Happy 5th December! Today's story comes courtesy of the expert beta skills of the amazing idealskeptic. This is one of my favourites of all the advent stories that I've written this year, so I hope you all enjoy it too.
Alas, Twilight shall never be mine, and thus I have no claim to it.
It had been a long day at work and when I entered the brightly lit house, I was surprised to find that all was silent. Although Bella wasn't the noisiest of teenagers there were usually some signs of life - the TV switched on, or the radio playing in the kitchen or the hum of the oven - but today there was nothing. I knew she must be home though; she wouldn't have left all the lights on otherwise. Perhaps she had fallen asleep upstairs.
"Bella?" I called. "Are you in?"
There was no reply for a minute and then she called down to me. "I'm here, dad. I'm just in the bathroom. I'll be down soon."
Happy that the mystery of her disappearance had been easily solved, I took of my jacket, shoes and gun belt and went upstairs to get changed out of my uniform. My belt was getting a little tight lately so I'd probably have to cut down the junk food and the Vitamin R. But not anytime soon.
"Hey, Bells, do you want pizza tonight? It'll save either of us cooking."
"Sure. Just make sure there's no meat on mine, like usual."
I shook my head at her request. Imagine getting a vegetarian pizza; I didn't see the point in ordering it in if you weren't going to get a meat feast.
Placing the order, I sat down in my armchair with a beer and switched the game on, wincing as the screen flickered to life just in time to show the Mariner's miss another play.
Ten minutes later the doorbell rang and I went to answer it, giving the skinny punk kid delivering our food the money and a watchful glare for good measure.
"Bells, pizza's here."
I sat down and started eating, but paused a moment later when there was no sound of my daughter thumping down the stairs as she usually did.
"Just a minute," she shouted down.
However five minutes passed and there was still no sign of her.
"Bella! Your food's getting cold."
"I'll be down in just a minute."
This time there was a hint of panic in her voice that made me set aside my own food and cross to the bottom of the stairs.
"Bella? Honey, are you alright?"
"I'm fine!" She wouldn't have convinced anyone. "Really."
I climbed the stairs and glanced into her empty bedroom. She wasn't still in the bathroom, was she? I mean, I'd heard stories of teenage girls taking forever to get ready - Billy had his hands full with both his girls - but surely they didn't take this long.
"Bells, what's going on?" I banged on the wooden door. "Come out of there."
There was no reply.
"Bella, I'm serious, come on."
"I can't," she finally wailed.
I was completely confused. "What do you mean you can't?"
From the other side of the door came the sound of muffled crying and I winced. This time when I spoke to her I softened my voice. "Come on, Bella, what's wrong? I can hear you crying in there. I'm about to break the door down any minute now."
"No! Don't do that!" Now she sounded panicked.
I didn't know what to do. No-one had ever given me a helpful guide of how to bring up a teenage girl and I was completely lost as to how to approach this. Should I back away and leave her to come downstairs in her own time, or should I demand that she get out here now just so I could check that she was all in one piece still? Not for the first time, I cursed Renee for leaving both me and my daughter alone to fumble our way along together. I didn't think I was a bad father, but there was just some stuff that I felt Bella missed out on.
Suddenly an image flashed in my mind of Bella falling over in the shower and being unable to get up, but being too embarrassed to ask for help.
"Bella!" I banged on the door, my panic now making me frantic. "Are you hurt? Do you need help?"
She was crying again and her sobs cut through me. I didn't have a clue what to do.
"I think I'm alright," she finally replied.
"What do you mean, you think you're alright. Either you're hurt or you're fine."
I leaned my forehead against the door, my eyes closed as I heard the sounds of her misery.
"I just..." she started and then paused. "I'm bleeding and I can't make it stop."
I could've cried in relief. "Well that's alright then. Let me just go and grab the first aid kit and we'll patch you up and get you down to the emergency room."
Her scream stopped me in my tracks and quite frankly frightened me.
"No." Her voice was quieter this time. "I don't need to go to the emergency room, daddy. It's not that kind of bleeding. I haven't had an accident." She dissolved into sobs again.
Suddenly it hit me. The bleeding, not coming out of the bathroom, getting upset and not wanting to tell me what was going on.
"Shit!" I allowed myself to swear softly. Leaning back against the wall opposite the bathroom, I buried my face in my hands. I knew without looking that my face was probably bright red.
Not for the first time, I cursed my ex-wife for running off and leaving me alone with my daughter. Don't get me wrong, I loved Bella and I had fought hard to keep her with me when Renee had tried to take her, but there were some things that daughters should learn from their mothers and this was one of them.
I wasn't a girl. I knew the theory behind how stuff worked for women, but it wasn't something that I cared to think about or that I thought I could impart to Bella without having to pay for years of therapy in the future. I couldn't leave her stuck in the bathroom forever though, especially when I knew she was upset.
Taking a deep breath, I stood up straight and knocked lightly on the bathroom door.
A watery-sounding, "Yeah?" came through the door.
"Ummm, I'm going to run to the store and get you some...stuff, okay?"
I turned to go down the stairs and then realised I couldn't just leave Bella in the bathroom to hyperventilate when I was away. I stared at the plain white walls, searching for some kind of inspiration to hit me.
"Er, while I'm gone why don't you... take a hot shower and I'll be back before you know it?"
I was stopped again from my retreat by Bella. "I don't... I didn't bring any clean clothes in with me." Her voice trailed off at the end until she was practically whispering.
"I can get you some and leave them outside."
I stumbled into my daughter's room, which had been her private sanctuary since she turned eleven and had finally decided that she was grown up enough to have her own space to look after. I was completely disorientated. I tried to find clothes that I thought she would be comfortable in, but quickly gave up the hunt and settled on a pair of sweats I came across. I almost left just that outside the bathroom door, but a glance at Bella's laundry basket told me that I'd forgotten to get her underwear. This was excruciating. In the end I just grabbed a ton of stuff out of the right drawer and buried it under the other clothes. I felt ridiculous as I did it, but it made me feel better.
"Clothes are outside, Bells. I'll be back as soon as I can okay."
She sniffled, but I could hear her pulling herself together on the other side on the door. "Okay. Thank you."
"No problem, honey."
Running downstairs to grab my car keys, I was struck by just how bizarre the evening had become. I knew it was only going to get more surreal though. Grabbing the phone off the wall, I dialled a familiar number. It was answered almost straight away, luckily by the very person I needed.
"Susie? It's Charlie. Look, I know this is a strange request, but do you mind meeting me down by the general store in about twenty minutes? It's an emergency."
I probably shouldn't have added that last part, it would only make her worry, but this was an emergency damnit! My baby girl was upset and I had no idea how to help. This needed a woman's touch, and Sue was a community nurse as well so she would know how to deal with the...problem.
"Of course." I could hear the rattle on the other end of the line where she was getting ready to leave. "Bella's alright, isn't she?"
"She's..." I didn't know how to answer that. "I'll tell you when you get there. She's safe and everything, but I really need your help."
There was silence on the other end and then Sue finally spoke. "Okay then. I'll meet you at the store as soon as I can."
"Thank you." I couldn't convey my gratitude enough over the phone.
Jumping into the cruiser, I was half-tempted to put the blue lights on, but even in my panicked state I could tell that it would be slightly excessive. How other families dealt with the stress of this, I really didn't know. I pulled up to the grocery store in record time, but then had to wait an additional ten minutes for Sue to get there, and she wasn't alone when she finally showed up.
I sighed in disbelief. "Harry. How are you doing? Sue, thanks so much for coming out."
"No problem." She squeezed my arm reassuringly. "I hope you don't mind that I brought the big lug along. He insisted on coming when he heard it was an emergency."
I shuffled uncomfortably at my exaggeration and Harry immediately picked up on it.
"We are here for an emergency, right, Charlie? There is a reason why I drove at breakneck speed to get here?"
I scoffed at that. "Breakneck speed? In that old piece of crap."
"Hey!" He patted the hood of his ancient Corolla lovingly. "Don't mock my baby. I'll have you know that she's the fastest thing this side of the country."
Sue rolled her eyes at that and turned back to me. "Charlie, the problem? What is it? You know we want to help if we can?"
I did know that. But I also knew that this would have been a lot easier to explain if Sue had come by herself.
"It's Bella," I began, and then stopped. I had no clue of the proper...terminology...or whatever that I should use.
"Yes," she prompted. "What about Bella?"
I opened my mouth and then closed it again at the look of curiosity on my best friend's face. If I didn't know any better I would say that he was enjoyed my discomfort far too much.
"She's... She's reached that age..." I could feel the heat spreading up my neck and crossing my face. "She has... women's stuff," I finally managed to spit out. "And I don't know what to do?"
A loud whoop immediately rang out across the parking lot as Harry collapsed against his car, howling with laughter. Sue had an expression on her face that was a mixture of pity and amusement, but she at least had the good grace to not laugh out loud.
"Don't tell me," Harry wheezed, "that you're too scared to go down the girly aisle by yourself." He cackled, his hand holding his stomach. "Just wait until I tell Billy this one."
I scowled at him, the temptation to shoot him growing every second.
"Harry!" Sue slapped her husband's arm. "Don't be so insensitive. You didn't deal so well with Leah when she got her period for the first time either." She put her hands on her hips. "You've got no room to laugh."
Harry's face paled at the mention of his daughter and he turned to me frantically.
"Christ, Charlie. If your Bella's anything like my Leah you want to make sure you're as far away from her as possible during that time of the month."
"Harry!" Sue scolded. "That's your daughter you're talking about."
"Yeah, and I don't want to be anywhere near her when she starts throwing stuff," he countered. "Seriously, Charlie, if you need to get away, just call and me, you and Billy can go fishing."
Sue shook her head. "Any excuse to go fishing," she muttered. She turned to her husband. "Why don't you go ahead and get back? I'll give you a call later when I need to be picked up."
Harry looked confused. "I thought you were just going to the store. Why can't I come in with you?"
His wife put her hands on her hips and glared at him. Even I knew the answer to this one, although I was dreading the moment Sue forced me down the feminine products aisle with her.
"Honestly, Harry, do you really think I'm going to let Charlie deal with this one all by himself? He'd probably buy the wrong tampons and then traumatise the poor girl by just throwing them at her and leaving her to it." She patted my arm. "You're doing a fabulous job raising her, don't get me wrong, but this is something best left to me. You'd only stutter and get embarrassed and then Bella would be just as flustered and nothing would ever get sorted out. So Harry, go home and make sure Seth hasn't burned the house down and Leah is actually watching him and not on the phone with the Uley boy, and I'll sort Charlie and Bella out."
I let myself relax at Sue's take-charge attitude. I mean, she had pretty much told me that I was useless in this instance, but hadn't my call for help already proved that?
She gave Harry a kiss goodbye and he left with a wave and a snicker. Bastard was probably going to jump on the phone as soon as he got home and tell Billy all about my ineptitude.
Shopping with her was a revelation. I had no clue what I was looking at. There were so many packets and brands. Stuff with wings, stuff without wings and none of them looking anything like a bird. I trailed behind Sue, red-faced, as she quickly and concisely explained to me what I was looking for and what she thought I should get Bella. Wanting to leave that part of the store as quickly as possible, I just agreed with everything she said and what she put in the basket she carried, and then hurried through the check out as quickly as possible. I could almost feel my own moustache bristling with embarrassment.
I drove both of us back to the house where Sue took the grocery bag off me and disappeared upstairs. Seconds later I heard her knock on the bathroom door where my daughter was still hiding.
"Bella, honey, it's Sue. Can I come in please?"
Standing at the bottom of the stairs, I saw the door creak open minutely and revealed my first glimpse of my daughter that evening. Like I had thought earlier, she had been crying. Her face was all pink and swollen and her eyes were suspiciously bright. She ducked her head back into the bathroom when she saw me and Sue clucked, shooing me away with her hand.
Unsure of what to do next, I hovered as Sue shut the bathroom door behind her and I was left stood in the silent hall. After a few minutes without any sign of either lady, I turned and switched on the TV, throwing myself down onto the sofa.
I scrubbed my hand over my face tiredly. The same game from earlier was still playing which seemed wrong to me somehow. It felt like this evening had stretched on for years, instead of just the hour it had taken for me to get an answer from Bella and then fetch Sue.
Grabbing the discarded box on the table, I took a huge bite of cold pizza, wincing at the slimy taste. Upstairs, I could hear murmurings as Sue and Bella talked, but unless I switched the game off then I couldn't understand what they were saying, and I didn't even think I wanted too.
About thirty minutes after Sue had vanished upstairs, she returned back down and went to the kitchen, picking up the phone. When she was down calling Harry to pick her up, she came and sat next to me, grabbing a slice of my pizza.
"Well that's sorted now."
I cast a wary glance back up the stairs. "She knows... everything she needs to now?"
Sue shot me a look but nodded. "Yes, I've had a talk with her. The best thing you can do now is just pretend the whole thing never happened. The poor girl's already feeling embarrassed, having to talk to you about it would only make her feel more uncomfortable."
We sat in silence, finishing off the last of my pizza, until finally there was the beep of a horn outside.
"That'll be Harry." Jumping up, she called goodbye to Bella upstairs and then turned to me. Stepping forward, she leaned down and pressed a kiss to my cheek. "You're doing a good job with her, Charlie. You're a good father." She offered me a smile and then opened the front door. She was halfway out before she turned back. "Oh, but if anything like this happens again, send Bella straight to me, ok?"
"OK," I agreed readily. "And Sue?" She paused. "Thank you."
She smiled and nodded, waving before the door shut behind her. As much as I didn't think that I wanted a woman in mine and Bella's lives, a tiny part of me envied my friend at that moment for having a wife like that.
A low creak from the old stairs alerted me that Bella was finally venturing down. She was dressed in her pyjamas and looked a lot more composed than she had the last time I'd seen her.
Sue had told me not to mention anything that had happened tonight to Bella, but I had to make sure that she was feeling better about everything.
"Everything sorted now, Bells?"
She hesitated next to the sofa and fidgeted with the hem of her shirt. "Umm, yes thanks."
That was all that needed to be said on the subject, really.
"Come and have your dinner. The pizza's cold now, but you can probably heat it up again if you want."
She shuffled forwards. "It's fine cold."
She still looked uncomfortable so I raised my arm and she hurried forward and sat next to me, tucking herself into my side. I grabbed her pizza from the table and set it on her lap so she could reach it more easily.
"Thank you for calling Sue," she whispered after she had finished her food.
I hugged her. "No problem, honey. Better her than me, right?"
She laughed and the remaining tightness in my chest from this evening disappeared at the sound.
"Right," she agreed.
We settled in to watch the remainder of the game together.
"Love you, daddy."
Now that made it all worth it. "Love you too, Bells."