An entry for: The Second Season of Our Discontent Anonymous Angst Contest

Judges' First Place Winner

Picture Prompt Number: 6 (Girl by the window)

Pairing: Bella/Edward

Warnings and Disclaimer:

All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. No copyright infringement is intended.

Thank you for reading and thank you to the hosts and judges of the contest, without whom this story never would've existed.

Also thank you to my beta myimm0rtal and my pre-readers IreenH and Thimbles


The Inside Garden

Here, on the outskirts of this town hidden by fir trees maybe I can remain hidden myself, fade into edges, as unnoticed as weeds and moss and fallen leaves—ignored scenery. Nobody knows me here and I'll keep it this way.

I sit in my new room at my window seat reading my tattered book. I can't count how many times I've read it. It goes everywhere with me. At restaurants when my mom would tell me to put it away, I used to sit on top of it so I wouldn't forget it when it came time to go. Its spine is sealed with masking tape, an upper corner of the cover torn clean off, and there are way too many dog-eared pages to remember why many of them were even marked in the first place. Some of the pages are completely separated from the binding. It's only due to the rubber band I wrap around it that none of them have gone missing yet. This book's been mine since I was twelve, and I still read it even if I shouldn't be reading children's novels. Maybe a girl my age is expected to read books more like The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird, but those don't have a heart that matches mine, a heart that I can really, really feel.

Closing up the book, wrapping its band around it, I gaze out my window. I can't find one tree from this view that is smaller than our house.

I chose this town. My mom let me. We were driving to anywhere, getting away from somewhere else, away from a life where we'd—once again—become too well-known, too scrutinized, too judged. She had lost another job, told her ex-boss to fuck off, came home, said, "Start packing," and we stuffed everything we could fit into the car.

"We're just driving," she said, aiming the car out of town. "You tell me when to stop, Baby. You tell me when you spot our new home."

Out of the corner of my eye I could see her push her sunglasses up. Her long, narrow cherry-red fingernails annoyed me.

"Don't call me Baby." My legs were pressed tight against the seat, bags filling up the space below me, and even on top of me. I could barely see out the windshield. I was surrounded by so much luggage, I'd almost become a piece of it myself. How much could I carry? How much could I possibly carry? At seventeen, I was overstuffed as it was.

She likes to point out bushes and trees she recognizes.

After three hours it got old.

"Bottlebrush," she said, pointing. "We had those in California, remember?"

"Mm-hmm," I said, not lifting my head from my book. I was up to the part where Mary yells at Colin to stop crying, implying that he brings his own misery on himself. I thought maybe my mom should read this.

She swatted the side of my thigh. "You didn't even look. Oh, but man, they smell good in summer." She rolled down her window as if she could smell them from here. Even without looking I knew they were at least half a mile behind us.

A couple of hours later, when the sun was hardly anything but a golden aura over the mountains, I finally looked up. "Stop," I said, in this barely-anything town, where the moss seemed to be alive, eating away at the trees. "Stop." We would live here tucked away like whispers in the woods. How many secrets can trees this big hold? Will they hold mine? I'm not sure.

My secret is one I can't control, one that won't stay silent or out of sight, but I don't talk about it. And that's how I keep it.

.

My mom takes the car to and from her job at the insurance place. I walk to and from mine.

I don't mind walking. The wind hits my face with the smell of pine and soil—mist dampening my hair, lifting into my nose, almost cleansing. For at least forty minutes each way I can pretend this is all there is in life. For just over an hour every work day, life is actually nothing but me and nature.

I pass the market, one of the smallest I've ever been in, and still it's the biggest one in this town. People exit carrying so many bags it seems they might have emptied the store. Next to that is the burger, hotdog, ice cream place. Kids hang out there. Kids my age. Not me.

I watch a group get out of a car, hear the guy beep his alarm, and he looks my way. Catches my eye. Smiles.

There's a jolt in my pulse, but I don't smile back. Even when he isn't looking anymore, when he's walking in the opposite direction, I can still see his face. I stay where I am, rooted to the ground, closing my eyes, feeling the breeze in my eyelashes and I let myself pretend. A guy like him, hair the color of almonds, a smile that lights up a face, invites. I don't let myself run with the image beyond him putting his arm around me, his weight on my shoulders. Actual, welcomed weight. I'd lean against him, putting my weight into it. And that's what we would share, each other's heaviness. I lift my closed eyes toward the clouds, letting the fantasy fall over me like warm rain.

Before the relaxing of my face turns into a smile, before I feel it too much, too close, I open my eyes. I continue on.

.

It's Senior Portrait Saturday, and in the low seventies, it's the warmest summer day we've had since we moved here. It's nearing two in the afternoon and my mom is already swaying after three cups of coffee with brandy and the vodka she drank for lunch. Now she's tucking her little demon-flask like a treasure into her purse, more important to her than remembering her wallet.

"Let's go," she says, smacking her lips, blending her lipstick. "We don't want to be late."

"You just smeared it." I reach up and smooth the lines around her lips with my thumb. "Let's reschedule. I don't even get why senior portraits need to be taken in June anyway. I still feel like a junior."

She says no, we're going. "What if they turn out horrible and they have to be redone?" We're going.

She drives, even though she shouldn't. I don't care. Sometimes I hope she gets into an accident. Not involving anyone else, just her. So she can wake up.

She won't get into an accident, though. She probably drives better drunk than she does sober at this point. She probably can't recognize sober, finds it disorienting to look out and see straight lines in the road.

"Be good," I tell her, getting out of the car. "Be quiet." All I want to do is blend in. The only reason I'm wearing lipstick is because my mom insisted.

"You don't want to look dead," she had said. Maybe I do. Maybe that's exactly how I want to look.

I remember how elated she was after she told off her boss—how powerful she said she felt. I wonder if I would feel that way if I told my mom to fuck off. I'd like to say that several times a day. Fuck. Off.

She tells me she loves me. She tries to make me say it back, but I hardly ever do. When I do, it comes out of my mouth with the taste of vomit on my tongue.

"Say it back," she says. "Tell me you love me."

I stare at her. "You're all I have." Somehow she hears I love you in that; she hears, You're all I need. She doesn't recognize the tragedy in my words. She doesn't recognize what she really is.

She bumps into the coat rack right inside the photography studio. I hold her by the elbow and don't let go. I make the mistake of looking at her. Her eyes are red and glassy. Her nose is red, too. I wish she'd put on her sunglasses.

The photographer greets us with a too-big smile, too much enthusiasm, as if we're exciting people to know. She introduces herself as Esme and has me fill out a form, choose my poses. With one hand still on my mom's elbow, I check a few boxes. Esme leads me to the back room.

"Gray background, Edward," she says.

And I see him. There, pulling on the cord, lifting one background up, lowering another, making a paper-scraping sound, is the boy from outside that restaurant, the boy I let myself fantasize about.

My mom stumbles, pulling me with her, and then lets out a loud laugh. I hold her steady, feeling the heat in my cheeks before I squeeze my eyes and my jaw up tight.

I wish to be invisible. Disappear. Disappear.

Wishes don't come true. I know better. But still, I wish it. Maybe it only takes one time. One wish.

"Is this your son?" My mother's voice, too bubbly. "Isn't he gorgeous? Look, Bella."

I open my eyes because I have to. The world is not going to go away.

"Bella," he says, quiet, deep, almost smiling. He knows my name. He knows too much already.

My eyes and my shoulders drop, like the earth is pulling on them with a force stronger than gravity.

"He's a good kid," Esme says. Maybe she's got her arm around him. Since my eyes are on the floor, I wouldn't know. "I'm proud of him."

She probably just squeezed his shoulder. I look up to see if I'm right. But it's my mother who's touching him.

Touching him.

My stomach clenches. I can feel my organs as if they're outside of my body in plain sight, like I've been cut into and split open. With her hand on his cheek, she's saying if only she were twenty years younger.

Esme has stopped smiling.

They know now. They no longer have to feign politeness. It's okay to hate us. We're trash.

"Mom," I say, grabbing her hand. "Mom." I lead her to the little red slipcovered loveseat on the matching red wall. I can't stand that the color of her nails and her lips match the room. "Stay here." My hands are gripping her shoulders. "Just stay here until we're done."

My eyes beg and burn.

"Please." Don't cry. Not now. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I turn all the red in the room into roses inside of me climbing, climbing into a wall, guarding.

When I feel the tears go away, I turn around and apologize even though I have a rule against apologizing for her. It only draws more attention to the problem.

"Don't worry about it," Esme says taking my hand, a soft touch of fingertips against my elbow, leading me to the stool in front of the gray backdrop. "It's summer. She's just had a little too much to drink. Nothing a nap can't fix."

I wonder what she'll say in the winter.

I feel myself squeezing her hand and let go fast.

Edward places a black polyester drape over my shoulders, his fingers grazing my skin for less than a second. "You might want to, um, move your straps out of the way." He's avoiding eye contact with me. I can't say I blame him.

I reach under the drape and move aside the straps of my tank top. Esme sweeps some of my hair over one shoulder, smoothing it down. I like the way it pulls lightly at my scalp when she does this. She swivels the stool, turning my knees to the side. She moves my head next, tilting it where she wants it.

"Don't forget to smile," she says, tapping my chin.

I give her one of my biggest fake smiles, the one I'm a pro at. In my peripheral I see my mom taking a drink from her flask. She thinks she's being sly about it.

I keep smiling.

My mom complains about my pose, saying it isn't natural enough.

"It's fine, Mom," I say, still smiling. My cheeks hurt.

She says my neck looks funny turned like this. It's twisted and looks wrinkly, she says. "What do you think, Edward?"

He clears his throat and my eyes close again. I force them open but I don't look at anyone.

"Um…"

"See how her neck wrinkles?"

I want to shout at her to shut up. This would be a very good time to tell her to fuck off, to yell it so hard at her that her hair blows away from her face and her eyes pop from their sockets.

Esme comes and tilts my head, and I try hard not to lose my smile. It shakes.

Hazel eyes search mine before she steps back and snaps the picture. "You aren't fooling me," her sad expression seems to say.

Back at the front counter, my mom fumbles through her purse, pays Esme and we can finally leave. I let her lean against me so she doesn't sway.

Outside cold mist meets my face. It smells like damp dust. It isn't cleansing.

"Hey." I hear Edward behind us and try to pretend I don't. "Hey." He touches my shoulder. "Do you need a ride?"

My mom's climbing into the driver's seat.

"I don't think she should drive. Should she?"

"Mom? Mom. Other side." I try to laugh. I act like she's just so cute. I shake my head at Edward, but he's making eye contact now, and pretending is too hard. Tucking hair behind my ear, my eyes search the ground, the gray pebbles. I think about telling him this is just a fluke, that she's never done anything like this before. I say nothing and slide into the driver's seat.

My mother chatters all the way home about how handsome Edward is, and can I believe it? Have I ever seen anything like it?

"Don't you ever get tired of this?"

"Of what, Baby?"

I don't answer. I don't talk to her for the rest of the day.

The next morning sobbing comes from her room. Just like whenever this happens, I take the bait. I go to her, climb into her bed, and push hair from her face. She's sober. She's remorseful.

Don't drink anymore, I beg. I won't, she promises. And we've been here before, me pleading for a lie, her giving it to me.

"This isn't me," she says. She lies.

"I know," I say. I lie.

"He left us."

That was seven years ago. "He didn't leave us."

"I told him not to go. I had a feeling."

"You said you had a feeling most days." I may have only been ten, but I remember that.

"He ignored me."

I nod, my head against the pillow, my hand on her cheek. I feel tears there.

"I love you." She takes my hand in hers, almost the same soft way Esme held my hand, only I know this is false, this is temporary. "You're my girl."

I sit up.

"Tell me," she says. "Tell your mom."

I turn and stare at her. Can she see all that my eyes don't hold? "You're all I have." Can she hear how flat it sounds?

She sniffles and smiles.

She can't see it. She can't see me.

I walk out.

My room's a mess. There are clothes on the floor next to my bed from last night and the night before. I think about cleaning up, but I don't. The windowseat is calling to me, my book on top of it, open and upside down to hold my page. It isn't the page I'm on. I'm not really on a page. What it's turned to is my favorite page.

Sitting by the window, a leg pulled up beneath me, the cool of the glass against my shoulder, I don't look outside at the sky-reaching trees, at the overgrown grass, at the ferns. I look at the words on the page. I see the story's garden, tended by children, and I feel it inside me. Its manicured hedges, roses that open one after the other, wrapping around tree trunks as if in love. I can almost smell them. I bring the open book to my nose and inhale. It might as well be a rose.

.

It's raining this morning. I wish the reason I knew this was because I had stepped outside, looked out the window, or simply heard drops dancing over the roof.

No. I know it's raining because I have to get the bucket out of my closet to catch the water coming in through the leak in the ceiling of my room.

"Did you call the landlord yet?" I yell from the top of the stairs. "There's another puddle on my floor!" I yank towels from the hall closet and try to sop it up. The mildew stench in this room is overwhelming.

My mom yells back that she called yesterday.

She's turning the page of the newspaper when I get downstairs.

I open the fridge, close it, open it again, stick my hand in. "Mom?" I look at the clock over the stove—it's blank.

I march into the living room. "Did you skip a bill?"

"I get paid on Friday."

Two days she wants to live like this?

I find the bill in the basket by the phone, reach for my purse, write a check, and throw it at her. It doesn't land hard like a brick, the way I wish it would. It flutters like some kind of dainty butterfly, and she picks it up from the floor like she's holding on to a delicate wing.

"Take it downtown today." I spit the words at her. "I have to go to work. I won't have time."

I stomp back up the stairs to shower, but I don't wash my hair because I won't be able to dry it. I check my watch for the time. Just after eight. I rush out the door in a hurry to get to my shift on time. I can't be fired. I need this job.

Hood up to block the rain, I run the two miles to the coffee shop and when I get there I'm sweating and panting. But I'm on time.

Along with my apron, I put my smile on, tying both in the back. I face the public and say only what I have to, nothing memorable, and I avoid all eyes. I know how to be forgettable.

Just after one, tips stuffed into my pocket, I walk home. I add the cash to my money-shoe, folding it up with the rest, tucking it far into the toe, closing the tongue over it, and bury it in the back of my closet, coffined in darkness.

My mom wasn't home when I got here and I'm thankful. On my window seat I pick up my book, pretending she'll never be home again.

If that happened, I would home school; I'd work full-time; I'd get a roommate who likes to cook, who doesn't drink, who has a dog.

I'd do the gardening. I'd plant vines that would grow taller than the house, I'd plant rose bushes so full you could disappear in them if you weren't afraid of thorns.

The doorbell interrupts my mind game.

Edward's standing on the other side, and on reflex, I close the door enough so that just my head peeks through.

"My dad sent me," he says. "A leak?"

Of course his father owns this place. Of course he's our landlord.

I close my eyes, shouting no inside my head. The inside of a head can be so loud sometimes.

I'm tempted to tell him there's no leak, that he's mistaken. Instead I have to open the door wider, lead him to my room, a room I now wish I'd taken the time to clean, make my bed, set out air-freshener.

I don't have to point out the leak. With the bucket partially filled with water, its location is obvious.

"The leak's been here since we moved in. And so…"

He turns to me and I almost stop.

"You should tell your dad this room could use new carpet. It can't be healthy breathing this smell in."

I want to make sure he knows the smell isn't mine; it came with the house.

He nods and tells me he'll make a note of it for his dad. "It should've been taken care of before you moved in."

"We were in a hurry. I think my mom said..." I don't finish. I'm not talking to him about my mom. "The smell's only here when it rains, so I didn't know right away."

He goes for the light switch, flicking it a few times. "I can fix this."

"No, it's okay."

"It's easy. This happens to us, too, whenever my mom and my sister try to blow-dry their hair at the same time. Just the circuit breaker." I follow him out to the side of the house. He lifts a metal door, flips some switches, and just like I expect, when we open the front door to check, nothing's changed.

"It's not the circuit breaker," I tell him with arms folded, eyes lowered to pale skin and freckles. And again I want to disappear. I can't believe I imagined this guy putting his arm around me. I'm some kind of masochist. "So, you're done here, right?"

"We'll send over some men to fix the leak and the carpet."

I thank him and shut the door without looking back, without saying goodbye.

Are other people this ashamed of their lives?

Leaning against the door, I let one dry sob shake its way through my chest. I swallow the rest and go up to clean my room.

.

While the repairs are being made and the new carpet is being laid, I sleep on the couch. I will not sleep with my mom.

Lying here I dream of easier times, times when my mother knew how to be a mother. We used to garden together; bulbs were her favorite because they were the earliest spring flowers. We planted them in October and watched them sprout up in March. She filled our house with tulips, dahlias, and daffodils—explosions of color in several rooms, even in the bathroom.

"Close your eyes," she'd say to my dad as soon as he stepped foot through the door, still in uniform. She covered his eyes with her hand, so he couldn't peek. "Smell, just smell."

After he took a sniff that satisfied her, she'd move her hand off his face and say, "Now look." She'd beam at him as he looked around at all the color, all the softness of the flowers. She looked at him like she did it just for him, but really, she did it for us all.

She was beautiful then. I remember checking the mirror for signs that I would look like her when I grew up. Did I have the same shade of brown in my eyes? Did I have the same wave in my hair? I turned to the side to see if my nose had the same straight line as hers.

I pushed my face into her flowers and breathed them in before I left the room.

"There's nothing softer than petals," I remember her saying. "Imagine sleeping on a pillow filled with them."

Back then she had love in her heart. Now, her heart is nothing more than a dead flower, like the ones she would clip and throw away, the ones that never made it into our home.

.

On Friday morning the house is too quiet. My mom's still asleep, late for work, hair tossed over her face.

"Wake up," I say, nudging her arm. "Get up." I shake her body.

She doesn't move.

"Mom." I shake her again, harder. "Mom?" I haven't raised my voice yet, but I can feel it starting in my stomach, pushing its way up my vocal chords like a hose turned on. "Mom! Get up!"

Not a stir.

Snapping my hand away from her, I hold my breath. I can feel my face grow pale. How long am I staring at her before I place a finger under her nose? How long before I breathe again, before I swallow? I feel warm air against my finger, and my heart reminds me I'm alive, too.

In that second before I placed my finger under her nose, all these thoughts raced through my brain. What will I do first? Will I call 9-1-1? Will I try to breathe for her? Will I fall down on the floor and pass out, hopeless?

"Wake up!" I shake her some more. I sit her up and move her legs over the bed, feet on the floor. I put her arm over my shoulder and drag her over my back to the bathroom. Trying not to drop her, I get her into the tub and turn on the shower. She screams.

"You have to go to work," I say, my voice void of emotion, and I walk out.

I yell into my pillow, scream into feather-down. My head is full of so much noise—so much what should I do? what would I do?—that I can't even hear the shouts that are actually coming out of my mouth.

.

Edward comes over to inspect my room, which now smells of paint. The ceiling's patched up, the flooring new. I tell him it's fine, but he insists on seeing for himself.

"Smells better," he says, smiling at me. God, if only that, a better smell, was something that could make me smile and mean it. I give him my fake one.

"I play baseball," he says. "You should come to one of my games sometime. It's just a local league."

"I-I can't."

"Why not?" His words come out in a laugh.

I gesture to my room, my house, as if that answers his question, as if he can see just how huge that gesture really is.

"If I come and pick you up could you go?"

My eyes are drawn to the pillow I screamed into and all around me are the echoes of why I shouldn't go, why I should say definitely not.

"Probably not."

He cocks his head at me. "You... don't want friends?"

Will he believe me if I tell him friends don't last? He probably won't. He doesn't know what I know.

"Some other time," he says, letting himself out of my room and out of my house.

I go to the window seat, not to pick up my book, but to watch him go to his car. On my knees, I watch until his car is out of sight.

.

Thunder rumbles, the sky swelling, gray as stone. I pick up my pace, one more mile left before I get to my afternoon shift. I wonder if I'll beat the rain.

I hear a car slow down behind me. It pulls up.

"Get in," Edward says, sliding the passenger window down. "I'll give you a ride."

I lean in to the window. "I like to walk."

"And you hate to ride?" He isn't looking at me when he says this, staring straight ahead like he has to watch the road.

"No." I smile at his profile. After a second it feels foreign on my lips and I let it fall.

I climb in. His car door sticks a little when I pull.

Buckling my seatbelt, I sneak a glance at Edward. I see his smile aimed at the road as he drives off. Mine returns. It's small, but it came on its own. No effort. I touch it. I try to hold it on my face. This takes effort.

It's something that has to happen inside you to smile without effort. I look at Edward, hoping he'll say something to bring it back. He's quiet and we're almost to the coffee shop.

"When's your next game?"

"You wanna go?" He turns to me and I see a smirk.

Maybe this is flirting.

"I can pick you up tomorrow at six." He turns into the parking lot. "If you don't mind a ride."

He stops the car but keeps the engine idling.

"Say okay," he says, giving me a chin nod.

"Okay," my smile says. And it feels like a mistake to let him be my friend just to chase a smile.

.

When Edward comes by, my mom's home. She's functionally drunk right now but she has a drink in her hand, heading for dysfunctional. She invites him in like they're old friends, but I usher him out, saying we don't want to be late. I shut the door on my mom as she waves.

I sit in the bleachers around people I don't know. They're sharing lemonade from a thermos and a bag of chips they pass back and forth. The seats aren't full, so I put my feet up on the bench below me, lean forward, elbows resting on knees, and watch the game like my life depends on it.

Edward plays catcher. From where I'm sitting behind home plate, I can't really see him on the field, but I can tell when he catches a ball and throws it back. He catches a fly ball and the small crowd cheers, they whistle.

After the game he comes right up to the bleachers, waving to a few girls who are leaving with their group. Sweaty-faced, he lifts his hat, wiping his brow. "All that gear." He puts his hat on backwards and sits next to me.

We're both looking out at the field, some of the players still down there fooling around, teasing each other, shoving, laughing.

"You're so quiet." His shoulder nudges mine and makes me sway just like a breeze.

I don't know what to say to that.

"Do you ever talk?" He says it like it's a joke. I can hear a smile in it.

"I talk."

"Yeah? What do you like to do?"

I look up at him. His eyes shine green.

"Come on. Anything. Tell me one thing."

"I read."

"What do you read?"

Do I admit that I'm reading a children's novel? "Books."

"Oh, really? Hmm... I've heard of 'em."

"The Secret Garden."

"Is it good?"

"I guess so. I've read it so many times I can't be sure anymore."

"Why do you read it so much?"

"Because..."

"It's a secret?"

How can I tell him that I've been building a garden inside myself ever since my mom started drinking? That I have roots in my veins and stems in my bones? Or that I'd like to open a gate to my dream world, step through and settle right into my new life?

"Because it reminds me of me in some places, and maybe of what I want in other places."

He asks me what I want and I shrug. He asks too many questions.

"You know what I like to do? I like to debate. I'm on the debate team at school. So if you think I can't get you to talk to me, you're wrong. Might as well just give in now, girl."

I wish it was easy for me to talk, that words and conversation came without thought, that I didn't feel so different from everyone else. I stand up.

He catches my wrist and gives me a light pull. Taking my other arm, he turns me toward him, guiding me to stand between his knees.

"Tell me what you want. What's in that book that you want? Then we can go."

His eyes are directly on mine, so strong, I think he can see the truth there anyway. So I tell him.
"I want to be free."

The expression on his face goes through changes as if he can't decide whether to frown or smile. He goes with the smile.

"That's pretty much the best answer to that question anyone can give." His smile grows.

I wait for him as he changes out of his uniform in the dugout. Everyone else has left.

On our walk back to the car, his bag slung over his shoulder, he tells me there's a party. He says it just like that. "There's a party."

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say to that. "You want to go?"

"Sure," he says, and I think he set me up. There's a small tug at my lips.

.

Edward clasps the edge of my fingers, leading me past circles of people. He introduces me to a short girl with short hair named Alice. I recognize her from the game. Letting her do the talking, I try to ignore all the red cups meeting lips and the couples making out in corners. There's an old brick fireplace that's been filled in with a gas stove. I sit on the ledge.

"Want a drink?" she asks.

I lift up my water bottle to show her I already have one. Knowing what she was really offering, though, I set it beside me and rub my palms on my jeans.

Just to change the subject I ask her how long she's lived here.

I'm just beginning to feel more at ease when Edward comes from the kitchen with a red cup in his hand. Thorns prick at my insides. They scratch at my throat. I tell him I have to go and push my way past blurs of bodies.

"Wait." He catches up to me. "You're walking?"

I continue on outside. "It isn't that far."

"It's on the other side of town." He sets his cup down on a low garden wall.

"I like to walk. I do."

He's already clicking his doors unlocked. "Come on."

In the car I watch the headlights highlight the road. The trees look black at this time of night, like huge, looming shadows closing in on us.

I don't apologize even though I feel like I should. I stick to my rule about no apologies because they only draw attention to what I want to forget.

Edward apologizes, though.

"For what?"

"Not thinking," he says.

He knows too much.

He walks me up to my porch and waits there. When I have the door slightly open, I turn my back to it. Unsure of what state my mom will be in, I won't invite him in.

He's staring at me like he wants me to say something.

I tell him I liked watching his game and he thanks me for coming. And then he leans in and presses his lips to my cheek. I can smell his neck, sweat over some kind of cologne or aftershave.

I cover my face where he kissed it.

"Is that okay?"

Fingers still touching my cheek, I nod.

"Then tomorrow? Can we go out again? No parties."

"Don't you have a girlfriend? Someone normal?"

He frowns as if confused, really confused. "What's normal?"

I look away from him, off into the night, embarrassed that I said anything at all.

"Does that mean we can't go out tomorrow?"

I tell him we can even though I still can't look him in the eye.

.

My mother used to love the shooting range. She acted like a kid going to Disneyland on shooting-range mornings.

"It's where Daddy took me on our first date," she said, when I'd laughed at her excitement. "And it was romantic. Believe me, it was." She swiped under my chin.

I wasn't old enough to go with them yet, but someday, they told me. Someday.

I've never been.

My mom's first date with my dad had been at a shooting range that probably ended with a passionate, promising kiss. My first date is ending with me not even positive it had been a date at all.

Edward and I are standing in the dark on my porch again. The light isn't on.

Back in the house we lived in with my dad, my mom used to make sure the light was left on every night he was on duty. After he died, she still double and triple checked that the light was on before going to bed. When we had to move to a new place, she stopped leaving the light on. In fact, she never turned it on.

"Was this a date?" I ask Edward. I just ask.

He shrugs a shoulder. "Couple of friends hanging out."

My nod is slow. I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. I'm a little of both.

"Bella, I'm joking. It was a date. I asked you out. You said yes. I took you to dinner. You've been on one before, haven't you?"

I shake my head.

"Never?" He frowns.

I shake my head again.

His brows tighten more. A hand on my shoulder, he leans closer. "What about..." His head tilts, his breath on my face. "This..." His lips touch mine. One kiss. Soft. Lips pressing and then pulling. He backs away. His eyes are already open and looking at me when I open mine.

Like a petal, the back of his knuckle slides down my face and over my lips.

"Don't be so afraid all the time."

I look into his eyes, searching, as I swallow, digesting his words. I think he sees me in a way my mom never does. And I'm not sure why or how, other than the fact that I think he wants to.

I tell myself I'm not afraid. Not of him. I reach around his neck, stepping up on tiptoes, and I kiss him back. His lips aren't still, the way mine had been when he'd kissed me. He accepts my kiss. He smiles.

Each night following, the kisses grow longer until the first time I feel his tongue, warm against my lips and then in my mouth. His arms circle me, and it's hard to decide which feels better, the kiss or the embrace. After the kiss I hold him close to me. I don't really want to let go.

"Alice is having a party," he says, pulling back. He pushes a finger against my lips as I open my mouth to speak. "Not that kind of party. Her parents throw this one every year before school starts. It's kind of a formal party, no alcohol. Not for us kids anyway." He makes his voice all raspy like an old man when he says "us kids."

"I'll need a dress."

"You'll need a dress."

I bring my shoe to my desk to count my money. I have almost two hundred dollars saved up. I'll use half of it to buy a dress.

.

I've become friendlier with Alice at the baseball games. She laughs a lot and I laugh with her sometimes. Our talks don't get serious and I like that. It's like I'm someone else when I'm around her, someone who doesn't have serious things to talk about. Someone who can look up at the sky and see the blue beyond the gray and know that means future, that means promise.

Lately it's like the garden inside of me is shrinking, like it's being pruned and shaped.

"You're going to go blind looking at the sun. Didn't your mom ever teach you that?" She pinches my arm.

"Yeah," I say, and I think it's true.

She talks to me about which classes we might have together when school starts, based on what I've already taken and what we both need to take. She wants to compare schedules as soon as they come in the mail.

.

My mom has started dating her boss. All I know is that his name is Phil Dwyer, and his hair's the color of sand. I've seen him through the Dwyer's Insurance building window.

I don't tell her what a mistake I think it is for her to date him. What I do tell her is that if she messes this up, we're not moving.

"I've made friends for the first time in a long time. And I'm keeping them," I say in the morning before her first drink.

With the back of her pillow-hair turned toward me, she's pouring her coffee. It trickles into the cup. "Of course we won't move. We're making it work this time," she says, as if I'm part of the problem, as if I'm one-half of why it hasn't worked in the past.

On the day Edward's coming to take me to get my dress, I go to up to my room to retrieve my money. I've left the shoe on my desk and I pause when I reach for the roll of bills. It's not pushed into the toe as far as usual. There's a piece of paper wrapped around the cash.

My insides go storm-wild as I count the money before I read the note. Twenty-seven dollars. She's left me twenty-seven dollars.

It'll be back before you even know it's missing, the note reads. I tear it up.

I go to the window and search for the page. Even though it's dog-eared, I have to shuffle back and forth until I find it. It's the page where Mary imagines shutting herself in the garden to play and nobody would know where she was. I find it and take in a big gasp of air as if I haven't taken a breath for hours. I know what the gasp is really supposed to do, but it doesn't do its job. Tears roll down.

I wipe them away and compose myself as Edward pulls up. I don't answer when he knocks or when he knocks harder or when he rings the doorbell. He comes to the side of the house looking up at my window. Seeing me, he raises his arms in question.

I lift my window.

"What are you doing?"

"I can't go." My voice shakes.

"Are you sick? Let me in."

I take a deep breath and head downstairs.

I try telling him I don't want to go to the party. It's only half a lie. I did want to go, but I don't anymore.

"What changed?" he asks, looking off to the side, fingers raking through his hair.

I'm not going to lie to him. He knows enough. I'm not going to ruin this just because I'm ashamed of my mom. I tell him I can't buy a dress and I tell him why.

He pulls me into his arms and backs me into the house. He kisses me far back on my cheek, near my temple, near my hairline. And then he holds my face and stares down at me.

"Who wants to get dressed up, anyway?" he says.

I wrap my arms around his waist and rest my cheek against his chest.

"How about dinner?" he asks. "What do you have?"

In the kitchen we search for something to cook. There isn't much to choose from. I grab near-empty boxes of pasta, combining them until we have enough: bowties, macaroni, corkscrews. He makes a creamy sauce with milk, butter, flour and herbs he says his dad taught him. He hums while he cooks which makes me stare at him.

"What?" he asks, stirring the sauce.

"Nothing."

Still he hums and still I stare.

He mixes in some leftover chicken, and we eat in the living room.

With our empty plates on the coffee table, we sit on the sofa in silence. Right now, with my shoulder blade against his chest, and the way he's dragging his fingers up and down my arm, it feels better than sitting at my window with my book. I let my head fall back on him, feeling my imagined garden dwindling, shoots pulling from my bones, roots retreating from my veins, but then it all stops.

Straightening up, I look at him, placing my palm against his chest. "What is someone like you going to do with someone like me?"

"You always do that. Worry about later. About what's going to happen." He brushes hair from my face and moves in close. Closer he comes and he kisses me. His lips move against mine over and over, his tongue finding mine again and again. He kisses me until I'm out of breath. "What about what's happening right now?" He continues the kiss before I answer, the kiss no longer slow or light.

I'm drowning. Drowning.

And drowning feels good. It's letting go.

I lean toward him, his hands on my shoulders. I'm practically in his lap because I want more of the kiss. More of it. More.

One more peck and he inches back.

We trade heavy breaths.

"Were you thinking about later just now?" he asks.

I shake my head, unable to articulate anything.

"Were you thinking about right now?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Good." He smiles. "See?"

"I don't want to think about anything. I like not thinking. I want to kiss some more."

He kisses me, his hands reaching for my hips and I find myself moving over him, right where I want to be, my legs on either side of his.

His hands slide up and down my sides, his palms curving around my ribs. When they brush the sides of my breasts I have to break away from the kiss for a breath.

Edward's looking up at me, watching my eyes as his hands feel. There's a tingle and a newer want and a different kind of ache that has me moving my hips without thinking. There's no thinking at a time like this, it's all feeling. And I feel him under me, hard.

A low whisper of a sound comes from his throat and he lifts his hips and brings his lips back to mine. And even though I'm feeling so much right now, it still isn't enough.

It's like ivy that keeps growing, that won't be cut back. It just keeps growing. Out of control. Hips press and push, hands skim and touch, and lips slip from mouth to throat to chest, and all the building and building inside of me, all the way up into my throat and sometimes out of my mouth because there's too much, too much—it all starts to scare me.

"Edward," I say as his tongue sweeps the curve of my neck. "I can't. I can't."

"I know." He dots pecks up my throat to under my jaw. "I won't."

I hear familiar sounds, a key searching for a keyhole, the lock unclicking, my mom stumbling through the door.

Climbing off his lap, I pull his arms to make him sink down, out of sight. I put a finger over my lips. The last thing I want right now is for my mother to see us.

Furniture scrapes against the floor. There's a laugh.

Edward rubs my arm.

Heavy footsteps up the stairs, and then it's quiet again.

"Every night?" he asks.

"Not every night. Sometimes it's less. She's less. You know?"

He nods, even though he probably doesn't know.

There's a thump from upstairs, a bang too loud to ignore. The sound of a body crumpling.

I run up, Edward following.

She's like carpet on the floor. She moans and turns her head and smiles drunk.

I swallow down whatever's trying to make its way up and out of me.

Edward's moving toward her. I touch his arm.

"It's okay. Go. She's done this before. I'll - I'll take care of it."

He's already lifting her off the floor.

"No. Just go." Oh god, my face is warm and wet. I swipe at tears that shouldn't be there.

Stop it, I tell myself. Stop making it worse. I take a deep breath.

He pulls the comforter over her.

"I said I can do it!"

He turns to me and I can't look at him, not when he's looking at me that way. I feel his arm around my shoulder, and I feel myself leaning against him, letting him lead me to my bedroom.

He lays me down and lays himself beside me, one arm around me.

And this isn't it. In all of my dreams, the first boy to ever lie with me in my bed, this is never how I imagined it happening.

"I'm staying," he says, his voice thick, his words sharp.

I can feel the tears collecting in my stomach, forcing their way up my throat. I swallow but they won't be held back. Covering my face, the tears flow one after the other. He tucks me in close, rubbing my back, pushing away at my hair, saying, "It's okay, Bella. It's okay."

I sniff and sniff and gasp for breath, and it isn't pretty but I can't think about that right now.

"It's okay."

I don't know if Edward really understands why I'm soaking his shirt. It's not that she's passed out for the hundredth time, it's that he saw her like that. He witnessed the ugliest part of my life. And that's not it completely. I'm also crying because he cares enough to stay. With every light touch, every time his hand falls down my arm, or brushes hair from my neck, more comes out of me. I don't fall asleep until every last tear makes its way through my closed eyes.

.

It started with a drink at dinner, just one. That turned into two, which turned into more.

Around that time, she stopped tucking me in and kissing me goodnight.

Before that, before she was up all night drinking, and then in the morning, chasing away a hangover with more drinking, she'd brought home a dog. It was small and black and waggled its whole backside.

"Supposed to be therapeutic," she said. "Supposed to make us happier."

She smiled at me and we pet him, scratching behind his ear. I named him Pepper.

"Pepper Swan," she said.

Afraid the puppy was scared in his new home, my mom hadn't wanted to leave him alone that first day, not even to eat dinner at the table. So we sat on the kitchen floor, our backs against opposite walls, while Pepper slept curled up between us. And there, sitting on the floor, eating dinner with our plates in our laps, it felt like an adventure. We giggled about it and decided to eat that way from then on.

A year later we were living somewhere else without our dog. We'd run out of money, been evicted for not paying rent, and had to find a new place to live, a cheaper place, a place that didn't allow dogs.

That became the nightmare apartment, the place where the worst of it began, where I would wake from dreams wondering where my real mother went.

There were no more kitchen-floor meals. No more mother-daughter giggles. There were staggering legs and slurring words and half-closed eyes like the weight of her entire life kept them from opening.

That apartment was where, at twelve, I started imagining what life would be like without my mom around. I bought a book at a yard sale for twenty-five cents. I hadn't known when I'd picked it up and flipped through it that the book would become such a big part of me, like an extra organ, like a private world.

In the morning I don't know what to say to Edward. I stay in the bathroom for a long time, brushing my teeth, fixing my hair.

We hardly exchange any words until I walk him to his car.

"She hasn't always been like this," I say. "She used to be… she used to be like your mom."

The wind blows cold and I cross my arms in front of my chest and shiver.

"What did you think that first day? You know, that day." I want to know how horrified he was seeing my mother like that in his mom's studio.

"I thought you were pretty."

"No." I push at his shoulder with the edge of my hand, smiling a little. "I'm talking about what you thought when you saw how my mom was."

"I didn't see your mom that day."

"Yes, you did. In the studio."

"That was the second day. The first day I saw you, you were walking on the side of the road."

"Edward."

"Bella."

"You know what I'm asking."

"Hey, all parents are embarrassing."

"What did you think?"

"She scared me. And I saw how you dealt with her like you knew what you were doing and like this must have been going on for a while. And I thought it's gotta be really scary to live with a mom like that."

"Did you feel sorry for me?"

He tucks hair behind my ear, and I don't like his hesitation. "Yeah. Yeah, I did."

"Is that why you asked me out?"

"It's why I tried to be your friend, but not why I asked you out. And I didn't only feel sorry for you. I thought you were pretty tough, too."

Holding his shoulders, I reach up to kiss him for his honesty. His hand on the back of my head holds me there.

In the house I pour all the alcohol I can find down the drain. Eight empty bottles line the counter when my mom comes downstairs. She stops in her tracks and stares at them, but she says nothing. I leave for work.

After my shift, my mom's sitting at the kitchen table with a drink in front of her. She doesn't look drunk yet, but she doesn't look sober either. Her under eyes are a little black like her mascara has run.

"Your boyfriend's nosey mom and dad came to see me today." Her eyes are cold. She stirs her amber drink with her finger. "I don't appreciate you talking to people about our business."

"Really?" I scoff at her, my hands on my hips. "I would love never to talk about you, but it's hard to keep you a secret when my boyfriend is the one picking you up off the floor and tucking you into bed!"

I slam up the stairs, and I'm almost to my window seat when I hear my mother's voice.

"Edward put me in bed?"

I keep my eyes on the trees outside my window. "It was the most humiliating thing you've ever done to me. Luckily he's a good enough person not to go running as far away from us as he should."

Her hands land on my shoulder and she sits me down on the window seat, turning my chin so that I look at her.

"I'll try to stop."

I don't pretend to believe the lie this time. "Right." I jerk my chin away from her touch.

"I will."

"I won't hold my breath."

She insists again that she will, and she tells me she loves me. I watch her walk out of the room. She hadn't asked me to say it back.

I flip through my book to the place where Mary first finds the garden door, hidden for years behind ivy. I remember my first read. Even at twelve I'd known how gardening worked, how if you didn't tend to it the plants either died or went overgrown, like vines, reaching, searching for something they'd never find. I expected everything to look like that behind the gate. I saw cobwebs and darkness before Mary even walked through. And the darkness, that made no sense, since the garden was out in the open and it was the middle of the day.

I close my eyes imagining flowers that only open at night.

Two afternoons later, my mom is bent over the toilet. I stand in the doorway. She looks up at me with sweat-soaked skin, moves to the sink, rinses her mouth and then splashes water on her face.

"Thought you were stopping."

She walks past me gray-faced, closed-eyed, half-dead. "This is what stopping looks like." She faceplants on her bed.

I stay away as much as I can, and go to Edward's house. Since the time he helped my mom to bed, I don't have him over anymore.

On the night of Alice's party Edward and I watch a movie in his room. He's on his back, and my head's on his chest. His sister, Jane, is saying that teenagers are lazy.

I hear Edward's voice tunnel through him, "Just think, one more year 'til you're hit with it."

"I'll never be as lazy as you guys."

I sigh and close my lazy eyes as Edward twirls his finger in my hair.

.

When Edward drops me off, I don't invite him in, and he's used to this by now. He kisses me on my doorstep as if this is our second date and not our twentieth.

My mom's not home yet. She's still gone in the morning. And in the afternoon.

This is the day I get the phone call I may have been waiting for. A deep voice begins with, "I have some bad news, honey." Someone I've never met has called me honey. I sink to the chair at the table. I'm alone. I try to swallow but can't seem to. The refrigerator humming is the only sound in the house. I can't stop hearing it.

They'd been in the hot tub, both of them drinking wine. Mr. Dwyer had gone into the house to use the toilet, he tells me, and when he came back, she was under water, passed out, drowned. There was nothing anyone could do.

I'm not sure if I say anything at all before I hang up. I'm not even sure the call was real.

I have some bad news, honey, is what's ringing through my ears. Bad news. Bad. Is this bad?

I go to my room and think about this. My mom isn't here now, which is fine. She isn't coming home later, which is fine, too. On the window seat I hug my legs to my chest. "She won't ever be coming home," I say out the window, as if hearing myself say it might make me muster up some kind of feeling. It doesn't. Inside I know I should be crying right now. I take a deep breath to see if tears will come, but they don't.

The next five days unfold like they're already set up. I meet with an attorney who tells me my mother had life insurance. Somehow she thought of me enough to get that. I guess that's what happens when you work for an insurance agent. The attorney also tells me that my next of kin, my guardian, is my father's cousin. I haven't seen William since my dad's funeral. I can't even picture his face. I know where he lives, though, where I'll be living, because I'm told. Boston.

This is my life now. I'm being told where I'm going, who I'll be living with, how much money I have.

Even Esme tells me I should start packing. My second cousin will be here in two days. Esme and Edward come over with boxes to help. Although, Edward isn't really helping. He's standing with his back to the wall, arms folded across his chest.

I think that's a better idea. If I never pack, maybe I never have to go.

The sun's going down and none of us bother turning on the light. Esme gets up, reminding us she has an evening shoot. She'll be back later. She stops in front of Edward and squeezes his arm. "Help her, Edward. What you're doing right now isn't helping."

On my knees, I stare across the room at him. He's staring back, fingers tugging at his bottom lip.

I go over to him and place my hands on his arms. He takes a shuddering breath in through his nose. Tears in his eyes.

"Bella."

"Shh."

"Bella."

I wrap my arms around him and he returns my hold, strong. "I can't help you pack." He traces my spine.

"It's okay."

"I'll lose it." His hand presses me closer.

"It's okay."

We hold each other until the sun has lowered enough to hide the room in shadows.

"What is someone like me going to do without someone like you?" he asks, and my throat swells and tears spill.

.

The night before William is expected, Edward sleeps over.

"Give me something of yours," he says as I'm closing my curtain.

"Like what?"

"Anything."

Glancing down at my window seat, I see my book all tattered up like my life. I pick it up. I've become just like Mary, orphaned, and now I'm about to give her away.

I wrap the rubber band around it and tentatively, I hand it to him, thinking about the world inside this book and how I've kept it together by a rubber band. Why can't I save my own life by tying a band around it? Why can't life be protected this way?

His eyes meet mine, questioning.

"Take it." I push it closer.

He flips it over in his hand. "You really have read this a lot."

"That book has come everywhere with me since I was twelve. It's lived in six different towns. It's slept on and under my pillow. Take good care of it. Give it back to me next time I see you."

We lie together and he talks to me about how we'll stay together from a distance, how we can make it to graduation.

At ten years old I learned that there are no guarantees in life, and life has been affirming that for me ever since. I won't tell Edward this. I'll let him have his fantasy.

Edward on his back, me on my stomach, balanced on my forearms, I watch his eyes squint to a close as he tries to figure out a way for us to see each other while living on opposite coasts. It turns out I didn't have to say anything. His fantasy is already falling away from him on its own. His nostrils flare and his cheeks pulse a little as if he's clenching his jaw.

"Don't," I say, reaching for his face, tears wetting my thumb as it grazes along his cheekbone. "No."

He takes in a sharp, shaky breath, chest rising. As he holds my fingers against his face, tears meet and spill from my eyes, too. With a hand on my neck he pulls me to him, kissing me. He turns me over. "You don't," he says, his lips bearing down on mine. "Don't go." He continues rough kisses, teeth and tongue. He moves his lips all over my face, dragging, pecking, his tongue barely touching against my earlobe where he whispers it again. "Don't go." He drapes kisses down my cheek to my mouth.

I kiss him deep, tugging his shoulders until he rolls on top of me. I breathe into his neck, and then his lips are all over me, over my clothes. He starts pushing at my shirt, and lips meet skin, my stomach, my breasts. I lift my shirt over my head, shove at my jeans, and he takes them off. And then his are gone, too.

He pulls a condom out of his pocket before dropping his jeans to the floor. "In case we need it," he says.

I can't tell if he's asking me if I'm on birth control or if he's asking for permission, but either way, the answer's the same.

"We do."

His fingers trail up my arms, his lips finding mine. I feel down his chest, his stomach. I didn't know a boy's skin could be so soft. My hand is at the side of his waist when his fingers settle between my legs and my back arches, my hips rising. On top of me again, he lines his hips up with mine.

"Bella," he says, pushing into me. I grip his shoulders, and can't help my gasp or the way my head jerks back a little, my teeth clamping down. He waits. Moving hair aside he kisses the corner of my neck, and then his eyes are on mine. "Would now be a bad time to tell you I love you?"

I only look at him.

"Because if it is, I won't say it." His smile is as soft as his voice.

I hug him tight, his chest hot and sweating. "It's a good time."

I lift my hips and we move together.

"I love you," he says.

"I love you, too." More tears run down both our faces.

Afterwards he's tracing my side, fingertips up and down. "I'm sorry about before," he says. "I know you have to go."

What is there to say? It's true. I do have to go.

"I need a bath."

I can feel Edward's eyes on me as I leave the room.

Sitting on the edge of the tub, my hand under the faucet, I feel for the perfect warmth. The bathtub's clean and white, the water sparkly, and still I see my mother's body in there, the time I carried her, heavy on my back.

I climb in, sinking down. Head under water, I think about how much time might have gone by from the moment she passed out to the moment water closed over her like a coffin forever. I let myself cry for her and for the many times I'd actually wished her away. I'm down here letting tears go and holding my breath for as long as I can. When I come up, I gasp for air, wiping at my face—tears mixed with bath water. I sniffle.

When I open my eyes Edward's there, his head tilted.

"I guess I do miss her." My sigh is heavy, almost as if reluctant to believe my own words. But it isn't my sigh that's reluctant at all. It's me.

Edward steps into the water, wrapping his arms and legs around me. He kisses my shoulder before resting his chin there. I like the soft trickles the water makes as it drops off his arms into the tub, finding its way back from where it came. For a little while it feels nice, until another wave hits me. I turn around, cling to him, crying naked on his chest.

"I'm sorry," he says.

"I wished her away."

"What?"

"I - I wanted her out of my life."

"Bella." He holds me tighter. "Bella." He kisses my face but hair's in the way.

Eventually the water cools and we get out. I listen to the growling and the burbling as the water drains away. Everything makes a noise it seems, but death. When your life leaves your body, there's no sound. I can't tell if that's really beautiful or really horrible.

We go back to bed.

"Are you okay?" he asks, fingers traveling my bare back.

"I don't know."

For a little while we're silent, and then I start to tell him about my mom. I tell him about Pepper, kitchen-floor meals, and mother-daughter giggles. I tell him about gardening and the garden inside me. And I tell him about the porch light going off. He listens, holding me like he doesn't want to let go.

It's hours before Edward falls asleep, and I never do. Next to him, skin against skin, I think all night long. I think about Mary, a little girl who was wiser than most adults and only because she was willing to look beyond what people told her, to look into her heart, trusting herself. Trusting herself.

By morning I've decided. I'm not going anywhere. Determination has sprouted, branching into every bone and muscle through the night.

My father and mother may not live here, but it still feels like home.

I tell Edward my plan and ask for his help to convince William to let me stay.

All the Cullens come over to offer their support, even Jane.

William stands in my living room, having declined my offer of a drink. That's the last refusal I'll accept.

"I want to stay here," I say. "My birthday is a month away. I'll be eighteen. I could move back anyway."

"We'll look after her until then," Edward's dad says.

"And after." Esme puts her arm around me. I may not have known Edward's parents for very long, but I know them better than I do my cousins.

William faces the ceiling for a second. He bites the inside of his lip. And then he looks at me. "I think that's for the best." He reaches out and squeezes my shoulder. "You've been through enough, haven't you?"

With the smile that ties itself to my face in this moment, it may be hard to believe that I'm answering a question about my suffering when I say, "Yes."

I hug William and then all the Cullens. Jane squeezes me as tight as Edward had.

For once in my life I didn't just follow. I trusted myself and made something happen.

.

I've kept my room and I'll let my roommate have the master bedroom.

My room is clean, the whole house clean.

I go to my desk, pull out a piece of paper and start to list things about my mom I want to remember.

I want to remember the way she loved my dad and me before everything went bad. And her real, true smile.

I want to remember her spring flowers, and how she used to garden so much that her light skin turned brown and her brown hair turned light.

I want to remember the day she brought Pepper home, how she held him close to her chest and kissed his head, how that evening began a year of kitchen-floor meals. How back then, hope still sparkled in my mom's eyes.

I want to remember the porch light lit.

.

On my birthday Edward and I garden. Around every tree in my yard we plant bulbs that won't pop up until spring.

"Just throw them," I say, tossing some bulbs to show him, the way my mom once showed me. "We plant them wherever they land."

As I bury them deep in soil I tell them I'll see them in a few months; these daffodils, bluebells and lilies are my future and my hope. For my present, for color right now, I plant witchhazel under the crape myrtle tree, fuchsia by my front door, and impatiens and begonias of every color along the low fence. Edward trims the overgrown, sprawling hedges into rounder, more symmetrical shapes, and when we're done, before the sun dies away for the night, we stand back and look around.

He slings an arm over my shoulder. I lean my weight against him; he leans his against me. Shared weight.

"Finally finished," he says.

"It's a start." He has no idea what kind of garden I have visualized after years and years of adding to it inside of me.

But it's outside of me now where I can see it and touch it and smell it. I have dirt on my knees and under my fingernails. I have scrapes on my arms. It's all real. A tear trickles down my cheek and then another.

"What's wrong?" Edward asks, wiping my face.

"Nothing," I say, and mean it.

I've opened my gate.

I've walked through.