I returned from a day's hunt to hear Wren awkwardly plinking the notes of Beethoven's Bagatelle in A Minor (better known to those only casually familiar with classical works as Für Elise) on the upright. Edward had spent the last three months teaching our daughter how to play piano. As she could at least play Do-Re-Mi and Chopsticks competently, Edward was attempting to introduce her to some of our favourite classical works. The simpler pieces, at any rate.
The tempo at which she was playing the Bagatelle was slightly off, but it was certainly an admirable effort for a three year old child. Edward and I had been toying with the notion of placing her in a school for the gifted, once she was the right age to start her academic career.
Like any mother and father, we had high hopes for our daughter. Edward was of the opinion that she would become a world-renowned pianist one day. I was bound and determined to give her as normal a life as we possibly could (unaging family members notwithstanding) and I had no intention of allowing my only child to become spoiled by our wealth or credited for accomplishments she had yet to achieve.
She would find her own path, one day, and there was no need to put such heavy burdens on such young shoulders. A child should be a child, not forced into the position of being a tiny adult. After all, smart though our daughter was, she only had three years of life experience. And just because I was rushed into adulthood - both by my experiences and by my own choices - did not mean my daughter should follow suit.
I had made many mistakes, and some of them had cost lives. I intended that my daughter would not provide a repeat performance of my errors.
Embry, having accompanied me on the hunt in wolf form, sat on his haunches by the front stoop of our little domicile. The little bungalow that was perched on the edge of the sprawling Cullen property was mine and Edward's, and we had added onto the cozy three-room home to accommodate the growing needs of our family. Wren now had her own bedroom.
It was a small house, but it was a grand home. I couldn't help but feel grateful for all I'd been given. I was a wife and mother, completely in love with my caring, strong, handsome husband and devoted to my sweet, intelligent, beautiful baby girl. Renesmee was growing up so fast, even more so due to her advanced breeding; at three, she had the vocabulary of a reasonably intelligent five-year-old, and her small muscle control was quite excellent. She still looked and acted the part of a three-year-old, though she'd never had much use for baby talk (nor had Edward and I ever used such gabble with her). My darling Wren, my little birdie, would be flying from the nest just fifteen more years from now. And what was fifteen years to a mother who would live forever?
I couldn't wait to take her to her Grandpa's house, to see my Dad live and in person again. The livid newborn-red in my eyes had long since faded into a tawny hue that could be easily passed off as coloured contacts. I had never gotten used to having the startlingly crimson eyes, and found the muted yellow a much more palatable alternative.
But Dad would notice, even if he didn't comment. He always did. Of that, I had no doubt.
Sometimes, I found myself thinking that such a simple and pleasant life was something I didn't deserve. The point of my staying at home (except when escorted by the wolves on my hunts) was a punishment, not a vacation from everyday toil.
If there was anything my father had taught me, it was that justice was a very necessary part of society and that, through serving their time, criminals were giving back to society for the things they had taken from it. Three years ago, I had taken two innocent lives; it was an incredible act of mercy that the Quileute wolf pack didn't take my life in recompense, merely my freedom.
One day, I might indeed have my life back. But my victims would never be so fortunate. I had to remember them, but sometimes I wanted to forget, to pretend that my record as a "vegetarian" vampire bore no black mark. I could not give back the lives I'd taken; that was one power vampirekind did not possess.
Gary and Anna Davis had been their names. They'd been newlyweds, enjoying their vacation time by backpacking in the woods, and had not known that excursion would be their last. Gary had had no surviving relatives, and Anna's family had reported them missing when Anna didn't return any of her mother's calls.
My father had told Anna's family that it looked like an animal attack, which was true enough, in a limited way. I no longer recognized the monster that attacked them as me, even though I knew I'd killed them. That horrid creature wasn't anything like me; I wasn't a monster, but something monstrous within me had caused their deaths.
But there was also goodness in me. I had to remember that and hold onto it as tightly as I could. Remembering the goodness in myself and the world around me was a kind of Zen I had cultivated to deal with the inhuman hunger that drove me to hunt.
But refraining from evil is not enough to be good; to be good, one must do good. I still fretted over my self-control, as I did not have the century of experience my husband did. But I did have some self-control, and I needed an opportunity to finally test it. Not only that, but my daughter was older now, and it wouldn't be long before she'd have to become familiar with her own age group; I wanted to be the one to drive her to school and to the playground, to swimming lessons and to birthday parties.
My daughter would need me to be there for her, able to give her some latitude, and to be present and protecting. And I couldn't do that by remaining bound to the current restrictions. I would have to speak to Sam. Perhaps, he would give me a chance to prove that I had reformed.
My daughter's future was depending on me. I would not fail her again.
To my intense surprise, Leah had discussed the matter with Sam, and he had reluctantly agreed to let me out... provided one of the wolves were present to escort me wherever I wanted to go.
I understood; I was supposed to be under guard at all times, so actually permitting me to leave the premises with my jailers was a huge compromise, when I originally wasn't supposed to leave the Cullen estate to begin with. The only wiggle room the original sentence gave was to allow me to hunt, with the wolves present, in an area not occupied by humans. But I'd never been allowed to go very far, and I hadn't seen anyone except the rest of the Cullen family and my wolf guardians in some time.
That changed with Sam's consent. He was of the opinion that I should be given some latitude for my good behaviour. As long as I did not attempt to escape my escorts, or find myself having a control issue, I would be free to essentially come and go as I pleased.
And this day would be my first time back in town. My immediate plans were to go see my Dad, although I made sure to call ahead first, so he'd know I was coming. I had yet to tell him of my crime; I didn't want to see the disappointment in his eyes, but I knew I'd have to tell him the truth at some point. He wasn't an idiot. He had probably figured out that something about me had changed, and was waiting for the moment the truth would slip out.
I ventured out of my house with Leah in tow. She had taken a liking to my daughter some time ago; Leah enjoyed the company of well-behaved children, while not appearing to desire any of her own. I was just glad for her company rather than one of the boys. As content as I was to be surrounded by people whom I cared for, I still needed a bit of "girl time" on occasion.
I parked the new Mercedes Edward had bought me as a birthday gift in the grocery store parking lot. Family or not, I had no intention of going to my father's house an empty-handed guest. Mom had taught me better than that. I intended to make a casserole for him as both gift and a peace offering; I fully intended to tell him the truth, and the blow might be softened by engaging in the usual filial behaviours. Cooking had been a bonding experience with my mother, and my Dad loved food, even though both possessed high metabolisms that made them rather thin.
In my human life, I had loved food and adored cooking. While unable to eat any of my edible creations now, I still enjoyed the colours and smells of fresh food. But the food now tasted like ash in my mouth, so I had to be content with the looking and not the having, watching others enjoy my efforts over the stove.
I was surprised by how much I'd missed it; eating, drinking and otherwise imbibing like a normal person. It wasn't one of the things I'd thought about until I could no longer enjoy it. In the immortal words of the great Joni Mitchell, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Perhaps as a response to that rather odd wistfulness, I'd developed a habit of drinking blood from a glass rather than fresh from the animal. Carlisle and I had already come up with a method to preserve the potency of the excess blood from our hunting trips, in order to save it for a possible famine and to reduce the amount of waste.
Of course, no one had ever died by preparing themselves for a possible problem in the future; "hope for the best, but prepare for the worst" became both the Cullen motto and method as we cautiously looked toward the future. Earth's resources, after all, weren't infinite; limiting our carbon footprint and our drain on those precious resources was just as much our responsibility as it was of the humans around us.
I had also shamed Alice into ceasing her illegal stock market activities (another form of draining the world around us) and had browbeaten her into finding honest work. Carlisle was a doctor, Esme an interior decorator, and Emmett had recently found work as forklift operator. There was no reason for all of us (the more restrained of us, anyway) not to find jobs in any manner of professions, thereby giving back to humanity in our own small ways and simultaneously gaining money through completely legitimate means.
I wanted to do something, but had no idea what. For now, spending my time with my daughter was enough, but when her schooling started? Well, I'd just have too much time on my hands.
But, for now, I was content with being the stay-at-home mom. And for the moment, I was happy to be with my daughter and Leah on a shopping trip.
I entered the supermarket with Wren perched in the seat of the foodcart, and Leah shadowing me. My first stop was the produce section and, stopping at the fruit stand, I plucked a Winesap apple from the pile of fresh apples. Holding it close to my nose, I inhaled. Though I could no longer eat it, the smell was as beautiful as ever - a sweet bouquet made of spring, sunshine, morning dew and mountain springs.
I plucked a few more apples from the stand, dropping them into a plastic bag I'd snatched from a nearby dispenser. Once the apples were all in, I twirled the top of the bag and tied it shut.
"Mommy!" Wren chirruped. "I want bananas!"
I chuckled. "All right, you little minx. You'll get some bananas... if you behave yourself."
Wren's eyes - so much like mine had been as a human - widened and she nodded solemnly. "I promise I'll be good." Her high child's voice was adorably earnest.
I smiled. "Okay. But remember what you promised." Then I ruffled my hand through her wild auburn curls, letting her know with the gesture that she had only endeared herself more to me. As children went, she was quite biddable. Nonetheless, I chose to err on the side of caution where discipline was concerned. After all, even Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, had her off-days. Why should my child, however uncommon her parentage, be so different?
It wasn't until I reached the checkout line that my control began to slip ever so slightly. I feel the roiling in the pit of my stomach at the smell of all the people waiting in line, so very very close to me. I held my breath and steered my cart into an empty self-checkout line. Leah positioned herself by the bags as I moved every item I'd picked up through the scanner. I forced myself to give complete focus to the task, to ignore the sounds of human heartbeats all around me, the intoxicating smell of life...
I shook myself and focused again on the task at hand. My hands trembled as I scanned the last item. Leah had helpfully bagged my groceries for me and placed them in the cart, and my daughter was quiet. Too quiet, really. Something was wrong.
I looked up from the checkout, about to reach for my purse to remove my debit card, when I heard a commotion further up front, by the customer service desk. A man began to shout, "Give me all the money in the safe!" When the quivering clerk hesitated, he shoved a Glock in the girl's face and bellowed, "Do it now!"
I was so focused on the robber, I didn't notice he had brought accomplices, until one was nearly in my face. "What're you lookin' at, lady?" The accomplice demanded. "You sit on the ground now, or I'll put a bullet through your kid's brain." Then he leveled his own gun at my daughter.
My hand clamped around his wrist. The human bones ground together and he cried out in pain. A snarl rumbling in my chest, I forced him to his knees. Then I bent his arm behind him so the muzzle of his gun was trained on the back of his head. He was now crying from pain, but I was too angry to care. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to put the bullet in his head that this piece of scum had intended for my little girl.
Then several of the other robbers leveled their guns at me.
"Put your guns down, boys, or your friend here dies," I said, my tone surprisingly even.
"Bella, no!" Leah shouted. But I wasn't really listening. And getting shot right then and there didn't alleviate my temper.
I pulled the trigger, and the former robbery accomplice's head exploded.
The rest of it was a blur to me. I only dimly remember that I was shot several more times, but I don't recall anything beyond that... Strange, because vampires are supposed to have perfect recall.
I only know that three more of the robbery accomplices lay dead, and the man who'd threatened the customer service clerk was sprawled on the ground before me, begging me to have mercy on him and babbling about me being a monster. A Winchester rifle from one of his dead friends was now in my very efficient and deadly hands.
"Bella, give me the gun," Leah said, reaching out for the rifle.
I sighed and, with a slow nod, handed it to her. "Too many have already died today." Though I had no need for sleep, I was exhausted. Surely, the pack would now have much more cogent objections to my continued existence.
The robber was very right about me being a monster. I had killed four men in a matter of minutes. Nor was that the first time I had killed anyone. The death toll I had brought to Forks was an uncomfortable thought, but didn't these men deserve it? How many of the innocent people would have died had I not stepped in? But worse, would I have not intervened at all, if my daughter not been threatened?
I had done the right thing. I was sure of it. At least, that was what I told myself at the time. My father agreed and, while the case was for the county, he decided not to place me in a cell at the station. Chief Charles Swan of the Forks Police had chosen to release his own daughter, an unknown serial murderer, on her own recognizance. Because I was "a good girl who didn't do that sort of thing."
The irony does not escape me now. I am exactly that sort of girl, Dad, I should have told him. I killed those two hikers three years ago because I was hungry, and I killed four men today because they pissed me off. I am the thing lurking in the dark, the monster under the bed, and I am all too real. Worse, I am the terror that cannot be stopped, an evil that cannot be reasoned with. I am a demon in the guise of an angel. I am damned. And if you truly love me, you will find the means to destroy me.
But I said nothing. And, perhaps, that is the most damning act of all.
Wren was still with me when I exited the police station. Leah had suggested I send her home, but I refused. I was too tense from the day's goings-on, and I had no intention of allowing my daughter to leave my side.
When we arrived at the bungalow, it was eerily silent. Edward was studying at the college, I reasoned, and the wolves had reduced their security around me. So, Leah was the only wolf on shift. But... there were none of the other Cullens present; it wasn't exactly uncommon to see Rosalie sorting things for me or Alice bouncing in the front door with another set of clothes, or Emmett waiting to play with his little niece.
But there was no one except myself, my daughter and Leah. As I glanced in the wolf-girl's direction, Leah shifted uneasily-sensing something wrong with this picture, too. But, without another wolf nearby, there weren't any alarms raised.
I shrugged and she mimicked my gesture, then we put the groceries away. I held Wren against my hip, the disquieting feeling I had warning me not to leave her unattended for even a moment.
Just after I had placed fresh pork chops in the freezer, an intake of breath brought a curious, unpleasant taste on the tip of my tongue. I sniffed the air-something was burning.
Leah was hot on my heels as I ran out the door, with Wren still in my arms. The Cullen house was on fire, flames reaching the sky and blackening its beautiful white facade.
Panic lanced through me. No!
I placed Wren on her feet and ran towards the house. Leah stopped me, grabbing me from behind by both arms. "Bella, no!"
I struggled in her wolf-enhanced grip. "I have to see… I need to know!" I was hoping that the other Cullens would be alive and were somehow elsewhere when the fire started, but I knew that was a vain dream. The main house was vanishing in front of my eyes, fire and oily black smoke devouring it as I watched.
I closed my eyes, not willing to watch the last of the house go up in smoke, even as the reek of burning plaster and wood was clogging my nose.
"Isabella Cullen." A girl's voice, amused by my emotional display. A familiar voice that left me cold. My eyes popped open in time to see my daughter crumpling onto the ground, screaming in pain.
"Jane," I snarled at the Volturi's main bitch. I could still remember her torturing Edward... and Bree, with her ability to cause pain psychically. "Come here so I can kill you." I struggled even more against Leah's grip, but the wolf-girl wouldn't let up.
Jane chuckled. "Ah, ah, ah! Someone needs to learn their manners." My daughter let out another agonized scream.
Leah hissed in my ear, "We're surrounded. You need to calm down or they'll kill all three of us!"
I forced myself to take a deep breath, even while I could hear my daughter sobbing for me.
Wren gave another piercing shriek and my fury renewed. "Let her go!" I roared. "She's just a child!"
"I don't think so. And you're late for your meeting with Aro. Alec, dear brother, would you be so kind?"
I turned to see Jane's twin brother standing further to the side, unobtrusively. He gazed at me with a vague disinterest.
Then everything went black.
Don't fret, mes amis! This is not the end; there is more to come in this series.