Through the Kitchen Window
Summary: "From very early on, I worried that the biggest thing in my youngest son's life would be the girl he could never escape. I thought it would be horrible for his story to be so ensnared with someone else's, such a tangled ball of yarn that it couldn't be unknotted. Bright, colorful, beautiful to be sure, but so hopelessly snarled in and around itself that it would never be freed."
Disclaimer: Unfortunately, pretending I own them does not make it so.
Unbeta'ed, so mistakes are mine. Please love me anyway. This was just something I had pinging around in my head for a while, and then chilling on my hard drive for a while. It's a little different from what I usually write, and if it's not your cup of tea, that's okay. xo
Through the Kitchen Window
From very early on, I worried that the biggest thing in my youngest son's life would be the girl he could never escape. I thought it would be horrible for his story to be so ensnared with someone else's, such a tangled ball of yarn that it couldn't be unknotted. Bright, colorful, beautiful to be sure, but so hopelessly snarled in and around itself that it would never be freed.
In addition to a place of maternal concern, I worried from a place of experience. I had that relationship once, that all-consuming love that eclipses everything else in one's life. That manic, bipolar kind of love that makes one feel so, so high when things are good and so, so low when they're not. The most difficult part of that type of love is the exhaustion that comes in the middle. That love is exhausting, makes one feel bone-weary and wrung out and spent, and no matter how high the highs, the lows are crushing.
I watched, and I worried, and I prayed that if my son couldn't untangle himself, he could weave that hopelessly entangled love into something beautiful that would keep him warm.
Forks, Washington – 1981
When two little pink lines appear on the at-home pregnancy test, I am certain it is a fluke. Emmett is almost three and Jasper isn't even a year old and I am certain there is simply no way that the tiny stick dancing in my trembling hand can possibly be accurate. I am still nursing, after all, and my body has yet to return to its normal cycle. I'm married to a doctor; I know how these things work. Unfortunately, even my doctor husband will tell you fertility isn't an exact science, and as a result I find myself pregnant for the third time in three years. I later learn that I'm carrying another boy, and in the grand scheme of things it seems that the men in my life are out to get me.
Very early on, however, it is apparent that this pregnancy will not be like the others. With both Emmett and Jasper, I had crippling morning sickness and learned all too quickly what a misnomer that is, as the nausea lasted from before breakfast until well after dinner. The third time around, however, I have none. I'm not nauseous, I have no food aversions… I'm not even remotely queasy. The hormonal tsunamis that characterized my first two pregnancies are memories; this time I am calm, collected, pacific. A good thing, too, because I spend my days chasing around two toddling boys.
It isn't until nearly the third trimester that it occurs to me that this baby isn't much of a mover or a shaker. I rarely feel the kind of movement to which I became accustomed with my other sons. There is no bladder-as-bongo, no kidneys-as-hackey-sacks. The baby is so mellow, in fact, that I become a regular fixture in the maternity ward of Carlisle's hospital, pleading with the more patient nurses to run a quick ultrasound. "Just to check," I beg, milking the anxious-pregnant-woman schtick as much as possible and catching the eye-roll when Carlisle appears and calls me out. Gently, of course, because Carlisle is nothing if not tender.
Around the same time that I am sitting on a toilet seat lid staring blankly at a suspected faulty EPT, another woman is having a similar reaction for entirely different reasons right next door. Renee Higginbotham, short-term girlfriend of the young police deputy in town, is staring down at a rather daunting realization of her own. In addition to being the new love of Charlie Swan, eligible bachelor and hot young cop, Renee has been my friend since we were small and I have always found her nearly as beautiful and every bit as intimidating as Charlie does. She has big dreams, as she frequently tells anyone who will listen, big dreams that she is going to start just as soon as she scrapes together enough cash waitressing at the Forks Diner to buy a one-way ticket to New York City. Big dreams that don't include a broken condom or a swaddled bundle or even Charlie Swan. Big dreams that seem awfully far away all of a sudden, perched as she is on the off-white toilet seat lid in Charlie's tiny two-bedroom house in Forks, Washington. That night is the first time in months that I hear from Renee and I can barely place the voice, sobbing and hiccupping as it is on the other end of the phone.
Lapsed Catholic and big dreamer though she may be, she can't foresee any future that doesn't include tiny toes and big responsibilities, and I watch as she pushes her big dreams aside in favor of smaller ones. I also watch as her light fades into the background, and I wait for her to be crushed under the combined weight of unrealized wishes and unavoidable sacrifice even as I take her to buy nursery furniture and a stroller and pick out a paint color for the second bedroom in Charlie's modest house. I watch as Renee's big life shrinks down to a small one, and I make a silent promise to my friend to pick up with her child where she leaves off when the day finally comes that she runs.
As the shared month of two arrivals looms, I gradually make my peace with the fact that my third child will likely be the tranquil one in the Cullen brood. Kicks come rarely if ever, replaced instead by gentle rolls of elbows and knees as my unborn son floats blissfully in his bubble beneath my skin, moving and turning contentedly but never giving any inclination that he has any desire to break free. It isn't until I hug Renee in the doorway of our home one evening after having her to dinner, our swollen bellies pressing together, that I feel a kick from outside my own skin: Renee's unborn daughter lashing out in protest of being crowded even slightly. I can feel my friend's sigh against the skin of my neck; she is tired of being kicked, her child apparently having picked up the slack of my own and pummeling her from the inside with knees and heels and elbows all hours of the day and night. Just as I pat her shoulder blade and open my mouth to offer a platitude about the nearing reprieve from jabs to her internal organs, I feel a responding blow from inside my own body that very nearly robs me of my breath.
"That'll teach you, Isabella," Renee chastises her own rounded stomach as she steps back, a gentle rubbing of her hand contradicting the harsh admonishment of her words. I mimic her posture, my own hand coming to rest on my stomach as a surprised laugh bubbles out of my throat.
"Edward Cullen," I breathe, not feeling even a lick of the indignation of admonishment thanks to the wave of joy cresting over me. "You do not hit – or kick – a girl, young man." Still, I beam at Renee, who offers me a tired half-smile in return as she lumbers down the porch steps, gripping the railing tightly. As I watch her shuffle down the driveway and toward Charlie's – now her – house next door, I drum my fingertips gently against my stomach hoping for another kick, but my baby has returned to his gentle, contented rolling and pays me no notice. It doesn't occur to me at that moment that my unborn son might not be fighting back, but reaching out.
When Renee's water breaks three weeks later, she calls me in a blind panic at nearly three in the morning. Charlie is working the night shift and is away from the station in response to a noise complaint; I rouse Carlisle and we dress silently, calling another neighbor to come watch the boys in what will amount to a dress rehearsal of the delivery we are awaiting ourselves. At the Forks Community Hospital I watch Renee breathe and curse and cry and swear and push and finally become a mother; I watch her glow and hesitate and kiss her daughter hello as she kisses her dreams goodbye. I watch, and I pray that somehow she will find a way to make a little life big enough to suit her.
I am the second person in the world to cradle Isabella Swan in my arms, and my heart knows before my mind does that I am holding the daughter I'll never have. Renee's eyes drift closed and I am left alone with a six-pound, two-ounce little girl with a shock of dark hair and eyelashes that flutter against cheeks still flushed with rage, tiny hands balled into fists within the cloud of cotton candy-pink blanket around her. Isabella Swan came into the world poised for a fight.
Six days later, my third son arrives with the same lack of fanfare he has shown in his nearly forty weeks of existence; manageable contractions, a few pushes, and a whimper instead of a scream herald his arrival. It isn't until Renee arrives with a blue balloon that the true peal of a newborn scream breaks the air, and it doesn't belong to my son: Isabella Swan, or Bella as they have already taken to calling her, has no interest in being soothed or fed or swaddled and is hell-bent on making her displeasure known. Right up until Renee's tired eyes, begging for a break, meet mine, and I wave toward the bedside cradle in which Edward is napping, entirely undisturbed by Bella's very vocal arrival. Renee deposits her daughter into the plastic crib with a grateful sigh and lowers herself to the visitor's chair beside my bed.
Edward, swaddled as he is, offers little acknowledgment of Bella's arrival, but the fuzzy dark crown of her head finds the soft pink skin of his cheek, and for the first time since Isabella Swan came home from the hospital, her fists unclench and the angry scowl on her tiny face melts away as she drifts into sleep.
The summer Edward is six Carlisle signs him up for half-day baseball camp. Though he has shown little interest in the rough-and-tumble style of play that his brothers seem to delight in, he collects baseball cards and wears a Mets cap and Carlisle spies him swinging Bella's butterfly net like a baseball bat and running imaginary bases around the perimeter of the Swans' front yard. The camp is boys-only and is held at the high school; through my kitchen window each day I see Bella sitting on her front porch wearing a scowl, waiting for Carlisle's car to pull in the driveway and deposit a flushed and grass-stained Edward at home. The stubbornness that she inherited from her mother is evident in the set of her jaw and her steadfast refusal to dash across the distance between our two houses to greet him, despite the fact that she has done little but wait for him all morning. The camp is only a week long, but I can imagine how those five mornings might seem like a lifetime to the six-year-old girl picking at the peeling white paint of a porch railing.
Friday afternoon, when the familiar purr of a Mercedes engine is audible in the driveway, I glance through the window to see Edward's retreating back as he jogs toward Bella's house, blue and orange cap making his head look too big for his body. A screen door slams and Carlisle appears in the space behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist and resting his chin on my shoulder as he follows my gaze, his low chuckle rumbling against my spine.
"What is he doing?" I ask, one hand winding behind me to find his hip.
"He won a new mitt," he replies as I see my son extending a brown bundle of leather toward the slip of a girl standing three steps above him, bony arms folded across her chest.
"And he's giving it to Bella."
"Says he already has a glove, what he needs is someone to catch the ball and throw it back." Carlisle's voice holds an echo of my own wonderment and we gaze at our youngest son through the kitchen window, watching as Bella's tiny arms bypass the offering to wrap around his neck for a brief moment before plucking the glove from his hands and bouncing down the steps with glee.
First grade gives way to second and third and fourth, and Bella is a near-permanent fixture at Edward's side. They catch fireflies and make snowmen and set up lemonade stands in the grassy space between our adjacent homes, and when the hiss of air brakes echoes from the end of the street I glance up from washing dishes and peer through the kitchen window to see them walking home from the bus stop beside each other, Bella tightrope-walking along the edge of the curb with Edward in the gutter beside her, her small arm darting out occasionally to steady herself on the bony point of his shoulder. I sometimes wonder why he never attempts the balancing act himself, but I don't ask when I see the way he smiles at her touch. Instead I think of Renee and myself, and how every trapeze artist needs a net, and I dunk my hands back into soapy water.
It isn't until the second week of fifth grade that it occurs to anyone that Bella and Edward's friendship is outside the realm of the ordinary, and regrettably that realization comes to the cruelest of people: fifth-grade boys. I hear the taunts from my post at the kitchen sink as my son makes his way home from school, crisp fall sunshine setting his auburn hair aflame. It isn't until he draws nearer that I can see that flame mirrored in the flush of his cheeks, barely visible thanks to the hanging of his head and the slump of his shoulders. I see Bella a half-step behind him, turned toward the trio of boys trailing them and yelling something inaudible, wisps of brown hair flying loose from her ponytail, small hands once again clenched into angry fists. I see Edward give a small shake of his head, but Bella doesn't notice. Dropping a dishtowel to the counter I push the screen door open, stepping out onto the porch and letting it bang closed behind me. The three boys trailing my son home falter and, after registering the looming presence of an adult, turn tail and disappear back up the street.
"What's going on?" I demand, trying unsuccessfully to catch my son's eye. When he continues to avoid my gaze I turn to Bella, her flashing brown eyes meeting mine head-on. "Those boys were being mean to Edward," she declares, indignation righteous in her otherwise delicate voice. She lifts her small, pointed chin. "I told them to get bent." Pride and fire war for dominance in her voice, but both are belied by the anxious glance she throws in the direction of Edward, whose eyes remain trained on the ground.
"Edward?" I coax, only to be met with a small shake of his head.
Faced with Edward's reticence, Bella chooses to continue the tale of woe. "They said he's a sissy for being friends with a girl," she confides, and her uneven, still-growing teeth worry her lower lip.
"Edward?" I press again.
"It's fine," he repeats as he climbs the porch steps, and for once Bella is left behind, standing at the bottom of the stairs to stare at his retreating back.
"Edward?" This time it is her voice, suddenly soft and uncharacteristically hesitant, and it brings my son to a halt. "Are you still my friend?"
He hesitates only momentarily at the top step before whirling and descending the stairs quickly, his backpack bouncing with each step. It isn't until he stands before her, finally making eye contact, that I realize my breath is caught in my lungs. "Best friend," he whispers fiercely, extending a pinky toward her.
Bella's tiny frame relaxes into relief as her own small finger links with his in their familiar gesture; he offers her a small smile before climbing the stairs and glancing at me, something lurking behind his grass-green eyes that is nearly too knowing for an eleven-year-old. "Can Bella stay for dinner?" he asks, and the arch of one eyebrow tells me the question is as much for her benefit as his.
"Of course, if it's all right with her mother," I say, smiling at the small slip of a girl still hovering in the walkway that leads to our door. "Lasagna," I add, as she beams and climbs the stairs to follow Edward into the house.
Despite my interruption of the taunts in those early school days, I hear the telltale echo of ridicule following my son home each day thereafter and the biting responses Bella hurls to combat the insults as Edward hunches his shoulders, a defensive posture that does little to block the barrage of teasing. Now, though, the other boys are smart enough to halt their progress before they reach our house. I wonder if this has been happening in school in previous years, and if the matriculation of Edward's brothers to the middle school has opened him up to teasing that their presence once discouraged.
Nearly a month into their fifth grade year, Edward spends a Saturday teaching Bella to throw a split-fingered fastball, a curveball, and a slider; when I ask, they say it's time for the baseball unit in gym class. I watch as he stands in front of her, curling her small fingers along the seams of the ball, sliding his hand to the fluted bones of her slim wrist to show her how to flick it as she lets go to make the ball spin. The growth spurt that forced me to make an emergency run to Sears for longer blue jeans has stretched him past Bella, and he now stands a few inches taller, forcing her to look up to see his face; as she does, the adoration in her eyes makes my heart sing.
Her brown eyes track his movements as he backs away, crouching into a catcher's pose, and as the ball smacks into his glove after a particularly noticeable arc through the air his exclamation of praise makes her beam.
A week later, Bella strikes out every batter during gym class and their walks home from the bus stop thereafter are blessedly silent, save the occasional bubble of laughter as she tightrope walks along the curb and he keeps the pace beside her, poised to steady her when she loses her balance.
The bright light of big dreams fades from Renee's eyes for good in the spring of 1993, as first her health and then her hair and then finally her life leave her weakening body and twelve-year-old Bella screams and sobs and hiccups into the pillowcase beside her mother's head, pleas for her to come back falling on ears that can no longer hear. Charlie attempts to scoop her into the circle of his arms even as she shrieks and claws at him, hissing and spitting like an angry cat and wailing for her mother.
Carlisle's voice is a low murmur from the corner of the room as he calls the hospital for an ambulance that won't need its siren, and Charlie's choked pleas for Bella to quiet go unheeded as she writhes in his desperate embrace. Warmth vanishes from Renee's skin in degrees as I squeeze her hand once more before letting go and rise to round the bed and hold my arms out to the now-motherless girl sobbing into her father's uniformed chest even as she fights against his embrace.
"My mom," she weeps as she collapses into my arms, the weight of grief too foreign and heavy for her to bear. I shush her and rock her and gently usher her from the room, leaving Charlie sitting on the edge of the bed, a steady stream of silent tears tracking silver down his cheeks.
That fall I make four Halloween costumes instead of three, and while I had some years secretly wished for a daughter to dress as a ladybug or a princess, Bella wants to be Michael Jordan to Edward's Scottie Pippen. Knowing next to nothing about basketball beyond the objective of throwing a ball through a hoop, it doesn't occur to me to wonder why my son chooses to be the sidekick instead of the superstar.
That is the first night Bella sleeps in my home, and when she leaves for school with Edward the following morning I note with some trepidation that she has left a book on the beside table in the guest room; the trepidation becomes resignation when I find her folded nightgown beneath the pillow of the remade guest bed. I don't change the sheets, and when Charlie calls looking for Bella before heading out for a night shift the following evening I extend an invitation that only I realize is more than temporary, even as he breathes a relieved sigh of gratitude. Charlie works more and more night shifts and becomes a better cop than a father; I try not to judge as I set a sixth place at the dinner table each night and attend four parent-teacher conferences instead of three. I should want him to heal so that he can reclaim his child, weave her back into his life, but all I really want is to envelop my friend's daughter into the fold of my family and keep her safe from the ghosts that wrestle her father to the ground. Bella's presence goes from common to constant and she becomes a surrogate younger sister to Emmett and Jasper, even if her relationship with Edward can never be painted with quite the same simple strokes.
More and more of Bella's clothes appear in the guest room closet, even though she returns to her own home on the nights Charlie isn't working, and when Carlisle absently refers to the guest room as "Bella's room" I can't quite explain the cold edge of worry that her seemingly effortless assimilation into our lives brings with it. Not until Edward's thirteenth birthday, when I ask him what he wants for dinner and he asks for Bella's favorite meal.
A few weeks later, the concern that has been nagging at the edges of my awareness is eclipsed by a hot flame of panic when a blood-curdling scream cuts through the dark of night. Cursing, Carlisle throws back the bedclothes and tears down the short hallway with me at his heels, skidding to a stop outside the closed door of the bathroom beneath which a thin strip of light is visible. Our three sons are standing in their bedroom doorways, wide-eyed and sleep-rumpled, masks of fear on their faces. The scream that ripped us all from sleep has given way to a sobbing peppered with wails and moans, and Carlisle knocks sharply on the locked door.
"Bella? Bella, sweetheart, what's the matter?"
The sobs only get louder, and the boys remain frozen in their thresholds, Edward's eyes slightly wider than his brothers'. Emmett and Jasper watch the scene with expressions that gradually melt from alarm to concern while Edward seems to have the opposite reaction, his panic escalating with every moment the door remains closed.
"Bella, honey, unlock the door." Carlisle tries the handle again before placing his palm flat against the wood and throwing a desperate glance over his shoulder. I push past him, placing my own palm where his had been moments before and bringing my lips to the crack of the door.
"Bella, love, can you open the door?"
"E- Esme?" Her shuddering voice is a relief despite the fact that it is thick with tears, and I nod at the white wood.
"Yes, love, it's me. Bella, let me in, sweetheart."
There is a moment's hesitation before I hear a shuffle behind the door. "Just you," she pleads, and I glance at Carlisle briefly before gesturing toward our sons with my eyes. He nods and retreats, shuffling Jasper and Emmett back to bed; unsurprisingly, Edward is the one to put up a fight.
"It's just me," I say to the door, and after a beat there is the click of the lock releasing. I push the door open just wide enough to slip inside before closing it behind me and locking it once again. Bella is sitting with her back against the porcelain tub, her knees hugged to her chest and her sleep-knotted hair a wild mess around her tear-streaked face. Glistening eyes find mine, and she lets loose another sob as I lower myself to the bath mat beside her and draw her into my arms. "Sssssh," I soothe, running one hand over her back as the other cradles her head against my chest. "It's okay," I murmur as sobs continue to wrack her small frame. "What is it, sweetheart? Was it a dream?"
She shakes her head without lifting it and I continue to rub her back as she cries, increasingly certain that she is finally surrendering to the grief of losing her mother.
"I don't want to die," she says at last, and a fresh round of sobs escape her lips. Taken aback, I pull away slightly and tip her chin up to search her face, which I realize for the first time is painted not in grief but fear.
"Die?" I repeat, entirely at a loss.
She nods, tears sliding down her flushed cheeks. "I think I—" She hiccups around another sob and swipes at her streaming nose with the cuff of the long-sleeved Mets t-shirt that Edward outgrew years ago. "I think I have what she had," she says finally, bawling once again into my chest as she buries her face against my flannel pajama top. I sift through her words, and sudden suspicion strikes me. I smooth her hair for a moment before I pull back again to search out her face. Red-rimmed chocolate eyes stare back at me and I cup her damp, heated cheek gently in my palm.
"Bella, love… did this… did something happen while you were using the bathroom?"
The relief of knowledge washes over me when she nods, hiccupping and sniffling as more tears spill from her eyes and roll down her face. "I—it—I—I'm bleeding," she whispers, and I grab both of her hands in mine.
"You're not sick, and you're not dying," I say firmly, and a small flicker of dubious hope sparks behind her eyes. I pull her up with me and open the door, glancing into the hallway to see Edward still standing in his doorway; the absence of anyone else tells me he waited for Carlisle to retreat before reemerging. "Go to bed, Edward," I order, my voice firm, and he glances toward Bella, who won't meet his eyes. "Bella's fine," I promise, even as his green eyes track her movements as she follows me down the hallway. She continues to trail me through my bedroom and into the master bathroom, where I rummage in the cupboard beneath the sink and pull out a box of maxi pads. I take one out and step behind her to close the door, noting the light of realization and relief that crosses Carlisle's face as I do so.
"Okay, sweetheart," I say as I turn back to the sniffling preteen behind me. "We need to talk."
Bella's relief at learning she isn't dying of the cervical cancer that took her mother does little to temper her disgust and her indignation about the changes her body is going through, particularly since Edward won't be subjected to exactly the same changes. She listens with barely-disguised distaste as I explain the biology behind menstrual cycles and their role in baby-making, and outright disgust when I share the most basic details of the how the baby-making actually takes place. I confide that Edward hasn't yet been privy to such explanations, and request that she not tell him until his father has a chance to do so; years later, I will wonder if that was the point at which the train began to diverge from the track. If in that moment Bella felt like she was outgrowing Edward, and if by asking her to keep a secret from him we caused the crack that led to the break.
It is often said that the middle child is usually the one who clings to the mother, needing reassurance of his place, his role, his mother's affection. Jasper, while never exactly clingy, was always my little confidante. Those big blue eyes that looked so very much like his father's could never keep secrets from me, and he gave up trying when he was barely tall enough to reach my apron strings. It could never be said that my middle son wasn't a fast learner. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when it is from our middle son that Carlisle and I learn about Edward and Bella's first kiss.
As a high school sophomore, Edward has little to no interest in the social scene of Forks High School. While his classmates go to the Friday night football games to socialize or gossip or make out in the grass under the bleachers, Edward sits resolutely in the bleachers beside Carlisle and me, watching Emmett knock people over left and right and keeping one eye on Bella, who splits her time between sitting beside him and meandering through the crowd with a handful of girls from their class. When one of those classmates plans a party at her house following the Homecoming game, Edward begs to be permitted to go. Surprised at his sudden desire to integrate himself into the social scene, I can't restrain myself from asking why.
"To watch out for Bella," he admits finally, a defensive hunch to his shoulders. "Chief Swan said she could go, and I want to take her. Sometimes some crazy shit happens at those parties, Mom."
"Sorry. Crazy stuff."
Following the requisite warnings and threats about drinking and driving and reminders about the importance of making good decisions, Carlisle and I acquiesce and when the night of the party comes I sit sentry in the armchair by the front window and wait for headlights to split the darkness before scurrying up to bed.
"Mom, just so the shit doesn't hit the fan at some point down the road, you might want to consider installing some security cameras in the upstairs hallway," my middle son advises me as he stands in front of the yawning refrigerator door the next morning, a carton of orange juice open and hovering in front of his mouth.
"Get a glass, Jasper," I interrupt, gesturing toward the cabinet above his head. He grunts, placing the carton of juice on the granite countertop before him. "And why exactly am I installing cameras in our home?"
"Well, if Bella's still going to be sleeping over. You might want to keep tabs on your youngest son, given that he stuck his tongue down her throat last night." At this, he frowns. "Or maybe it was her tongue down his throat. She seems the more likely aggressor, if you ask me."
"I most certainly did not ask you anything of the sort, young man." Still, as I attempt to ignore his far-too-detailed description, my mind reels. A part of me wondered if it would come to this someday, even as I feared the implications. Jasper shrugs as he pours his juice and returns the carton to the fridge before strolling from the kitchen, leaving me railroaded in his wake.
Later I watch Edward across the dinner table, studying Bella intently as if the way she is twirling spaghetti around her dinner fork is an art form. When her dessert plate is empty she rises from the table and thanks me for dinner; that night is the first one in years that Bella sleeps under Charlie Swan's roof, and when I poke my head into his bedroom to kiss Edward goodnight I don't have to wonder why he's sitting on his bed, staring through his window into the darkness.
In the weeks that follow, I get snippets of insight from Jasper and Emmett: Bella has been blowing Edward off at school; she's started hanging out with the Quileute boys from the Reservation in LaPush; she showed up to a classmate's party with one Quileute boy in particular in tow. I give Edward his space, knowing that even as easygoing and candid as he can be, the likelihood of him confiding in his mother is nil. I urge Carlisle to try to talk to him, but after a likely half-hearted attempt he relays to me that Edward is "fine" and everything is "fine" and things with Bella are "fine."
Nearly a month after Bella started pulling back from Edward, she is loitering in the kitchen while I make chicken parmigiana in lieu of playing Monopoly in the living room with the boys.
"Yes, love?" I say without turning, methodically stirring the marinara sauce as the telltale aroma of chicken permeates the small kitchen. Intuition tells me it's just about done; my grandmother always said that as soon as you can smell whatever's baking, it's time to take it out of the oven.
"Can I, um, ask you about something?" she asks as the oven timer beeps.
"Of course. Bella, hon, can you turn that off for me?" She crosses the small kitchen and turns off the timer before grabbing the potholders from beside the oven and pulling the door open.
"God, Esme, this smells amazing."
"Thanks, sweetheart. Does it look done?"
"Um. How can you tell?"
I leave the marinara simmering and bend beside her to consider the cutlets. "See how they're browning around the edges?" I ask, and she nods. "They're done. Go ahead and pull them out and put the pan on those trivets." She does as she's told before switching the oven off and dropping the potholders back to the countertop. She leans against the lip of the counter, her posture casual, but the studious way she considers the split ends she holds between her fingers belies her unease. "What did you want to talk to me about?" I urge, turning back to my sauce.
"I, um. I sort of… I wanted your recommendation."
"I need to pick a doctor," she says after another moment of studying her hair, and my heart skips a beat as I glance over my shoulder at her.
"Bella, is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine," she assures me, glancing at my face before moving beside me to glance down into the pot. "I just… I need a… lady-doctor appointment. And I don't want Charlie to… know. You know?"
"But everything's all right?" I press as I flash to a few years ago, a scream piercing the night and a girl sobbing on the bathroom floor. A lifeless hand in mine cooling by degrees.
"Fine, fine," she says with a small wave of her hand. "I just, um… need a prescription."
I stir my sauce with more concentration than it requires. "Birth control?" I ask, and in my periphery I see her shift her weight.
I nod carefully. "I quite like my doctor. She's very friendly and very professional. I can give you her number. Or, if you'd like, I can make you an appointment." I glance at her again, and I can't tell if the flush on her cheeks is from the stovetop or the conversation.
"No, no, that's okay, just the number would be great. Thanks, Esme." She takes a step back and turns to leave the kitchen; before she can get too far away from me, I grab her wrist gently.
"Bella?" She turns to face me, the trepidation in her eyes a contrast to the stubborn set of her jaw. I sigh. "Just… be careful, okay, sweetheart? The pill won't keep you safe, it'll just keep you… not pregnant. There are other precautions to take, okay?"
She rolls her eyes. "I know, Esme." She steps forward and gives me a quick peck on the cheek. "Thanks."
Then she disappears from the kitchen and I don't see her again until she's sitting at my elbow, shoveling chicken parm into her mouth. After dinner I press a slip of paper with a phone number into her hand and she nods, flicking her glance to the doorway through which the boys are sitting in the living room with bowls of ice cream.
"Don't… say anything, okay?" She chews her lip as she carefully folds the piece of paper.
"Bella, Edward's my son," I begin, and her eyes fly to mine, but I continue. "That being said, you're like a daughter to me, and whatever you tell me I'll keep to myself." I can see the relieved gratitude wash through her. "But Bella? Please… be gentle with his heart. He cares about you. A great deal. I think you know that."
She nods slowly before shrugging. "He's a caretaker," she says, brown eyes finding my face. "He's like his mother that way, I guess. Taking in strays."
I'm surprised by the thin thread of sourness in her words, and I take an involuntary step back. Before I can respond, she leaves the kitchen through the back door instead of joining the boys for dessert, and I listen as her footsteps descend the porch stairs before I resume washing the dishes. I don't have to wonder if this is the storm cloud that has been hovering over Edward for weeks.
That spring, Edward is a star. The Forks High School baseball team starts the season with a win and Edward on the mound, and as the season progresses the wins add up and the loss column stays empty. The college scouts who were interested in Edward a year ago are now positively desperate for his commitment, and he narrows down his selection to UCLA, Cal State Fullerton, and the University of Florida. Carlisle and I field a steady stream of phone calls from female classmates, and the snippets of conversation I overhear are always polite, always friendly, always charming, never overly interested. On the Friday nights he doesn't have games Edward goes on dates, but he is always home before his curfew and the dates are rarely with repeat customers. After the games, when the team goes to the Forks Diner for free ice cream, many of those female classmates are crowded into the booth with him or standing awkwardly beside his table.
None of the phone calls are from Bella, and she rarely appears in the bleachers along the first base line of the Forks High School baseball diamond. Edward pretends not to search the crowd and I pretend not to notice as he does so, and Carlisle pretends not to notice either one of us and sticks to noticing the stats book he's keeping for Edward. Bella doesn't come to dinner all that often these days, and I hear snippets in line at the grocery store and at the PTA meetings and at the diner that she's been spending a lot of time out at LaPush and a lot less time making it to school.
May arrives, and with it the end of Edward's high school career looms. His single-minded focus on baseball has earned him icon status and a perfect win record as well as full-ride scholarship offers to all of the schools on his short list, and even as pride whips through me I can't help but worry about what will happen when he no longer has those red-stitched seams of the ball to focus on. One Thursday morning as I am flipping through the mail, the phone rings and I pick it up to a familiar voice.
"Hello Esme, it's June."
June Weber, Reverend Weber's affable wife, taught Edward piano for years until baseball eclipsed virtually every other interest he'd ever had. I suspect she was nearly as heartbroken as I was when he gave up music in favor of sports. "Hello, June," I greet. "How are you?"
"Wonderful, thanks. Listen, I just wanted to call and tell you what a wonderful young man Edward is. He's made Angela's year."
I frown at the phone bill. "I'm sorry?"
"Oh. You didn't know. Edward asked Angela to the prom, and the way he did it, with the flower… well, it made her entire year, and I just wanted to call and tell you. You should be very proud of him; he's always been such a lovely young man."
"Thank you, June. Yes, we're very proud of him." After a few more minutes of small talk I return the phone to its cradle and gaze unseeingly at the envelopes still in my hand.
That night, Carlisle has the late shift at the hospital and Edward and I are alone for dinner. After I order the pizza and he sets the table, I clue him in to my afternoon phone call.
"So… Angela Weber," I say, trying to keep it light. Parenting 101: teenage boys aren't in the habit of discussing their dates with their mothers, even teenage boys as forthcoming as Edward.
He blushes as he straightens a fork. "Yeah." He moves on to the knife. "She, uh, really wanted me to ask her."
Edward is the master of understatement; even I know that Angela has been nursing a crush of grand proportions ever since Edward was an eight-year-old piano novice, picking out "Chopsticks" on the upright in the Webers' front parlor. I tamp down on the colossal urge to ask him who he wanted to invite, instead saying simply, "That was very sweet, Edward."
The blush deepens. "Did you get extra mushrooms?" he mumbles, and a small smile stretches my face. He heard me order, but I don't point this out.
Three weeks later I take an obscene amount of photos of Edward looking handsome in a tuxedo, a white rose pinned to his lapel and a matching white rose corsage on Angela's thin wrist. I feel warm at the way she gazes adoringly at him, even as sadness tugs at me as I note the friendly but hardly romantic smiles he shoots back at her. Finally they both tire of the endless flashbulbs and he helps her into the passenger seat of Carlisle's black Mercedes before lowering himself to the driver's side. Carlisle slips his arm around my waist as we watch the red taillights disappear down the street.
Five hours later I am reading Maeve Binchy beneath the warm yellow glow of a table lamp when I hear the familiar purr of an engine in the driveway followed by the slamming of a door. I glance out the window, surprised to see Edward storming up the walkway toward the porch steps; by the time he throws open the front door, I am standing inside the foyer.
"Edward?" Surprised green eyes find mine, and my heart lurches when I see the red rims, the split and swollen lip, the already-bruising skin around his left eye. "Edward," I gasp, and when he lifts a hand to run it through his hair I see scrapes along his knuckles still oozing not-yet-congealed blood. "What happened?" I demand, and even as his jaw clenches tears well up in his eyes. His lips purse and his mouth opens before snapping shut as he wipes his other hand briskly across his eyes. I take his battered hand between my own before slipping an arm around his shoulders. "Come on," I say gently, guiding him up the darkened stairs and into the hall bathroom. Turning on the light I steer him to the closed lid of the toilet seat, sitting him down and reaching for the medicine cabinet. I pull out the rubbing alcohol, some antibiotic ointment, and a box of bandages before fishing a few cotton balls out of the glass jar by the sink.
"I was trying to help her," he says to my back, his voice thick. "She needed help and I was trying to help her, but she wouldn't let me."
I sink to my knees on the mat in front of him and uncap the rubbing alcohol, wetting a cotton swab and pressing it gently to his knuckles. He hisses.
"Bella?" I ask, as if we could be talking about anyone else, and he nods.
"Bella," he says, and not for the first time I wish she would take notice of the way he says her name. "She was at the prom. With… Jake." His lips twist. "They were both drunk, and I saw her slap him while they were dancing. She ran out of the gym and into the parking lot, so I followed her. By the time I got out there he was there too, and they were screaming at each other. He said something really awful and she went to slap him again, but he grabbed her wrist and yelled right in her face. He was…" he trails off, wiping at his eyes with his free hand. "He was hurting her, and she told him he was hurting her and tried to pull her arm away but he just grabbed her tighter. I told him to let go of her, and he told me to… fuck off." He glances up at me, a silent apology for the swear word, and I give him a reassuring nod. "She was still flinching and trying to get him to let her go, and he yanked on her arm really hard and she cried out and I just… I lost it. I hit him. He finally let go of her and hit me back and we were basically brawling in the parking lot until a couple of the baseball guys came out and pulled us apart. I… I grabbed her hand and told her we were going home, but she… she pulled away from me." I can tell by the hitch in his voice that this is more painful to him than any of the scrapes I'm cleaning, and something clenches sharply in my chest. "She pulled away and told me to mind my own business." Another tear slips down his cheek, but he doesn't seem to notice. "Then she left with him."
"Oh, Edward," I breathe, and I want to pull him into my arms and hug him and stroke his hair the way I did when he was small enough to fold into my lap. "Sweetheart." After a moment's hesitation I discard the cotton swabs and do it anyway, wrapping my arms around his broad shoulders, rubbing circles over his shoulder blades and letting him cry into my neck. I murmur nonsensical platitudes as my memory flashes back to a swollen belly and a sudden jab, and it doesn't escape me that Bella is the only one who has ever been able to bring my gentle son to blows.
The next morning, the skin around his eye a tie-dye of bruises and an embarrassed flush still staining his cheeks, he is carefully maneuvering forkfuls of syrup-drenched French toast around the swollen split flesh of his lip when familiar footfalls arrive on the porch. Carlisle is already at work and my eyes find Edward's over the rim of my coffee mug when a hesitant knock sounds against the wooden frame of the screen door. I don't say a word, waiting for him to tell her to come in; instead, he rises from the table, discarding his napkin beside his half-eaten breakfast before slipping out the door.
"You look worse than Jake," is her unapologetic greeting, and in that moment I come very close to hating Bella Swan.
"Thanks," he says, his voice carrying the sharp edge of sarcastic anger, and I can tell by her response that she's surprised.
"Sorry. I… just came to see how you are."
"Sorry about last night. That was… stupid."
"He's not good for you, Bella," Edward replies, and I'm immensely glad that he's not letting her downplay what she's put him through.
"Why not?" she demands, and what little apology there may have been in her voice is gone altogether. "What do you even know about him, anyway?"
"I know he drinks. I know he smokes that damn pipe with his reservation buddies. I know he doesn't love you like I do." I am holding my breath, and I suspect Bella might be doing the same from the brief pause before she speaks again, her voice uncharacteristically soft.
"You don't love me, Edward."
"You can't tell me I don't love you. You can feel however you feel, you can love someone else, but you don't get to tell me who I love. I'll decide that myself, if it's all the same to you." I can't help the surge of pride I feel at his finally standing up for himself, even if it's too late, coming as his world falls down around his ears.
"He gets me," she mutters, ignoring his declaration.
"What does he get that I don't?"
"He gets what it's like to be broken."
"You're not broken."
"No, you're not."
"Just because you don't want to see something doesn't mean it isn't there, Edward."
"You're not broken, Bella."
"I am. I am, and he's broken the same way."
"Why, because his mother's dead, too?"
Her gasp is audible, even from my hidden seat at the kitchen table. "Fuck you, Edward Cullen. Fuck you, and your perfect little family."
"In case you haven't noticed, Bella, my perfect little family is the closest thing you've got to one." The eerie calm of his voice does little to mask the hurt anger swimming beneath it, and I close my eyes.
"I hate you," she hisses so low I almost miss it, and from the sound of it she nearly trips down the porch steps as she dashes away from him. I imagine him watching her back as it retreats across the grass between our houses, and I lose track of how long he stands there after more than enough time has passed for her to disappear into the supposed security of her own home. When he pulls the screen door open and steps inside the door it is with the weary, resigned posture of a man far older than seventeen; when his eyes meet mine, the green is even brighter against once-again red rims. He stands beside his chair, gazing down at the French toast I've always made on Sundays, and tells me in a flat voice that he's accepting the scholarship offer to the University of Florida.
Graduation comes and goes; Cullen and Swan are far apart in the alphabet and the owners of the names are even farther, so with the exception of a stiff hug and a handshake with Charlie, our celebration and theirs don't overlap. For weeks afterward I wait for the phone to ring or for familiar footsteps to climb the porch stairs but neither comes, and at the end of August Edward boards a plane to the other side of the country.
At the start of that fall, each week that Edward calls home his voice is wary. Gone is the open, carefree child who kept no secrets and wore his tender heart on the sleeve just beneath a Mets logo. Now his questions are guarded and indirect, his inquiries nearly as poorly disguised as his affections once were.
"How are you, Mom?"
He always starts with me, before moving to his father and his brothers. After promises that he will watch Emmett's games whenever they are aired on the east coast and assurances that he talks to both of his brothers regularly, he begins the dance. He asks about the town. About the local happenings. About anything and everything that might in some roundabout way lead to Bella.
"Charlie Swan was promoted to police chief last week," I say one evening in early October, wrapping the telephone cord around my index finger as I stare out the kitchen window toward a vacant porch with a peeled-paint railing. I give him the in he is so desperately seeking.
"Oh yeah?" The grateful relief in his voice nearly chokes me.
"Well, Chief Howell was pushing seventy," I continue conversationally. "It was time for him to retire about a decade ago."
A warm chuckle reaches through the phone lines and makes me miss him so much more. "Yeah. He wasn't very intimidating when we were in high school. Please tell Chief Swan I said congratulations."
"I will." The pause that follows is so silent I wonder if my son is holding his breath. "Bella just started working at a florist in Port Angeles."
"What?" Confusion negates the indifference he has spent ten minutes – and, in fact, the past six months and probably years – cultivating. "What do you mean? I thought she was in school."
"She dropped out," I say, feeling only slightly guilty when the words taste ever so faintly like gossip as they leave my tongue.
"Why?" Gone is the gentle, roundabout questioning; the interrogation is direct now.
"I don't really know." It is only a half-lie. Charlie confided in the grocery store checkout line that Bella decided to move out when he told her that her boyfriend wasn't allowed to stay at the house; when she realized she couldn't go to school and earn enough money for an apartment, her education was the short straw. "I guess she wanted to rent an apartment out that way, so she decided to work instead."
"Charlie's letting her live in an apartment in Port Angeles by herself? What the hell is wrong with that guy?"
I attempt to hedge, but I've never been much of a bluffer. "Well… she has a roommate."
There is a pause, and sometimes my son is too smart for his own good. "Is she still…" His voice trails off, the unfinished question heavy in the distance between us.
His exhale is audible. "Mom, I've gotta go. I don't want to miss dinner, and the dining hall closes in fifteen minutes."
"Okay. Thanks for calling, sweetheart."
"Yeah. Say hi to Dad for me."
"I will. I love you, Edward."
"Me too." The click is his goodbye.
Nearly a month later, on my birthday, I get phone calls from my three sons and a bouquet of flowers that arrives just as I'm baking three batches of sugar cookies to package in Tupperware and drop in the mail. I thank the teenage delivery boy with a tip and let the screen door swing shut behind me as I place the vase on the counter top and pluck the small card from its plastic holder. The name of the Port Angeles florist printed in embossed gold lettering on the outside of the envelope hints at the sender; when I open the card it is unsigned, but the message makes a signature unnecessary.
To the best mother I've ever known, from a kid who wasn't even her own. Happy birthday, Esme.
While I recognize the blooms, the combination and arrangement is somewhat unusual. A bunch of pink geraniums encircles a cluster of four different flowers: a bright yellow daffodil, a peach carnation, a golden poppy, and a purple lilac. After a beat of consideration, I recall that the daffodil and carnation are Emmett and Jasper's birth month flowers. With nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon while sheets of baking cookies suffuse the sun-drenched kitchen with the sweet smell of sugar, I power up the laptop at the kitchen table and lose myself in a Google search. The meaning of geraniums, I quickly learn, is comfort. Another search confirms that the poppy is the shared birth flower of Edward and Bella, but when I peruse the birth month list, lilac is nowhere to be found. The resulting search yields a different discovery altogether.
Purple lilac: First love.
I am still frowning at the bouquet when Carlisle returns from an emergency shift at the hospital an hour later.
. . .
Florida is too far from Washington State to make the trip for a four-day weekend, so Thanksgiving passes with just Emmett and Jasper at home; it isn't until Christmas break that Edward returns to Forks. When I wrap my arms around him in the baggage claim area of the airport in Port Angeles, the first thing I notice is that he's taller and broader than he was in August; the second is that he smells like a different laundry detergent, and it is this silly detail that makes me realize that my youngest son no longer lives under my roof. I can send him all the baked goods I want, and he can call me every week like clockwork, but at the end of the day he does his own laundry and makes his own meals and sleeps under a different roof and I'm not around for any of it.
"Hi, Mom," he murmurs into my hair, and I blink back sudden tears as I school my features into a smile. I pull back and look up into his face, my hands on the hard curves of his shoulders. My mind flashes momentarily to Bella's small fingers perched on the once-prominent shoulder bone now hidden beneath a layer of muscle, but I push the thought away.
"I missed you," I say, and he squirms under my adoring gaze.
"Me too," he mumbles as his eyes flicker to the queue of suitcases twirling idly on the nearby baggage carousel. "I should grab my bag," he says, and I release him reluctantly.
We make small talk about his flight and the weather until he spies the navy blue duffel bag Carlisle bought him before he left for school; he hefts it onto his shoulder with minimal effort and grins down at me. "Lead the way," he says, draping his free arm gently around my shoulders as I guide us toward the parking garage.
During the nearly hour-long ride from Port Angeles to Forks, I fish for the details of his college life with undisguised curiosity. He gazes out into the settling dusk as he tells me about his classes, about how the summer humidity in Florida lasted until nearly October, about his off-season workouts with the baseball team, about his roommate. He tells me about the food, and how he's been looking forward to a home-cooked meal since his first dinner of bland chicken and limp green beans. I ask him if he likes the school, and I watch him carefully as he answers. His spoken answer tells me he likes it; his unspoken answer tells me he doesn't love it. Neither of us talks about the events that conspired to make him choose it in the first place.
I don't comment on his brief glance toward the darkened windows of Charlie Swan's house as we pull into the driveway, and as soon as we cross the threshold he is swallowed up in hugs and handshakes from his father and brothers. Emmett hauls his bag up the stairs as if Edward is still his five-year-old younger brother instead of his eighteen-year-old younger brother, and the four of them collapse in the living room while I busy myself making dinner in the kitchen.
Once we are all settled around the table I allow myself to bask in the blissful comfort of having my family under one roof; it isn't until partway through the meal that I realize that prior to Edward's departure for the opposite coast, dinners at this table were tense and painful, the emptiness of the chair next to his speaking nearly as loudly as its former occupant had. If Edward realizes I moved the chair to the desk in the kitchen, he doesn't acknowledge it; instead, he laughs with his brothers and chats with his father, and in that moment, watching my youngest son interact with his family, I realize how much of Edward I was always forced to share with Bella Swan. And while I wish I could stop myself, in the next moment I wonder where she is, and at whose dinner table she's sitting.
Emmett disappears after dinner to meet his girlfriend and Jasper tags along in hopes that Rosalie will bring a friend; Edward bows out, offering instead to help with the dishes. As his fingers disappear and reappear beneath the surface of the sudsy water in the sink, passing me rinsed and scraped plates to put in the dishwasher, I see his gaze drift through the window and into the darkness more than once.
"Do you ever see her?" he asks when all that remain are the silverware and the glasses, his voice all practiced nonchalance.
"No," I say, not forcing him to explicate on whom he's talking about, and he shakes his head slightly; I'm not sure if it's in disappointment or self-reproach. "I got a beautiful flower arrangement on my birthday though," I say carefully, trying to gauge his reaction. I see the muscle at the hinge of his jaw working as he passes me a soapy handful of utensils; I duck my head to slide them into the compartments of the dishwasher rack, affording him at least a moment of privacy.
"Flowers," he says carefully, and for once I have no idea what's passing through that quick mind of his. I debate telling him about the thought she put into it, but I don't quite know what to make of that myself so I keep quiet. "So she still…" He pauses, dunking his hands back into the sink and retrieving another handful of cutlery. "She still works for the florist," he settles on finally, and I duck again.
"I think so." His silence is a clear indication that he's done with the conversation for now, but as he hands me the last soapy glass I grab his hand in mine and set the glass on the counter. His surprised eyes find my face before they look away, settling on the discarded glass and trailing the line of suds that slides down its side and pools on the granite countertop. "Edward, she didn't mean it," I say softly; Bella's words from all those months ago are still so clear in my memory, and I can tell from the way he flinches that they're never far from his, either.
"It doesn't matter, Mom. She said it. She said it and she left." He shrugs, a gesture of supreme indifference, but I can see the still-sharp edge of hurt lingering beneath it.
"She was scared," I try again, but he pulls his hand from mine, his skin slipping free easily with the buffer of soapsuds, and I watch him shutting me out.
"It doesn't matter," he says again, and it might be the first time in eighteen years that he's lied to me. "It doesn't matter now." He grabs the yellow dishtowel from beside the sink and roughly wipes his hands. "Anything else need to be done?" His green eyes dance around the kitchen and I shake my head, freeing him; he disappears up the stairs and I brace my hands against the edge of the sink, gazing out toward the adjacent space where I know a house looms, but all I see is darkness.
Christmas Day passes in a flurry of wrapping paper and hot cocoa, the boys reverting to their boyish ways as they tinker with their various gifts and commandeer the living room television for an Xbox football marathon. Carlisle is utterly useless at it but the boys go easy on him and the rounds of laughter combine with the cocoa to warm me from the inside out.
It is the first Christmas in eighteen years that we don't see or hear from Bella, and by the time Edward leaves to go back to the east coast her continued absence is like an open manhole we carefully sidestep. I hug him fiercely in the departures area of the airport and swallow against the lump of tears in my throat; he offers me a brave smile.
"I'll see you on opening day," he says, and I force myself to match his smile. His first college baseball season starts in less than two months, and it is nearly too easy to pretend that his absence is the sole reason for my melancholy, nearly too easy to pretend not to notice the disappointment sitting heavy on his shoulders like a cloak.
"February 16," I say resolutely. "We wouldn't miss it for the world."
He smiles again, hitching his carry-on backpack higher on his shoulders and giving me one last hug before making his way toward the security checkpoint, his boarding pass sticking out of his back pocket. I watch him until he disappears beyond the metal detectors, and I stand for a few extra minutes in case he reappears before I make my way home.
On the four separate occasions that Carlisle and I fly to Florida that spring to watch Edward excel on the pitcher's mound despite his status as a lowly freshman, the subsequent dinners and conversations are easy and light, and the topics discussed remain 3,000 careful miles away from Bella Swan. I attempt a few times to give Edward the opportunity to ask but he steers carefully around me each time, pretending to misunderstand or feigning disinterest or ignoring me altogether. I don't want to talk about her any more than he does, but the way he steadfastly refuses to do so makes the mother in me lay awake at night.
I don't tell him when I get another arrangement on Mother's Day, this time a spray of white roses with a cluster of aqua-blue and violet hyacinth blooms clustered in the center. Another five minutes at my kitchen table with my laptop clues me in to the meaning. Aqua-blue varieties of hyacinth blossoms mean sincerity in the language of flowers, while violet blooms represent the asking of forgiveness from the recipient. As I gaze at the bouquet, I wonder idly if any part of the forgiveness she's seeking is mine to give.
That first summer, Edward gets an offer to play in the Florida Collegiate Summer League and begs us to let him stay in Florida. As August approaches and I am hit by an onslaught of memories of sitting with Renee on my porch nineteen Augusts ago, four swollen ankles propped up on ottomans and two swollen bellies serving as makeshift tabletops for sweating glasses of lemonade, a suddenly urgent need to see Bella bubbles up in me. I remember the unspoken promise I made to Renee all those years ago, and even though the circumstances are different and light years beyond what I anticipated, the idea that I have failed my friend in this most important of ways nags at my conscience. I wonder about Bella, and about this less-than-respectable boyfriend, and about who's worrying about her like Renee would have if she were here.
Trying desperately not to feel like I'm betraying my own son, I drive to Port Angeles under the guise of shopping for new throw pillows and wander aimlessly around the downtown area until I find Bloom, the tiny, independent florist whose gold-embossed name has appeared on my doorstep twice now. I hesitate for less than a second before pushing the glass door open and stepping inside the frigid store, the perfume of flower blooms immediately swirling around me as the brass bell on the door tinkles to alert the clerk to my entrance.
"Hi, how can I…" The familiar voice trails off as equally familiar brown eyes widen in surprise. "Esme."
She gnaws at her lower lip and the gesture is so achingly familiar of not only Bella but her mother that I feel a bubble of tears well up in my throat. "Hi, Esme. I'm… I'm sorry, are you looking for some flowers?"
"No," I say gently, approaching the counter slowly, as if she might bolt. Silly, really, because Bella was always the fighter, and yet something about this slip of a girl seems somehow different from the Bella who very nearly broke my son's heart more than a year ago. Something about her seems almost broken herself. "I was actually looking for you." She doesn't appear to know what to say to this, and seeing Bella at a loss for words is a new experience. I decide to start us off slowly. "Thank you for the beautiful arrangements." She blushes.
"You're welcome," she replies, and she considers me carefully as she pulls her lip between her teeth again. If I know Bella she's wondering if I picked up on the sentiments behind the blooms, and as much as I wanted to see her I'm not ready to tip my hand that far quite yet. "I was in the neighborhood looking for a few things for the house and I thought you might like to grab a coffee."
She nods and twists her upper body to glance at the clock on the wall behind her. "We close in twenty minutes; could I meet you? There's a café on the corner… they have really good baked goods." She pauses. "I mean, not as good as yours, but you know… good for… a café." The lip is between her teeth again, and it's a wonder it isn't bloody.
"That sounds perfect," I say with a nod and pull the strap of my purse higher on my shoulder. "I'll see you there."
I'm already on my third cup of tea by the time she appears thirty minutes later, sliding into the wooden seat across from me after ordering a coffee from the counter. Blowing into the small hole of the plastic lid, she regards me carefully over its rim, her eyes an equal mix of curiosity and caution.
"How are you?" I ask, and she nods even as she continues to blow.
"I'm good. Busy."
I nod. "Are you working full-time, then?"
"Yeah. I'm actually liking it… the pay's decent, and the hours are good."
"That's wonderful," I say, taking a careful sip from my own cup before continuing. "You certainly have a gift, if the arrangements I've gotten are any indication."
Her eyebrows jump before she schools her features back into careful neutrality. "Thank you."
I've had very nearly all I can take of the awkwardness, and I slide the hand not holding my cup across the worn wood of the table to grasp hers. "Bella, I've missed you," I say softly, and her eyebrows jump near her hairline; this time, they stay there.
She shifts in her chair and puts her cup down on the table, pulling her hand gently from mine and rubbing her palms together. "I, um." She glances around us before focusing on the cup in front of her. "I didn't think you'd want to see me," she says carefully before setting her jaw and meeting my eyes, defiance warring with regret in her own brown depths. "After what happened with Edward."
The respect I thought I'd lost for this young girl nearly bowls me over; I hadn't expected her to be so forthright, and I realize that in my anger I have forgotten how honest Bella's always been. To a fault, at times; her words from that fateful day ring in my ears, but something about them sounds different now.
"I will always want to see you," I say carefully. "Even if I'm upset with you."
I see her swallow and she blinks quickly as she looks out the window and onto the street still bustling with summer shoppers. "How is he?"
"He's fine," I say. "Good. He stayed in Florida for the summer."
She nods, still staring determinedly at the street.
"Has he forgiven me yet?"
"Have you asked him to?"
At my question she finally drags her eyes back to me and sighs. "Maybe someday," she says, before inquiring after Carlisle and Jasper and Emmett; I allow her to change the subject, relieved not to have to walk the slippery slope of divulging information on Edward's life. When we part ways an hour later, I tell her not to be a stranger and she hugs me hard. I had forgotten how much strength there was in those slender arms, and I wonder fleetingly if she remembers how to throw a split-fingered fastball.
Despite my open pseudo-invitation, I don't see or hear from Bella again for the rest of the year. Fall passes in weekly conversations with my sons and another Thanksgiving without Edward; this year, we opt to vacation as a family in Florida for the winter holiday, trading the freezing gloom of the Pacific Northwest for the sun and temperate climate of Florida's gulf coast. We walk on the beach and the boys attempt to surf with varying degrees of success; in the first week of January we take a cruise to the Mediterranean and Edward threatens to throw both of his brothers overboard if they don't stop ribbing him about something.
I learn later that "something" is actually a "someone" named Mallory, and it isn't until I ask Carlisle about it in the darkness of our cabin later that night that he informs me that Mallory is a girl Edward met and dated for most of the summer until she left to return to school in Maine. I don't want to know, but at the same time I need to.
"Did he… I mean, did they…" I trail off.
"They did," Carlisle murmurs. "I overheard Emmet teasing him about it."
I bite my lip, and as I do so Bella pops up unbidden in my mind; I suppose it was always too much to hope that his first love, his first kiss, and his first time would all happen with the same girl. I hope it was beautiful and tender and that she loved him and that, perhaps more importantly, he loved her. I hope he was gentle and she was kind, and for some reason I can't explain I hope that it was her first time, too. I hope she looked at him the way Bella did all those years ago when he was teaching her to throw a baseball – like the world began and ended with his smile. I think all of these things, hope all of these things, but the only thing that comes out of my mouth is, "I hope he was safe."
"He was," my husband assures me, pulling me into his chest beneath the bed sheets. "We revisited our safe sex talk just in case, but he assures me he took all the necessary precautions." I have a flash of my youngest son buying condoms and instantly wish he could protect his heart as easily as he can protect the other parts of him. I try to imagine this Mallory, but all I find myself wondering is whether she has eyes the color of coffee beans and hair that shimmers amber in the sunlight.
The following summer Edward is again invited to play summer league baseball, and it occurs to me for the first time that he might never return to Forks for anything more than a visit. The thought fills me with sadness. Emmett graduates from college in May and begins a job in Seattle; I spend most of June pretending not to notice the way the house echoes, sound bouncing around empty walls, and am grateful beyond words for Jasper's sporadic presence. Carlisle treads around me carefully, making purposely gentle comments about empty nest syndrome, and I wave him off with a chuckle that sounds forced even to my own ears. In August I visit Bella again, and this time she is noticeably less surprised to see me.
"Hi, Esme," she greets as she looks up at the gentle chime of the bells. "Coffee house in twenty?"
I manage to limit myself to one cup of tea while I wait, and when she slides into the seat across from me twenty minutes later she smiles as she blows on her coffee.
"I'm sorry I haven't been in touch," she offers immediately, and I realize I've missed her directness. Carlisle steers carefully around my prickly patches, as does Edward, and Emmett and Jasper are equally content to pretend they don't exist at all. I realize I am surrounded by men and wonder briefly if directness is a quality solely reserved for women; then I remember Renee, and wonder if it isn't simply a matter of genetics.
"It's okay," I reply, grateful that I don't have to lie. If a yearly coffee date is all I ever have with Bella Swan, I will make it enough. "Are you still enjoying your job?"
"I am," she says, and her eyes sparkle. "I've actually started taking business courses at the community college; I'm thinking I might like to have my own shop someday."
I feel a soft smile pull at my mouth. "Your mother always loved fresh flowers," I say, and deep brown eyes find mine.
"I think I remember that," she says carefully, taking a slow sip from her cup. "She always had something in a small bud vase by her bed that smelled sweet, but in all this time I haven't come across it in the store. I don't even know where she got it, but more often than not she had at least one bud in that vase."
I recall the memory with perfect clarity, and how there was a small purple bloom at the bedside even on the day Renee slipped away. "Freesia," I whisper around the knot at the back of my throat as I stare into my teacup. "Your mother loved freesia. For—" The knot threatens to become more and I swallow before continuing. "For her wedding, she had freesia blooms in her hair." I look up and Bella is staring at me, her mouth slightly open, brown eyes wide. "Your dad would get them from old Mrs. Wilson, who grew them in her garden. She always had a soft spot for Charlie after he pulled her husband out of the lake after a fishing accident, and she kept showing up at the station with baked goods. Finally he told her he wasn't going to fit into his police uniform if she didn't stop, and when she insisted she could never repay him he told her his wife loved freesia." I trace the handle of my mug with one fingertip. "I think she showed up with a fresh sprig of freesia blooms just about every week."
"Freesia," Bella murmurs, and as she stares down at her cup I see her wipe her cheek with the cuff of her sleeve.
A week later, on Bella's birthday, I call Mrs. Wilson and request a small favor; when Bella calls me a few hours later, her voice thick with tears, I tell her again not to be a stranger.
After that, I stop into the store and steal Bella away for coffee whenever I have reason to run to Port Angeles, which is nearly weekly; I ask her the types of questions I would ask my own daughter and she answers some of them and dodges others, just as I suspect she would if Renee were the one asking. She never broaches the subject of Edward with anything more than a simple inquiry as to how he is; I reply in kind, saying he is good and staying busy. I don't tell her that he has no idea I've been in touch with her and she doesn't ask. If she did, I suspect I might be tempted to lie. I realize as I am driving home one night late in September that I feel closer to Bella now than I ever have, and I immediately feel guilty for being pleased by the insight, tasting as it does of slight betrayal.
The opportunity to come clean to Edward never arises, however, as two weeks later I get a phone call in the early afternoon from a hospital in Port Angeles. Initially I incorrectly assume that they're looking for Carlisle, but when Bella's name crosses the nurse's lips my blood runs cold.
"Mrs. Cullen, you're listed as an emergency contact for Isabella Swan; she was brought into the ER a little while ago."
My heart is in my throat as I struggle to remain calm. "Have you called her father?" I manage.
"Would that be Charles Swan?" the nurse asks, and I nod before realizing she can't see me.
"Yes. That's her dad."
"We tried Mr. Swan, ma'am, but we were unable to reach him. You're listed in her wallet as her other emergency contact. Is there a mistake?"
"No, no mistake," I say as I throw my cell phone into my purse and search the kitchen desperately for my car keys. "What happened?"
"She was brought in by ambulance a little while ago following a motor vehicle accident."
"Is she all right?" My voice is barely a whisper, and I hope she won't ask me to repeat myself.
"Mrs. Cullen, we really can't give out any information on the phone."
I'm married to a doctor, and yet I've never hated hospital protocol more than I do in this moment. "I'm nearly an hour away," I plead, tears tracking silently down my face as I grip the kitchen counter and stare unseeingly through the window at the Swans' house. "Please. Please, just tell me if she'll be alive when I get there."
"Mrs. Cullen, Miss Swan is in surgery. That's all I know." She pauses, and when she speaks again her voice is softly sympathetic. "I'm sorry. That's really all I know."
I spot my keys sitting next to the breadbox and snatch them up. "I'm on my way," I say, and throw the receiver onto the kitchen table. It doesn't occur to me until my tires are spinning against the concrete of our driveway that I'm not sure I turned it off. I call Carlisle before I'm to the top of our street and he answers almost immediately; in all the years we've been married I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've dialed his cell phone while he was on call, and when his voice comes through the speaker it's already tinged with worry.
"Esme? Is everything all right?"
"Carlisle," I gasp, suddenly sobbing. "It's Bella. She was in an accident."
"Where?" he asks, doctor voice already in place.
"Port Angeles. She's in the ER."
"Where are you?"
"I'm just pulling out of the street," I say, though it's slightly untrue; I'm sitting at the stop sign, trying desperately to see through my tears to determine if there's another car coming.
"Esme, love, you shouldn't drive when you're crying." He pauses, his doctor voice giving way to the husband-voice I've loved for so many years. "Esme, come to the hospital. We'll go together."
I've never been quite so grateful to live in small town as I am when I pull into the parking lot of Forks Community Hospital a mere four minutes later and Carlisle is already waiting for me. He opens the driver's side door and I step out and move to the passenger side without argument. On the way to Port Angeles, I repeat to him what the nurse told me over the phone and once the particulars are shared I let silence lapse for a few moments before putting voice to the thought that has consumed me since I heard Bella's name and the word "accident" in the same sentence. "Do you think we should call Edward?"
I watch Carlisle's profile as he checks his blind spot before switching lanes; the muscle at the hinge of his jaw flexes and the habit is so reminiscent of Edward's that I know the answer before he speaks it.
"Probably," he says softly. "But we should wait until we get there so we have more information to tell him."
He cuts me off. "Don't, Esme. Don't borrow trouble. We'll worry about what-ifs when we have specific what-ifs to worry about." He finds my hand in the space between us. "She'll be okay," he says gently, even though all his years of medical training have taught him not to make those types of promises to the families of patients.
The rest of the trip passes in tense silence, and when we are finally in the ER of the Port Angeles hospital I wonder how families who don't have doctors in them manage to get any understandable information out of the so-called help desks. I stand beside Carlisle as words like "considerable internal bleeding," "possible head trauma," and "extensive surgery" float around us, a numb haze of shock settling over me. Carlisle thanks the doctor once he has gleaned as much information as he can and guides me toward a row of blue patent leather padded chairs beneath a tinted window and a television showing CNN on mute.
"Edward?" I ask as I settle obediently into the chair, and Carlisle nods, his face grim as I retrieve my cell phone and dial.
"Hi, Mom." My son answers the phone with laughter in his voice, and I am silent for a beat as I let the happy words wash over me. I must let the silent moment last a beat too long, though, because his voice comes through the line again, the laughter gone. "Mom? Is everything okay?"
"Hi, sweetheart. Sorry, I'm on my cell and you know how I am with these things."
"I do," he says, his voice still light but wary. "Is everything okay?" he asks again, and I curl myself around the phone even though the only other person in the waiting room is a man who appears to be asleep in a chair against the opposite wall.
"Sweetheart, your father and I are at the hospital in Port Angeles," I begin, and I can hear the sudden intake of breath. "There was an accident this afternoon, and—"
"Is she okay?" he breathes, his voice tight, and I don't have to ask how he knew. Even if Bella weren't the only person he knew living in Port Angeles, something tells me Edward would know.
"She's in surgery at the moment," I say warily, careful not to repeat any of the medical jargon that made me want to collapse onto the waxed linoleum floor and sob.
"Mom," he says, his voice barely a whisper, and for the first time in years I can hear the tears in his voice. "Just tell me."
"We don't really know anything yet," I hedge. "She's going to be in surgery for a while."
He sucks in another audible breath, and I curse the fact that having a doctor for a father has made him privy to certain knowledge that the average 21-year-old wouldn't have. "I'm coming home," he says, and his tone leaves no room for argument even as I want, for the first time, to keep him on the opposite side of the country.
"Give your dad an hour to get you a flight, okay? I'll call you with the details. You pack and we'll get everything set."
"Okay," he says, his voice trembling, and I repeat the empty promises Carlisle made me in the car.
"She'll be okay, Edward," I murmur, but my son has always been too smart for his own good.
"Call me when you have the flights," he says. "Love you." Once again, the click of disconnection is his goodbye.
Twenty minutes later Carlisle has managed to get Edward on a flight out of Orlando that arrives in Seattle at just before 10 p.m. our time. I ask him about the ability to connect with a shuttle to Port Angeles, but he simply shakes his head. "Emmett can meet him at the airport and bring him out here," he says softly. "He'll miss the last shuttle."
We relay the details to Edward, who says next to nothing outside of confirming he has all the details and that he will call Emmett before he takes off. Carlisle and I sit on hard blue fake leather and watch headlines without seeing them, eyes locking on the swinging door that leads to the ER every time it opens. Every five minutes I try to call Charlie; I finally get the so-called desk sergeant, who informs me that he's been out on patrol with a rookie cop for hours, but that they'll put out a bulletin for him to check in and will relay the message to him. It doesn't occur to me until hours later, as I'm waiting for word from Emmett that Edward's plane has landed, to wonder why Bella's boyfriend isn't sitting in the waiting room beside us, why his name wasn't on her emergency contact card. Charlie bursts into the waiting area in Bella's third hour of surgery, as we're getting an update from one of the residents.
In the fourth hour Jasper arrives, having heard the news from Emmett. He comes bearing coffee, and I'm grateful for a change from the battery acid passing as caffeine that brews in the waiting room.
Somewhere in the middle police arrive to ask questions, and I wait for one of them to echo the one that has been bouncing around in my own head for hours now: what makes a healthy young girl wrap her car around a lamppost doing nearly eighty miles an hour on a straight stretch of road on a sunny October afternoon? Their questions are soft, gentle, and they say they'll have some for Bella when she wakes up, but they seem settled on the hypothetical already offered: a deer in the road.
In the eighth hour I look up to see Edward's stricken face on the other side of the glass doors at the hospital entrance, as if he had sprinted to the too-slow doors and was forced to wait for them to slide open before he could enter. Emmett appears beside him, settling a large hand on Edward's shoulder as they step through the finally open doors together, and they cross the space between us in a few long strides.
"Mom?" Edward's voice shakes as his green eyes roam my face, red-rimmed and shining.
"Nothing yet," I murmur, wrapping my hands around his shoulders and pulling him into my arms. I feel his arms band around my lower back and see Charlie eyeing us from his seat beneath the dark windows that overlook the parking lot.
More hours pass, Edward pacing like a caged lion; fruitless efforts by his brothers to settle him fall silent as people appear and disappear in the waiting room. Finally, a doctor appears with a clipboard in hand and a scrub cap on his head. Charlie and Carlisle plant themselves in front of him as Edward stands immediately behind them, his rigid posture loosening slightly at the words "successful surgery" and "full recovery." The relaxation disappears nearly immediately, however, at the doctor's next words. "Unfortunately, she lost a lot of blood. I'm sorry, but the fetus did not survive."
My eyes find Edward and Charlie, and they look equally stricken.
Forty-eight more hours pass, with Edward and Charlie all but refusing to leave her bedside. In the forty-ninth Jacob Black appears with a hangover and a garnish of guilt, and when it registers that there are only two visitor's chairs in Bella's hospital room Edward rises slowly, the hesitation in his movements all but screaming his unwillingness to relinquish his place by her side. When Charlie emerges from her room shortly thereafter to give the doctors an opportunity to examine her, it is with a small smile.
"She's coming around," he says, and relief is etched in his features. When the doctor reemerges and fills Charlie in on her progress, it is with a reassuring smile and a clap on the shoulder; when Charlie vanishes back into Bella's room, Emmett offers to take Edward and Jasper back to our house.
As I place a comforting hand on the point of his shoulder, tired green eyes find mine. "Don't tell her I was here," he whispers before following his brothers through the sliding glass doors and into the darkness.
When I return home late that night he's on the computer looking at flights; the next day, he's gone.
One day in the first week of December, I am just toweling off from a shower when the house phone rings. Muttering about Carlisle's apparent inability to return the cordless phone handset to the cradle inside our bedroom, I cross the hall to Edward's room and snatch up the receiver from his bedside table.
"Mom? Is everything okay?"
"Edward. Of course everything's okay, why?"
"You're out of breath."
"Sorry, I couldn't find the phone."
"Oh. Okay. Well, how are you?"
"I'm fine, love. Everything okay?"
"Well, you called yesterday. I'm just checking." I lower myself to sit on the edge of his bed and re-tuck my towel around my chest.
He laughs. "I can't call my mother more than once a week? Boy, when you send a kid off to college, you don't mess around."
"Don't be silly, you can call every day if you want to."
He laughs again, and I like how light he sounds. "Actually, I'm calling about Christmas break," he says, and I find myself smiling at the empty room. The holiday can't come fast enough.
"Do you know when you'll be home?" I ask, taking the opportunity to gaze at the contents of the corkboard above Edward's desk. The chenille "F" from the high school letter jacket he never wanted to actually wear, a photo of him and his brothers from a Mariners game, a small, beige rectangular sheet of paper with something handwritten in pencil.
"Um, I haven't made any travel plans yet," he says, and the lightness is gone from his voice and is replaced with something that sounds like apprehension. "That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about."
"I was, um, wondering if I could bring someone with me. For Christmas."
"Someone?" I ask, and I hear my son sigh.
"Yes. Someone. A… friend."
"Mom, this conversation is going to take a lot longer if you select one word from each of my sentences to repeat."
"Well, perhaps you should be more forthcoming with the details then, darling, and you'll be off the phone much quicker."
He sighs again. "A girl… friend. Girlfriend. My girlfriend."
"And this is the first time I'm hearing about this girlfriend?" I demand, only half-kidding.
"Aw, come on, Mom." Though he hasn't had much practice, Edward does the put-upon teenager routine surprisingly well.
"Do I at least get a name?"
"Amy. Her name is Amy."
"And how did you meet this Amy?" I press, making myself as comfortable as I can in a damp towel. Another sigh, and I get the basics: Amy was in one of his upper-level education classes at the start of the semester and they were paired up for a project; she loves baseball and, perhaps just as importantly, hates the Yankees; she's nice and fun and grills a mean cheeseburger. And Amy's an only child whose mother died when she was young and whose attorney father will be spending the holidays in the Caribbean with his girlfriend.
"Of course she can come," I say, even as my mind flashes to another motherless girl who used to open presents beside him on Christmas morning. "But I'll need you to tell me what size she wears and what she likes so I can do some Christmas shopping."
He promises to do the required recon, thanks me, and agrees to e-mail me their travel itinerary before saying goodbye. As I replace the phone my attention falls once again on the corkboard across the room. Rising, I step closer and squint at the penciled words on the beige piece of paper; upon closer inspection, I realize it's a poem, or at least parts of one:
without knowing how, or when, or from where
straightforwardly, without complexities or pride
because I know no other way
I sigh as I touch the faded words and frown as I do so; the paper is thicker than I thought, and as suspicion strikes me I carefully pull out the pushpin holding it in place. When I flip it over, Bella's and Edward's young faces smile back at me: Bella is missing a tooth, Edward's shorter hair is still a riotous mess, they are both sunburned and knobby-kneed, and she has an arm slung around his shoulders as he grins unabashedly at the camera. It isn't until I realize the incongruity of the fact that she's tall enough to have an arm around his shoulder that I look at their feet and realize that once again, she's standing on the curb.
I flip the photo back over and scan the words, frowning slightly at the glaring omissions from the well-known verse. Because even here, in the safety of his own bedroom, in barely-there penciled script, he has left out the words that all but scream in their absence.
I love you.
I love you.
. . .
Amy is lovely. She's pretty, and kind, and whip-smart, and she gazes at Edward like the sun shines out of his eyes. She has clear blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair and a smattering of freckles across her tiny nose, and when Edward teases her she gives it right back to him, sometime in spades. She stands up for herself when Emmett and Jasper pick on her, and she joins in when they pick on Edward. She's polite and respectful, and when I walk in on Edward pinning her and kissing her against the kitchen counter she blushes redder than a tomato. She calls Carlisle and me Mr. and Mrs. Cullen and refuses to downgrade to Carlisle and Esme; on Boxing Day she insists that she and the boys make dinner, since Christmas dinner was such an undertaking. She's lovely, and she's perfect for Edward, and he seems happy, even when I catch him gazing through the kitchen window as he rinses the dishes. Shortly after the last plate is in the dishwasher and we have all retreated to the living room, the chime of the doorbell breaks through the idle chatter and Carlisle rises from beside me on the loveseat to answer it.
"Bella!" comes his voice from the foyer.
"Hi. I, um, hope I'm not intruding." Bella's response floats into the room and when I glance at him, Edward is frozen.
"Of course not, sweetheart, come on in. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," Bella mimics. "I just… wanted to come by and bring this and wish everyone a happy holiday."
"Well it's wonderful to see you. You look terrific."
"Thanks, Carlisle. And thank you for… well, everything. Your family was great after… well, y'know. Everything."
I hear Carlisle's easy deflection of her gratitude followed by the sounds of them moving through the foyer toward the living room. Another glance at Edward and I see him swallow and run his palms over his thighs before sitting forward slightly. Amy lounges next to him on the sofa, half-leaning against his shoulder, and Emmett and Jasper are in the opposite armchairs, sharing glances and tossing furtive looks at their brother. Then Bella is in the doorway, unwinding a long burgundy scarf from around her neck.
"Hi everyone," she greets, her voice soft. "Merry Christmas."
There is a momentary pause before I rise and cross the room, enveloping her in a hug. "Merry Christmas, sweetheart. I'm so glad you came by; it's wonderful to see you." I pull away but keep my hands on her shoulders.
"Bella brought a pie," Carlisle says from behind her, and she shifts uncomfortably.
"I was baking, and I know how the boys usually clear all desserts from the house by breakfast the day after," she says, transferring her weight from one foot to the other. "It's, um, strawberry rhubarb." She stares fixedly into my eyes and I try not to let my face betray my thoughts. Edward's favorite.
"Come in, come in," I say, ushering her into the room, and I watch as her eyes pass over Emmett and Jasper before settling on Edward. And, of course, Amy.
"Hi guys," she says, and I don't think I've ever heard her voice so tentative. Emmett is immediately out of his chair and wraps her in a bear hug before Jasper follows suit with a slightly less forceful embrace. By the time he releases her Edward is standing, shifting awkwardly before pulling her into a one-armed hug and quickly retreating to gesture toward where Amy is standing beside him. "Bella, this is Amy. Amy, this is a very old friend of ours, Bella Swan."
"It's really nice to meet you," Amy grins, extending a hand, utterly guileless.
Bella's hesitation is so brief I doubt anyone notices before she accepts the handshake and returns the smile. Jasper offers her his armchair and plops on the floor at my feet; she lowers herself slowly to the edge, worrying the tassels of her scarf between her fingers and declining Carlisle's offer to take her coat.
"I really can't stay," she says, flicking a glance to where Amy has resituated herself against Edward's side and he has draped a long arm over the back of the sofa behind her. "I have another pie in the oven for Charlie."
We make small talk about the holiday and about the florist, and I watch Edward watching Bella. Gone is the look of a man whose heart was broken; instead, those green eyes are the ones that belonged to a boy who loved a girl who threw a wicked slider and came up swinging in his defense every time. I see confusion warring with determination not to notice, not to feel. When she glances at her watch and rises to leave, his knee bounces even as he stays seated, fingers dancing on the back of the couch as he nods goodbye. He and Amy fly back to Florida the day before New Year's Eve, and when a shimmering ball drops in Times Square I wonder if he kissed his girlfriend at midnight, or if he was sitting alone thinking about childhood sweethearts.
When Edward crosses a stage and accepts his bachelor's degree, I think my heart might explode with pride. On the heels of the pride, though, is the nagging realization that my job is done. I have three sons who are by all accounts grown and done with school, and ostensibly out in the world as adults. Carlisle and I take our youngest son out for a celebratory dinner and then spend a week helping him pack up his condo in Florida and making plans to return to the west coast. I am incapable of hiding my glee that Edward is coming home, and he rolls his eyes repeatedly at my poorly hidden smiles.
Once home he settles warily into his child bedroom, reminding me countless times that this is temporary, that he's enrolling in the master's program at the University of Washington, that I have the summer to enjoy having my baby boy under my roof before he moves out for good. I roll my eyes and dismiss his teasing warnings, even as they hit a little too close to home. It isn't until August that I'm forced to come clean about my regular expeditions to Port Angeles.
"Okay, honey, I'm just running out for a bit, okay? I'll be back in plenty of time for dinner." I drop a kiss to the top of his head where he is sitting at the kitchen table studying the course catalog for the approaching semester.
"Okay. Where are you headed?"
"Just to Port Angeles," I say breezily, rummaging in my purse for my keys in a vain attempt to hide my face. Like my sons, I'm a terrible liar. "I have to pick up a few things for dinner, and something I ordered from the bookstore is in."
"Mind if I tag along?" he asks, closing the catalog and rising from the table. "I haven't been to Port Angeles in years."
I meet his green eyes in surprise, and there's something guarded about them that is completely foreign to me. For once I'm not privy to the workings of his mind, and it brings me up short.
"Of course you can come," I say after a brief hesitation, and it isn't until we're in the car speeding along the 101, Edward staring resolutely through the windshield as his fingers drum on the armrest between us, that I sigh. "Edward, you should know that I've been in touch with Bella," I say carefully, and I'm ashamed of the way I use my driving as an excuse not to look at him. At what age can a mother be shamed by her child?
"I figured," he says simply, his eyes still on the wet pavement ahead of us.
"What?" I say, flicking him a glance before returning my eyes to the road.
"I figured you were in touch," he clarifies, and his hand moves from the armrest to the thigh of his jeans. He rubs the denim absently, and in my periphery I see him turn his head to look out his side window. "After she got hurt and then came by on Christmas, I kind of figured you were still in touch."
"I'm sorry," I say, though the apology is more for the omission than the fact of my maintained contact with Bella.
He shrugs. "Mom, I know Bella's special. To you. I wouldn't ask you to not speak to her because we had a fight." It's the first time in over four years that he's put words to what happened between him and Bella, and the fact that he chooses such innocuous ones throws me for a loop. Edward and Bella "had fights" as children: over toys, over rules, over silly things, and his choice – conscious or not – to classify his falling out with Bella in those terms is surprisingly telling.
"I'm glad," I admit on an exhale, and when I see him face me I meet his gaze. He smiles teasingly and when I press my lips together he raises a suspicious eyebrow.
"Something at the bookstore?" he asks, and I hesitate only briefly.
"I visit," I admit, and he nods slowly.
"Mind if I take your place this time?" he asks, and it takes everything in me not to beg be allowed to accompany him. It feels oddly like I've been sitting through a movie and am being forced to leave the theater right at the pinnacle of the action.
"Of course not," I say instead, and he nods again before his eyes find the scenery once more. I glance quickly at his profile, and the set of his jaw reminds me of the way he looked every time he took the pitcher's mound before a big game. Focused. Determined. Ready for a fight.
. . .
A week later, Edward asks to borrow my car. The second-hand Volvo he recently purchased is in the shop for a service and a new set of tires, and I agree readily before inquiring as to his plans. When he flushes, I know the answer before he speaks.
"I'm, uh, going to Port Angeles. For coffee."
"Forks Diner coffee not to your liking?" I tease, and he shifts his weight in the doorway, turning my keys along the keyring wrapped around his index finger.
"Come on, Mom," he begs, and tries to deflect. "Do you need anything while I'm out?"
I shake my head. "No thanks, love. Just tell Bella I said hello."
He rolls his eyes but doesn't deny me, and as I watch him reverse down the driveway from my kitchen window I feel a nearly foreign pang of hope. When he returns home four hours later, I realize that the slight stoop of his shoulders to which I'd grown accustomed without realizing it is gone. Two days later, I look up from sewing a button back on one of Carlisle's dress shirts to find Edward standing in the doorway of my bedroom, upturned collar brushing the ends of the damp hair that curls around his ears. In his hands is a pair of neckties.
"Sweetheart?" I say, and when he meets my gaze his lower lip is caught between his teeth, his eyes beseeching as he holds out two neckties for my consideration. In this moment he is seven again, holding out two jigsaw puzzles and asking which one Bella will like more for her birthday. At that time he bought them both, and I knew that one day I'd be helping him prepare for this date; all those years ago, I had no idea of the time gap that would elapse between then and now. Considering the ties, I arch a brow. "What's the occasion?"
"Dinner at Bella Italia."
I nod and point to the black and silver-striped tie. "That one will look very nice against that shirt." He nods his thanks and loops the selected accessory around his neck.
Hours later, when I hear him cut the engine in the driveway and attempt to sneak through the house and into his bedroom, it takes everything in me not to knock on his door and ask how it went. Three weeks and eleven dates later, when he doesn't sneak back in until six in the morning, it takes everything in me not to smirk at his beaming face over the breakfast table.
Over the years, I've become artfully adept at pretending not to notice things. I pretended not to notice Bella's adoring gazes at my son; I pretended not to notice the way Edward's ears would perk up at any mention of her name. I pretended not to see their careful dance around each other and I pretended not to overhear the sharp words that cut my son to the quick and drove them apart. I pretended to be oblivious to a lot of things and tonight, as I lay staring through my bedroom window at the snowflakes that fall steadily outside, glittering silver in the moonlight, I pretend not to hear the telltale sounds coming from across the hall.
"Well, this is awkward," Carlisle mumbles when a particularly loud creak of bedsprings cuts through the night, and I chuckle.
"Oh, please," I whisper, finding his bare feet beneath the covers with my own. "Like christening your own childhood bedroom wasn't the first thing on your mind when you took me home to meet your parents."
"That's different," he grouses, pulling a pillow over his head.
He's right, of course – it is different, if only because he didn't have to wait nearly twenty years to make it happen. Even as I feel the twinge of embarrassment that comes with knowing exactly what my youngest son is doing less than fifty feet away, I can't help the slow spread of warmth that follows in its wake. I've wanted Edward to be happy for so, so long, and finally he is. Blissfully so, if the muffled moans are anything to judge by.
Christmas morning doesn't dawn nearly as early as it did when the boys were eagerly awaiting the go-ahead to tear into Santa's bounty, but there is still enough anticipation buzzing through me to wake me just after daybreak. I squint as the dusky half-light of early morning seeps in around the edges of the drapes and feel the steady rise and fall of Carlisle's chest against my back, telling me visions of sugarplums are still dancing through his subconscious. Basking in the warmth of his arms, and of my own happy thoughts, I tick through my mental Christmas morning checklist: get the turkey in the oven, start the potatoes, peel the vegetables, call my sister, call Carlisle's brother. Emmett and Rosalie will be here after an early brunch with her parents, and Charlie will arrive after his morning shift ends. I smile into the softly lit middle distance: it's Christmas morning, and for the first time in years, I feel like my entire family is present. I allow myself to laze in the bubble of comfort for a beat longer before silently extricating myself from my husband's arms and throwing on the red fleece robe that the boys bought me for Christmas years ago. Stepping into my slippers I leave the bedroom and make my way down the stairs, carefully skipping over the creaky second stair from the top. As I descend, I am surprised to smell coffee brewing; in the kitchen I find Edward standing by the sink, staring out into the snow.
"Good morning," I say softly, not wanting to startle him. His broad shoulders flex slightly beneath a worn gray thermal top and his hair is a familiar riotous mess as he turns his head to smile over his shoulder.
"Merry Christmas," he murmurs, and I return the sentiment as I cross the kitchen to drape an arm around his waist, resting my head against his shoulder.
"You're up early," I observe, following his gaze through the window, and I feel the shoulder beneath my temple hitch in a shrug.
"Couldn't sleep in," he says, returning his focus to the world of white beyond the frosted panes of glass as he lifts a mug to his lips.
"Even after such a late night?" I tease, sneaking a glance at his profile, and though he studiously avoids my gaze roses bloom on the apples of his cheeks.
He swallows his coffee, still not meeting my eye. "What?"
I pat his forearm in mock consolation as I rise to my toes to retrieve a mug from the cupboard next to the window. "Your bed creaks, darling."
The roses bloom darker and he closes his eyes. "Oh, God."
I try to tamp down on my smile to no avail as I pour myself a cup from the coffee pot. "Oh, Edward, you were such a good teenager that I never even got the chance to make you squirm. Let me enjoy making up for lost time."
His hand cups the back of his neck in a familiarly flustered gesture and I hide my smile behind the rim of my mug. "Yeah, I guess I didn't give you much to work with, emo little bastard that I was, did I?" he muses as I lower myself into a chair at the table and he turns to lean back against the sink.
"I'd hardly call you emo," I reply, cupping my hands around my mug. "Just… focused." He nods slowly, considering my assessment.
I can't resist one more jab. "Paid off in the end though, I'd say."
He rolls his eyes. "Okay, Mom. Please don't say anything to Bella; she'd be mortified."
"Edward, you live together, for goodness' sake. Your father and I are not completely ignorant of what that means, you know."
"Fine, fine, I promise."
He nods as he crosses the kitchen and joins me at the table. "Can I help you with any of the dinner prep?"
"I'll put you to work peeling a little later, but let's just sit for a bit, okay?"
He nods again, glancing around the quiet kitchen, and a small smile catches the corner of his mouth. "A slight deviation from Christmases past," he observes, and I smile as I recall my own similar ruminations from moments ago.
"A wonderful deviation," I amend and he nods, his eyes serious despite the smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.
"Did you hear anything back from the school system yet?" I ask, cupping my hands around the warm porcelain of my mug.
Edward shifts slightly in his chair before mirroring my mug-hug. "Actually, I got a different offer," he says slowly, and I frown slightly. Edward had been so optimistic about doing his student teaching in Port Angeles in hopes of being guaranteed a teaching position upon completing the last requirement of his degree; that Bella was nearly done with her business undergraduate degree and was hoping to open her own shop seemed like ideal timing.
A telltale smile is threatening to break across his face. "Yeah. I guess Coach Clapp is retiring. Forks is looking for a new English-teacher-slash-baseball-coach."
My eyebrows skyrocket, and it takes every ounce of willpower I possess not to spring from my chair and do a celebratory lap around the kitchen table like a child who has discovered that Santa left her big-ticket item beneath the tree. "You're going to teach at Forks?"
He shrugs. "I kind of like the idea of coming home. And I'd get to be involved in baseball." He pauses for a moment, and when he continues his voice is tellingly soft. "It feels… complete, somehow."
"Bella was never entirely comfortable with the idea of opening a business in direct competition with Bloom," he says. "She's actually really excited about the possibility of starting up a florist here."
As I listen to his words, and I imagine Edward and Bella building a life in Forks, I worry briefly about big dreams being squished into small lives, until it occurs to me that even before he realized it, Edward's big dream was always in the house next door.
Hours later Carlisle, Emmett, Rosalie, Jasper, Edward, and Charlie are all strewn about the living room in various stages of post-dinner, overstuffed lethargy, It's a Wonderful Life on the television screen and a slowly dying fire crackling in the fireplace. They are half-heartedly engaged in a game of Trivial Pursuit, but no one appears to be moving any tokens; from a distance it seems that the game has become a simple exchange of trivia questions. If I could paint my perfect Christmas, this would be it; the only thing that's missing is Bella. I frown at the empty space next to Edward and glance around the room, but she is clearly not here.
As I make my way up the stairs I check the thermostat on the wall in the hallway. While the fire is keeping the living room and most of the downstairs warm, the temperature is dropping and a chill is permeating the second level. I pass the open door to Edward's – and, at least for the week, Bella's – empty room and note that the bathroom door is ajar and a thin strip of light spills into the hallway. "Bella?" I ask softly, knocking gently on the door as I push it slowly open. She doesn't answer, but I find her sitting on the closed lid of the toilet seat, a pregnancy test dancing in her trembling hand. There are two pink lines, and as her eyes find mine, Bella's two pink lips stretch into a smile.
A/N: Thanks for reading.