Disclaimer: I don't own "Twilight."
Thanks again to Camilla10 and Mr. Price, and all of you who have recced this story, on ADF and elsewhere.
Chapter 4: Karibu Ya Bintou
It was the day after the parking lot incident, and the end of AP English and another hour of Edward Cullen staring at his desk. I had some of his homework to return, and more important, I had questions.
Alice was hovering again, but this time she rolled her eyes before telling her brother she would be waiting for him in the hallway.
My eyes jerked up from Edward Cullen's boots, the same he had on yesterday and definitely not made for running, and I stammered, uncertain how exactly to ask my question. "Um, I, wanted to thank you for helping … no, for saving me yesterday …"
He raised an eyebrow, and I flailed on, lowering my voice, "How – how did you get over to me so fast?"
I looked at him incredulously. Was he trying to be modest? Years of competition had given me a good sense of speed and distance; not even an Olympic champion sprinter like Usain Bolt could have made it across the lot to me in time. Yet Edward Cullen had done just that, and without even breathing hard.
"No, that was really, extraordinarily fast," I said. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Right, you haven't, because you didn't see anything." He looked thoughtful now, his voice was low and smooth … the voice he used with Shelly Cope. "You know, my sister saw you afterward. She thought you looked really shaken up. Maybe you just imagined -" What? Was he trying to pretend that nothing had happened?
"No, I didn't," I cut him off, my irritation with his suggestion pushing me to repeat my question. I kept his name out of my account of the crash. I deserved an explanation. "You have to tell me: how did you get to me so fast?"
My breath came sharp and short as I stared at him and he stared back, the thoughtful expression transformed first into surprise and then into … contempt.
"I don't have to tell you anything. I just need you to leave me alone," Edward Cullen said. His icy tone was like a slap and I recoiled. "Stop asking questions, stop trying to help. Just leave me alone. Now."
He held my gaze another second before stalking from the room, his steps slow and deliberate, a clear message: see, I'm not fast at all.
I dropped into my chair and covered my face with my hands, horrified. What I had seen as concern for a gifted student was, from his perspective, harassment. With his looks, no doubt he had been the subject of an onslaught of attention from his peers and even adults; with his condition - dammit, what was it? - he would have found it all uncomfortable.
And my God, he was right. I needed to leave him alone, because I had been deluding myself: I was becoming obsessed. I could try to argue that I was simply trying to figure out how he had snatched me away from death or dismemberment, and why he and Alice felt the need to conceal the fact that he had. But the truth was that I was entirely too interested in my too-smart, too-handsome student.
Maybe it was my punishment for snickering at Shelly Cope and Bob Banner for their crushes on the Cullens. And I was being so obvious that Alice was rolling her eyes at my little fixation too.
If I didn't get control of myself, this could end very badly.
The next day, I placed Edward Cullen's graded homework on his desk before he arrived so he could have one fewer encounter with me. And in the days following – or at least the non-sunny ones - I avoided walking by his seat. I didn't call on him, and he never volunteered a comment or answer. Which mean that he got no participation points, but his marks were so good otherwise that he would earn an A without them.
What I couldn't stop doing was looking at him. He almost never looked at me - he must have memorized the faux wood grain on his desk, he stared at it so much – but when he did, he mostly seemed frustrated and puzzled. Alice sat next to him, her expression sometimes glum, sometimes annoyed, sometimes even … apologetic?
Or maybe it was that she was pitying me for being pathetic. I couldn't exactly ask her. Instead I interrogated myself. I had been truthful when I told Angela that I hadn't liked teenage boys even when I was a teenager. To me, even the nicest guys were trouble, potential traps ready to ensnare me and prevent me from getting out of Laconia. And when I thought of the students here … yeah, no, yuck. Teenage boys hadn't improved as a species since I'd left high school.
So what was it about Edward Cullen that was so alluring?
Stop right there, Swan. Whatever it was, I couldn't afford to find out.
If I continued down this path, I would be finding ways to justify myself – somehow we had a special connection, he was mature for his age, etc., etc. It was the same sort of rationalizations used by Mary Kay Letourneau with her sixth-grade student, even perhaps by that remedial math teacher in New York with the 17-year-old underwear model.
It was wrong even to speculate about it. Instead, I needed to think about men who wouldn't violate the morality clause in my contract.
Like Angela's friends. She reintroduced me to Tyler and introduced me to a guy named Mike Newton, and I found them both to be sweet, funny and even admirable. I enjoyed having dinner with them all at the Forks Diner, where I discovered that the soups were made from scratch and that the pies and cobblers were filled with Olympic Peninsula berries preserved by the owner.
Tyler had indeed told the story of his own parking lot collision as he hung out with me at the Forks Laundr-O-Matic after dinner. I had agreed to look at a paper he was writing for his English lit class at Peninsula in exchange for his helping me fold.
Nearly seven years ago, he had been the driver of a van that crushed Ethan Yorkie's brother, thanks to bald tires and a patch of ice on a January morning.
"I was so glad there wasn't a body between the food-service van and Coach's Tahoe the other day," he said quietly as we folded towels under the fluorescent lights of the coin laundry. "Eric got caught between my van and a pickup. He didn't stand a chance. All I got was a cut on my head, and Eric died."
More proof that vans were dangerous, but I didn't say that. "I'm sorry you had to go through that," I said instead. I gave him one end of a flat sheet to hold.
"Thanks, though of course it was far worse for Eric's family," Tyler said, stepping back and folding his end in half. "Anyway, that sort of pushed me to join the department. I watched the guys working the scene, and I was so relieved they were there. It's a cliché, I guess, but I could see becoming a policeman was a way I could kinda make up for what had happened. What I had done." He stepped to me with the sheet and I finished folding it and put it in my basket.
"That's really responsible of you, especially considering that it was an accident and all," I said. Charlie had joined the Laconia force chiefly as a way of supporting his wife and the baby born six months after their wedding. Which sounds responsible. Which Charlie wasn't.
Tyler shrugged. "It gave me a purpose," he said, then grinned, his mood lightening as he surveyed my remaining laundry. "Do you need me to fold your underwear now?"
"Perv," I said, rolling my eyes at him. "I'll take care of my unmentionables while you get me a pen and your essay. A red pen, preferably. I'm going to go to town on your comma splices."
"After I'm done with you, you'll know all about them."
I had a similar conversation with Mike Newton a couple of days after our dinner. I went into the sports equipment store he ran with his mother, having reluctantly concluded after a few muddy runs that I needed to shell out for some waterproof running shoes.
"I quit college after a couple of years, but I was living in Seattle, had a good job at REI headquarters –" Mike said as we talked amid open boxes of Brookses and Salomons and Merrells that I was trying out.
"—You were really branching out there, Mike," I said, smirking, as I laced up another pair of trail shoes with gaiters.
"Hey, it's good to see how a really big sporting goods company operates," he said, offended. I guessed his sense of humor didn't extend to himself.
"I know, I was just teasing," I assured him, and he looked mollified.
"Anyway, my dad had a heart attack, and then an infection from the surgery and didn't, you know, recover ..."
"Sorry," I said softly. I meant it, and he nodded.
"So I came back because my mom was depressed and couldn't deal with this place on her own," he said, jerking his head toward the front of the store where the brittle, blond Karen Newton was meeting with her rafting guides to discuss how dam removal on the Elwha River would affect tours.
"It ruined the relationship I was in back in Seattle," he went on. "My girlfriend didn't want me to move back here. But if this place went out of business, or was sold to an outsider, that could have a big effect on Forks. We're one of the biggest employers in the county, what with the retail shop and the expeditions and the rentals. And I couldn't leave my mom feeling overwhelmed."
Damn, another responsible, admirable guy, I thought, as I took another pair of shoes for a test run around the racks of kayaks in the Newton Outfitters parking lot.
I liked both Mike and Tyler. They were decent and reliable and steady (sure, Tyler could be a little skeevy). But unlike in Tucson, unlike on a big college campus, a fling here would have strings attached that would be difficult to snip. The guys, I suspected, would be clingy, and it'd be hard to keep them in the friends-with-benefits zone.
And they were a little … dull. Their hair was too tame and their voices were a little squeaky and their eyes didn't change color and they wouldn't be able to keep up with me on the trail.
And I was a fucking idiot.
Fine. I'd have to get laid somewhere else. That's what Angela did - she was dating a law student in Seattle and I was pretty sure they didn't spend all their time discussing torts. I'd asked her for a recommendation for a gynecologist who took the union insurance, and she'd told me that she still went to the Planned Parenthood in Port Angeles, since it gave out a year of birth control pills at a time.
"Oh, I don't have to worry about birth control," I said, reaching into the refrigerator in the staff lounge to retrieve my lunch, making sure to avert my gaze from the yellowing newspaper clip on the wall above me about the misbehaving teacher.
Angela narrowed her eyes at me as I straightened up. "Condoms aren't always reliable," she said, reverting to her teacher persona. At least she paid me the compliment of assuming that I'd use something.
"Yes, ma'am. That's why I had a tubal ligation."
Her scolding expression turned to one of shock. "Wow, you're really serious about not having children," she said.
"Yep. And when Rick Santorum becomes president and outlaws birth control, I won't have to stockpile black-market packets of Yasmin and Trojans."
"You have a point," Angela said. She dropped her voice as we stepped into the hallway, in hearing range of students. "But getting your tubes tied…"
I shrugged."You can't argue with its effectiveness."
She pushed open the door of the admin building for me. "Would you adopt?" she asked.
I'd been asked this question before, and I'd learned to answer it so it didn't sound like I hated children. Which I didn't. I just hated them for me.
"If the circumstances were right, I could see it," I said.
It was just that the circumstances never would be right.
It seemed to be enough for Angela. "Well, my mom goes to an old guy, Dr. Snow, who's on our insurance plan," she said, "and you won't care if he doesn't keep up with the latest contraceptive methods."
"An old guy is perfect for me," I said. In fact, it was an old guy who did my tubal ligation, finally, after all the young female gynecologists I visited in Tucson refused … in favor of lecturing me about how it was too early for me to know I didn't want to be a mother, even after I had told them my history.
I did know, thank you very much for your condescension.
So I found a gynecologist. And then I found a Saturday yoga class I liked in Port Angeles. The teacher, Lakshmi, was a woman my age with a soothing voice and enviably flexible shoulders.
"You are really strong, but less flexible," she observed when I introduced myself to her after class.
"I hope that doesn't say something about my life," I said, joking, but she looked contemplative.
"Sometimes it does. You need to have a balance of strength and flexibility."
"Yeah, well, I run," I said, and she nodded, because runners have notoriously tight hamstrings. "My coach at school thought that yoga would help me keep from tripping on the trail. So is Lakshmi your birth name or your nom de yoga?" She had blue eyes and flaxen hair, but maybe she had New Age-y parents who named their kids after Hindu goddesses.
"My teacher gave it to me. I needed to free myself of the baggage of my old name."
"Lakshmi's a cool name," I said, because it suited her, Lakshmi being the goddess of beauty. "And better than being named after a destructive goddess like Kali, I suppose."
"You mean, with all the death and blood drinking? Yeah. Especially since I'm a vegetarian."
That occasioned a conversation about farmers' markets and food co-ops and Lakshmi's supplier of raw milk. As we left the studio, talking, she snagged from a hook a tote bag emblazoned with "Namaste, bitches!" Hmm, maybe Kali would have been a more appropriate name for her.
"Bella, are you working the homecoming dance on Saturday?" Barbara Goff asked at lunch. The cafeteria was festooned with homemade "Go, Spartans!" banners.
"Um, no. I signed up for the Holiday Hop and the girls' choice dance, neither of which I can believe that I'm saying with a straight face," I answered her without looking up from the SAT guide I was skimming. I was doing a series of (alas, unpaid) after-school prep sessions for my students who were taking the SAT in November. One reason I had volunteered to do it was that I knew the Cullens wouldn't be there – they'd already gotten their perfect scores in the spring – and I could use the time to go over things they'd be bored to tears by, like the SAT-approved past tenses of "sneak" and "lie."
The silence that followed was loaded, and I finally raised my head from the multiple-choice questions to see Bruce Clapp fixing me with a stare. "But you're coming to the game, right?" he asked, the question inflected like a statement.
Angela nudged me, but I already knew the right answer. "Of course," I said unenthusiastically. I hated the slow pace, and the brain damage, and the way football hogged athletic department budgets. But I knew that in Forks, as in Laconia, homecoming was one of the most important events of the year. It looked bad for a teacher to skip it.
"Good," the Clapp said. "Not coming to homecoming is a firing offense."
Oh, there were much worse firing offenses, I thought, my eyes flickering to the Cullen side of the cafeteria.
Still, on Saturday afternoon, I found myself sitting in the bleachers of the Forks High football field with Angela, Mike and Tyler. I was wearing a waterproof hat.
"You know, back home, we would have cancelled on the account of rain," I muttered to Angela, who looked up and smirked before retuning to her texting with her law-student boyfriend.
"Cause you guys are wimps in Arizona," Tyler said.
"At least we're dry wimps," I said, tilting my head so water ran off my hat, and looking around once more, in vain and despite myself, for the Cullen siblings. Apparently their avoidance of sports extended to even watching football.
But everyone else in town seemed to be there, crowding the bleachers: my students, of course; my colleagues, including Jeff Mason and his former child bride and their 5-year-old twins; my landlady, Sharon Stanley, sitting next to her daughter, Jessica; Charlotte Gerandy, whom I worked with at the food pantry at church.
And I saw someone else I knew. "Lakshmi!" I called. My yoga teacher was walking along the field and I waved at her. Tyler and Mike were snickering as she started climbing the stands toward us, for some reason. I would have thought they'd be excited about meeting an attractive, accomplished (and flexible!) woman who lived in their area.
I smiled at Lakshmi as she neared us, carrying her "Namaste, bitches!" bag. "Guys, this is –"
"Lauren," Tyler and Mike said together.
"Hey, Mike, hey Tyler," Lakshmi/Lauren said serenely, before giving me and Angela hugs. She floated down onto the bleacher in front of us and twisted around.
"I take Lakshmi's yoga class in Port Angeles," I told Angela. "You should come with me sometime. But," I directed my words to Lakshmi now, "I didn't realize you were from Forks."
"I don't like to dwell on the past," she said. "But my sister Lindsey is in the homecoming court this year, so I had to come see her."
"Oh, I know Lindsey. She's in my English class."
"And she's in my biology class. She's a smart girl," Angela said, before adding bluntly, "so why in the world is she going out with Justin Stanley?" Justin was doing badly enough in Bio II that Angela was getting pressure from the Clapp about it.
The former Lauren Mallory shrugged. "Beats me. But then, I dated the quarterback when I was in high school too," she said, looking pointedly at Tyler. Huh, maybe that explained why Tyler had such difficulty understanding the whole comma splice concept – too many concussions from being sacked.
"Oh, man, look at those guys," Mike said, staring across the field.
I followed his gaze. The Quileute reservation school's football team didn't have many players, but they made up for quantity with quality. Hulking guys with glossy black hair and bulging bare arms and thighs on the verge of bursting out of their football pants. Bruce Clapp marched to the other side of the field, and gesticulated.
"Are those guys always so big?" I asked Angela.
"No," she said in wonder. "I mean, you pick an opponent for homecoming that you can usually beat, right?"
"Coach must be asking if those guys really are in high school," Tyler said. The Clapp was poking at a clipboard now, and the opposing coach was pointing at various players.
After a long discussion involving the coaches, Bob Banner, someone from the district office and the referee, the game finally started. And the Forks players got mauled. The Wolves were amazingly agile and quick, and by halftime were leading us by 35 points. Justin Stanley looked so downtrodden that I almost felt sorry for him.
As the homecoming court was about to be announced, Justin's cousin the super-successful real-estate agent came up to our row and squealed, "Lauren!" Lakshmi squealed back, and Mike cursed next to me.
"Jessica Stanley. My ruined relationship in Seattle," he answered my mute question.
Angela and Tyler each got new squeals, Mike got a curt nod and I got a wave and a suspicious look at my shoulder alongside Mike's arm. That arm suddenly went around my back and squeezed.
"Jessica, this is –" Mike started, but she cut him off.
"I know Isabella. I showed her the rental house across from my mom." Jessica gave me a thin smile. "How's the place working out for you?"
"The trails are great," I said. I decided that Mike's arm was merely friendly, and if it annoyed Jessica, I didn't care.
There was silence for a moment. "So!" Mike finally said. "Anybody want anything from the concession stand?"
He looked at me but I shook my head. The others were more enthusiastic, and he and Tyler left to procure food and drink.
Jessica and Lakshmi gossiped conspiratorially in front of me about people I didn't know, but it was fascinating to hear how they talked with each other. Lakshmi lost her soothing yogini voice, Jessica her real-estate agent gloss, and they chattered like the teenage classmates they once were, like the girls in my own classes, all rising inflections and Britney Spears vocal fry and the strong "s" of the Pacific Northwest.
"And, I mean? Connor and her broke up and got baaaack together five or six timessss?" Jessica was confiding when Lakshmi leapt to her feet.
"Ooooh, Lindsey! Go, girl!" Lakshmi yelled in a very un-meditative way as her sister was crowned junior queen.
The second half of the game was a repeat of the first, and the Spartans stumbled off the field in shock at the score. It was going to be a fun homecoming dance tonight. What a shame I was missing it.
The next Wednesday proved to be no fun for me. In fact , it proved to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I woke up to find that I'd gotten my period, and my second-favorite method for dealing with the cramps wasn't an option, since I had test prep and dinner with Angela and the guys afterward and thus no time for a run.
My favorite method wasn't an option either, because ever since I acknowledged my moral failings to myself the image of a certain student kept invading my mind and interfering with my efforts to get myself off. I'd never been a, um, visual thinker in this regard, so perhaps "image" wasn't the right word – it was the memory of arms around me for a second, breath on my face, a persuasive voice in my ear.
But whatever it was, it was wrong.
When I arrived at my classroom, there was a stack of thin newspapers outside. I picked it up after I unlocked the door.
Shit, shit, shit. I stared at the article just below The Spartan Spokesman nameplate. "Introducing Isabella Swan" was the headline, and the story itself was equally innocuous, but the photograph with it … fuck me sideways. Ethan Yorkie hadn't gotten that much information out of me, not even the name of my hometown, but he had been enterprising enough to hit the Internet and find the University of Arizona athletic department media guide. So there I was posing in my red and blue Wildcats bra top and running brief, legs and midriff on display.
"Nice picture," said Lars Stevens in first period, with a smirk.
"Nice picture," said Jason Ford in second period. With a smirk.
"Nice picture," chorused Danny Garrett and Billy Warner in third period. With a you-know-what.
"Thanks," I muttered to them all. I had no choice.
"Nice picture," the Clapp boomed as I flung myself into the chair next to Jeff Mason at lunch. "You and I are gonna talk about a cross-country team."
"Cut it out," I growled, because I had a little more choice with him, and turned to Jeff, the teacher who was supposed to be signing off on the contents of The Spokesman. When I was the newspaper editor at my high school, I had been all for a free student press, but right now I could see the virtues of a little more censorship. "Why did you allow that photo in the paper?" I demanded.
He finished chewing his bite of turkey sandwich before answering. "What's wrong with it?" he asked.
"What's wrong with it," I said flatly as Jeff looked around at the women at the table, all regarding him with narrowed eyes.
"Well, yeah –"
"You of all people should know that answer to that," Barbara Goff said, "Mr. I-Married-a-Student."
"Hey, that's not fair –"
"Okay, how about this," Natalie Marshall said, waving around a fork with a piece of lettuce speared on it. "You were on the swim team in college. How would you have felt if you saw a picture of yourself in your Speedo in the paper just after you'd arrived?"
"That's different –"
"Because Bella's a woman, and so it's okay to look at her as an object?" Barbara said, going old-school. Jeff made a dismissive motion at that, but I gave her a thumbs-up.
"If I had put a picture of you in a Speedo in The Spokesman, 95 percent of the girls in my class would have had a crush on you, instead of just half," Angela observed.
"Not 100 percent?" he asked, clueless.
Angela gave him a dirty look. "I never would have had a crush on you, Speedo or no Speedo," she said tartly. "The point is, Bella's going to have to deal with something like that."
"Okay, okay!" Jeff finally said, lifting his hands in surrender. "I'll know better next time!"
"The harm is done now," I grumbled.
Indeed it was. In sixth period, I could have sworn that Edward Cullen was glaring at me as if I had deliberately put that photo of me on the front page of the newspaper just to harass him. It's not all about you, buddy, I wanted to tell him. But sometimes I wondered if it actually was.
"Hey, you didn't tell me that your dad was a cop," Tyler said when I met him, Angela and Mike at the diner after test prep.
"My God, the school paper gets around that much?" I asked, appalled.
Tyler smirked and said, "Nice picture, by the way."
I finally got to say the words I'd been longing to say all day. "Fuck you," I said vehemently, and Tyler and Mike collapsed into laughter.
When I got home at last, I called Raquel, ready to rant about my cramps, the photograph and the lack of blackberry cobbler at the diner that night – everything except my shameful secret obsession.
She listened and made the sympathetic noises that women make, then asked, "Are you getting caught up on your work? You've got your lesson plans and stuff?"
"It never ends, but yeah, I've got more of a handle on it now. Why?"
"You sound so down. And I have the perfect antidote for you. You're going to come and spend a weekend with me –" I started to demur, but she steamrollered on "- because I'm in a show, and you can be my date for the vernissage." She put on a goofily exaggerated accent for the pretentious word for opening, and I smiled, happy for her but unsurprised. She had made friends with a group of recent Udub art grads who shared connections and studios, so I figured that sooner or later an opportunity like this would come up for her.
"That's great, a show! Will there be wine at this vernissage?" I asked.
"Wine and cute arty guys. A couple of them play in bands, too," she said, wheedling, knowing my weakness.
"Then I'm in," I said, looking forward to it. Maybe Seattle and some arty musicians was just what I needed. "Should I bring your project paintings back?"
"Nah. It's a group show, so there's limited space, and the girl who's being the curator has already made her picks from what I have here. Just bring yourself, and you know, that sexy Civic of yours because there's a race I have an eye on, and we'll need it to get there."
"A park outside Seattle called Cougar Mountain."
Cougar Mountain. How fitting, I thought sourly.
Still, once we talked logistics and made plans, I got off the phone feeling more cheerful than I had in weeks.
I'd avoided the homecoming dance, but on parent-teacher conference night I had a full dance card. I barely had time to keep the coffee pot full on the snacks table in Building 3 (a job I got thanks to my lack of seniority) between parents.
Still, it was good to get some insight into my students. Gracie Alvarez's mother brought me a tray of tamales, and became more animated when she realized she could speak Spanish to me. Mrs. Alvarez supported her family by cutting salal branches in the forest and selling them to florists – a couple of times on my runs, I had seen groups of harvesters with their loads of greenery – and Gracie was responsible for taking care of her five younger siblings and a flock of chickens.
I encouraged Mrs. Alvarez to think about college for her gifted daughter, who would be a catch for a school with a healthy endowment and a need for diversity, but she seemed doubtful. I started to push harder, but then realized what Mrs. Alvarez wasn't telling me explicitly: she didn't have papers, and Gracie might not either. I made a note to ask the guidance counselor what could be done.
And I learned about people other than the kids in my classes.
Linda Mallory, for instance, ended up talking as much about Lakshmi my teacher as about Lindsey my student.
"Lauren wanted to become a model, so she wasn't interested in college," Linda Mallory said. "Then she got this bizarre haircut and dye job, and she ended up losing her money to some con artist, and everyone laughed about it. And then she got into some sort of yoga nonsense –"
"I know," I told her. "I take her class. It's very good."
"Is it?" her mother said dubiously. "I just don't see how it's a job."
Yes, I could see why Lakshmi didn't want to hang out in Forks.
Sharon Stanley popped her head in while I was with Eliza Teague's mom to say breezily, "Hi, Isabella, I know you'll take care of Justin!"
"Wait!" I called after her, but she was gone. That was unfortunate, because Justin wasn't exactly shining in class. Like Angela, I was getting some pressure from the Clapp about his quarterback's grades. I shook my head and turned my attention back to Mrs. Teague, who had come after her shift at the casino in Port Angeles. As her daughter did sometimes, she looked exhausted. And haunted.
It was my last meeting of the night that lingered in my mind, though. A couple - a blond man, an equally gorgeous brunette woman, decades younger than my other parents – appeared at the door as I was finishing up with Mrs. Teague. Alice and Edward's adoptive parents, I realized … adoptive and yet such a resemblance, even the same hazel eyes.
Mrs. Teague gasped a bit at the sight of them, and skirted them warily as she left my classroom, as if proximity to so much beauty would burn her. As for me, I was old enough to be comfortable with how I looked - I had good skin and hair, and my legs could pedal me up a hill and carry me over a log in the trail – but seeing Dr. and Mrs. Cullen made me feel like an awkward teenager again. Then they both smiled at me and I forgot my discomfort.
"Carlisle Cullen," the blond man said, putting his coffee on a desk and shaking my hand. His grip was warm and pleasantly firm.
"And I'm Esme," the woman next to him said, handing her cup to her husband and taking my hand in turn.
"Bella Swan, how do you do?" I said automatically, waving toward a cluster of chairs. "Come have a seat."
"Alice has said so much about you. She really likes —" Dr. Cullen said as we sat down, me with my sheaf of Alice and Edward papers, but I mindlessly interrupted him.
"You're English," I said, surprised. This gossipy town hadn't mentioned that.
"Indeed, but most people don't notice," he said. Probably because they're too busy gawking at your pretty face, I thought. "What gave me away?"
"The way you say your name. Rounded vowels, and you're nonrhotic. I mean –"
"I don't say my R's? That is a very English thing to do," he agreed. "So who are you, Professor Higgins?"
I flicked through my papers in a nervous gesture. "You mean, can I tell that you grew up in Knightsbridge with a Welsh nanny? No, not at all. I've studied only American accents, and only a little."
"Oh, can you hear mine?" Esme asked.
I grimaced at being put on the spot. "Maybe," I said hesitantly, "if you talk more."
"What should I say?"
"Um, just talk about your day yesterday. You know, what you had for breakfast and dinner, say."
She looked taken aback, and I wondered if my question was somehow inappropriate. Maybe she had an eating disorder?
But no, Carlisle prompted her, "Pancakes?" and she laughed a little.
"That's right, thank you," she said. "We had pancakes before school, with maple syrup. And bacon. Then Carlisle came home from his shift at the hospital –" she looked at him slyly "—and we had a nap. We didn't have lunch, but we did have dinner after the children came home, some venison and some –"
"Wait, there's a butcher around here who sells venison?" I asked, rudely interrupting again. Venison! Hormone-free, and local.
"Ah, no," Carlisle answered. "We hunt it ourselves."
"Oh," I said, disappointed, and trying to picture this elegantly dressed couple out in the forest with rifles and reflective orange vests. I failed.
"So, what do you think?" Esme said. "About my accent."
"Um, someplace in the Midwest, but outside the Northern cities vowel shift." Esme stared at me blankly, and I remembered that, well, no, not many people knew about the changes in the short "a" in the Inland North dialect region.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to go all linguistics geek on you –" I started, but Esme stopped me. "No, it's just that your guess is very good. I'm from Columbus, which is outside the vowel shift's range. And besides, it's been a while since I lived in Ohio. We tend to move around."
"Perhaps you know that all our children were adopted, and they're from different parts of the States. What would be your guess for Alice?" Carlisle asked, before lifting his coffee cup to his lips. I noticed him wincing.
"Oh, don't feel obliged to drink that," I told him. "The coffeemaker has been acting up tonight. So, Alice. She's really interesting – sometimes she makes me think of this old recording of Eudora Welty we listened to in class, the way she softens her Rs. Did she spend some time in the Deep South? She doesn't really have much of a Southern accent …"
"She was born in St. Louis, but I believe she lived in Jackson at some point," Carlisle said, nodding, his cup back on the desk. "What about Edward?"
Like the boy himself, I found myself staring down at my desk, blood rising in my cheeks. Had he complained about me to them? They gave no evidence of being upset, so perhaps he hadn't. At least I could ask them what I wanted to know without being accused of harassment. I took a breath and looked at his parents.
"Um, I couldn't tell you; he doesn't talk enough for me to hear anything," I said, though that wasn't quite true – it was more that our few conversations had been too fraught for me to notice his accent. "And that brings me to a question. Is there something about him I should know? He seems uncomfortable in class. Has he mentioned anything that would make being here easier for him? A different desk? Is there a noise that bothers him, or a smell? Am I doing something that disturbs him?" Jeez, I was starting to babble in my eagerness.
Esme and Carlisle exchanged a glance. "I don't believe you're doing anything wrong," Carlisle said. "Of course, seniors often are under a lot of stress, thinking about college…"
"Where are he and Alice thinking of going to college?" I asked.
"Alice will go to the University of Washington," Carlisle said casually.
I looked at him and Esme in consternation. "Why?"
"It's close by, and our other children are there," he said.
"But she could go anywhere, based on what I see. She just handed in this amazing essay quoting Lévi-Strauss and Lacan," I said, thrusting the paper at them, my voice sharper than was wise. I was becoming angry on Alice's behalf. Maybe she was totally bullshitting me, but a student who knew enough to namedrop a couple of French literary theorists belonged at Stanford or Yale or Oxford, and they were forcing her to stay at home.
The Cullens shared another look. "I think we can all agree on Alice's brilliance," Esme said. "But she wants to be close to us. When you've lost your parents, been in foster care, that can be important to you."
"I guess," I said reluctantly, trying to push down the anger splashing like acid in my throat. Renee's death hadn't made me want to be close to Charlie, but he had made sure that I had no other choice.
I didn't get a chance to ask about Edward, because the bell rang, signaling the end to parent-teacher conference night. The Cullens rose in response and over their shoulder I saw Angela. She was gaping as Esme and Carlisle said their goodbyes and nodded politely to her.
"The Cullens never come to these things," Angela said after they left. "You should feel honored."
"Really?" I was surprised, since it was my experience that parents of good students always attended conferences. "You mean they didn't go see Jerry?" Jerry Richardson taught the physics class that Alice and Edward would be taking as seniors.
"I don't think they did. And you got a chance to ogle Dr. Carlisle. He's astonishingly good-looking."
"And married," I reminded her.
She shrugged. "Sure, but he's our age, or close enough. You don't have to feel creepy about finding him astonishingly good-looking."
"Ange, do you have the same crush that Shelley Cope has on the Cullen boys?" I made my voice teasing, but the thought made something twist in my chest.
She grinned, a little sheepish. "Nah, but actually, you've never met Alice's boyfriend, Jasper, right? Tall, blond, hot in a kinda scary way. He always reminded me of a tiger in a cage. Fun to look at if you're not worried about being chomped on."
She was joking, but my own crush, I worried, was all too serious.
Chapter title: "Welcome to life in limbo" from "Karibu Ya Bintou" by Baloji.
A/N: Yeah, Bella dabbles in linguistics. If you want to read a Bella who's an accomplished linguist, callmepagliacci's "Bullet From Chekhov's Gun" has just that, and a British Spyward. It's on my favorites list.
Vocal fry is the sort of guttural sound Britney Spears makes in her first hit song. The Northern cities vowel shift is also a real thing. I have links about both on my profile page.
As for tubal ligations, the reaction Bella gets to seeking one seems to be surprisingly common, at least based on anecdotes I've heard from young, white women - even though it's the second-most common birth control method in the U.S. Myself, I'm Team Diaphragm: cheap, safe, effective. Almost nobody uses it anymore, though.
And as always, thanks for reviewing!