couldn't take it anymore. I just had to. Because I can't stop-" he looked away and his voice lowered "- thinking about you."
My lip quivered, my eyes watering. "Well, you have to." My voice cracked in a way you just can't help. "You just have to because I'm with Riley. You could've broken up with Alice anytime before Riley, but you didn't."
"I couldn't just drop her, Bella. It wasn't like that. I didn't go out with her thinking, 'Just until Bella gets back,' you know. You were gone. And, you're... what? You're telling me I'm just imagining the way you look at me? I'm imagining the other day in the tree? I felt you, Bella. Are you going to tell me that when you're with him, you're only thinking about him?"
"It's none of your business what I do when I'm with him. And now is just too late. So you have to stop thinking about me." But my voice quivered, my innermost thoughts shaking it up, thinking, Don't stop. Don't stop thinking of me.
He gripped the bar in front of us. "How long is this ride, anyway?"
My lips tightened. I glared at him. "You're such a jerk." I tried to scoot away from him, but couldn't. The metal edge of the carriage dug into my hip.
We stopped near the top. It might've been romantic at another time in our lives, all the sparkling lights below, the breeze and the slow quiet from way up here, while everything below us was oppressive heat and loud and fast.
"I'm not trying to be a jerk. I'm just trying to..." He rubbed his hand down his face.
"Trying to what?"
The ride started moving at a slow pace until it paused again, us at the very top.
He stared straight ahead, at nothing, because the only thing straight ahead was sky. "Be me."
"Yeah? And who is that?"
He faced me again. "I don't know what I'm doing, okay? But I can't - I can't get you out of my mind. I can't. It doesn't work." He put his hand over mine on the safety bar. He stared into me as he leaned closer, so slow I barely saw him moving, and then his face was so close, our noses an inch apart, maybe less.
Closer he came, the sides of our noses touching. I couldn't take my eyes off his. My lips quivered.
"Don't kiss me," I whispered, but I didn't move away from him, his breath mixing with mine and our lips weren't touching, but I didn't want either of us to move.
The ride bumped and my lips almost brushed his. I could feel them. Kiss me. My hand on the side of his face, I kept him where he was, my fingertips moving back and forth over his cheek. It was rough, scruffier than I'd ever felt. His eyes closed as soon as my fingers met his face. He tilted his head so our noses weren't in the way anymore, our lips even closer.
"Don't kiss me, Edward."
His hand came to my face, too, holding. "I won't," he said against my lips, brushing. My stomach flipped. But it wasn't kissing. It wasn't.
Breath from his mouth heated me.
I wrapped my other hand around his wrist. My breath shuddered. I could almost cry. I was on the verge.
"Do you love him?"
No, I love you, I could've said, but I didn't answer.
"Do you think about me when you're with him?"
"Yes." It was hardly even a whisper.
"Break it off with him," he said, and every word was another brush of the lips. "If it's true. If you think about me when you're with him, break it off so I can kiss you like never before."
"Like you kissed her?"
"No." He shook his head, his forehead on mine, his eyes on mine. "Like I kiss you."
The ride started to move; we were descending. Edward didn't take his hand off my face, keeping his stare on me until we were in sight of the people below us, and he let go and we faced straight ahead like nothing happened at all. But my heart wasn't fooled, pounding, and when the ride lowered faster, my stomach jumped, though maybe this time the jump wasn't because of the ride. Maybe it was because Edward swept his finger over the back of my hand.
We were at the bottom, the bar unlocked and he lifted it up.
"I love you," he said, without looking at me, but he squeezed my hand and then walked straight down the stairs into the crowd. My heart might have stopped and taken all my breath with it. I sat there, frozen, watching him walk off, watching him disappear into the crowd until the carnival guy reminded me my ride was over.
I let everyone else wonder and speculate about where Edward had wandered off to, but I knew. He'd left.
"What was that?" Riley asked when I stepped toward him, a game booth buzzing and blinking behind him. Balloons being popped by darts.
"I - we..."
"Yeah." He nodded and walked away. I followed him down the game aisle, past the souvenir booths, and out to the parking lot.
In his car he didn't start it up. "What were you doing back there with him?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know? Do you know anything? Because I know something. I know I didn't hop on a ride with some chick while you stood there watching."
I took a breath. "I didn't know that was going to happen."
"What did happen?"
"He wants you. It's obvious. Do you want him?"
I didn't answer. I didn't know what to say because the answer was yes.
"I knew that if he got you alone and said the right thing you'd fall for it."
My eyes shut for a second or two. I didn't tell him about all the time I'd spent in the tree alone with Edward. "Do you love me, Riley?"
"Because you've never said it. So do you?"
"We've only been going out for two months. How could I know yet?"
"Love is the kind of thing you know. You feel it in your bones. Am I in your bones?"
He looked down at his steering wheel or his dashboard.
"When I'm not around, do you wish I was?"
"Do you think any of this makes what you did tonight right?"
"No." I shook my head. "It doesn't. And I'm sorry."
He started the car and pulled off the fairgrounds. "Whatever. You were nothing but a convenience anyway."
I looked out my window at the nighttime carnival falling farther and farther away, the blinking lights looking obnoxious.
Riley and I didn't speak the whole ride home through the foothills. He turned the music way up, all the windows down. I wrapped my ponytail in a bun to keep it from slapping my face. When he pulled up in front of my house I started to get out, but he took my arm.
"I didn't mean that. About you being a convenience."
I waited to see if he would say anything else, and when he didn't, for some unknown reason I said, "Say goodnight, Gracie."
"Is that some way of saying the end?"
"All right then. The end."
In the house I knocked on Rosalie's door. She invited me in, and I went to sit on her unmade bed.
"No more hospital corners," she said.
I asked her if she'd ever dated someone while being in love with someone else.
I looked down. I didn't know what I was hoping for. Some kind of kinship, maybe. Some kind of, "I've been in your shoes before." Some kind of understanding. You're not a bad person.
"But I've never been in love with anyone before now," she said.
"You love him." She shrugged her shoulders like it was the simplest thing.
"He's inside me. He's been in me since I was eleven. But I dated other people anyway. And with Riley, I-"
"Bella." She sat down next to me. "You're 're supposed to, like, walk around like you don't know where you're going. Like a zombie looking for brains or like Frankenstein with your arms out straight in front of you."
"You make me sound like an idiot."
We both laughed a little.
"It's not supposed to be easy. You're not just supposed to know things. You should hear what some of my friends have done. Or even look at what I did when I was seventeen... to you."
I wanted to tell her that I understood why she treated me like that, but I didn't. Maybe I never would understand. And maybe Riley wouldn't understand why I did what I did, and maybe Alice would never understand why Edward did what he did. Maybe understanding something didn't always have to happen.
"Maybe I'm just a terrible and selfish person."
"If you were a terrible and selfish person, you wouldn't care. The fact that you're sitting here right now worrying over if you're a terrible person or not is proof that you're not."
I hugged her, not caring if she would hug me back. But she did. And she said, "You smell like the fair. Go take a shower."
I showered the fair away. And Riley. And Alice.
Late that night as I lay in the dark I wondered why I hadn't heard from Edward yet. And then I remembered that I'd never told him that I would break up with Riley. The last thing I remembered saying about Riley was that I wasn't breaking up with him.
I sent Edward a text: It's over.
When several minutes went by without a reply I thought that maybe Edward had misunderstood my text. What if he thought that I'd meant it was over with him, and not that it was over with Riley?
I was about to send a clarification text when there was a tap on my window, Edward peeking through. I lifted it.
"You broke up?"
Edward took hold of my shoulders through the window. Standing like this, me inside, and him outside, we were the same height. Pulling me closer, my stomach pressing against the windowsill, he kissed me on the cheek, just a simple kiss like when we were eleven. Then, as his fingers drifted from my shoulders up my neck in a way that made goosebumps rise over my arms, he kept giving me these simple kisses all over my face and at the edge of my ear and my eyelids. They were the kinds of kisses that didn't ask for anything in return; they were the kind that, without words, spoke of love. Just like he'd promised on the Ferris Wheel, he was kissing me like never before.
That was when I knew he really loved me.
"Let me in?"
I moved out of his way and he crawled over the windowsill.
I looked up at him, and for the first time in a long time I was free to just look because he no longer belonged to someone else. I reached around his neck and pulled him down to me and gave him the hug that we should've shared the night I moved back. I felt his sigh on my shoulder and his arms around me, and I held him like I'd never let go if I didn't have to. After a while he lifted me off the ground and turned me around, and it was slow.
"Be my girl," he said, and my feet weren't even back on the ground yet. I nodded against his shoulder. "Is that a yes?"
"Yes." Could he tell my heart was racing? Did he know it was beating for him?
He put me down, then, and I took his hand, leading him to my bed. We lay side by side facing each other.
He kissed me whisper-light. "I love you, Bella."
"Took you long enough."
"I've probably loved you since that second I saw up your dress when you almost fell out of the tree." He fisted his hand around mine, bringing my knuckles to his lips.
"You told me the wrong underwear color."
"On purpose. I remember thinking they matched the robin's eggs."
I bent my head to his chest, trying to keep my laugh quiet. "I would've killed you if I'd known."
"I think I knew that. I had to lie. For my own safety. And for yours. You would've rather fallen twenty feet than have me see your underwear." His hand held the back of my head and he pressed a kiss to the top of it.
"Bella? Look at me."
Still holding my head he moved in close, his lips on mine, soft again. Softer than when we were eleven, softer than ever before, he kissed me. When I felt the touch of his tongue, there was that familiar stirring deep inside, the one it seemed only Edward could bring out. He pulled away, his hand drifting from my head to my face.
"Was that you who carved my name in the back of that pew at the church?"
"You saw it?" His index finger followed the line of my cheek bone. "You wanted to run away there once, remember?"
"I've tried not to remember."
"I carved a different letter every time I sat in that spot. I didn't even write the letters in the right order."
"They looked in the right order."
"No, I mean, first the 'a,' then later the 'e,' then the 'b,' and then each 'l'. We didn't always sit in the same pews so it took me like four months to finish it."
"How'd you do it without getting caught?"
"When the preacher prayed, I just put my head down on the back of the pew in front of me, like I was praying, too."
"When did you carve it?"
He brought his arm around me and I rested against his shoulder. "Last year. When you didn't come back."
I lifted my head to look at him, and I touched his face. "You were sad?"
"After that email you sent me," he said, taking my hand from his cheek to kiss my fingertips, "I didn't know when you'd be back. If you'd ever be back."
"Maybe if you hadn't changed your email address you would've known."
He dropped my hand, pulling me back down, tucking my head against his chest, his hand on my head, fingers sliding through my hair, where they rested. "I'm sorry about that. I was.. I wasn't myself. I was kind of wrecked. More torn up than I thought a guy should be."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I don't know. Because... you were out there doing things, seeing things, and I was here, doing nothing, going nowhere. I had to do something."
"I hate what happened between us. I hated it when it was happening and I hate it now."
"I know. Me, too." He kissed my forehead. "Me, too."
We didn't do anything more than kiss and maybe some roaming hands, but it was enough to just know we were together and to connect with our lips and just savor it all. Edward slept in my bed all night, his forehead resting on mine, his arm tangling mine, his hand holding mine. And my fingers didn't ache. He slept in his clothes, and it wasn't until the earliest morning hours when they started to come off.
Edward's shirt went first, between kisses, and I watched it go over his head. I looked at him, his chest, his shoulders, his arms, and I saw that somewhere along the line, I'd missed him turning into a man. Maybe because we'd been kids together, and maybe because deep inside, I still felt like a kid, but when I looked at him with his shirt off, saw the way his muscles flexed, and the way his eyes bore into mine, I didn't feel like a kid at all. I ran my fingertips up and down his arm and back up to his shoulder and without expecting it, I started tearing up.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"I can't believe this is happening." And that meant so much more than it seemed, because yes, I couldn't believe that Edward and I were about to make love, but also that we were growing up, becoming adults, and that this was a real, maybe even forever thing. All of that was so hard to believe. Like a dream.
"Neither can I," he said, pushing back at my hair and dropping his head to give my forehead a kiss.
"We aren't kids anymore," I said.
"This love is real."
"More real than anything." He smiled. And then we kissed, and we wouldn't stop, not ever. Things would happen in between, sure, life, but our lips would always reconnect.
I let my hand run down his stomach to his pants where I pressed and rubbed and he pushed into my hand just like he did so long ago, and it must've reminded him, too, because he said, "You were the first person to ever touch me."
"Did you like it back then, really? The first time when I had no idea what to do?" I was still rubbing when I asked this and he was fumbling to get his pants unbuttoned so I could slip my hand inside, and when my hand was in and around, he answered all shaky. "You know I did." And he paused for just a second as I quickened my touch. "I never forgot it." He groaned and then whispered, his lips to my temple. "I would've walked around with your hand in my pants twenty-four-seven if I could have."
He laughed before stilling my hand to take off my clothes. His fingers drifted up both my sides, pushing at my shirt, lifting it off. Then he traced the outline of my bra along the skin of my breasts. His lips followed his touch before he sat me up and reached around my back, unhooking it. I pushed the straps off my arms and let the bra fall away.
Naked only from the waist up, he was still in his opened jeans when he kissed me all down my body and pulled my panties over the tips of my toes. He looked me over in a way nobody had looked at me before, like his eyes wanted to remember me like this for the rest of time. And then his lips took over, tasting and devouring, too.
He was hard between my legs and almost pressing in when he stopped.
"Oh, god, wait, are you on anything?"
"What?" My mind wasn't working quite right.
"Do I need a condom?"
Edward got up, and I watched him naked as he took his wallet from his pants and pulled out a square. He looked at me with sad eyes, almost like he was apologizing for having it. But that thought just drifted away so fast, like a storm had moved through and swiped it up, because Edward was on top of me again, his lips open on mine, his tongue finding mine. I lifted my hips and he went deep inside.
At first we moved fast. So fast it would end soon so I whispered for him to slow down, and he stopped completely. I wanted it never to end.
He took my hands and placed them by my head and wove his fingers with mine. As he started moving again he pushed against my hands, squeezing my fingers, pulling. That push and pull of my hands was almost as good as the real thing. Our palms attached like that began to sweat.
I needed to hold him close as the intensity between us grew. It was hard to keep quiet, though I had to with my dad and stepmom sleeping so close by. I wriggled my fingers free and wrapped my arms around him, pressing him closer against me, raising my legs. Could we get any closer than this? Was that possible?
My breaths were too loud and some moans tried to escape so I bit on his shoulder just a little which brought a grunt sound from him. I had to cover my own mouth because it was just too much, and too hard not to let it out. And it felt like nothing else. Nothing else.
"I love you," I told him in a heavy whisper.
"I love you," he said. "I've never said that to anyone else, you know?" And he kissed all over my face until I laughed and he gave me a laughing, "Shh."
He rolled off of me and went to get rid of the condom.
When he slipped back in next to me, he said, "Bella?" And he was on his side while I was flat on my back and he was looking at me, his hand brushing down my arm, and then up to my shoulder and down again.
"I'm sorry." His eyes were wet like he was about to cry.
"A lot of things. But right now I mean Alice."
"Why?" A little bit of panic shot through me like maybe he'd lied, maybe he hadn't broken up with her.
"The way you found us the night you got back. And after you came back, you were all I could think about, even when I was with Alice, but I didn't break it off with her because there was just... there was confusion, you know? I wasn't sure. I thought that I - but the thing is, I didn't. I never loved her. Not like I love you."
"How long were you together?"
"Like six months."
"And then we started going up to the tree again. Even after just those few times, whenever I was with Alice I felt like—maybe this is crazy—but it was kind of like you were the one I was betraying."
My stomach dropped. Hearing he'd felt that way while I never knew, it hurt my insides.
"I felt a little betrayed when I found you two together that night on the swing. But it wasn't the real you betraying me, it was the fantasy you. The fantasy that I would come back here and everything would be the same and we would just pick up where we left off. Then it was, poof. Reality."
"Yeah, I get that. Fuck, I hated that night. Seeing that look on your face. It took everything in me not to go after you. If I had found you with some guy like that I probably would've kicked his ass."
"You were always nice to Riley."
He took a deep breath and said, "It wasn't easy."
"What was it that made you pull me onto the Ferris Wheel like that?"
He rolled to his back, taking me with him.
"The last time in the tree, when I held you in my arms..." His other arm came over the top of me and held tight. "I didn't want to let you go. I knew then that the reason I couldn't stop thinking about you and the reason I felt like I was doing you wrong by being with Alice was that I still loved you. And I just had to end it with her. Right away." He closed his eyes up tight. "I didn't mean to do that at the fair tonight. Seeing you, all day, not being able to even really talk to you. I just acted. I just did it. I had to be with you. If you wanted me. And when you told me I was too late up there-"
"I've always wanted you."
He rolled us both over, dropping his head to my chest, kissing me there again and again. When he looked up, there were tears.
"Don't cry," I said, wiping his face. But I was crying, too.
There is probably nothing better than feeling loved by the person you love, except perhaps seeing that person cry because of how much he loves you.
It was still early June, but we knew how summers could fly by. We were experts on that. And at the end of the summer, he was the one who would be leaving, going off to college while I finished my last year of high school.
The sky that summer was the kind of clear you could get lost in, the kind of cloudless sky that showed you just how forever the world was. And, with Edward, I welcomed that forever.
We walked down to the creek and climbed up the ladder into the tree a lot during our last few months of freedom. Our kissing got out of control late one night, and we almost made love on a branch, me on top of Edward's lap. But it scared us both the way the branch swayed too much, like it might break. Laughing, we climbed down.
On the ground, under the tree, facing away from the house, with his shirt off and his pants partway down, and my shirt pushed up, his lips on my breast, we were hidden by night and under my skirt as we finished what we'd started in the tree.
"You're the one who's leaving now," I said moving off of him, lying on my back, my head on his arm. I looked for the moon through the leaves.
"Only three hours away."
The moon was like a fingernail clipping, and hard to see from where we lay.
In a raspy voice he said, "Someday when we're both done with college, we'll get a house together that has a big tree in the back and we'll climb its branches until we're sixty. And nobody will ever cut them."
"You think about being together until we're sixty?"
He turned to his side to look down at me. "I guess I do."
I took his hand. "How about you don't leave? Ever."
His fingers grasped mine.
"Are we going to be okay?"
I saw his throat bob with his swallow and I brought my finger there.
"Yes." He kissed my lips. "Yes, we are."
Tears slid from the corners of my eyes.
"I'll come home next weekend. Okay?"
"But you can't do that every weekend."
"No, but I can do it next weekend."
He kissed me deep.
And when he pulled away, we held each other, body to body, limb to limb. And we didn't talk about saying goodbye because it wasn't time for that yet. We had the whole night.
And that night—under the moon and stars, our tree's branches swaying above us, where we dreamed about a life together through old age—was our piece of forever.
Forever. It was like we'd taken it right from the sky and filled our pockets with it.
It was ours. It belonged to us.