Acknowledgement: A bucketload of thanks to the ever-fabulous HollettLA, whose genius goes far deeper than just curing me of my love affair with semicolons.
And thank you to all of you for reading this, despite the heavy. xo
"If you dream of me
Like I dream of you,
In a place that's warm and dark,
In a place where I can feel the beating of your heart.
Your warm embrace,
I'll find my way back to you
If you'll be waiting."
(Tracy Chapman, "The Promise")
. . .
01/21/01 – 10:30 p.m.
I met a girl today. Well, not entirely true: I met her a few weeks ago. But today, it occurred to me that she might turn out to be somebody in my story.
So much of your advice was turning over in my head when I met Allie, and it was the first time I even cared enough to make an effort. But the thing with Allie was hopeless right from the start, which, as it turns out, was probably for the best.
We never think we're ready, and as it turns out, we're usually right. For the first time, though, I feel ready. I feel like I could be who Bella – that's the girl – needs me to be, and for the first time, I want to be. Caroline's the only person I've ever felt responsible to, ever wanted to be responsible to, but there's already something in me that wants to be that person for Bella, too. That's got to mean something, doesn't it? When we choose to be accountable for somebody's happiness? I'm kind of hoping she'll put me in charge of hers.
And, if she does, I'm kind of hoping I don't fuck it up.
. . .
The house that becomes Bella's home in the Catskills in the summer of 2002 is a small, yellow, bungalow-style house with a large back deck and a tall row of evergreen trees along the right-hand perimeter of the backyard. There's a flowering apple tree in the neighbor's yard that hangs over the fence; she can see the blooms through her bedroom window, hear the birds that rustle their wings amid the branches early in the morning. Two Adirondack chairs face the mountain that rises behind the house like a sentinel and behind which the sun slips each evening. A wind chime hangs from the eave at the corner of the house, and Bella learns early on that its light, tinkling noise is often enough to soothe her infant daughter's cries when she cradles her just inside the screen door. There's a small hook just outside the window over the sink that holds a birdfeeder in the winter and a hummingbird feeder in the spring and summer.
The children's book that Tyler and Caroline had written just a year earlier was, in fact, published, and in the wake of the tragedy, it became an instant success. The royalties from its sales were astonishing, and Charles split them evenly into a trust for Caroline's education and a savings account for Bella and her daughter. The purchase of the small house was largely possible because of its success, and Bella tried to see it for what it was: Tyler providing for his family the way he had so desperately wanted to – desperately enough to take the meeting with his father that wound up costing him his life.
It isn't until the fall that Bella sees Tyler in the colors around her: his copper-colored hair in the changing leaves, his blue-green eyes in the evergreens that maintain their needles through the winter. It's oddly comforting at the same time it makes the hollow in her feel deeper, makes him feel closer and present at the same time it only serves to highlight his absence.
Occasionally, she lets herself think about the Edward of it all – his reappearance, his heroism, his subsequent disappearance. She tries to feel something, anything, about the role he played on the darkest day of her life, but she finds it's like scar tissue: slightly numb to soft touch, and she isn't willing to or interested in trying to reopen the wound simply out of curiosity. She spends so much time actively not thinking about the horrors of that day that it's easier than she would have thought to push Edward from her memory, to relegate him to the background character he'd become by the time she was well and truly in love with Tyler. Thinking of him in the context of Forks is even more foreign, even farther away. She feels so utterly different now from the girl she was in high school that to look back, to reminisce, makes her feel as though she's wading through someone else's memories. Some days her ability to compartmentalize Edward surprises her, but it's something for which she decides simply to be grateful.
By winter, she has found her routine: online classes toward a degree in marketing, occasional freelance writing assignments for local travel brochures, and hours upon hours of soaking up her daughter's presence as if it's the only remedy for her broken heart. Christmas comes and goes with Charlie for company; in January, Jacob arrives.
. . .
The wind has died down enough that Bella's willing to let her daughter bounce around in her jumper atop the snow-covered ground while she shovels the driveway, but she keeps an eye on Skyler's pink cheeks, watching for any indication that the cold is too much. The sun is bright, the sky is blue, and the fresh blanket of snow around the house glitters like a spray of diamonds, making the world seem magical.
Her arms and shoulders and lower back ache with the exertion of shoveling, but she likes the hard work, the way her breath puffs silver in front of her, how she can hear the pounding of her heart behind her ears. There's something to be said for manual labor; sometimes, it's the only way to make the constant spinning of her brain slow down.
"Hey there, Skybug," she says, bending at the waist to pull one of the baby's purple mittens from her chubby hand. Snagging her own glove in her teeth, she grasps her daughter's bare fingers in her own for a moment before grinning. "Toasty warm. You okay out here?"
The baby gurgles happily, chubby little snowsuit-encased legs bouncing with renewed gusto as Bella wrestles the mitten back onto her fingers, and just as she's sliding her own glove back on, she hears the crunch of tires on snow. Looking up, her eyes widen as she recognizes her old truck pulling into her driveway beside her secondhand Subaru. When her old friend slides out of the driver's seat, broader and taller than she remembered, she's frozen for the space of a breath, the sudden fear of further loss freezing her where she stands.
She swallows. "Is everything…is Charlie…?" Unable to continue, she trails off, and Jacob shakes his head quickly.
"Everything's fine. Charlie's fine." When he gives her his familiar smile – comforting, friendly, home – she crosses the few snowy steps between them to throw her arms around his neck. He lifts her in a bear hug, her booted toes knocking him in the shins, and she laughs lowly as he returns her to the ground.
"What are you doing here?"
He shrugs. "Thought it was about time I met your kid," he replies, glancing past her to where the baby is still jumping, relatively unimpressed by the visitor's arrival. "When it became clear you weren't coming back to Forks anytime soon, I figured I'd head this way."
Bella lets her surprise show on her face. "You could have called. Or, I don't know, taken a plane instead of driving that thing 3,000 miles."
Another shrug. "It's running just fine. I've been keeping an eye on it. Thought it might come in handy in the winter." He eyes her hatchback with skepticism but says nothing.
"Okay. Well…want some coffee or something?" When he wrinkles his nose, she laughs; she had forgotten his dislike of the stuff. "Or cocoa?"
She retrieves Skyler from the bouncer and makes her way back into the house, stomping her boots on the stone path leading to the back door and kicking them off inside the garage. When she steps inside the warm house, she sits the baby down and pulls off the purple puffy snowsuit, the too-big mittens, the comically bulky winter hat before slipping out of her own coat and gloves.
By the time they're sitting at the kitchen table with mugs of steaming cocoa between them, Skyler trying to fish dry Cheerios from a small plastic bowl with her chubby fingers, Bella cocks an eyebrow at him. "So?"
He shifts in her small wooden dining chair, and the familiarity of it strikes her: he'd never looked completely comfortable indoors. Jake always belonged outside, even before he phased and became a hulking man-wolf. The chair, the table, the room all seem to be holding him in, and his large hands make the mug clasped between them look comically small. "So, what?"
"The real reason you drove across the country without so much as a heads-up. Was it just to check on us?" She wouldn't put it past Charlie, who has been offering for weeks to make another trip out, even though he had just been there for Christmas. Jacob shakes his head, but there's guilt swimming in his dark eyes, and Bella can tell that he knows he's busted.
"I was looking for a change of scenery," he admits finally, and Bella shrugs.
"Well, why didn't you just say so? You're always welcome to visit."
"A more permanent change of scenery than a visit," he clarifies, and she feels the frown pulling at her forehead.
"I'm not sure I follow."
"I need to get out of Forks. There's nothing…there. And your dad hasn't stopped worrying about you since last September – well, since you left for college, really, but it's more now – and I was thinking maybe I could help."
Bella shakes her head, still unable to fit the puzzle pieces together.
"I'm moving here. I want to be here for you, for your daughter. I've missed your friendship, and I know you've been through hell, and I can understand why you don't want to go back to Forks. But I also know what you're like: when shit happens, you shut yourself off from people. You want to get through it alone, deal with it alone, and that's respectable, but you need friends."
"I have friends," she argues, feeling mildly insulted.
"Here? Where you live?"
Bella presses her lips together; Kelsey and Aidan are her best friends, but they're still in the city, and every time they've asked to come visit, to see Skyler, to see her house, she's turned them down. She isn't ready to have them in her space, such concrete reminders of a not-long-gone time when her life looked so very different. So very happy. She also isn't ready to see them still in love, still together, still enjoying what she lost more than a year ago but still can't let go.
"Bells, I'm doing this for you, but for me, too. I need a change. You could use a hand, not that you're not doing an amazing job here by yourself, but…" He trails off for a few beats before shrugging. "Would it really be so terrible?"
She's feeling railroaded, and she shakes her head, trying to find her bearings. "What would you do, though?"
"I'll find a job. Mechanic, handyman, whatever. And I'll find a place nearby, unless you're looking for a roommate." He grins, trying to put her at ease, but she surprises herself as the images pop up in her brain.
Selfishly, she allows herself a minute to imagine it: having someone to talk to in the evenings after Skyler is asleep; having a friend to have coffee with, or watch movies with; having a roommate to call on when she runs out of toilet paper or diapers or milk. But then she remembers months of Jacob's wounded, hangdog expression, months of guilt at her inability or unwillingness to give him what he wasn't afraid to admit he wanted, and her happy little bubble of imagining bursts.
She curls her hands around the still-full mug in front of her that isn't quite as hot as it was seemingly moments ago. "Here's the thing, Jake. I gave my girl's heart to Edward, and I gave my woman's heart to Tyler. I don't have another heart left to give."
He shakes his head quickly. "Bells, I'm not asking you to fall in love with me. I just want to help you because you're my best friend and I love you. That's it."
"You're asking me to be okay with hurting you over and over again? You're sentencing me to a lifetime of guilt."
He holds up a hand. "You can't feel guilty for my choice. You can choose to say no, but if you say yes, you don't get to feel guilty for the choice I'm making. Doesn't work that way."
"What about the pack?"
He shrugs. "No one has phased or changed in two years." His voice lowers. "They never came back, Bella. I don't think they ever will." He reaches across the table to place his warm hand atop hers. "The pack doesn't need me now." What he doesn't say falls heavily in the space between them, and when she doesn't reply, he sighs. "I'll make you a deal. If I imprint on someone, I'm out. If not, I'm here."
Bella's mind flashes back to his explanation of the phenomenon of imprinting, and a horrible possibility suddenly occurs to her. "Jacob, let me make something perfectly clear. If you imprint on my daughter, I will run so far and so fast from you that you will never, ever find us. Do you understand me?"
She's never spoken to Jake in quite this tone, and she registers the surprise in his face. "Yes," he says softly. "Bella, I'll take care of you. I'll help you take care of your daughter. I'll be good to both of you, and I won't ask you for anything except to share your life with me. You don't need to love me, you don't need to marry me, you don't ever have to kiss me. I just want to be here. To be part of your life. To be your friend."
She stares into his dark, earnest eyes and sees nothing but truth, nothing but the friendship she has already counted on too many times to number. She sees nothing of the romantic, lovestruck teenager he had been, and everything of the friend, the man he has become. "I do love you," she says, the unspoken "but" clear in what she doesn't.
"I know," he says, acknowledgement of the spoken and the unspoken.
Bella nods, and she hears Charlie's words from years ago: Sometimes, Bells, you've gotta learn to love what's good for you.
"Okay," she says finally, feeling guilty and greedy and relieved all at the same time.
"Okay," he echoes, placing a reassuring hand on her forearm, and despite her misgivings, her uncertainty, the warmth of his skin seeps through her flannel shirt and soothes an ache of loneliness she hadn't known she felt.
In the months that follow, they fall into an easy kind of camaraderie, a comfortable domesticity that is no more complicated than a typical roommate relationship, and Bella finds that she relishes his company, his easy friendship. Jacob takes to Skyler like an adoring uncle, careful not to step on Tyler's memory or otherwise try to be a substitute father. He gets a seasonal job as a mechanic at the nearby ski resort, moves his small collection of belongings into one of the two spare rooms of Bella's small house, and, when he's not working, sets about fixing all of the tiny little things around the house that Bella hadn't even noticed needed fixing.
She's willing to admit to a bigger truth: that while there are parts of her that will never be fixed, he's managing to heal the ones that can, and as when she was seventeen, she finds herself so grateful for his unwavering friendship that some days she thinks she could cry.
It is a quieter, more subdued life than Bella might have once imagined, but she finds something resembling peace in the routine, joy in the simple reality of her daughter, comfort in the steady presence of Jacob.
The intermittent visits from Charles, Diane, Les, Caroline are as welcome as they are painful: picking out Tyler's smile, his eyes, his nose, his chin in the faces of his family members; the parade of memories that march through her mind whenever they're around, of dinners and art exhibits and beachfront vacations that seem suddenly so distant, so remote. She is far more comfortable with the phone calls from Diane to check in, the letters that they trade with photos of Skyler enclosed, and she tries not to feel like a coward for her inability to separate the ache of missing Tyler from the desire of his family to hold on to her, and to Tyler's daughter.
At least once a week, Bella straps Skyler into her infant carrier and drives to the next town over, to the coffee shop Tyler had taken her to on her first trip to the Catskills. She doesn't generally like the pitying looks she gets from people who know her story, but there's something familiar about the old lady who owns the small shop and her obvious affection for Tyler that keeps Bella coming back. She coos over the baby and never fails to remark on the similarities between father and daughter, and while the first time it had felt like a sucker-punch, now Bella finds the conversations comforting, finds consolation in someone else's memories of the boy she loves.
She surrounds herself with the things of Tyler's she can handle: his journal in the bedside table, photos on her desk and on the fridge, a framed picture in Skyler's nursery. A copy of Tyler and Caroline's book sits nestled in Skyler's bookshelf between Town Mouse, Country Mouse and Goodnight Moon, the pages already dog-eared. The subway token stays around her neck, and she doesn't take it off. Ever.
And she carries on.
. . .
When Skyler is five, no toy in her overflowing toy box can compare with the simple, unadulterated joy of her own backyard. The lawn slopes gently downward, and she rolls down it with reckless abandon while their golden retriever, Fred, barks and jumps and runs around her in circles, long pink tongue lolling and tail wagging frantically. When she reaches the bottom, clothes covered in grass and hair a mess, she lies still for barely a moment to catch her breath before bounding back up the hill, the dog hot on her heels.
Bella watches with a small smile on her face, the glass of lemonade sitting on the armrest of her Adirondack chair sweating in the early summer sun. "Last time!" she calls, and Skyler pauses before launching herself down the hill again.
"Five more," she barters, and Bella holds up three fingers.
"Okay," her daughter grumbles, but her shrieks of laughter ring out again as she throws herself back down the hill. Bella's eyes return to the letter in her hand.
"Anything good?" Jake asks, lifting the can of soda to his lips as he flips the burger patties on the grill, and Bella nods without looking up.
"Caroline is going to the Sorbonne."
"It's…an art school in Paris."
Bella feels a familiar tug low in her chest: Tyler would have been so proud. "Yeah. Wow." She finds it hard to believe that the eleven-year-old with a slight lisp and a serious case of hero worship for her older brother is a seventeen-year-old girl headed for college in Europe. She still has the drawing of Tyler that Caroline had given her all those years ago framed in the short hallway between her bedroom door and Skyler's, and an oil-pastel sketch of baby Skyler in a small white frame beside her bedroom mirror. She tries not to feel guilty at the fact that she hasn't actually seen Caroline in over three years, but it's there all the same. She looks up again, watching Jake press the flat bottom of his spatula to the patties, and she's struck by the memory of Tyler doing the same thing, the ocean a soft roar in the background, the skin of her nose and cheeks and shoulders tight with sunburn. Closing her eyes, she lets the memories wash over her for a moment like tidal waves: the smell of burgers against the salty sea air, the sound of the sizzle beneath the sounds of the surf, the blue-green eyes the same hue as the water beyond them.
Bella cracks her eyes open, glancing at Jake before finding Skyler, who is halfway down the hill again. "Yeah. Just…relaxed."
"What time are they supposed to be here?"
She checks her watch. "Soon. They left the city at around two-thirty, so…probably pretty soon."
"Okay. Because these are going to be done soon." Jake flips another burger. "Maybe I should have waited—" But his words are cut off by the sound of tires on gravel, and Bella pushes herself upright from her chair. Stepping into the cool house, she deposits her glass on the countertop before moving to the front of the house and out through the front door. Kelsey is just slipping out from the passenger door of a Neon, a brightly-colored floral sundress wafting around her knees and a pair of oversized sunglasses perched on her small nose. When she spies Bella, a familiar grin stretches across her face.
Before she's aware of it, Bella is in her arms, the two hugging as if it's been years since they've seen each other instead of ten months. "I missed your skinny ass!" Kelsey half-yells into her ear, and Bella laughs in the familiar circle of her friend's arms, surprised at how comforted she is by the embrace.
"I missed your skinny ass," she mumbles back, hugging Kelsey once more before stepping back. A collection of rainbow-colored beaded bracelets creeps up Kelsey's forearm, and large earrings with what appear to be pieces of sea glass dangle from her earlobes. "How was the drive?"
"Fine, once we got off the Turnpike," Aidan replies, rounding the car and coming to a stop beside Kelsey. "Hey, Bella."
"Hey," she says, leaning in for a hug. She can feel the bulky muscle beneath his cotton t-shirt that she still hasn't quite gotten used to, even though he's been a firefighter for four years now. Despite his stature, the FDNY t-shirt, the quiet sense of debt that seemed to appear in the months after that September, she still imagines him as Tyler's goofy, rarely-serious roommate whenever she thinks of him. Each time she sees him in the flesh, she finds that it takes her a moment to readjust to the reality. "Come on in. Do you have bags?"
"Just one," Aidan says, opening the back door of the car and pulling out a small duffel. "I got it."
Bella leads them inside, getting Kelsey a glass of lemonade as Aidan slips through the screen door and onto the back porch. "Oh, my God," Kelsey says, peering through the window over the sink. "Look how big she is."
"I know," Bella says, cracking ice cubes out of the ice tray and into Kelsey's glass. "I swear, every morning I put another pair of jeans on her and they're up around her ankles."
Kelsey shakes her head, a small smile playing about her mouth. "She's so gorgeous, Bella."
Kelsey turns and props her hip against the edge of the counter, accepting the glass of lemonade and eyeing her friend for a moment before glancing around the kitchen. When she half-smiles, Bella follows her gaze to the vase of drooping daisies on top of the small bookcase that holds her cookbooks and a stash of Skyler's coloring books. "We should have brought you some fresh flowers," Kelsey muses, and Bella shrugs, spotting the wilting blooms.
"Yeah. I never throw them away until they're well and truly dead. It drives Jacob crazy." She half-smiles; his constant grumbling about the shower of flower petals that accumulate around the base of the vase, the faintly depressing image of withering flowers, the slimy stems is something she's gotten used to, even if she's never admitted the truth: that she simply can't find it in her to throw something in the garbage if it has even the tiniest bit of life still in it.
"So how are you?" Time and distance had almost made Bella forget her friend's tendency to cut right to the heart of the matter, and she nods as she takes a sip from her own glass.
"I'm good. We're good."
"You look good." Bella smiles, watching Skyler hurl herself down the hill once more. "And Jake still looks good."
"Uh-huh." Bella doesn't take the bait that Kelsey has dangled before her on numerous previous occasions; this time, however, her friend's voice lowers and takes on a more serious note.
"It would be okay, you know." When she pulls her gaze from the window and focuses on Kelsey's face, she's struck by the earnestness in her eyes. Over the years, she's grown used to the varying looks people fix on her: pity, apology, sympathy. Kelsey's has always been a combination of all of those things, buried beneath a thick layer of protectiveness. When Bella doesn't respond, Kelsey clarifies. "If you and Jake did…get together. It would be okay."
"It's not like that with Jake," she says, a line she's delivered countless times to countless well-meaning people: Kelsey, Aidan, Charlie, Renee. Caroline. Diane, of all people. People who love her, people who encourage her to move on. People who loved Tyler, too, but somehow don't seem to understand how no one else could ever possibly be enough. That anyone else would be settling, and Bella doesn't see the point.
"Well, it would be okay if it were like that with someone else, too."
Bella's gaze lowers from Kelsey's searching eyes, landing on the handmade pendant hanging around her neck, created from a fragment of floral china. It's one of Bella's favorite things about her friend: her ability to make beautiful things out of broken ones. "Kels."
"I'm just saying."
"I know." To counteract the abruptness of her reply, she gives her friend a smile. "Shall we go make sure they're not turning the burgers into hockey pucks?"
Kelsey returns the smile, but the sharp look in her eyes tells Bella that while the subject may be tabled, it hasn't been shelved indefinitely. As they make their way outside, Bella breathes in the scent of the grill against the backdrop of freshly cut grass, eyes finding Skyler, who is once again halfway down the hill. She feels Kelsey hovering near her elbow, following her gaze out over the yard.
"We let her do it before dinner so that she's less tempted to do it after," she explains, watching as her daughter's small body comes to a rest at the bottom of the hill, her chest heaving with deep breaths and hair a torrent around her head. "Dinner is a lot less appetizing when you see it in reverse."
Kelsey's nose wrinkles, but she's smiling. "She still looks so much like him."
Bella nods. "I know." The first few times Kelsey and Aidan visited, they tiptoed around Tyler's name, around any mention of him, walking the tightrope of trying to handle the bereaved without deepening the wounds. Over time, though, Bella found that it was a relief to talk about him, to remember him with people who knew and loved him, to laugh over memories – even if the laughter was often laughter through tears. If memories are all she'll ever have left of Tyler, she's determined not to hide from them.
After much convincing, Aidan was the one who accompanied her when she made the trip to get Tyler's name inked on the skin beside her heart, along her ribs. When they walked out of the tattoo parlor, he had a matching mark on his bicep.
Now, she's vaguely aware of Kelsey looping her arm through her elbow as the two stand, watching her daughter – Tyler's daughter – spin and roll and giggle beneath a sky fading gradually toward twilight.
That night, she reads her daughter's two favorite bedtime stories – Town Mouse, Country Mouse and The Not-So-Invisible Friend – and wraps the cloak of memory around her, Tyler's every feature woven into its patchwork threads.
. . .
When Skyler is seven, she asks for the first time about the somewhat undefined nature of Bella and Jacob's relationship. It's a conversation Bella had imagined having a hundred different times in a thousand different words, but when the question actually falls from her daughter's mouth, she feels momentarily adrift before finding her bearings.
"Baby, sometimes families have a mommy and a daddy and a bunch of brothers and sisters who are all related. That's a traditional family. But not all families are like that; some have stepdads or stepmoms or stepsiblings or half-siblings or adopted siblings or two moms or two dads. Families are all different, and no one type of family is any better than another." Here, she pauses, curling her arm around her daughter's bicep to bring her closer. "But you want to know a secret?"
"I think those other kinds of families with the stepmoms or honorary daddies are the most special."
She smiles. "Because the honorary daddies and the stepmoms have to choose the family. Just like Jake chose us, baby. He doesn't have to be here, but he wants to. And I think that makes him – and us – pretty special."
Not too long thereafter, the conversation takes a more concrete turn after Skyler has her first sleepover and returns home wondering why Abby's parents sleep in the same bed while Bella and Jake sleep in separate rooms. "Okay," Bella says, lowering the salad spinner to the counter. "Well, there are all different types of love." Skyler scrunches up her nose, and Bella wonders if she's lost her already.
"Right. Like, there's romantic love, which Abby's parents have, and which a lot of parents have. Then there's friendship love, which is what Jake and I have. Then there's family love, like the way I feel for you and the way you feel for me and Jake, and the way we all feel for Grandpa Charlie." Bella can see the wheels turning behind Skyler's blue-green eyes as she attempts to assimilate all of this new information.
"So…romantic love means you sleep in the same bed?"
"What the hell?" Jake's voice asks from the doorway, and Bella spins to see him staring between them, dark eyes wide.
"Hi, Jake. Just having a little mother-daughter chat," Bella greets, and he nods before turning and vanishing from the room.
"Have fun with that!" he calls, and she hears the door to the garage slam.
She rolls her eyes and turns back to her daughter. "So…does that make sense?"
"I guess so," Skyler says, but she's still frowning as she considers it. "But…how come you and Jake aren't in romantic love?"
Bella sighs and leans forward, propping her elbows on the counter and clasping her daughter's small hands in her own. "Because, baby, I'm still in romantic love with your daddy."
"But he's gone."
At this, Bella nods, even as a pang of familiar longing hits her in the ribs. "He is. But just because the person's gone doesn't mean that how much you love him is gone. Like, Grandpa Charlie lives far away, but that doesn't mean that you don't love him when he's not here, right?"
"Okay. Well, same for me. Just because your daddy's not here doesn't mean I don't still love him."
"But he's been gone for a long time," Skyler says carefully, and Bella nods again.
"Yes. He has."
"So when will you be done loving him?"
Bella is surprised by the sharp stab of pain at the question, at the idea of not loving Tyler anymore, even if he's just a memory. "Never, baby."
"Oh." A small furrow appears between her daughter's eyebrows. "Is Jake ever gonna fall in romantic love with someone?"
Bella tamps down on the selfish little spike of fear that comes when she imagines Jake imprinting, moving out, moving on. "I hope so, Sky," she says, relieved when the words sound – and feel – true. "I hope he does." Because she does – despite everything, how it ended and the mark it left, she hopes that Jake gets that someday. Suddenly, she remembers the quote in the sympathy card Angela sent her after September 11: The pain of grief is the price we pay for love.
It's a big price, she remembers thinking at the time; then, in the years that followed, she realized the correlating truth: it was a big love.
"I hope he does," she says again, and Skyler, evidently satisfied or simply having lost interest, moves on to asking what they're having for dinner.
. . .
When Skyler is eight, Bella's routine exam isn't so routine. She undergoes a barrage of tests, listens to a few expert medical opinions, explains in some detail to Jake and less detail to Skyler. Lets doctors carve out the most feminine parts of her, parts whose biology stopped mattering to her a long time ago, even if she was in her supposed prime. She tries not to feel as though the scalpel of life is simply cutting parts of her away, one slice at a time, her physical scars beginning to rival her emotional ones. Tries not to imagine what will be left when the carving is done.
. . .
When Skyler is nine, she asks about September 11th. About her father. About that blue-sky, infinite-visibility day that started out so pretty, so seemingly perfect. Bella tries her damnedest to tell her the truth without the details, to do justice to the loss without laying truth to the horror. It is the first year that she lets Skyler watch the coverage, the reciting of the victims' names, and she hugs her daughter extra tightly when the woman behind the podium says in her grave, respectful voice, Tyler Keats Hawkins. That March, Bella takes Skyler to the newly-opened memorial; she watches from her perch on one of the cold stone slabs as her daughter, dark hair dancing on the cool breeze, makes her way around the perimeter of the first pool, her small, oval face solemn, a tiny furrow between her thin brows.
"Do you want me to show you?" Bella had asked when they arrived, but her daughter's blue-green eyes fixed steadily on her, so defiant and so uncertain all at once. The look brought a lump of longing to her throat, and she swallowed as Skyler shook her head.
"I want to find it myself."
"Okay." Now, Bella sits, watching the crowd, the slow-moving clouds, the gently swaying bare branches of the sapling trees around her. The almost-completed tower looms before her as the cool spray from the pools mists her face, and she watches as Skyler makes her way around the perimeter of the North Pool, her ocean-colored eyes finding, reading, cataloging each name before moving on to the next. Knowing she still has to make her way halfway around the pool before she'll even be close, Bella lets her eyes fall closed, lets her mind briefly travel back in time to another blue-sky day, the last time she had stood in this part of the city before the city itself stopped being symbolic of her rebirth and started being another reminder of things she had lost.
Even after all these years, a crystalline sky is still the first thing she remembers. That perfect, uninterrupted expanse of bright cornflower blue, cloudless and idyllic, a world-famous cityscape sparkling beneath a crisp Indian summer sun. Today's sky is a similar shade of cerulean, but puffy white clouds sail idly overhead, their reflections sliding along mirrored skyscraper façades.
The soft roar of cascading water is nearly enough to mute the sounds of the city around her: the intermittent rumble of the subway underground, the background roar of traffic like blood through the veins of city streets, the scrapes and clicks of pedestrian traffic. If the nearby trees had leaves, a small breeze rustling them would likely be enough to drown out the urban pulse entirely. As it is, the few leaves that cling to the limbs are brittle and brown, remnants of a fall long past, the branches otherwise starkly barren. The young trees are uniform in size, organized in rows like soldiers awaiting the signal from Mother Nature that the long, harsh winter is over and they can burst back to life.
The only perennial that doesn't seem to belong is a weary warrior to this sentry of enlisted saplings. A twisted knot of metal and rubber embraces its mangled girth to keep it upright, and great, gaping craters dot the trunk where boughs were ripped away. Allegedly, it will bloom in late spring; Bella doubts she'll ever see it flower. Still, despite its scars, its imperfections, she supposes there is consolation to be found in the simple fact of its survival, however dismembered.
She tips her head back and the crisp not-quite-spring sunshine is bright, but not yet warm enough to counteract the chill of cold stone beneath her. Visible through the branches of the rescued tree before her is a pillar of glass that rises into the sky like a sword. A giant mirror echoing the day's idyll, it is a tower of perfection until the top, where a crane hovers and the highest floors remain unfinished, the structure's bones visible from the outside. As she contemplates its incompletion, her eyes refocus on something in the closer distance: a small bird's nest in the uppermost branches of the Callery pear, the wounded soldier tree braced by steel ropes and knots. The Survivor Tree, memorial literature has christened it.
There are no birds in sight, save the ever-present pigeons, but the nest is there, made more obvious by the lack of leaves or blooms on the branches – a clump of debris salvaged and culled and relocated just out of reach. She rises, warm blood rushing to the backs of her thighs as she parts ways with the cold stone, and approaches the gnarled tree, around which a cluster of people stand with cameras and iPhones, snapping pictures and reaching out to touch the places on the tree where limbs have been lost – out of curiosity, grief, sympathy, or voyeurism she can't be sure, but she steps closer to consider the tree without touching it. It isn't until she's standing right beside the silver steel ring that creates a mockery of a barrier around it that she notes the tiny almost-buds peeking out along the surviving branches. Her eyes flick back up to the nest once more before she steps back, absorbing the image of old, damaged tree in foreground, new, shining tower in background. Someone knocks into her shoulder and mutters what sounds like an apology in a language she doesn't understand. She nods, moves on.
Stepping toward the nearest of the two square pools, she can feel the faintest spray on her face, very nearly unnoticeable. Closing her eyes, she lets her hipbones rest against the bronze parapet, breathes in the faintly damp air. When she opens them, a barely-there rainbow appears in the mist cast off by the falling water. The sky is a perfect, robin's egg blue, its brilliance reflected in the gleaming new architecture bordering this now-open space. Mirrored glass reflecting light, reflecting perfect blue skies, reflecting billowing white clouds and bright spring sunshine. Perfect tranquility where there was once chaotic devastation.
Bella squints as she stares upward, the parapet unforgiving against her bony hips, and to either side of her, people reach out and touch engraved names with single fingertips and entire palms. She doesn't touch the name etched in front of her; instead, she brings her palm up to her sternum and presses it flat against the space where her heart beats steadily in her chest beneath wool coat and fleece top and cotton bra before sliding it down and beneath her arm, above xylophone ribs and inked skin. Her face still tipped toward the sky, she closes her eyes and remembers. A perfect blue canvas marred by twin curls of acrid smoke, then a billowing cloud of dust, the everyday sounds of the city yielding to the roar of destruction and pealing screams of terror.
As she stands blind, hand registering only the faintest echo of her own heartbeat, she does what she's made it her life's mission not to do: she looks back.
Then, just as memories of a voice thick with tears over a cell phone speaker, memories of the sky falling, memories of screams and shrieks and dust and debris and devastation begin to replay in her mind, she feels a small hand slide into hers and she opens her eyes. Looking down into twin pools of green-blue, she forces a smile to her face as tears mingle with the faint sheen of spray on her cheeks.
"I found him," Skyler says softly, running her fingertip with its chipped sparkly purple polish over the engraved name.
And it takes everything in Bella not to feel the anguish of the opposite truth: I lost him.
. . .
When Skyler is fifteen, Bella's remission comes to an end. Despite her relatively clean bill of health, she'd had the sneaking suspicion that her reprieve was a temporary pardon, at best. She can't quite shake the notion that she's been escaping external dangers for too long; it seems only fitting that her ultimate adversary would come from inside her. On her darkest of days, she feels as though the disease is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it seems unlikely that someone can have such a deep well of heartache, such a black spot on her heart, and that it wouldn't somehow ultimately manifest itself into something poisonous. Still, she straps on her armor for another battle, even as the truth begins to niggle at the back of her mind in the form of an ugly little question: when is enough enough?
. . .
When Skyler is eighteen, Bella realizes that she's going to die. She's been fighting a losing battle for years, and for the first time, she isn't sure what she's fighting for. Nine years earlier, that answer had been simple and readily available: her daughter, her child, still in need of a mother to get her up and dressed in the morning, pack her lunch, help her with homework, wash her favorite purple sweater until it was coming apart in threads, explain to her that boys who tease usually do it out of something other than spite. At nine, and at twelve, and at fifteen, Skyler still needed a mother for all of the day-to-day things that moms do, and Bella had fought for those things. For the chance to be the one to do them. She fought not to leave her daughter without either one of her parents, regardless of how deeply Jacob might adore her, might think of her as his own.
Now, however, her daughter is hundreds of miles away, starting her own life beyond the reach of Bella's arms, and Bella remembers how, the minute she left Forks for New York City, she stopped being Chief Swan's daughter and started being Bella. There's a sad kind of beauty when a child stops being defined as someone's child, and Bella feels fleetingly, retroactively guilty for running so fast and so far away from Charlie that he was forced by distance, if nothing else, to take a giant step back from her life. Faintly, she wonders if it's different for parents who have partners – if the loneliness of being left, being outgrown, is somehow soothed by being halved.
Regardless, it comes down to that one simple truth: Bella's reason to fight has grown up and moved out and she finds that she's just so, so tired. So tired that she barely has the strength to remain upright on the stool at the counter where she's perched, watching Jacob make dinner. She watches silently, noting the way his muscles shift beneath the cotton of his shirt, the arms that have held her as she wept countless times so oddly capable in her small kitchen. She can admit to still being surprised, even after all these years, at the ease with which he has fit himself into her life, content, as he promised, just to be part of it.
"Jake, you ever think about providence?"
"In Rhode Island?" he asks, not even looking up from where he's adding spices to the spaghetti sauce.
She rolls her eyes. "Like fate. Destiny."
He puts the lid back on the oregano and stands it beside the stove before half turning to face her. "Bells, you're talking to a man who fell in love with a vampire's girl and was supposed to have some genetic predisposition toward finding his soul mate that was never triggered. I'd say I got screwed in the lottery of fortune." He waves a wooden spoon at her. "Don't go getting all guilt-trip maudlin on me for that, either. I chose my life, and I'm quite happy with it, thank you very much. That said, I don't put much stock in the powers that be."
"I never did, either."
At this, he raises an eyebrow. "Until…?"
She presses her lips together for the span of a breath before speaking, her voice calm, as if trying not to spook a horse. "Jake, I'm quitting treatment."
His mood shift is immediate. "The hell you are."
"No you're not, Bella."
"Listen to me," he demands, the wooden spoon falling to the counter with a clatter. "You have a beautiful daughter. You have years of life ahead of you. You are not throwing in the towel. I will kick your bony, cancer-ridden ass if you even breathe another word of that bullshit again." He picks up the spoon once more, but his knuckles are white around it and she rounds the counter, reaching out to wrap her small fingers around his faintly trembling hand.
"Jake." He doesn't look at her, and she knows why: Jacob's first defense when frightened is always aggression. It's been years since he phased, but something tells her that this is the closest he's come in a while. "Jake," she says again, and he drags his eyes to her face. "Hear me out, at least."
He shakes his head once, as if to make an objection he knows will be overruled but wants on the record all the same, so she barrels ahead. "Jacob, my number was up the day I walked into that biology classroom and sat down next to Edward Cullen." She hasn't said the name in years, and the taste of it as it leaves her tongue is both familiar and foreign. "He should have killed me right there without a second thought. Then he should have killed me in the forest, in my bedroom, in his bedroom…a hundred different times over. Jasper should have killed me on my birthday, James should have killed me in Phoenix, Laurent should have killed me in the meadow. I should have drowned when I jumped off a cliff, and I probably should have been abducted on the back of that deadbeat's motorcycle." The memories are so old, so faded, that she feels as though she's thumbing through someone else's scrapbook. The next one doesn't feel nearly as distant, nearly as innocuous, and when the words pass her lips they take a shard of her heart with them. "I should have been in that building. With Tyler. My number was up then, too. And then when it came down, I should have been crushed beneath concrete dust and debris. I should have died with him," she says softly, and this time it sounds less factual and more wistful. "But I didn't.
"I should have died a few times over, and I've been cheating death since I was seventeen. Maybe it's time I stop running."
"No, it's not," he replies, chin lifted, the petulant defiance of a child with no logic to back him up.
"I'm not saying this to hurt you," she says softly, even as she knows she's doing just that. "I'm tired. Exhausted, actually. I just want…peace. I want to not ache anymore." She swallows a familiar knot of tears and grief. "I miss Tyler. I've missed Tyler since I was nineteen. And I'm tired of losing the things that I love. I'm tired of having pieces carved out of me." Whether or not she realizes it, her hand comes up to her left breast as she looks past him to the backyard, and the swing set that hasn't been moved by more than the wind in years.
"You haven't lost me. You haven't lost Sky. You never will."
"Skyler's eighteen," she says with a sigh. "She's an adult. She's living her own life, and that's exactly what she should do. She's not mine anymore, Jacob. I'll be hers forever, but she isn't mine anymore."
She sees his throat bob as he swallows, and she knows his question before he asks it. "And me?"
"Jake, I never really had you. We never really had each other. Ever since you've known me, I've been in love with dead men." A sad, sardonic smile twists her lips into an expression too ugly for her lovely face. "Like I said: time to stop running from what I'm meant to be." It is her one, small act of mercy not to say the word aloud, even as it drops heavily into the space between them just the same.
"What would Charlie say?" It's a Hail Mary: she wasn't willing to stay alive for Charlie's sake when she was seventeen; she is less likely to stay alive for his memory now.
"Charlie's gone," she says gently, pressing the pad of her finger to a crumb on the countertop before looking back up. "But Charlie understood what it was to be lonely. And tired." She remembers the way her father struggled initially with his diagnosis, the disease that was likely a result of breathing in the dust during the recovery effort at Ground Zero, the masses that robbed him of his breath and, ultimately, his life. But what she remembers most clearly, perhaps, is the faint trace of relief on his face when his time was almost up, the bone-deep gratitude of a marathon runner within steps of the finish line.
"I'm not okay with this," Jacob says, stirring the sauce with unnecessary concentration, unwilling to offer any kind of consent.
"I know," she says, rising from the stool and rounding the small counter to stand beside him, peering down into the large pot. After a moment, she cocks her head to one side, resting her temple against the hard muscle of his shoulder. "Jake, you've been my best friend since we were kids. I love you, and I know you love me. So I'm asking you. Please."
"Please what?" he snaps, his anger, as always, so tightly intertwined with his grief.
"Please don't make me do this alone. Don't be angry with me." She feels him deflate in the drooping of the shoulder beneath her head, and she loops her left arm through his right.
"I love your sorry ass, you know that?" His voice is rough, and she offers him the modicum of privacy she can afford him, keeping her gaze trained resolutely on the stovetop.
"I know. I love your sorry ass, too."
When he says nothing more, she steps back, turning to the cupboard to pull a box of pasta from the shelf. It isn't until later that night, the pair of them sitting in the white Adirondack chairs on the back deck, the inky black sky stretched out above them, that she dares broach the topic again.
"Jake?" she tries, eyes trained on the stars twinkling overhead.
"Yeah?" His voice is wary. Weary.
She lets her head loll to one side to face his profile. "Do you believe in reincarnation?"
He doesn't answer at first, lifting the beer he's so uncharacteristically drinking to his lips, his eyes flicking from the sky to the dark, barely-discernible silhouette of a mountain rising before them. "I don't know," he says finally. "I guess. I believe in…something else. Something after. Something…more. Beyond just this."
She sighs, returning her focus to the dark heavens. "I hope you're right."
He knows her so well, too well, after all these years, not to know what she's hoping for. "What if you're wrong?" he asks, fighting to keep the challenge from his voice. "What if there's nothing?" She turns her head slowly to face him, and he meets her eyes for a brief moment before looking down at his rough hands. "What if after this, there's just…nothing?" He looks up again, summoning the courage to look her in the eye as he voices her worst fear. "What if you don't get him back?"
Her dark eyes fall closed, and for the first time, Jake notices how truly exhausted she looks. They sit in silence for so long that he thinks she's going to ignore his question when, finally, she opens her eyes and looks up at the sky. "I want to be where he is, even if it's nowhere," she says finally.
There's nothing he can say to that – no argument, no logic, no emotional plea. As much as he once thought he'd loved Bella, he knows in this instant that he's never felt that – that soul-deep need to be wherever someone else is. Even if it's nowhere.
"Will you take care of Skyler?" she asks softly, when it becomes clear he's not going to respond.
"I can't believe you'd even ask me that," he snaps, the desperate sadness that climbs his throat manifesting in the safest emotion: anger.
"I'm sorry," she says softly, an apology for far more than her words. They sit in silence, gazing up at the stars, listening to the echoing hollowness of the silence around them.
"Of course I will," he says finally, wishing that he were still the kind of man who wished on stars, but remembering far too clearly all of the times he's made wishes that never came true.
. . .
02/15/01 – 9:30 a.m.
She's mine. It was the first thought that flew through my mind last night, when I saw some asshole leering at her and hovering over her at the bar. It was the same defiant possessiveness I used to feel when you'd try to take one of my toys, and it sort of surprised me tonight, the sharp flash of ownership I felt. And, close on the heels of it, protectiveness. Because it wasn't a blind rage of jealousy that propelled me across that bar, though that was certainly part of it. What I noticed more than I noticed the goon hitting on her was Bella herself: the rigidity in her spine that I know she gets when she feels uncomfortable, the way she kept turning her face away from him, like she was looking for an escape. And that one thought – "She's mine" – felt so absolute that it thrust me across the floor before I could think twice. I feel like there's a word for that, though it's not one I'm ready to say aloud. What I am ready to admit: that I've never felt it before, and nothing terrifies me more than the possibility that she might not feel it, too. But if she does? I'll feel like my life is finally headed somewhere.
Somewhere worth going.
. . .