When Charlotte woke, she was uncomfortable. Her feet were painful, and her poor little head ached. My usually cheerful daughter was understandably irritable. I administered aspirin powder, which helped, but she remained fussy. Bella sat with her, keeping cool cloths over her forehead, until Charlotte finally slept again.
My wife and I had been given a short reprieve from the inevitable questioning. I still hoped that Charlotte might not remember the observation she'd made about my impenetrable skin once the morning came.
Bella was restless, too, and I knew that the soles of her feet were quite tender. However, she refused to accept any analgesics, wishing to remain fully alert in case our daughter needed her.
I wished to erase as many reminders of our traumatic evening as possible before Bella and Charlotte came downstairs again, so I spent much of the night cleaning the kitchen. I removed the charred curtains and scrubbed the soot from the windows and walls. I replaced several damaged boards then painted them. Bella would need to sew new curtains, but those could wait.
I checked on Bella and Charlotte throughout the night. Bella had finally fallen asleep just after eleven, her body curled around our daughter. Both slept until dawn, although their slumber was somewhat fitful.
Charlotte woke first. I kissed her brow then lifted her from the bed. I could feel that her headache had diminished, but her feet remained sore.
"Let's be quiet so that Mama can sleep a little longer," I said softly.
Charlotte nodded drowsily. "Potty, Daddy," she murmured.
She cuddled against my chest as I carried her down the hall and into the bathroom. I gathered towels while she attended to her needs, then I set her on the counter and turned on the taps in the bathtub. She still smelled of smoke, and I wanted to bathe her.
Charlotte remained fairly quiet as I washed her hair and gently ran the soapy cloth over her little arms and legs. I kept her feet out of the water, explaining that they needed to stay dry. I sang to her softly while I worked.
After I had carefully combed out her hair and dressed her in a loose summer frock, I unwrapped the bandages from her feet. She winced a little, but she said nothing as I examined the cuts then applied a very mild carbolic solution and fresh bandages.
"Let Daddy have a look at your throat?" I requested, touching her chin. I was worried that it had become more irritated; it wasn't like her to be so silent unless speaking was painful.
She opened her mouth obediently. Surprisingly, I found only mild irritation. I rested my hand softly against her neck. I sensed no specific discomfort, but perhaps it was something more subtle. "Does it hurt?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"You're being a quiet little mouse this morning," I commented gently. "You've barely made a squeak."
Her eyes met mine for a moment, then she lowered her gaze.
I lifted her chin so that she would look at me, offering her a loving smile. "Sweetheart, I know the fire was scary, but you're safe and Momma is safe, too. If you feel frightened, I want you to tell me; it's all right to be scared or upset."
"'M not scared, Daddy," she said, her voice very soft. Her eyes moved down again as her small hand rose to grasp lightly at my wrist.
"Then what are you thinking about, precious?" I caressed her soft cheek with my thumb.
Her tiny fingers moved over the back of my hand, then she lifted one of her feet. "Is the sparkles why you didn't get cut?" she asked. Her bright eyes peeped up at me, then she looked away quickly as though she had done something wrong. Was she worried that her query would anger me?
"Darling Charlotte," I said, kissing her brow, "would you look at me, please?"
She lifted her gaze; her eyes were wide. I could hear her heart beating quickly.
I smiled reassuringly then replied, "That is a very good question. You're such a smart girl to think of it. I'm glad you asked me, because I've wanted to tell you about it for some time."
"Really?" She was growing calmer, her innate curiosity creeping back now that she knew I was not upset with her.
I nodded. "Yes. But I needed to wait until you were a big girl and could understand about it."
"I'm a big girl now!" she replied, her voice stronger.
I smiled. "Yes, you are. And you're right that the sparkles are part of the reason the glass didn't cut my feet. My skin is different than yours."
"How?" This was one of her favorite questions.
I thought for a few moments before answering. "Do you remember that bright yellow and red bird that we saw in the meadow yesterday?"
"The nanager," she replied.
I chuckled softly. "Yes, the tanager. His feathers looked different than the other birds'."
She nodded. "He was so pretty."
"Yes, he was," I agreed. "Think of all of the many kinds of birds we've seen. Most are brown or gray, but sometimes we see one that has more colorful feathers. There's such variety in nature. There are so many different things." I waited to be certain she was following my reasoning. Her attention was rapt, so I continued. "There is a lot of variety among people, too. Momma has brown eyes, but Auntie Angela has blue eyes, and yours are green. Uncle Ben has black hair, but Rosemary's hair is auburn, and Benny's is blonde."
Charlotte touched her hair as I spoke, clearing thinking about my words.
I offered her another smile. "Your hair has such pretty waves, and when Momma rolls them for you they make beautiful curls that stay for a long time. But Momma's hair doesn't hold the curl; it stays straight." I paused for a few moments. "Just like you and Momma—and Angela, Ben, Benny, and Isabelle—all have different colors of eyes and different kinds of hair, you and I have different kinds of skin. Mine is harder than yours, so it doesn't get cut as easily."
"An' it has sparkles," she reminded me.
"It does, just like your hair has beautiful, shiny coppery bits in the light."
"But my skin doesn't have the sparkles."
"No, it doesn't."
Her little brow furrowed as she thought. "But Gramma and Grandpa has the sparkles. They have skin like yours?"
"But I got Momma's skin?"
"Yes, you have your mama's beautiful skin."
This explanation appeared to satisfy her, but I knew I needed to finish the discussion. I lifted her into my arms and carried her to her bedroom, where I settled on the bed with her in my lap. I pointed toward the shells on her windowsill.
"Do you remember what Momma said about those yesterday?" I asked.
Charlotte only thought for a moment before answering. "She said not to ask Gramma and Granpa for shells when I see them."
"That's right. Do you remember why?"
"'Cause it's not polite."
I nodded. "And why is important to be polite?"
"'Cause it's nice."
"Yes. We want to be nice, don't we?"
"'Course, Daddy!" Her tone was sincere.
"And when we're polite and nice, it makes others feel good. If we aren't polite, it makes other people feel bad." I paused until I saw the slight furrowing of her brow that told me she comprehended this. "To be polite, we don't talk about differences between people. It wouldn't be very nice for you to tell Momma how well your hair curls when we know that hers doesn't, right?"
She gave me a nod.
"And it wouldn't be polite to tell Auntie Angela or Uncle Ben or any of the children how my skin doesn't get cut easily or how it sparkles in the sunshine."
"'Cause they'd feel bad that theirs don't," she finished.
I hugged her. "You're my sweetest girl," I praised. "I love you so much."
"Love you, too, Daddy," she said, snuggling against me.
I was not idealistic enough to think that the issue of my uniqueness had been permanently settled. My daughter was bright and inquisitive; she would have more questions in the future. But her relaxed posture and content expression told me that for the moment she was satisfied with our discussion. That was all that I had hoped for, and I felt satisfied, too.
The next morning, Bella sat on the sofa sewing. Her feet were propped on an ottoman; I still wanted her to keep pressure off of her tender soles. She was a relatively cooperative patient, as long as I brought her the items she needed to create a new set of kitchen curtains.
I had told her about my conversation with Charlotte, and she was relieved that it had gone well. This morning my wife was calm and appeared well-rested.
Charlotte's feet remained tender, too, of course. I tried to keep her occupied with various quiet activities that she and I could do sitting down, but she was an exuberant child, and she grew restless as the morning wore on.
She and I had just finished cutting out some paper dolls when I heard the distant purr of an engine. I smiled, recognizing the sound of Carlisle's automobile. My parents had returned from their seaside sojourn. Their presence was very welcome.
Bella looked up from her sewing as the motor car pulled up to the house.
"Is it Carlisle and Esme?" she asked me.
I nodded, swinging Charlotte up into my arms as I stood.
"Gramma and Grandpa!" my daughter squealed excitedly.
I bent to kiss Bella's cheek quickly then, grinning, said to Charlotte, "I bet they'll be glad to see you."
She nodded enthusiastically. I carried her to the front door, opening it to greet my smiling parents.
"Welcome home," I said.
"Gramma! Grandpa!" Charlotte reached for Carlisle, who easily took her into his arms, kissing her cheeks.
Esme and I embraced, then she stepped back, her gaze focused on her granddaughter. She had noticed the bandages on Charlotte's feet. Carlisle had noticed them too, of course, his expression shifting to one of concern as he touched her ankle.
"What happened?" he asked.
"There was a fire," Charlotte began to explain, "in the kitchen. An' a bowl broked, an' my feets got cut, an' so did Momma's, but Daddy fixed them."
"Oh my goodness," Esme exclaimed softly. "Edward, is Bella all right?"
"She's fine," I replied quickly. "Her feet are tender, so she's sitting in the parlor, but I know she's eager to see you."
Esme cupped Charlotte's cheeks in her hands, gazing at her deeply for a moment before kissing her brow. Then she hurried inside.
Carlisle's expression was sober now, although he still held Charlotte tenderly. "How serious was the fire?" he asked.
"It burned the curtains and damaged one of the walls," I said, then in a low murmur added, "I didn't get downstairs fast enough… I was in the bath…"
Carlisle placed a hand on my shoulder, squeezing softly. "But they're both all right?"
"Yes, thank God."
He gave me a nod then asked Charlotte, "How do your feet feel, darling?"
"They only hurts a little," she answered pluckily.
He kissed her cheek again. "I'm glad. Let's go inside and see your Momma."
I knew he was anxious to determine for himself that Bella was relatively unharmed. We joined Bella and Esme in the parlor. After several hugs and words of concern and reassurance, Esme settled on the sofa beside Bella with Charlotte in her lap.
Carlisle motioned for me to follow him into the kitchen. He surveyed the room for a few moments, then said, "You did a fine job with the repairs, son."
"Thank you." I took a breath. "When I saw the flames—when I saw Bella and Charlotte in here, in the smoke—and then when I realized they'd both been cut… My God, Carlisle, what if I hadn't been here?"
"But you were," he replied steadily. "You took care of your family." His golden eyes met mine, and I saw the pride and confidence he had in me.
I exhaled slowly. "I tried."
We stood silently for several seconds, then he turned toward the foyer, clapping me gently on the back. "Help me bring in a few things?" he requested. "We have some treats for Charlotte."
I nodded. As we passed the parlor, I paused to tell Bella, "We'll be back in a few moments. We're just going outside to get some things from the motor car."
Charlotte's eyes widened, and she clapped her little hands together in anticipation. Her mouth opened, then she froze, her gaze catching mine. "Oh," she whispered to herself, "polite."
Bella didn't hear the soft words, but Esme did. She gave me a curious look, but I merely smiled. My daughter remembered our conversation from the previous day. I held her gaze and said, "Thank you, princess."
She nodded then returned her attention to her grandmother. Carlisle and I walked outside into the warm sunshine.
"What was that all about?" he inquired gently.
"I'll tell you about it soon," I promised. "Right now, though, I think my little girl deserves to see what goodies you've brought her from the shore."
As I reached for the handle on the automobile door, the sun glittered against my fingers. I did not try to suppress the smile of relief that spread across my face. My family was together and well, and the future appeared rosy indeed.
The End... for now?
Thank you to everyone who has followed Edward and Bella through the 'Solitude" world. This tale wouldn't have been told if it weren't for all of you!