Summary: "I just…these could be the last three minutes, you know? Like, the last three minutes before…things are different."
Author's Note: Okay, this is unbeta'ed, because it's just something fun I was kicking around. But on a less fun note, my wonderful friend and beta, HollettLA, is searching for her cat, Mully, who went missing in the Northern Virginia area yesterday (4/30/13). If you are in that area, please keep an eye out, and if you have any info, please PM me. For photos of Mully or more information on where he went missing, come find me on Twitter (TheFicChick). Thanks in advance. xo
The Star Wars theme is emanating from somewhere beside my bed. My hand stills in my boxers and I contemplate the situation at hand: finish what I'm doing and let the call go to voicemail or postpone my typical Friday night pastime in favor of potential human interaction. I give a few more pulls, but the song plays on, forcing the imagined images of various girl-parts from my brain and the motivation from my fingers.
Another refrain and I slide my hand out of my shorts, rolling to one side and rummaging around in the mess on my bedroom floor: back issues of Game Informer, dirty socks, empty water and soda bottles, a half-eaten bag of Doritos, a squished Snickers bar, my AP physics textbook, my copy of A Farewell to Arms for English. Finally unearthing my phone, I see the number of the store displayed on the screen.
"Edward?" It's Gemma, and she sounds like hell.
"Edward, I'm so sorry to bother you on a Friday night. Have I dragged you away from something fun?"
Reflexively, I glance down at my lap; my "fun" is deflating. "No," I half-lie. "Not at all. Everything okay?"
"I'm supposed to be closing, but I feel awful. I tried to get in touch with Roger but he's not answering his phone, and I don't want to close up too early." I don't blame her; Roger's a bastard when someone dares to do anything without his approval. No doubt he would read Gemma the riot act if she closed up even two hours early, despite the fact that the Forks Pharmacy isn't exactly a Friday night hot spot. "I hate to ruin your evening, but is there any way you could come in and cover the end of my shift?"
That Gemma thinks I might have plans on a Friday night – plans that involve something more than whacking off in my own empty house – is adorable. Misguided, but adorable. "Of course I can," I tell her, and her exhale of relief is audible through the phone line. "I'll be there in ten minutes, okay?"
"Oh, thank you, Edward," she breathes. "Thank you so much."
As we disconnect, I sigh and rise from the bed, grabbing my jeans from the back of my desk chair and sniffing the armpits of my t-shirt. Not terrible, but not great, either. I grab a clean one from the middle drawer of my dresser and replace the one I've been wearing all day. Glancing around the room, I don't see the god-awful red vest that is part of the "uniform" required by my employer. I rummage through the pile of clothes in the corner to no avail before it occurs to me that my mother might have snagged it and washed it. As I move to leave the room, though, I spy a flash of red as I pass the closet; there, hanging in all its polyester glory, is the vest. As I grab it from the hanger, a waft of detergent hits me, and I laugh as I shake my head.
When I arrive at the pharmacy ten minutes later, it's to find Gemma draped dramatically over the counter beside the register, her complexion decidedly green. "Hey," I say as I shuffle in, red polyester vest balled in my left hand. I may not be the most stylish of dressers, but I patently refuse to put that thing on until I'm actually standing behind the counter and therefore have no other option.
"Thank you," she breathes. "Thank you so much, Edward. I'm so sorry to drag you out." She's pushing a limp strand of hair off her sweat-dampened forehead; whatever she has, it doesn't look fun. I take an involuntary step back. "No sweat," I tell her, tilting my head in the direction of the staff room. "Why don't you get out of here? Get some rest."
She nods, fingers undoing the line of buttons at the front of her own vest. "I'm happy to tell Roger to pay you for the whole shift," she says softly, dropping her eyes to the front of her garment. I'm reminded of Christmas, when she begged our boss to cut her a deal on the holiday candy so that she could fill her kids' Christmas stockings, and the day she had to plead with Roger for an advance on her paycheck because her son had outgrown his shoes and didn't have any to wear to school that didn't give him blisters.
"No way," I say immediately, pulling my own vest over my head so that I don't have to watch her fumble. "I wasn't doing anything, anyway. Don't worry about it."
Pulling the front of the vest down, I peek up at her; she has her head cocked to one side. "Good-looking kid like you? No plans on a Friday night?"
I blush, despite the fact that Gemma's technically old enough to be my mother. "Nope."
"Well, if I were ten years younger." Thankfully, she doesn't elaborate on what, exactly, she would do with me if she were, in fact, ten years younger. Instead, she lifts her chin toward the rear corner of the store. "Just one customer in here at the moment. It's been pretty slow."
I nod, winding my way behind the counter as Gemma turns to head for the staff room. "Okay."
"Chief Swan's kid," she tosses over her shoulder.
At that, I feel my eyebrows hike. "Bella?" But she doesn't answer, disappearing behind the farthest aisle – nail polish and lip gloss on the end display and an entire wall of other cosmetics I don't pretend to know what girls do with stretching out of view. I smooth my hands over the front of my vest and immediately shake my head at myself; there's nothing a few wrinkles can do to this thing to make it look any more lame. I glance down at my name tag; the bottom of the "E" and the top of the "d" are slightly peeled away, making it look like "Foward." I wish with a sudden, painful jolt that I hadn't opted to add a sticker of the TARDIS above my butchered name; as if anyone needs the reminder that I'm a grade-A, certified loser. Especially Bella.
I run my hands down over my torso once again, more out of habit than to actually rectify any wrinkling issues, and glance toward the back corner of the store where Gemma indicated. I straighten the boxes of Wrigley's gum and Altoids mints beside the register and return the dangling stylus to its holder alongside the credit card reader. The tape around the edges of the computer-printed sheet of paper reminding customers that they need a valid state-issued ID to pick up prescription medications is beginning to peel away, and I attempt unsuccessfully to re-stick it to the countertop. I can see that Gemma has drawn two cubes and a lightning bolt along the bottom corner of the paper; if Roger ever spent any time behind the counter, that shit would drive him nuts.
"Thank you again, Edward," I hear from the other side of the counter, and I look up to see Gemma's grateful face half-buried by the collar of her thick coat. She must have been feeling crappy before her shift even started; it's nearly eighty degrees out there even now.
"Feel better," I say, and she nods before shuffling out of the store, the tiny bell above the door jangling as she exits. I glance at the clock behind the counter and then back toward the far corner of the store. Why would Bella Swan be in the Forks Pharmacy at eight-thirty on a Friday night? Nobody spends Friday night in a pharmacy, especially not people like Bella. People like Bella spend it…well, doing something far more exciting. Probably going to the multiplex in Port Angeles. Or having one of those bonfire parties out at the reservation that I've never been to but heard plenty about. Or…something else a lot more fun than shopping for toiletries.
The store is eerily quiet, and if Gemma hadn't told me that there was someone in here, I'd have thought I was alone. Leaning over the register counter, I peek into the parking lot. My car is the only one out there, and I wonder why Bella's truck isn't in one of the spaces. Unless she parked at the diner and walked over – the diner's lot is behind the building, and I can't see to confirm or disprove the possibility. Then again, the Forks Diner is another spot I would never expect to find Bella Swan on a Friday night. Not these days.
Stepping out from behind the register, I peer down the far aisle, but it's deserted. Pretending to be checking inventory, I wander along the aisle, eyeing the rows of shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, hair mousse, hair cream, hair spray, and eighteen other types of hair products that I couldn't begin to say what purpose they serve. Rosalie is always eyeballing my hair, muttering about how a "little product would go a long way," but she's just lucky I wash it. Who wants to put shit in their hair only to have to wash it out a few hours later?
Well, except Mike Newton and all of his cronies. There's no shortage of "product" when it comes to those assholes. Maybe why they're such morons: the chemicals from their copious amounts of gel have seeped through the skin of their skulls and affected their brains.
There's a Sci-Fi movie in there somewhere.
I pause at the end of the aisle and make a point of rustling the display of headbands and hairbrushes so that, if Bella's on the opposite side of the shelf, my sudden appearance won't startle her. My on-purpose "rustling," however, turns into an involuntary knocking over of six bottles of discounted shampoo, and by the time I've put them to rights, I've likely alerted her to my presence regardless of what aisle she's in.
Peeking around the corner, I confirm that she's not in the market for deodorant, shave gel, or razors. A peek down the next aisle also shows no Bella, but I see that Roger's put the bodywash on sale; I'll have to remember to grab a bottle before the end of my shift. Passing the display, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and spy Bella standing halfway down the next aisle, frowning at the shelf before her.
Quickly, I attempt to flatten my disobedient hair with one hand and my ridiculous employee vest with the other as I take a few steps toward her. She hasn't noticed my presence despite my rather noisy approach, and I take a fleeting moment to consider her in a way I never do at school. She's beautiful. Well, she's always been beautiful, ever since we were kids who lived next door to each other and she would hang upside down from the low branches of the pear tree between our houses, the ends of her long brown hair dragging through the grass.
"Come on, Edward," she would tease. "It's not scary."
I would eventually climb up onto the branch and carefully arrange my legs around it until I was dangling upside down right beside her. "See?" she would say, turning to face me, her face redder than normal from all of the blood rushing into it. "No big deal."
"No big deal," I would agree, even though I never much cared for the way the world looked when it was flipped upside down.
I should have taken it as an omen when Chief Swan chopped down that tree the summer we were twelve; when Bella moved across town the following year after her father got promoted to Chief of Police, she stopped looking at the world from a different angle with me. Instead, she started looking at it like other people expected her to, and she stopped looking at me altogether. In time, I stopped looking at her, too, even if it was purely out of self-preservation. After all, when Mike Newton slams you up against a locker and tells you he'll cut your balls off if he catches you ogling his girlfriend one more time, you take that shit to heart.
I may not have much use for my balls just yet, but I'd like to keep them all the same.
Still, Mike's not here right now, and I take a split second to enjoy the sight of her before opening my mouth. "Hey, Bella," I say in greeting, and her head whips around to stare at me, a sudden flush flooding her face. Immediately, I remember what she looked like hanging upside down beside me, pink-cheeked and grinning. Now, though, she's not smiling. In fact, she sort of looks like I caught her shoplifting. But that would be ridiculous, because not only is she the Chief of Police's daughter, she also has a conscience. Even if she doesn't generally acknowledge at me, at least Mike doesn't give me shit when she's around, and I know it has to do with the time she lit him up for doing just that when she was within earshot. Still, I glance toward the shelf she's standing in front of, and her sudden discomfiture hits me as I realize what aisle we're in.
Feminine hygiene products.
In more common vernacular: tampons and rubbers.
"Um, did you, uh, need help finding anything?" I stammer, feeling a familiar heat creep into my own face. Fuck. Like I'll be any good if she asks me for help with tampons. Or condoms, for that matter.
"Um. No." She ducks her head. "Thanks. I'm good."
"Okay. Well, give a holler if you need anything."
I barely see her nod before I spin to make my escape and crash into a cardboard display of incontinence pads.
I hate my life.
"Shit," I mutter, stuffing the purple and pink plastic sleeves back into the cardboard stand, which of course chooses this minute to fold in on itself. "Fuck," I mutter, shoving the entire contraption up against the shelving unit. "I'll just, um. Do that later." I glance to where Bella is standing wide-eyed, staring at the collapsed display, before bolting from the aisle.
Smooth, jackass. Not that she didn't already know you were a total freaking spaz, but way to confirm it for her.
Good thing I work somewhere I can get a discount on cold compresses; I might need one for my astoundingly bruised ego. It isn't until I'm back in place behind the register, silently swearing at my less-than-suave self for that rather spectacular display of loserhood, that I realize that Bella wasn't quite far enough down the aisle to be buying tampons. Mike Newton's face floats through my mind and I feel indignation, righteous and bitter, rising within me. What kind of fucking asshole sends his girlfriend to the store to buy the condoms?
Answer: Mike Fucking Newton. King of the assholes.
Granted, I've never been in a position to need condoms, but even if I were, I can't imagine making that the girl's responsibility. I mean, she's doing you a favor by agreeing to sleep with you, right? The least you can do is come prepared.
I'm treated to the rather nauseating realization that this is further proof that Bella is, in fact, sleeping with that utter dickhead, and it makes me even sadder than when I first heard Mike bragging about it in the locker room before gym. Then, I could pretend he was lying, that it was the unfounded boasting of a guy wanting to impress his lemmings. But this, Bella buying rubbers, is pretty damning evidence that he wasn't bullshitting. I didn't think it was possible to hate him more than I already did until this moment. I cast about for something to at least give the appearance that I'm busy, but options are limited. As I reach for the all-purpose cleaner and the roll of paper towel that we keep beneath the counter, I catch movement from the corner of my eye.
"I, um. Didn't think you worked on Fridays," Bella says as she shuffles up to the front of the store, and I fight to keep the surprise from my face. She knows when I work?
"Yeah, I don't usually. I'm uh, filling in for Gemma."
"Oh." She shifts her weight and I peer down at her; she's looking down at her feet, and the part in her dark brown hair is crooked. She looks more disheveled than she does at school, and the possibility occurs to me that Mike actually sent her out mid-act to buy them. And my hatred grows.
"All set?" I ask finally, and she peers up at me, lips twitching. That tiny thing takes me back years, to when she was hedging and she would chew on the inside of her lower lip. I remember how the skin inside her mouth would be raw from where she'd damn near chewed it off, and how it was so much worse after her mom left.
"Yeah," she says, her voice tiny and soft, and I'm reminded of Roger's spiel that he gave me when he hired me a year and a half ago.
"Don't bat an eye," he said. "People will come in to buy condoms, women will come in to buy women's things. Don't react to anything; just put it in the bag."
I'm turning the mantra over in my head as Bella takes a step closer to the counter; when her hand comes into view and she places a small, rectangular box on top of the paper sign I'd been considering earlier, my heart leaps into my throat. Because in addition to condoms, there's another part of the "family planning" aisle I hadn't thought to consider.
Roger's warnings fly out of my head as my eyes snap to her face; once again, her cheeks are red and she's not meeting my eye. "Please don't," she whispers, and I'm frozen in place, my eyes on her face, my heart stuttering in my chest. "Don't say anything."
I nod and ring up the purchase, trying to act casual as I slide the box into the white plastic bag with the Forks Pharmacy logo on the side and glance at the register display. "Seven forty-nine," I say, and she pulls a twenty from the back pocket of her jeans. As I count out her change, I shoot for small talk. "I didn't see your truck in the lot." Bella's enormous red rust-bucket of a truck was the one thing I held onto when our paths diverged, the one indication that despite the new circle of friends and the dipshit boyfriend and the promotion to the higher Forks income bracket and subsequent escalation up the Forks High food chain, the girl with the skinned knees and flyaway hair was still in there somewhere. She'd been talking about buying that truck back when we were still friends and her dad's buddy would drive it over from the reservation; that she actually did it – probably to the amusement of Mike Newton and Lauren Mallory and all of the other Forks High white-collars – made me think there might still be hope for her, after all. It rarely appeared in the school parking lot, due to the fact that most days she arrived in the passenger seat of Mike's Mitsubishi Eclipse, but she bought it, and that had to count for something.
"My truck died, and I didn't want to ask Charlie to give me a ride for obvious reasons."
I nod. It's been a while since I had any reason to interact with Chief Swan, but I can't imagine that the possibility that his daughter is knocked up at seventeen would go over too well.
"What about Mike?" I ask, hoping the sneer that was in my mind when I said his name wasn't evident in my voice.
"Mike and I aren't—" She shakes her head. "We broke up."
Well, shit. "Oh," I say aloud, and while yesterday or the day before or any of the nearly two years' worth of days before that the news of a Mike-and-Bella breakup would have filled me with glee, right now my heart hurts. "I'm sorry," I say lamely, and she barks out a bitter laugh.
"Yeah. Me too." The anger in her voice makes me think she's not talking about the breakup, but it's been years since Bella told me what she was thinking, and I don't have the stones to ask her for clarification.
As much as I hate that she's going through this, as much as I want to fucking rip Mike Newton apart piece by piece – starting with the piece that got Bella into this mess – there's a tiny part of me that's relieved. Standing in this air-conditioned drug store with her hair a mess and her clothes rumpled and worn, dirty sneakers on her feet, Bella looks more like the girl I used to climb trees with than she has in years.
I hand over her change and pull the receipt from the roll. "Do you want your receipt in the bag?" I ask, and she stares at it for a moment as if this is decision with consequences.
"Um, you can just throw it away," she replies, and I nod as I crumple the tiny rectangle of paper in my fist and drop it into the small plastic trash can beneath the counter. I pull the bag from its metal hooks and pass it over the counter; as she takes it from me, I notice that her nails are bitten down to the quicks. I expect her to head for the door, but she's still standing before me, staring at the bag in her hands. "My father's going to kill me," she says finally, her voice heavy with regret. I remember how close she and Charlie were after Renee skipped town, and I wonder if that's changed in the years since. I wonder how the chief felt about Mike Newton, if he agreed with me that while Bella's a smart girl, her taste in guys is abysmal. "He doesn't even know I was…" She trails off, but it doesn't matter – if Charlie knew that Mike was nailing his daughter, I'd surely have heard a story about him cocking his service revolver in Newton's general direction. Suddenly, standing behind the register on higher ground than Bella's on feels all wrong, and I quickly round the counter and step down to stand beside her, reaching out under pretense of straightening the cardboard boxes of Snickers and Milky Way bars in front of the register.
"Maybe you're not," I offer, even though we're approaching the edge of what I'm comfortable discussing with a girl. "Pregnant, I mean."
Bella looks up and gazes at me steadily. "I'm five days late," she says in challenge, and I shift my weight as I let my hands fall to my sides. Yep, that's the limit. Girls and their…stuff.
"Oh," I offer, at a loss to give her anything more. With the exception of health class, my only experience with that "stuff" was yelling at Rosalie when she'd leave her girly shit out in the bathroom we shared. I mean, a guy uses that space, too – the least she could do was stash that shit in a drawer or something. How'd she like it if I left my lotion and Kleenex out on the counter for the sake of convenience?
"Yeah, oh," Bella replies, bringing me back to the present moment. She's staring at the bag once again, the two-pack of ClearBlue digital pregnancy tests visible through the flimsy white plastic. We stand side by side in silence for a few breaths, and the parallel doesn't escape me: the world has flipped upside down, and Bella is beside me again. Even though, in this moment, I'm pretty sure that while I'm thrilled by the simple fact of her company, she'd rather be anywhere else. "Edward?"
"Do you think I could…use your bathroom?" My eyes fly to her face, and I have no doubt my surprise is visible. She flushes and looks back down. "I just…you're the only person I've told. It'd be nice to have someone to…wait with." Her nose wrinkles as if she's just thought of something particularly unpleasant. "And if Charlie finds the box or something, I'm screwed."
I bite my tongue against the retort that, given the evidence at hand, the screwing part of the program is decidedly in the past. "Sure," I say instead, even as the idea of sitting beside Bella at such a crucial moment is terrifying. "Of course," I add for good measure. "It's in the back. I can show you…" I trail off, tilting my head toward the staff room, but her eyebrows knit themselves together in a small frown.
"Oh. Um. Actually." She fishes out the ten-dollar bill from the change I've just given her. "I, um. Should buy something to drink first." She flushes slightly, and I'm confused for a beat until I clue in to the obvious: she has to pee on the stick.
"Right," I say quickly, turning and heading for the cooler on the wall perpendicular to the cosmetics. "We have all the Coke products – Coke, Diet, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Mello Yello, Nestea – and all the Powerades, or Dasani…" I trail off, both because she has eyes and can therefore see exactly what her beverage options are, and because when the fuck did I become a waiter?
"Just a bottle of water would be great," she says, and I grab a bottle of Dasani for her and a Dr. Pepper for myself. As the door to the cooler swings shut with an audible suck, I hold the bottle of water out toward her. She extends the crumpled bill, but I shake my head.
"I get a discount," I offer lamely, immediately embarrassed by my attempt at casual and the barely-there amusement evident in the faint curl of her mouth.
The first time I bought a girl a drink – didn't quite go as I'd imagined.
"Thanks," she says simply, and I nod as I make my way back toward the register. Instead of slipping behind it, I sink to the floor in front of it and uncap my soda, stretching my legs out in front of me on the ugly checkered industrial carpet and leaning back against the front of the counter. Bella eyes me for a minute before following my lead and sinking down beside me, stretching her legs out and placing the bagged pregnancy test on the floor between us.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, I peek over at her. Her lips are wrapped around the mouth of the bottle and her eyes are staring at the display across from us: sand toys and sunblock and cheap plastic flip-flops. "So…Mike doesn't know?"
She shakes her head. "Mike doesn't know," she confirms, and her eyes darken slightly.
I hope I'm not reading her wrong, but fuck it if I am: sometimes shit just needs to be said. "He's an asshole," I offer, and she barks out a sardonic laugh.
"Where were you with that insight two years ago?" she asks with a sigh.
"You stopped listening to me long before two years ago." The words are out before I can swallow them, and I feel my own eyebrows shoot upward in a mirror image of what hers do. Evidently, sitting beside her staring at a world gone topsy-turvy has lured me into a false sense of familiarity. I cringe, awaiting the backlash, but it doesn't come.
"Yeah. Why did I do that?"
"I don't know," I reply, and I'm immediately embarrassed by the hurt in my voice. I'm remembering the first day of eighth grade and sitting at a lunch table by myself, and the three weeks I spent doing that very same thing until Jasper Whitlock arrived in Forks with his cowboy boots and southern accent and love of Dungeons & Dragons and took the seat beside me, saving me from an entire year – and an entire high school career – of lunchtime ostracism. I remember staring across the cafeteria, long before Mike Newton warned me against it, seeing her laughing with Lauren and Jessica and Alice and wondering what the hell I'd done to make her stop being my friend.
She must hear the hurt because she turns to stare at me. "I'm really sorry, Edward. I'm sorry I did that."
I nod. I should probably say something flippant and dismissive, like, "It's no big deal," or "Don't worry about it," but I can't force the words to my lips. I've never been a very good liar. "Me too," I say finally, and Bella's big brown eyes are sadder than they have been all night.
"God, I'm really, really sorry I did that."
I nod again, and despite my discomfort, I feel as though I've cut one of the lead weights that have kept me from flying. "Why did you?" I ask, crossing my legs and picking at the rubber label at the back of my sneakers. It's just starting to come away from the sole, and I've been messing with it for weeks.
"I don't know," she says finally, and from the corner of my eye I can see her watching my hand. "I just…Lauren was really nice to me all of a sudden, and I never had girl friends before. And I knew you didn't like her, so I was embarrassed and I stopped telling you stuff and started telling her stuff. And then Mike came along, and…" She pauses and begins fiddling with her shoelaces. "I knew you hated him. You'd always hated him. But he seemed so nice, in the beginning. I thought maybe you were wrong about him. And then I thought I was in love with him, you know?"
I shrug, because I don't. The closest I've ever been to thinking I was in love with someone was years ago, and what do eleven-year-olds know about love, anyway? Thinking someone's got really pretty eyes and liking the way her lips turn sort-of-purple after eating a red, white, and blue turbo rocket popsicle and thinking she's a hell of a wall-ball player aren't exactly the stuff of Shakespearean sonnets.
Suddenly, she seems embarrassed. "Well, anyway." She takes another sip of her water and turns the cap between her thumb and forefinger like a wheel. "I'm sorry, Edward."
"Thanks," I say finally, and she squints up at me for a moment, those brown eyes bruised and serious, before nodding and looking away. Abandoning my sneaker, I start picking at the label on my soda bottle. Bella glances at my hand and I think I hear her giggle before she glances away; when I look over, her cheeks are faintly pink.
"Nothing," she replies quickly, shaking her head.
"Seriously, what?" She shakes her head again, and I feel a not-entirely-unfamiliar thread of irritation weave its way through me. "Yeah, because I don't get enough people laughing at me on a daily basis already. Thanks."
Surprise chases the amusement from her face, and as Bella stares at me, I feel a shaming mix of embarrassment and guilt gnaw at me. The last thing a knocked-up, single seventeen-year-old needs is my dumping a guilt trip on her. "Sorry," I mumble, picking at the label once again, and from the corner of my eye I see her shift on the carpet.
"No, I just…the label thing."
I frown as I look over at her, utterly clueless as to what she's talking about. "Label thing?"
She dips her head in the direction of the bottle in my lap. "Peeling the label. It's, um. Supposedly a sign of sexual frustration."
"Oh," I say, still peeling until the implication of her words settles in. "Oh!" I snatch my hand away from the label and feel heat suffuse my face. "Um."
Bella's looking at me intently, and I can't remember the last time I was in the spotlight of her attention like this. Any other time I'd likely be thrilled, but the context of our conversation only makes me want to bolt. Finally, determined to at least shoot for cool even if I land, as usual, among the losers, I shrug. "I'm seventeen and single. Isn't horny sort of a universal condition?"
Her eyes fly to my mine, and even with years between our friendship and now, I can't miss the relief and gratitude that sweep across her face, mingled with a healthy dash of surprise. Finally, as the silence approaches awkward, she smiles. "Yeah. I guess it is. Well, I'm newly single, so welcome me to your ranks."
I hold up my Dr. Pepper in salute, and she clinks her water bottle with it. "To the self-lovers," I toast, and her cheeks pink. Realizing what I've admitted, I feel my face do the same thing, and I take a generous swig of soda. We lapse back into silence, Bella taking measured sips of her water as I gulp my Dr. Pepper, wanting to get to the end of it before the bite of the carbonation diminishes. Half-flat Dr. Pepper just sucks, and I've never understood why it goes flat so quickly.
"So how come you don't date?" she asks carefully, and I opt not to comment on the fact that now she's the one picking absently at the Dasani label.
"Dating implies two willing participants," I reply. "I'm missing half the equation."
She peeks over at me. "Angela Weber wasn't a willing participant?"
My mind darts momentarily back to the handful of relatively awkward dates I went on with the minister's daughter last semester. If there's anyone nearly as intimidating for a teenage boy as a cop father, it's a minister father. I shrug. "She was. We just…weren't that compatible." I opt not to clarify; I doubt Bella would find Angela's lack of appreciation for "Dr. Who" and general distaste for Harry Potter as valid grounds for dismissal. She did let me get my hand up her shirt – over the bra – but when we stopped making out and started talking, it was pretty clear that it wasn't meant to be.
"She's nice," Bella says, and I nod.
"She is," I reply, but my mind is still in the backseat of my decrepit Volvo station wagon with Angela's small, lace-clad breasts in my palms, and I can feel my unsatisfied boner from earlier making an ill-timed reappearance. Bella clears her throat, the sound oddly reminiscent of a moan, and the semi in my jeans is a full-on. I lurch upward, turning away from her and gulping the last of my soda before circling the counter and dumping the bottle in the trash can behind it. Normally I'd save it and recycle it, but I figure my dignity is worth five cents' worth of recyclable plastic.
I hear the sound of Bella grabbing the plastic bag and moving to stand before she reappears in the space before me. "Sorry," she says, embarrassed. "I didn't mean to be…nosy."
I shake my head, grateful for the counter between us but all too aware of the fact that my height means that my fly is only just hidden. Silently, I will the situation in my jeans to calm itself. "It's cool," I say, even though I myself am anything but. She takes another measured sip of her water, and I look away; can she just finish the fucking thing off before she finishes me off? But she lowers the bottle again, and the thing's damn near half full.
"Okay," she says simply. I busy myself turning to a blank page in the binder of signatures where customers have signed for their prescription meds, capping the pen and sliding it through the three binder rings as my hard-on mercifully wanes. "My father's seriously going to kill me," she says again, and while any girl would likely be freaked out about that exact scenario, I know how much Bella loves her dad. The looming possibility that she's going to disappoint him in a pretty huge way is clearly bugging her. "He never much cared for Mike," she adds after a moment, and I feel the tiniest hint of smug satisfaction at this admission. Then I remember that Mike has kissed, touched, slept with Bella and potentially knocked her up, and the brief spark of amusement is extinguished.
"Yeah," is all I can think to say, and I remember my mother's attempt at the safe sex talk with me when I was thirteen, after my father was long gone.
"Make sure that, when the time comes, you make good decisions, Edward," I can remember her saying. "It's okay to be in love with someone, and it's okay to express that love, but it's important that you do it in a responsible way. You owe that to yourself and your future, and you owe it to the future of the woman you love, too."
Typical of my mother, really, to present it in that way – to take the taboo out of it entirely. It also wasn't lost on me that she chose the word "woman" instead of "girl," subtly implying that such a decision should be in my distant future. As if the near future were even an option, given my already-obvious tendency toward geekhood and single loserdom.
Fleetingly, I imagine being responsible for Bella's future, imagine sharing that with her, and a familiar pang of hurt mixed with longing jabs me in the ribs. Somehow, it was easier to push the ache of yearning aside when I didn't look at her. Now that I have, now that I see hints of the tree-climbing girl in the almost-woman beside me, it's considerably less simple.
I notice all of the things I remember: those dark brown eyes, the hair that, if we were standing in the sun, I know would have faint traces of red mixed in with the brown. The smattering of pale freckles across the bridge of her nose and the slightly bucked front teeth.
But then there are new things, and they're all of the things that I spent the past two years purposely not noticing. Most of them, of course, are curves: the curve where her neck becomes shoulder, the curve where calves become ankles, the curve where chest becomes stomach and then the one where stomach becomes hips. The curve between lower lip and chin and the one between elbow and bicep. In the years I spent not looking, Bella got all of these curves, and right now I can't not see them.
I also can't not see the way she nurses that bottle, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "water torture." Tearing my eyes away, I emerge once again from behind the register and drag two of the on-sale folding canvas beach chairs from the cardboard box near the far end of the counter, opening them on the square of carpet where we were just sitting. Gesturing toward the red one, I sink into the blue, and Bella smiles faintly as she follows my cue, stashing her water in the cup holder cut into the fabric on the chair's armrest.
"I've missed you," she says softly, dragging me back to the conversation. She stretches her feet out in front of her again, tapping the white toes of her Converse sneakers together. I'm oddly mesmerized by the stretch of bare skin between the tops of her shoes and the cuffs of her jeans, which are folded just above her ankle.
"I never went anywhere, Bella."
"I know. I just…in the beginning, I convinced myself you wouldn't understand why I wanted another friend. And then so much time passed that I felt like, if I tried to fix things, you would just be mad at me. And then I was too much of a coward to apologize."
I turn this over in my mind for a few minutes. Finally, I force myself to look at her. "I might not have understood, but it probably would have hurt less than wondering what I did wrong."
"I'm sorry," she says again, and I feel another weight disappear. It's funny how often people say that apologies are just words, that "I'm sorry" isn't enough, and maybe I'm just a stupid kid who doesn't know anything, but in this moment, I feel like Bella's quiet "I'm sorry" has bandaged a wound I've been walking around with for years.
"Thanks," I say finally, and she nods. Grabs her water and takes another sip.
"My dad always asked about you. How you were doing and stuff. I think he wondered why you never came over or anything."
"I like your dad," I say, and I do. Even if the fact that he carries a gun intimidates the piss out of me, I still think that Chief Swan is a really nice guy. I always wished, as a kid, that my father had been less of a deadbeat asshole and more like Bella's dad.
"How's your mom?" she asks, picking determinedly at the chipped remnants of dark purple polish on her bitten-down nails.
"Good," I reply. "She's, uh, actually got a boyfriend."
Bella's surprised eyes look up. "Get out! Who?"
Her eyes widen further. "Dr. Cullen? Like, Carlisle Cullen?" Off my nod, she sighs. "God, he's so hot. Go, Esme."
I make a face, even though I have to admit that Carlisle is a step up from Mike Newton, so perhaps there's hope for Bella's taste in men after all. "Yeah. He's, uh, pretty cool. My mom really likes him."
"Do you think they'll get married?"
I shrug. "Maybe." Secretly, I hope so. With Rosalie happily entrenched in life and college on the opposite side of the country and me – God willing – going to college somewhere far, far away from Forks next fall, I hate the idea of my mother alone in an empty house.
"You know," Bella muses, "When we were kids, after my mom left, I sort of always wanted your mom and my dad to get married."
"Really?" I don't admit that, at least for a while, I wanted that, too. Until I started noticing eyes and lips and decided that maybe stepsister wasn't exactly the role I wanted Bella to play in my life.
"Really. Your mom is so sweet, and Charlie…" She trails off and shakes her head. "He's hopeless when it comes to dating."
I try to picture Chief Swan going out for dinner with a woman, but I can't see him in anything but his police-issued uniform or a plaid flannel shirt. "Not too many options in Forks," I say finally, and Bella chuckles.
"Isn't that the truth?" I can't tell if we're still talking about our parents or if Bella's mind has come full-circle back to Mike, but she takes another swig from her bottle and the half-smile fades from her lips. "I don't…if I'm pregnant, I don't think I'm going to keep it." Brown eyes find mine. "Do you think that makes me a bad person?"
I don't even need time to think about that; I shake my head. "No. I think it makes you seventeen."
She blows out a breath. "I just…I really want to go to college. And I want to have a career. And I know my father would say, 'Well, you should have thought of that.' But I just…I was stupid. I know I was. But I still want things, and I don't know how I'd make them happen if I had a baby before I ever left high school." Her nose wrinkles, as if she's smelled something unpleasant. "And I don't think I want a reminder of Mike for the rest of my life."
"Can't blame you there," I say, feeling more willing to bad-mouth her ex-boyfriend as time wears on. I just hope that, come September, she hasn't gone back to him. "So why would you even have to tell your dad? I mean, if you're not going to keep it?"
She sighs. "Insurance. It'll show up somehow on Charlie's insurance bill, I'm sure. And I can't afford to pay cash." She looks down. "And…I don't know…I feel like I fucked up enough as it is. I don't want to lie to him. Maybe it's a good thing Mike and I broke up, anyway. If he's not around, maybe my dad won't get in trouble for assault."
I half-laugh, but she looks serious. "Why did you break up?"
She tips her head back against the headrest of the chair and lolls it from side to side in an approximation of a head-shake. "Because he's an asshole," she says simply. "A cheating asshole."
"Oh." I frown at the knees of my jeans. "Well, I'd offer to kick his ass for you, but I don't think me winding up in traction will help your situation any." It's the first honest-to-God laugh I've heard out of her all night – the first one in years, in fact – and it makes something almost-forgotten bloom in my chest. "Seriously," I continue. "He may be a cheating asshole, but he's a big cheating asshole. With a lot of big, football-playing, asshole friends. And I like you and everything, but having my limbs in plaster isn't exactly how I want to spend the rest of my summer vacation."
She's still giggling, and I feel my own smile stretch my face. "Well, your sort-of chivalry is duly noted."
I nod. "Excellent. If you have any cute, single friends, be sure to spread the word that I'm a sort-of-chivalrous type who'd be happy to buy them dinner."
"I'll do that," she says, but her amusement dims slightly.
She shakes her head. "I don't know if…" She picks at her nail. "I'm not sure I have much pull with those girls these days." Glancing up at me, she half-shrugs. "The cheating asshole was cheating with one of them."
I feel a pang of sympathy for her. Losing friends hurts. "Well, they're not really my type, anyway."
"Oh?" she asks, and I'm pretty sure I can see relief on her face. "And what is your type?"
I pretend to consider the question, making a show of tapping my chin with my index finger and staring at the ceiling. "Must love dorks. Tolerant of gaming. At least a passing understanding of Dungeons & Dragons. Meat-eater."
Her lips twitch. "Is that a euphemism?"
I frown momentarily before my eyes go wide, and I feel the dreaded flush creeping up my neck. "What? No!"
She giggles again. "Just checking."
"I mean…that would be fine, too, of course. Great, even. Better than great." I scratch my nose. "I didn't mean…that, though."
She wraps her lips around the mouth of her water bottle, and if she isn't doing that shit on purpose, she's the most obliviously coquettish chick in the history of the world. Or at least my corner of it. "Okay," she says, peeking over at me before lowering the Dasani and reaching out a fingertip. I think she's going to poke me in the chest until she touches my name tag. "Is that the TARDIS?"
I can't hide my surprise. "You watch 'Doctor Who'?"
She shrugs. "I like it. I haven't seen many of them, though; I just started watching some on Netflix."
"Which ones are you watching?"
"Um, some of the older ones with David Tennant?"
I nod. "Those are good ones."
She mirrors my nod. "That's good flair."
I laugh. "Thanks." We fall silent again, and something she said nags at me. "What if…" I lick my lips. "What if I went with you? To tell Charlie?"
"Moral support, or whatever."
"Edward, that's really sweet. But if you were standing beside me when told my father that I was pregnant, he'd think it was yours."
I'm treated to a sudden vision of tripping down the front porch steps of the Swans' house, the sound of bullets roaring through the air around me. Then I imagine Bella, standing alone in front of her dad, and something solidifies inside me. "Well…" I swallow. "I mean, if you're not planning to have it anyway, what does it matter whose he thinks it is?"
Shock. There's no other way to describe the look on Bella's face, and she doesn't say anything as she stares at me. I start to squirm, feeling increasingly uncomfortable the longer she stays silent. "I mean, I realize the idea of sleeping with me probably isn't the most appealing concept ever, but it's not like anyone at school has to know. And maybe the fact that we were once friends – or neighbors – means your dad won't shoot me." She's still staring, and I'm starting to panic. "Okay, please say something."
"You'd seriously do that?"
"Yes," I say immediately, and she's back to staring.
"Edward," she begins, but she doesn't say anything more. She's still staring at me, and just as I start to fidget, a soft "Why?" falls from her lips.
I stop, considering her question. Why, indeed? "Because we were friends, once." She doesn't say anything, just keeps looking at me like she's waiting for more, and as was always the case with Bella, I want to give her whatever she wants. "Remember that time we got into a fight over by the creek and you were mad at me so you walked all the way home by yourself?"
"Well, after a couple of days, my mom asked me why you weren't coming over, and I told her about our fight and about you walking home. She told me that being best friends with a girl is a sacred thing. She said it meant that I always had to look out for you, even when we were mad at each other." I shrug. "After that I couldn't get it out of my head, and it made me feel sort of…protective I guess." I shake my head, embarrassment creeping in. "It's stupid."
"It's not stupid." Her voice is still soft, and I'm too embarrassed to look at her.
"Anyway, it's probably that."
I'm even more embarrassed by the implication: that even after four years of her essentially ignoring me, it hasn't gone away. I don't know if that makes me noble or just really pathetic, but with the way she's staring at me right now, I don't give a shit which one it is.
"No, seriously. Thank you." She frowns. "For being a better friend to me than I ever was to you." I shrug, but any nonchalance I was going for vanishes the moment her small, cool hand closes over mine. "We still have an entire senior year left. Do you think you'd let me make it up to you?"
My sense of self-preservation is whispering in my ear, all of the possible what-if scenarios that would have her back at her usual lunch table come September with me once again left out in the cold. But as I gaze at her and see the open, expectant, hopeful look on her face, for whatever reason, I believe her. I was never a very good liar, but neither was Bella. And she's still holding my hand.
"Sure," I say. "But you're going to have to learn to play Dungeons & Dragons."
She laughs. "Deal." Letting go of my hand, she reaches for her water again and drains it, wiping her lips with the back of her free hand in a gesture so reminiscent of years ago that it makes me smile. As she recaps the bottle, she looks up at me, her eyes suddenly terrified. The protectiveness I'd alluded to swells within me again, and this time I'm the one who reaches for her hand. "Ready?"
Her mouth twitches again, and I know the inside of her bottom lip is going to be sore tomorrow. "Okay." She follows me to the back of the store and through the staff room door, which I prop open with a cinderblock so that I'll be able to hear the bell over the front door on the off-chance that someone else comes into the store. I gesture to the small door on the right-hand wall with the standard male/female restroom sign on it. "There you go."
She nods and, clutching the plastic bag tightly in a white-knuckled fist, crosses the small space and disappears into the restroom. I hear the click of the lock, and I lower to a crouch with my back against the open door, hands clasped between my knees. I'm not much for God or prayer, but I find a one-word mantra looping over and over in my brain.
I hear the rustle and tear of a box being opened and then silence; I assume she must be reading some instructions, although I can't imagine how complicated "pee on the stick" can be. Then I hear some familiar but private sounds, and I begin humming to drown out the sound of Bella peeing. I might maybe-love her and everything, but that doesn't mean I need to hear…things. Rustling, a zip, a flush, the sound of water running, the crinkle of paper towels, and she appears in the open doorway. I look up, my heart suddenly hammering, but her face is a mask. Finally, I can't take the suspense. "Well?!"
Her eyebrows hitch slightly. "Oh. Um. We have to wait. Three minutes."
Glancing down, I fiddle with the digital watch Dr. Cullen gave me for Christmas. It's really cool and has all of these functions and features, and I'm actually pretty psyched about this three minutes thing, because I'm not the jock-type, and most of the things you'd use a stopwatch-timer for are jock-type things. Granted, I never anticipated that my first opportunity to use this particular function would be to time a pregnancy test, but still. "Okay," I say over the beep that signals time is running and stand up. "Got it. Three minutes." She nods and wrings her hands.
"Holy shit," she breathes, and I stare at her face.
"I just…these could be the last three minutes, you know? Like, the last three minutes before…things are different." I don't revisit the fact that she has already decided not to keep it – if there is an "it" – because I don't know shit about girls and pregnancy and abortions and what that might do to a girl like Bella. Instead, I feel a sudden sense of purpose.
"Okay. What should we do?"
Her forehead creases in confusion. "What?"
"The next three minutes. Let's do something. Something…stupid or funny or fun or…just…something." She shakes her head, clearly still not quite clueing in to my meaning, when sudden inspiration strikes me. Grabbing her hand, I drag her to the front corner of the store and the ice cream fridge situated beside the drinks cooler. "Pick one."
"Come on! Two minutes and thirty seconds. Just…pick one!"
She leans over the cooler – curves, so many curves – and reaches for the handle of the door, sliding it aside and reaching in. When her hand comes out clutching a turbo rocket Popsicle, I know without a doubt that there's no maybe about loving her. Still.
I reach in and grab my go-to – a Chipwich – and as I begin yanking the wrapper off, she follows my lead. I take a massive bite of the ice-cream-cookie-chocolate-chip goodness and chew, cringing slightly as the sudden cold makes my molars ache. Bella wraps her lips around the Popsicle and if I thought the water bottle was bad, I had no idea what torture lay in store for me now.
"Oh my God," she murmurs, closing her eyes. "I forgot how good these were." Then, however, she bites the tip of the ice pop off, and my fantasies are effectively destroyed.
"Right?" I say, watching as she works her Popsicle and I take huge bites out of my dessert. Her faintly red lips wrap around the pop again, taking another chunk with them when she pulls off, and around the hunk of cherry-flavored ice rolling around in her mouth, she asks. "Ow muh time?"
I glance down at my watch. "One fifty-five," I say, taking another bite.
She bounces on her toes, and I don't know if it's the ice she's chomping or the countdown to her perceived moment of life upheaval, but I want, suddenly, to freeze time and stay in this moment with her forever. I don't want to know if she's pregnant with Mike Newton's kid or if she isn't; I don't want to finish my cookie-ice-cream sandwich or have her toss her Popsicle stick in the trash. I want this moment to stretch out ahead of us like a long road with no traffic and no turn-offs and no roadside stops: just a long stretch of road we have to walk together.
I don't realize I've stopped eating until she reaches out and wraps her cold fingers around my wrist, forcibly lifting my Chipwich to my mouth. "Come on!" she demands around a mouthful of white ice, and I follow her directions, taking another bite as Bella gets closer to the blue end of her pop.
Another peek at my watch. "One minute."
She bounces some more, which does admittedly wonderful things to a few of those newly acquired curves in particular, and I should probably feel bad for checking out the tits of a potentially pregnant girl I've known since I was five, but I don't. I simply take another bite and watch as Bella's lips begin to turn purple. Just as I stuff the remaining bite of my Chipwich in my mouth, Bella sucks the final blue chunk of ice from the wooden stick, half-chewing and wincing and nodding her head toward my wrist.
"Thirty seconds," I say, and she nods as we stand stock-still, staring at each other and chewing the last bites of our sweets. I swallow, then she does, and we're staring at each other until the sound of a triple-beep echoes in the otherwise silent store. I break her gaze to glance down at my watch. "Time."
She laughs, but it's a nervous laugh and I want to hug her. "I think I have brain-freeze," she says, and I wonder if that's code-speak for, "Holy fuck, I'm scared out of my mind."
"Me too," I say, which is code-speak for, "Me too."
Before I can turn to lead the way back to the bathroom, Bella steps up close to me so that I can no longer see her curves or her clothes or anything but her deep brown eyes, her barely-there freckles, and her purple-tinted mouth – all the things that haven't changed. "Thank you, Edward," she says, and wraps her arms around my back, under my arms, ducking her chin and tucking her head into my chest. Immediately, I feel my arms rising to wrap around her back, and I rest my chin on the crown of her head. I can smell her shampoo – something faintly sweet like honey or almond milk – and I try to breathe normally. I want to thank her right back, but that would be weird, so I don't say anything. Instead, I just hold her until she pulls away. "Okay. Now or never, right?"
I half-nod, half-shrug, because this is her show. I follow her to the back this time and resume my place beside the door as she disappears into the bathroom. Almost immediately, she's back, her eyes as wide as saucers. I try to think of something supportive and encouraging to say – "It'll be all right," or "You'll be fine," or "Everything will be okay" – but really all I'm thinking is FUCK until I realize she's bouncing on her toes again.
"Negative," she squeaks, and something unravels in my chest. "Negative!" She crows, her eyes bright and cheeks flushed and hair a beautiful mess. "It's negative!" She's still bouncing, a white and blue stick that looks strangely like a pen gripped in one hand, and I'm grinning at her as her eyes go from the test to my face and back to the test. The brief burst of relief is short-lived, however, as she stills and a tiny crease appears between her eyebrows. "What if it's wrong?"
I glance at the discarded bag on the sink ledge behind her and the half-hidden open box inside it. "Maybe that's why there are two?"
"Oh," she says, glancing over her shoulder. "Right." Chewing the inside of her lip for a beat, she nods once, resolute, half-turning to chuck the test in the trash before facing me again. "Okay. This round's on me." Filled with a new sense of purpose, she marches through the door and toward the front of the store, snagging another bottle of water from the rack and glancing over her shoulder at me. "Another Dr. Pepper?"
"Uh, sure." She grabs a bottle and heads toward me, holding it out.
"I'm going to be on one hell of a sugar high," I say, raising the bottle to my lips, and Bella wraps her lips around the mouth of her water bottle and winks, and it's the sexiest fucking thing I've ever seen. I lower the bottle and clear my throat before lifting it again and starting to drink, watching Bella's mouth and throat muscles and chest and the way her brown eyes stare at the ceiling and the way her lower lip is still purple and how could I have ever thought that this girl was gone? She pauses halfway through the bottle and licks her lips, chest heaving, gulping breaths before lifting it to her mouth again and sucking down the rest of the water.
"Okay. That'll probably take a few minutes," she says, and I gulp the last of my soda down, the carbonation and sugar mingling in my chest, and I wonder if this is the buzz that people who drink coffee are going for. If so, they're nuts, because it's pretty unpleasant. A sudden, violent belch escapes my mouth, and I'm just opening my mouth to apologize when Bella giggles.
"I'd give that an eight-point-five," she says, and instantly I remember when we were ten and I tried to teach her to belch the alphabet. She was hopeless.
"I feel…sort of sick," I admit, and Bella looks mildly nauseous.
"Yeah. My stomach feels…sloshy."
I laugh. "Sloshy?"
She shrugs. "That's how it feels." Rubbing my own stomach, I nod in agreement. "Sloshy" is actually a pretty good descriptor. She flops into one of the canvas beach chairs we'd abandoned, and I lower myself into the one beside her, hand still rubbing my stomach.
"I need food," I say absently, the sugar surging through my veins and making me feel like the only solution is a greasy burger and a mountain of fries.
"Diner's open until midnight," Bella reminds me, and I nod.
"After we close, I'm definitely getting a burger."
I peek over at her and she flushes, peering up at me from beneath lowered lids. "I mean…if you don't mind the company. My treat. It's the least I can do."
"Bella, there's no way I'm letting you pay."
"Oh, right. I forgot about your almost-chivalrous nature," she teases, and I roll my eyes.
"I may not be Don Quixote, but I can at least buy a girl a burger." The words are surprisingly revealing – far more so than I intended – and I realize that they came out sounding very…date-like. "I mean…not that it's like that. I know that. I didn't mean…" I trail off, searching for the right words.
"I, um. I would consider myself a willing participant?"
"Huh?" Still adrift in my sea of ill-chosen words, I'm lost as to what the heck she's talking about.
"You know…the…dating thing? You said you were missing the other half of the equation? I could…be it. If you wanted."
If I wanted. If I wanted Bella. If.
"Yes," is all I can think to say. And then, "I want." The truest words I've ever said, perhaps.
"Okay," she says, blowing out a relieved breath. Then, quieter, almost to herself, "Okay." We sit in silence for a few minutes, the hum of the overhead fluorescents and the hum of the drink cooler and the hum of the ice cream freezer the only sounds in the entire store. I realize, amid all of the humming, that Bella just asked me out. Bella just asked me out, and maybe it should make me feel like less of a man, more of a dork, but all it really makes me is happy.
"Since I maybe might not be pregnant…"
"Would you like to come over and watch 'Doctor Who' with me sometime?" Suddenly, I realize something that I haven't thought about in years: I've never been inside Bella's new house. I don't know what her bedroom looks like, or if she has a tree in her yard, or if Charlie put another hoop in the driveway. "I mean, if the test is still negative," she says quickly, mistaking my silence for indecision. "I get that…that…might make things…different?" It's question, though, as if she's as uncertain of me as I have been of her for the past four years.
"Bella, I'd love to. I just…tonight's been great. Better than great. This was fun, and I've…really missed you. But I don't want us to become friends again if you're just going to ditch me again down the road. I realize I'm not Mike Newton, but I have my pride."
"You're not Mike," she agrees softly, and I feel the balloon of hope that had inflated in me at her invitation begin to shrink. "And thank God for that."
And hope surges anew. Suddenly Bella rises from the chair and makes her way to the bathroom without looking back to see if I'm following. Which, of course, I am. She disappears into the restroom and I hum to give her a modicum of privacy; when she reemerges, she lowers herself and sits beside where I'm crouched against the open staff room door. I set my watch without her asking, and we sit side by side, staring at the shelves across from us that are stocked with inventory and rolls of receipt paper and garbage bags and cleaning products.
"Hey, Bella?" I ask when there are two minutes to go.
"Why did your dad chop down that tree?"
In my peripheral vision, I see her turn to face me. "The pear tree?"
"It was at the end of its life span," she says simply. "It had to be cut before it started to split."
"Oh." More silence, until there's only one minute left. "I really liked that tree."
"Me too." Her voice is soft, and this time I'm the one who turns to look at her.
"There's still a stump," I tell her, and her eyebrows hitch slightly. I don't know why I said that, or what significance it holds, but I feel like the fact that there's still a reminder – that the earth isn't smooth and flat like it would have been if Charlie had dug it out from the roots – means something.
"We have a really pretty oak tree in our backyard now," she says, and with thirty seconds to go, she reaches out and laces her fingers through mine. "The lowest branches are pretty high – we never could have reached them when we were kids – but I can just about reach the lowest one now. You wouldn't have a problem with it." Then, as I'm staring once again at the crooked part in her hair, she looks up at me and grins. "Wanna go tree climbing with me?"
Her grin widens, and her eyes drop to my mouth.
Her lips are still faintly purple and so, so pretty, and I've never wanted anything as much as I want to kiss this girl, in this moment. I can feel the sugar rolling around in my stomach, my heart thumping hard against my ribs, a knot of something – fear? Want? – forming at the back of my throat. Just as I square my shoulders slightly and begin to lean toward her, the mechanical beep-beep-beep of my watch breaks the moment.
"Time," she breathes, and I pull away, glancing at the watch that I suddenly hate as much as I'd loved it five minutes ago.
"Time," I echo, hoping that we get more of it. She rises, stepping into the bathroom and picking up the stick of the ledge of the sink. Her head is bent as she peers at it, and after a few beats, she drops it into the plastic trash can beside the toilet. Turning, she smiles. "Not pregnant."
I let my head fall back against the door behind me. "Thank God."
She laughs. "Tell me about it." I grin up at her but she's staring at me, a thoughtful look on her face. Before I can wonder too much about what she's thinking, she crosses the room and lowers herself to her knees beside me, placing a cool hand on my neck and leaning in. The moment those purple lips are on mine, I'm done. She kisses me slow and soft and sweet, her mouth partly open, warm, Popsicle-flavored breath puffing into my mouth until she pulls away. I want to pull her mouth back to mine, slip my tongue against hers, taste her for real, but I open my eyes and the last word she said before disappearing into the bathroom echoes in my brain. Time.
"When do you get off?" she breathes against my mouth.
In about six seconds, if you kiss me like that again. "Um," I say aloud. "Ten."
"Okay," she says, pressing one more soft kiss to my lips before rising and holding out a hand. I accept it and she pulls me to standing. "Is it okay if I wait for you? Here?"
She smiles, but suddenly her expression dims and she's chewing the inside of her mouth again. "What is it?" I ask, reaching out with a thumb and pulling gently on her chin to stop her chewing; it's amazing, how I suddenly feel free to just touch her, when two hours ago I couldn't even talk to her.
"I feel like I should tell you that I'm sort of turned off by the idea of sex at the moment," she says, her eyes uncertain. "I feel like you should know that, going in."
It's probably telling that even with sex off the table, I still want to just be with her. That said, hearing her say the word "sex" doesn't leave me entirely unaffected, and the idea that she's even entertaining the notion of sex in relation to me is going to fuel my fantasies for a long time, regardless of how quickly it does or doesn't happen. "I don't care," I admit. "As long as you'll still let me kiss you." Because I've never been one for the rocket Popsicles, but tasting them on her lips is pretty fucking amazing.
"You really don't care?"
"Bella, I've gone without for seventeen years. A couple more won't kill me." They might make my balls explode and the skin of my dick chafe from excessive wanking, but they won't kill me.
She rises to her toes and kisses me again, soft little Bella-kisses. "I promise it won't be years," she says against my lips.
Annnnnd I'm hard again.