Acknowledgement: HollettLA: friend, beta, friend, wine connoisseur, friend, recipe maven, friend, restaurant expert, friend, travel genius, friend, sounding board, friend, cheerleader, friend. And did I mention friend? Thanks, lady, you fabulous thing, you. xo
09/01/01 – 2:37 p.m.
Dad wants me to work for him, and I'm seriously considering it. A year ago, if someone had told me I'd be here, thinking the things I'm thinking, I'd have told them not-so-kindly to get lost. But it's funny, how Bella and the baby-who-isn't-even-a-baby-yet have changed me. Growing up, I railed against Dad's expectations. I know I did. I wanted his attention but not his approval, and I didn't really understand the difference, or how to get him to notice me in a way that didn't involve him yelling or oozing disapproval. I think, even back then, I didn't want to be like him. All I saw was the guy who didn't have time for us, the guy who made Mom cry and ultimately leave him, the guy who seemed to be more concerned with his company than his family. And I never wanted that guy's approval. I wanted to be the opposite of him in every way. But now I think that maybe I sort of get it. Where the drive came from. It's an old-fashioned concept, maybe, but there's something primal about wanting to take care of your family.
Before she even told me she was pregnant, I'd started thinking of Bella as my family. Started imagining a life with her beyond nights in my shitty apartment and days slotted between classes and bookstore shifts. And it might be happening sooner than we thought, but there's no doubt in my mind now that she's my family. This is my family. And I'll take care of it no matter what it takes.
I wonder what you'd think of that. If you'd tell me not to do it. If you'd tell me what it was about working with him that was so terrible you couldn't climb over it. But then I realize that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I'm stronger than you were. Because nothing could be so bad that I'd let it take me away from them. From her.
. . .
It is perhaps the most futile of things, but Bella can't bring herself not to plant the bulbs in the flowerbeds along the front of the house when spring finally arrives, even though there's a chance she may not live to see all of them bloom. She knows Jake will forget to water them, that he won't dig them up before the first frost, that her labor will likely wind up being a waste of time, but she can't bring herself not to do it. She spent so many hours in her early years upstate watching Skyler play in her playpen in the driveway, then roll around in the grass with Fred, then read on the wrought-iron bench beneath the sugar maple while she planted that she can't find it in her heart to bypass the tradition this year. She likely won't be here by the end of summer, but after she's gone, there will be a row of blooms to remind Jake and Skyler that she was here for a while. That she left parts of herself behind.
The planting itself has become so ingrained that her hands do the work while her mind is free to reminisce: she breathes in the smell of the potting soil, the fresh spring breeze, the grass clippings from the yard next door, all the while thinking about the hours she has spent here, the life she has lived, the memories she has made, the ghosts she has equal parts feared and adored.
Not for the first time, she remembers Tyler's words over the phone all those years ago: that sometimes, when a life on Earth is as good as it can get, it's time to go. She thinks over everything: her friendship with Jacob, the work that she's enjoyed well enough, her friendships with Kelsey and Aidan, her relationship with Charlie, her daughter – always, her daughter – and thinks that, all things considered, she couldn't ask for much more. She's loved. She's been loved. What more is there?
Since making her decision, an odd sort of peace has settled over her, a sense of relief, and she remembers the resignation in Tyler's own voice on that fateful day. He hadn't been ready to go. He hadn't wanted to leave. But, when faced with no other alternative, he'd handled it with grace. With courage.
While she doesn't want to leave, to surrender, she's ready for something else. Whatever's next. Thirty-plus years may not be a long lifetime by modern standards, but she thinks of everything she's managed to cram into that short time, and she feels blessed to the point of spoiled. There's a dark corner of her mind that wonders what Tyler would think, if he were here – if he'd be angry or disappointed in her willingness, once again, to surrender her life. She wonders idly if it's the most tragic kind of character flaw, her readiness to discard her own life to follow a boy. But there's a discordant note in the thought, and after a moment's consideration, she's able to identify it for what it is: this time, she's not giving it up for a boy. She's giving it up for herself. When she dissects it, it doesn't feel like surrender; instead, it feels like intrepidness, like a desire to face the next chapter. In truth, she feels as though she's loved as much as she's capable in this lifetime. That love is the lone thing she hopes she's allowed to take with her wherever she goes.
Rising slowly, she peels off her gardening gloves and presses her hands to her spine as she eyes the line of upturned earth. There's a faint ache in her lower back from bending over and her knees are tattooed with the pattern of her foam kneeling board, and she lets her eyes fall closed as she tips her head back, the early spring sunlight bathing her face in warmth. Her opportunities – and her capability – for manual labor are few and far between these days, and she relishes the delicious ache in her bones, the exhaustion in her muscles. Hearing the crunch of tires on gravel, she opens her eyes expecting to see Jacob's truck, but the sleek sedan that appears in her driveway isn't a car she recognizes.
Squinting as she rises, she holds a hand up to shield her eyes, but the windows are tinted and she can't make out anything inside. Brushing her hands against her shorts, she takes a step in the direction of the driveway just as the rear driver's side door opens and a face she never expected to see again appears over the top of the doorframe.
"Alice?" Bella breathes, watching the tiny vampire step away from the car and push the door shut with a muted thunk. The driver's and passenger's doors open, and Carlisle and Esme appear, watching her warily and staying beside the car while Alice approaches.
"Hello, Bella." And that voice, it takes her back years. To surrogate families and vampire secrets and first loves and losses and to herself, so young and so untried and so vulnerable. Even with parts carved out of her and a body failing her by degrees, she feels like a pillar of strength in comparison.
Alice's face is expectant while Carlisle and Esme look wary, and Bella frowns slightly, utterly taken aback by their sudden arrival. "I don't mean to sound rude, but…what are you doing here?"
Esme and Alice share a look before Esme steps forward. "Bella, Edward told us about Skyler's…link to you. And he told us about your health." She clasps her hands together in front of her. "We never got to say goodbye before. We wanted the chance to say it now."
Bella glances from Esme to Alice to Carlisle, and realizes that in missing Edward all those years ago, she hadn't truly realized how much she missed his family. Nodding slowly, she gestures toward the house. "Come in."
Once inside, it takes a moment for Bella's eyes to adjust after hours in the bright sunlight. "Bella, your home is beautiful," Esme says, warm golden eyes scanning the modest living room, and for the first time in years, Bella's mind wanders back to their house in Forks: its high ceilings, high-end décor, magazine-spread-worthy architecture. The tiny bungalow must seem borderline shabby by comparison, but she can see nothing but sincerity in Esme's face.
"Thank you," she says, squeezing her hand into a fist and releasing it, repeatedly. She has to quell the instinct to offer them coffee or a drink; the fact that she even considers it is one more sign of the time that has passed, of how far removed she is from their world.
"Would you like to sit down?" she asks, gesturing toward the living room. It's one more thing they don't need, but there's something far too awkward about standing around, staring at each other.
They file into the room in silence, Carlisle and Esme settling smoothly on the shabby loveseat, Alice and Bella perching at opposite ends of the sofa.
It's Esme who speaks first, and Bella finds it faintly amusing – everyone always thought of Carlisle as the one who steered the family, but really, Esme was the wind in the sails. She marvels for a moment about the effects of time and distance on her perspective; she wonders if she would notice those little things if she'd stayed seventeen and in their world. "Bella, we're so sorry that we left Forks the way we did. We know how…difficult it was. For you."
"Thank you," she replies, and while the apology once might have opened old wounds, now it simply feels like a formality.
Carlisle shifts slightly on the loveseat. "For what it's worth, it was very difficult for Edward, too." And the subtle nuances of the Cullen family that she'd forgotten come racing back to her in this moment: the way Esme and Carlisle doted on Edward, the lone single in a house of pairs, the prodigal son, Carlisle's "firstborn." She feels faintly sad at the realization that Edward's decision to pull away from the family in the wake of their departure from Forks must have pained them deeply. She's nearly surprised to realize that she hopes, given everything, that he finds his way back to them. She wouldn't mind so much, knowing that Skyler would be part of this family. That she would have Esme's maternal love, Alice's enthusiastic sisterhood, Rosalie's unapologetic protectiveness. Carlisle's paternal affection, Jasper's calming presence, Emmett's big-brotherly affection. And Edward. Of course, Edward.
"We missed you," Alice says, and her tiny, frozen hand finds Bella's on the cushion between them.
"I missed you, too," Bella replies, even as her mind is tumbling over itself as it attempts to assimilate these new realities: Skyler, with the Cullens. The Cullens, here in her living room after all this time.
Alice and Esme share another glance, and Alice scoots a tiny bit closer to Bella on the sofa. "I was so angry with Edward. I mean, we all were, really, but I think I was probably the most furious." Alice pins her with those disarming golden eyes, and Bella lifts an eyebrow in question. "Bella, you and I were meant to be great friends. I knew it. I saw it. But then he just…changed his mind. And he took that away. And I was so livid with him for such a long time." She lowers her gaze, picking at a nonexistent piece of lint on the perfect fabric of her skirt. "In hindsight, I'm sure I didn't make it any easier for him. But I was just so mad. And he made us all promise that we wouldn't bother you ever again. But I couldn't just…forget you. So I…checked in." Alice looks faintly ashamed at the admission, but soldiers on anyway. "Not often. Just…occasionally. Just to see how you were. For the longest time, I couldn't see anything, really. Just snippets. I'd only really ever see you when you were at school, but more often than not, I'd look for you and get…nothing. I thought for a while that whatever it was that prevented Edward from reading your mind was affecting my ability to see you, but when I paid closer attention, I realized that I could never see you when you were with Jacob."
Bella frowns. "Jacob?"
"The wolves," Alice clarifies. "I can't see around the wolves. So whenever you were on the reservation, or hanging out with Jake – which it seems was quite often, at that point – I couldn't see anything. Then, when you went to New York, suddenly I could see you again. All the time." At Bella's wide eyes, she holds up her small hands. "I didn't! I promise, I didn't. I just…I kept checking in. At first, you looked so lost. And then…you seemed to get better." She pauses, and when she speaks again, her voice is softer. Gentler. "And then you met Tyler, and I watched you come alive." She folds her hands together in front of her. "After that, it started feeling less like I was watching out for you and more like I was being…voyeuristic. So I stopped. But then I had the vision of…that day. And I couldn't let it happen."
Suddenly, painfully, the possible truth rips through Bella's chest, more painful than treatments and scalpels and phantom breasts and anything else physical she's ever felt. "Let what happen?"
When Alice's golden eyes drop to the floor for the span of a second before lifting to meet her own brown ones again, Bella knows the words before she says them. "I couldn't let you die."
Bella's eyes fall closed, and the confirmation of her evaded fate settles around her like a cloud of feathers. I was supposed to die.
"You were my best friend," Alice says softly, her voice almost a whisper. "I loved you, and my whole family loved you, and I couldn't just…let that happen." Bella feels Alice's ice-cold hands close around hers, and she opens her eyes to see Alice's sad amber ones trained on her face. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize…I didn't know Tyler was inside. I just saw you standing at the foot of the buildings, and I couldn't…" She trails off, and if she could cry, Bella thinks she just might. "I just couldn't," she finishes. "And then, afterward, I would check in every so often, but then Edward came back and told me what you said. About not wanting me to do that anymore." She looks sad, and Bella feels a surprising stab of guilt; despite everything, Alice wasn't the one who chose to leave her. Her friend drops her eyes, tracing the pattern of the sofa upholstery with a single fingertip. "So I stopped. I missed everything about Skyler. About your moving here. The first time I tried to check in with you again was the following year…on the eleventh." She peeks up at Bella's face. "I know. I wasn't supposed to. But I couldn't…not." She shrugs. "But I couldn't see anything. I panicked, at first, but then I got a glimpse of you one day talking to an old lady behind the cash register at a coffee shop, and I realized you were fine. So I promised myself I'd leave you alone. That I'd respect your wishes. That's why I missed the whole Skyler thing…when Edward would call and talk about her, I had no idea she was yours because I never saw her. And when he told us he might be going home with her for Christmas, I tried to see ahead but I couldn't see anything; I thought maybe it was because he hadn't truly decided whether or not to go. It never occurred to me that it might be because there was a werewolf involved."
Bella can't help but laugh at that. "Yeah, what were the odds?"
A momentary silence descends before Esme breaks it, her voice gentle. "Your daughter is lovely, Bella."
When she looks up, Bella sees something new in Esme's eyes that she'd never seen before: camaraderie. Years ago, she'd been another child for Esme to mother. Now, she's a mother herself, and it occurs to her that despite her enormous family and despite the presence of Alice and Rosalie, Esme must sometimes long for female friendship that doesn't come with the added responsibility of doubling as a surrogate parent. "Thank you," she says, voice soft, and her thoughts from earlier come back to her anew. If there were a mother in the world to whom she would trust her daughter's safety, her well-being, it would be Esme Cullen.
"She's so like you."
Bella smiles, even as a familiar melancholy sweeps through her. "There's a lot of her father in there, too."
Esme's smile dims only slightly, her golden eyes sad. "Yes. When Edward told us…" She trails off, glancing to Carlisle. "We were so sorry to hear about your love."
My love, Bella thinks with a short stab of pain that quickly recedes like a landed and withdrawn punch. Then, unexpectedly, Esme looks to Carlisle and Alice. "Would you two mind giving us a minute?"
"Of course," Carlisle says smoothly, rising from the sofa and holding a hand toward the door, gesturing for Alice to go first. "We'll be outside."
When it's just the two of them, Esme rises and takes Alice's place beside Bella on the sofa, reaching out to take Bella's warm hand between her cold ones. "It's so good to see you, Bella."
"It's good to see you, too," she replies, only vaguely surprised by the honest truth in her response. Seeing Edward again had brought with it a maelstrom of emotion, not the least of which had to do with his tie to Skyler; seeing Esme and Carlisle and even Alice again is simpler, somehow. Gentler.
"I hope you don't mind my bringing it up, but…Edward told me about your health. About your…wishes."
"Oh." Bella feels distantly embarrassed. It was one thing to surrender her mortality for an eternity with the one she had thought she loved; it seems quite another to surrender it to the cold, unknowable entity of death.
"I hope you don't mind. I think he needed someone to...talk about it with. And obviously, he didn't feel that talking to Skyler was appropriate."
"No," Bella agrees.
"I hope I'm not overstepping, but I wanted to share something with you." When Bella remains silent, Esme takes it as an unspoken cue to continue, so she scoots slightly closer. "I don't know how much of my history Edward shared with you," she begins, but doesn't give Bella a chance to respond. "I was married, when I was human. To a…very unkind man. It reached a point where I simply couldn't stay in the life I had, so I chose to leave it." With this, she squeezes Bella's hand gently. "That choice took me from my very mortal anguish to another plane of existence, where I was once again able to feel unmitigated joy." Bella's eyes go glassy, and Esme gives her the small, reassuring smile that she remembers from a baseball field so long ago. "I hope you find your joy, Bella."
Swallowing against the lump that rises in her throat, she barely gets out a "Thank you" before Esme is very nearly on top of her, pulling her into a gentle hug.
"We will look after her," she promises, mother to mother, squeezing only as hard as Bella's brittle human bones will allow before she pulls back.
At the words, the prospect of Skyler's future looms large ahead of Bella, and she feels a sudden, unexpected urge for truth. "Esme, if…when I'm gone, someday, I'd like it if you told her that you knew me. Not anything about my history with Edward, obviously. But perhaps you can somehow tell her that you spent some time in Forks and that you knew me and Charlie. I think…I'd like her to know. That I knew you and liked you."
"Of course," Esme says graciously, without any hint of doubt as to her ability to follow through, and Bella remembers how truly adept the Cullens had to be at lying to maintain their lifestyle.
She doesn't know what motivates her to say it, but the next words that tumble from her lips surprise her. "I'm really happy for Edward." At Esme's surprised look, she dips her head, studying her dirt-smeared forearms. "I…was angry with him. For a long time, I admit. But I did…care about him." She can't say love. She thinks she probably did, probably loved him as much as her untried, seventeen-year-old heart was capable of, but when she lays that love side by side with what she felt for Tyler, she knows the truth of it. "And I'm grateful to him for what he did that day. For saving me and Skyler. And after that, I hoped he'd find a way to be happy. I'm glad he did."
"He owes that to you," Esme says. "Bella, he owes so much to you. What happened in Forks was difficult for everyone, you and Edward especially. But even as devastated as he was, and as desolate as he was after what happened in New York, you showed him that he could love and be loved. If not for you, I don't think he'd have Skyler, and I mean that in more ways than the obvious. You turned the vampire boy human again in every way that matters."
"He taught me a lot, too," Bella allows, thinking over all of the things in her life that she'd learned to appreciate when she considered that she'd once been so willing to surrender them. Despite its heartaches, she'd had a new appreciation, a new respect for her life after Edward left it. She also knew that she had no regrets when it came to how she'd loved Tyler. The heartache she'd felt after Edward left her, the regrets she'd felt about all of the things she felt she'd missed out on, led her to love Tyler fiercely, completely, wholly, all of the time. There was never a moment when she felt like she'd held anything back from him, kept a part of herself in reserve, and it was this truth in which she found comfort after he was gone. While he was here, she'd loved him with all she had. What more is there?
"I'm glad," Esme says, releasing Bella's hand and folding her own gently together in her lap.
Bella glances out the window, to where shadows are beginning to stretch long over the yard, and she thinks of her few still-unplanted bulbs, sitting beside her basket of gardening tools.
"We should probably get going," Esme says as she stands, as if Edward weren't the only mind-reader in the family, and Bella rises beside her, pulling the hem of her shirt down as she straightens. Before she can say anything, though, Esme steps forward and takes hold of her hand once more. "Thank you, Bella. Ever since you came into the picture, you've made our family a better, more beautiful one. Skyler is just one more way in which you keep giving to us."
"Thank you," Bella replies, worrying briefly that she's squeezing Esme's hand too hard before she remembers the vampire impenetrability. "I…Esme, you're a really good mom. And I felt like you were mine, for a while."
"I still feel like I'm yours, sometimes."
Surprised by the smile that slides over her face as Esme pulls back, Bella nods. There had been times, over the years, when she'd wished for a mother's perspective, and though she hadn't allowed herself to consider it at the time, more often than not, it was Esme's face she saw in her mind's eye instead of Renee's. And as she imagines Skyler fitting into the fold of the Cullen family, a deep peace takes her over. "I'm so glad you came," she says.
She doesn't miss the relief that sweeps over Esme's perfect features before she schools them back into their default: polite openness. "I'm glad, too."
And as they step back out into the sunshine, Bella prepares to say goodbye to Carlisle and Alice, realizing for the first time that perhaps, just perhaps, there are goodbyes with the potential to be just as joyful as hellos.
. . .
9/02/01 – 11:44 p.m.
She thinks I'm going to be a good dad. She's met our father, knows what I come from, knows who my role model was. She's seen me lose my temper, sink into my moods, act like a punk, and still. She still thinks I'm going to be able to be a good dad to our kid. And more than anything, I want to prove her right. The minute those words fell from her lips, I couldn't look at her, because I was about two seconds away from crying like a chump.
Because I know – I know I'm going to screw up sometimes. I'm going to lose my temper or lash out at her because of something that has nothing to do with her. She's changed me a lot, made me a better man, given me more than anyone ever has, but I know there's still that part of me that will probably spring up sometimes, that punk kid with the dickhead father and the teasing older brother who sometimes just needs to have a moment of being a prick. I'm still human, and I'm a far from perfect one. But I'm sort of counting on her perfection to balance out the imperfections in me.
I guess that's what being human is: a series of imperfections. I love hers, and by some miracle, she seems to love mine. It's the most humbling, baffling, amazing thing ever.
Tonight was the first night I really thought about marrying her. As she let me love her beneath a blanket of moonlight, I imagined bringing her back here to the beach, tying her to me forever with formal words beneath a bright blue sky, our kid in my arms as I made her every promise I have to make.
I'll do it, someday. I'd do it tomorrow, if she wanted me to. But I can be patient. For the first time, I can be patient.
Because for her, I know I'd wait forever.