The Dastardly Trans-Continental Prose Society (DTCPS)
for BelieveItOrNot on her birthday.
To our beloved Tam - May your birthday be filled with all the beauty and imagination that you've given to us.
"Part of me thinks you like having me standing on the sidelines, my feelings fastened to you as you twirl and bend and hit the ground."
Shakespeare reading Edward and elite gymnast Bella have some reckoning to do.
Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight
By: DreaminginNorweigen, IReen H, Moirae, & Thimbles.
But Mistress, Know Yourself.
"Pass it, Ty."
"Newton! Come on, man."
"What the hell was that, dude?!"
But I can tell you that of late this duke
Hath ta'en displeasure 'gainst his gentle niece,
Grounded upon no other argument
But that the people praise her for her virtues
And pity her for her good father's sake;
And, on my life, his malice 'gainst the lady
Will suddenly break forth. Sir, fare you well:
Hereafter, in a better world than this,
I shall desire more love and knowledge of you.
"Look out, Swan!"
I don't really know why I looked up. I was completely absorbed with the copy of As You Like It I had hidden inside a copy of FHM, but for some reason Jacob Black's shout made me trip over the words and lose the metre, and annoyed, my head shot up.
And then I saw her: Bella Swan.
I mean, I'd seen her before. She was a junior. Brown ponytail, super short, lean build. Sometimes she smiled at me as we crossed paths in the hallways, though we'd never really said more than "hey" and "hi" to each other. This was probably the first time I ever paid any real attention to her, though—the first time it felt like the sun was a spotlight shining down on her, capturing my focus.
She was jogging around the track when I looked up, looking tinier than usual as she ran laps around twenty odd guys mid-soccer match. She was wearing a tracksuit, school colors—I remembered she was on the gymnastics team.
When Jacob shouted at her, he booted the ball in her direction. I don't know if he meant to, or if he was just distracted, but I suspected the former. The expression on his face wasn't what you'd call friendly, but I barely had time to register it before she had all of my attention.
The ball bounced off her head, which I thought must've hurt, but then she ducked and bounced it off her forehead again, watched it fall, and kicked it straight back at Jake.
It hit him in the chest, and even from where I was sitting in the stands I could hear all the air leave his lungs with an "oof." It made me smile. Who doesn't like seeing the school's biggest dick, I mean jock, humiliated by a girl half his size?
There was a beat of echoing silence before the catcalls and jeers started.
"You just got nailed, man."
"Whoa. Swanny's got mad skills."
"Suck it, Black."
"Winded by your ex. Damn, Black, that's gotta sting." Newton's voice trailed off. As usual, he was the last to catch on.
The tension under the unforgiving sun made everything that much hotter. My spine felt like all the bones had been fused together as Jacob stalked across the field, his shoes digging into dry grass.
Hands on his hips, he leaned down towards her. Whatever he said, it was cruel. I'd never even really spoken to her, but the way her face dropped … I felt it square in my chest. Her expression went from impassive to crushed in the space of a sentence and it winded me.
Her, too, I'm pretty sure. I could see the effort it took for her to lift her head, straighten her shoulders, and look him in the eye. She nodded once, turned on her heel and disappeared down the shadowy corridor leading to the gym.
I don't really know why I did it, but I shoved my book and the stupid magazine in my bag, and I followed her—moving around the sides of the track as the soccer game resumed.
When I found her in the gym, she was standing underneath a set of uneven bars—and wearing a lot less clothes. Just a black sports bra and a pair of tiny black shorts.
I looked over my shoulder, thinking I should probably leave, but not really wanting to. I watched as she pulled her ponytail tight and rolled her shoulders a few times, the little squares of her stomach muscles flexing as she moved.
She wrapped tape around her wrists before putting these weird guard-things on her hands and then shoving them into a bowl full of that chalk stuff gymnasts use. She clapped and the white powder swirled and danced in the air around her, and for some reason it made her seem fey and mysterious. This fierce little girl half-disappearing in a plume of white dust.
"If you're going to watch, sit over there." She pointed to a chair by the wall, directly opposite her. "It's distracting having you in my periphery."
I was too surprised to do anything but obey.
Dumping my bag on the floor, I slouched into the molded plastic chair. She lifted her hands to shoulder height and tipped her head from side to side again, and suddenly, I was nervous. My belly churning and squeezing, I watched as she jumped and caught the lower bar. Before I could blink, she was on the higher one, swinging in these huge circles that made me dizzy.
I was sitting right on the edge of the chair, the plastic digging hard into the bones in my ass. Her swings had this rhythm to them, a metre, like poetry in motion, and somehow, even though I didn't know the first thing about what she was doing, I could feel her winding up for something. It was there in that tiny pause at the top of each swing with her toes pointed at the sky—she was going to do something risky, and somehow I knew it had everything to do with what I'd just witnessed on the track.
Round and round and round.
And then she was flying.
And then there was a really loud slapping noise and she was lying flat on her belly on the blue mat and I was on my feet running toward her, adrenaline spiking through me for the second time since I laid eyes on this girl. "Are you okay?"
She groaned and rolled onto her back. "Fine."
She ignored the hand I offer her, rocking back to her shoulders and using the momentum to stand up. Twisting her torso from side to side, she sighed. "Happens all the time. You get used to it."
"I'll take your word for it."
She smirked, looking at her toes, which were also covered in chalk. One of her ankles was wrapped in nude-colored tape. "Yes, Irina."
"Why are you in here with a boy and with no supervision?"
She blew out a breath and looked up. She winked at me. "I've got no idea why he's here."
"That still doesn't explain why I just saw you try for, and miss, a Geigner. What on earth are you thinking, trying that without a spotter?"
Bella shrugged. "Felt like it."
"Indeed. Well, I feel like making you do a hundred of everything."
Bella groaned, but Irina wasn't finished. "A hundred of everything, three times up the rope and then you and he can get out of my gym."
"Should I go?" I asked her, keeping my voice low. The coach lady was a little scary, to be honest.
"Nope." She started pulling the guards on her hands off. "You're my ride home."
I was still processing that as the coach made her exit and Bella started on her punishment. I hovered there for a moment, like a doofus, as Bella silently lowered down to the mat and proceeded to bang through a hundred sit-ups like it was nothing. The last time I'd done a sit up was a ninth grade physical fitness test—and I'd tapped out after a hard-won fifty.
When Bella rolled onto her stomach and started on a set of push-ups, I retreated to my chair—exhausted just watching her—and waited.
Arms strong, spine straight, shoulder blades flexing, she pumped through thirty before I realized I was counting along with each dip and rise. Her muted voice mimicked my silent tally, ribs expanding as she descended, numbers squeezed out with her breath as she rose: forty-one, forty-two, forty-three...
She popped to her back on the count of a hundred, wiping at her brow before she cycled through another two torturous-looking ab exercises—the kind of stuff you'd see on Esme's pilates DVDs when she'd taken over the TV in the basement on a Saturday morning. Bella got a little winded on the last set, and I thought surely that would be it. Really, how much more could she take? But after barely a moment to catch her breath, she marched over to the bar and lifted herself into a pull-up.
She didn't look at me, didn't even glance my way, and you'd think that would be a good thing. Here I was, watching this girl endure physical feats that put me to shame while I—what—counted in support? Pretty pathetic. But without some acknowledgment of my presence, it was like I was a creepy voyeur, some perv peeking through the curtains.
And while I like to think I'm better than that, I couldn't ignore the fact that what she was doing was really fucking hot. I mean, we're divided into these little tribes, right? Preening girls pretending to be dumber than they are, rich kids pretending to be more important than they are, quiet dorks—like me—pretending to be cooler than they are. How often do you see something so honest? Something so pure? This girl was more than an athlete; she was a living, breathing subversion of expectation. She was really and truly strong. Talented. Beautiful.
Her arms were shaking as she neared the end of the pull-ups—finally looking more human than machine—but still, she made it through. When she glanced at the water fountain on her way to the thick rope hanging from the ceiling, I thought perhaps her stoicism was for my benefit. Was she trying to impress me?
Color me impressed: go ahead and have that drink.
But she continued on without a stutter in her step, climbing the rope as sweat dripped down her spine, and doing it twice again before landing on the floor with a graceful plop.
When she was done—the tortuous tasks finally complete—she indulged in one long stretch, reaching arms high before folding at the waist and hugging her ankles. I looked away from the exceptional view of her rear and told myself she was not toying with me. None of this had anything to do with me. I was just some schmuck who had followed her into the gym—a schmuck with a car—but I could just as easily have been the balance beam or a thick stack of blue mats, for all she cared.
She looked over her shoulder as she rose, striding to the water fountain and taking a long drink. She wiped her mouth with a glistening arm, and I imagined how the salt on her lips might taste.
"Okay, Eddie, ready to take me home?"
It took me a moment to recover my voice. When I did speak, it was more reflex than thought that made its way out of my mouth. "E-Edward."
She was already zipping up the coat of her track suit by the time my brain caught up to her question. "Um, it's Edward. Not Eddie."
Her brows creased in confusion. "Isn't that what people call you? Eddie?"
"Not my friends."
I wasn't surprised she'd never heard my real name; I didn't have that many friends. Where else would she hear someone address me but in the halls as some asshole shoved me aside on his way to class? Out the way, Eddie!
She shrugged her backpack over a shoulder and studied me with cool detachment. "Does that mean we're supposed to be friends, now?"
I stood uneasily, wondering if this was some sort of test.
"No, I wasn't—I didn't mean–"
"It's okay, Edward," she laughed. "I'm just fucking with you."
I smiled and nodded, like I had somehow been in on the joke. When she led the way to the parking lot—as though it was her giving me a ride, not the other way around—I thought about how much I enjoyed my name coming from her mouth. That's when it finally dawned on me, I might be in trouble.
As we headed south on Rainbow, past the shady strip malls, smoke shops, and dim bars with glowing video poker screens, I realized why Bella had asked me for a ride home. It would take two hours by CAT bus to get from the Summerlin Academy to her house on this side of Vegas.
Bella fiddled with her backpack straps as I scanned for something decent on the radio.
"I'm sorry it's so far out of your way." For the first time that afternoon, her voice lacked that crazy confidence I'd gotten used to.
"It's not that far."
She raised a brow and pursed her mouth—we both knew that wasn't the truth.
"Jake always whined when he would take me home. But if I want to stay on the team, I need to practice after school, so I usually miss the bus."
"It's fine, Bella, really." I knew Jacob Black was a giant douche, but it pissed me off to imagine him treating Bella so horribly. "I'd like to think Jake and I don't have a lot in common."
She smirked and shook her head. "Right. Just a couple rich kids with big houses and fancy cars."
"I'm sorry, that was—fuck. I'm sorry." She sighed and looked down. "Sometimes my mouth just runs on its own."
I nodded, but I couldn't get the uneasy clutch of disappointment out of my belly.
"Edward? I know you're not like that. Really."
We rolled on in silence as the late-afternoon sun turned the distant blacktop into steaming soup.
"Great going, Swan," she murmured almost too low to hear. "Alienate the one person who's been nice to you all day."
I smiled at her self-deprecation. At least she knew how to take that giant chip off her shoulder. "I'm not alienated." I lifted a hand from the wheel and swept it down my torso. "Look: alienation-free."
"Wealthy and forgiving—what a prince."
That time the sting was absent from her words, and I took her wry quip as the compliment I assumed it was meant to be.
After a few minutes, I pulled into the tired stucco apartment complex she directed me to and let the car idle. I wanted to come up. I wanted to say something witty or clever, but everything I thought of sounded trite and stale. She seemed to be waiting for some signal from me, but I didn't want to watch her walk away. It felt like I was just getting to know her.
"So, do you–"
"So, I should probably—" She laughed. "Sorry."
We held our tongues, waiting for the other to speak. She blinked first.
"Thanks for the ride."
"Do you want to hang out tomorrow? After practice? There's a new bookstore by the school I've been wanting to check out. Next to Jose's? We could look around, grab a bite to eat."
Her hand hovered on the latch, her eyes looking down.
"Thanks, but I don't think that's a good idea."
"Okay," I said and scraped my pride up off the floor.
"It's just, distractions aren't good for me right now. I need to focus."
She smiled, apologetic, and I wondered if that was as big of a brush-off as it felt.
I waited for her to go on, forcing a neutral expression, fighting the urge to try to convince her to change her mind.
But she just sighed and shook her head. "Thanks."
I kept my eyes forward as she stepped out of the car, feeling like the gigantic idiot I was.
"See you tomorrow?" she said before she closed the door, and I did what any idiot faced with a beautiful girl would do: I fed off that feeble hope.
I didn't take any classes with Bella, but I caught myself looking out for her as I was swept along the corridors between classes, as I ate lunch with Riley and Makenna, as I trailed the rest of my P.E. class around the track. Every time I saw a brunette ponytail bouncing around at shoulder height, my stomach would do this weird little flip, like it was trying out some of Bella's moves.
I didn't see her, though, and there was this small voice in the back of my mind that laughed cruelly, suggesting she was probably avoiding me after I obviously came on way too strong yesterday afternoon. That voice got louder as the day wore on, but it still wasn't enough to stop me sneaking into the gym after my classes had finished for the day.
Now, there's no way to nonchalantly mosey on into a gymnastics center when you're a) two feet taller than the majority of its occupants, b) wearing street clothes and c) a dude. Actually, there were a bunch of guys running tumbling lines along the back wall on this wicked-cool looking inflatable runway—it looked like someone had stretched out a kids' jumping castle along the back wall—but even then, I clearly wasn't one of their number. Because seriously, those guys are fucking ginormous, and anyone who rags on male gymnasts has clearly never met one. I was pretty confident their biceps were bigger than my quads.
So, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb, I tried to hang close to the walls and not get in anyone's way as I looked around for Bella.
I eventually located her. She was talking to her coach, hands on her hips, up on the balance beam, like it wasn't a big deal that she was just standing there, hanging out on a piece of wood four inches wide. She was in a red leotard and there was chalk smudged all over her wrists and ankles and thighs, which made me think of war paint.
I found a plastic chair and pulled it against the wall, making sure I was out of the way of the rest of the leotard-clad girls as they moved between apparatus, but had a pretty good view of Bella, too. I pulled the copy of the play I was reading for English out to give my hands something to do, but then Bella started doing her thing, and I didn't open it once.
If the previous day's exertions proved how tough she was, I now had proof that she was either completely insane or had absolutely no imagination. There is no way any person who understands basic physics would be even thinking about trying some of the shit I watched her pull. I mean, Bella's a pretty tiny person—but did I mention that piece of wood is only four inches wide?! And yet, she was jumping and twirling and doing handstands and back flips on it, while I watched with my heart in my mouth, wondering why they didn't have a paramedic stationed inside on a permanent basis.
She fell a few times, too. And just like the day before, she'd get straight back up, climb back up and just keep going, doing the same move over and over until she was satisfied.
She kept that up for about an hour or so, before her coach sent her over to the big square floor area where the guys were doing their thing. One of them said something to her as she joined them, which made her laugh, and made me shift in my seat as jealousy coursed through me. She watched them do a few tumbling rows, which would've impressed me if I hadn't been cursing them all under my breath, and then they all started catcalling and clapping as she fussed around in the corner of the matted area.
She shook her head, did this funny hop-skip thing, and then … well, I don't even know what she did, she was moving too freaking fast. It looked insanely difficult and acrobatic, though, and I'm pretty sure the back somersault she did on the end went around twice. Apparently I wasn't the only one who was impressed, judging by the whistles and high-fives she was getting.
"Yeah, all right. Settle down." The coach-lady's voice cut right through the noise. "Bella, cool down properly before you go."
"Sure, sure." She scooped up her backpack from a chair on the other side of the gym and made her way over to where I was sitting.
"Hey." She threw her bag on the ground next to me, before dropping to the mat.
I think my jaw might have fallen through the floor as she spread her legs wide and pressed her stomach to the floor. I sat there, stunned, as she stretched out every muscle in that amazing little body of hers. She moved from the doing the splits to this crazy backbend thing, then a bunch of other stretches, before she wrapped herself up like a little pretzel … and smiled at me.
That smile sent more adrenaline spiking through me than all the other death-defying acts I'd watched her pull all afternoon.
She pulled her tracksuit back on. "Ready to go?"
I stood up carefully, one hand in my pocket, keeping my groin covered with my bag as I adjusted myself—her flexibility was a major turn-on, though I felt like a bit of a dick for getting all hot watching her when she was pretty obviously a serious athlete.
As I drove, she chattered at me about books and music, which really wasn't helping the pretty fucking huge crush I was developing. Not only was she talented and whip-smart, but she was easy to talk to, and she made me laugh. She had awful taste in music, though.
"You know–" and if it wasn't clear how hard I was crushing on her, then it would be now "–Makenna was saying Crystal Castles are playing the Cosmopolitan next Friday night. We could go … if you want?"
You'd think being shot down so brutally the day before would have been humiliation enough.
"Aw, Edward." She sighed. "You're a great guy, but …"
I couldn't help the sigh that escaped me. "Don't even worry about it." Whatever the reason she was going to give me was, I didn't need to hear it.
She reached for the door handle. "Girls suck, Edward."
She looked back at me, and I couldn't read her expression. "I–I'm not a good girlfriend." She nodded, more to herself than to me, then looked up with half a smile. "Thanks for the ride. I'll see ya tomorrow."
That was the pattern for the next few weeks.
I watched her practice. She took my breath away.
I drove her home. She made me laugh.
I asked her out. She shot me down.
"Listen, Edward." She sighed, shoving open her door. I figured I'd pushed my luck to its limit. I'd just asked her out for the fourteenth time—this time to see an amateur production of As You Like It. We were still studying it, and well, his plays were made to be performed, not read. Yeah, I'm a dork like that.
"You're an awesome guy. I like you, okay? You make me laugh, and you're really sweet, and yeah, I mean, you're cute as hell." I couldn't even enjoy hearing her say those things—things I'd certainly never been told before—because I knew the next word out of her mouth would be "but."
"But I'm not – I told you, I'm really not a good girlfriend. I can be kind of clingy. I talk too much, and I'm one of those annoying girls that will irritate the hell out of you by making you read to me as I fall asleep, just so your voice'll be the last thing I hear at night. I–" She looked around, like she was searching for more reasons. "I don't like to make out at the movies, either. I like to watch the film, and I laugh really loudly and I spill popcorn everywhere."
She got out of the car and looked back in at me, her fingers gripping the edge of the door. "Worse than that, I'm like, kind of insecure. I get jealous when you talk to other girls. And sometimes I get all emotional and start crying for no reason. I'm just—I'm no good for you."
She didn't give me the chance to tell her I thought she sounded kind of perfect. She slammed my heart in the door and walked away, and as I sat there watching her trudge toward her apartment, I realized she hadn't said the three words—See ya tomorrow—that had made the last three weeks of rejection totally worthwhile.
For three weeks, I'd been brushing off her rejection like chalk from my fingertips and turning up to watch her train after class. I'd been pretending I was as tough as she was: attempt my move, eat mat, get back up and try again.
But the next day, Friday, I felt seriously bruised. Every time I passed a ponytail that made me think of her, instead of making my stomach flip, it felt like someone was prodding at that black and blue discoloration inside me.
I'd pretty much convinced myself that there was no way I was going to humiliate myself by heading over to the gym after school. Not today. I mean, even I have some pride.
Even then though, even with my battered heart protesting every time I thought of her, it wasn't as easy a decision as it should have been. I told myself that even if she wouldn't date me, we had a pretty cool friendship happening, and I could be happy with that. And then I saw her ducking through a crowded hallway, and I winced as that big bruise inside me throbbed.
I wondered how she'd get home if I didn't take her, and the thought of her sitting on a dodgy bus and not getting home until after dark make me squirm. I tried to tell myself that wasn't my problem—she got home just fine for the last however many years minus three weeks, right?
No, I needed to just stay away from her. Ice those bruises, as it were. I wouldn't go watch her train, even though I knew she was going to start training that Geigner thing on the uneven bars that afternoon, and even though I knew it meant she'd have to trek home on shitty public transport, and even though it meant I wouldn't get to talk books with her or tease her about her shitty taste in music.
For a week, when the school day ended, I walked to my car alone, refusing to look over my shoulder at the gymnasium. I was resolute and I probably would have stuck to my guns … if it hadn't been for Jacob fucking Black.
Thursday lunch … I was sitting where I usually did. I'd gone four school days without Bella in my car each afternoon, making me laugh, making my heart speed and my stomach flip-flop.
Riley, Makenna and Tanya were having an argument about the lyrical genius of some popstar, describing him as a modern day Keats (idiots). Jasper was reading Dostoyevsky, his sandwich halfway to his mouth, spilling its insides all over the table. I was re-reading Jacques' All the world's a stage soliloquy for an essay I had to write over the weekend. At least with these kids I didn't have to hide my book inside some dumbass magazine—they all had brains, and they weren't ashamed of them. Tanya tried to engage me in their argument, asking me a few questions about La Belle Dame Sans Merci, but I think she figured out I didn't really feel like talking.
In movies, when stuff goes down in high school cafeterias, they make it seem like everything gets really quiet. Like everything else comes to a screeching halt, and the whole place turns and focuses on the drama unfolding.
I might have missed the whole thing if I hadn't looked up.
And then the lover,
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow.
An image of Bella quirking her eyebrow at me when I told her Fall Out Boy sucked flickered in my mind, and reflexively, I looked up, over toward the table where she usually ate lunch if she wasn't training during the break.
She was laughing with Ben Cheney and Tyler Crowley. From the arch of her eyebrows—the look I'd been picturing—I could tell she was giving Tyler shit about something, and I had to fight my smile as she punched him in the shoulder. He couldn't hide his wince, and he immediately started massaging the spot where she'd hit him, which made her laugh even harder.
She lifted her arm and poked her bicep, like she was pointing out to him how tiny she was. He shook his head, embarrassed, but even from where I was sitting, I could see that flicker of admiration in his gaze.
Apparently Jake Black saw it, too.
He sauntered—yeah, he sauntered—over to where she was sitting, surrounded by guys twice her size, and crouched down beside her.
She shook her head, and Ben and Tyler followed suit, both of them raising their hands, palms out. Jake laughed at that, copying their gestures of innocence and surrender.
And then he turned to Bella.
That was when, if high school were a movie, time would have stopped. The cafeteria's noise would have been filtered out. People would have frozen. The camera would have zoomed in on the lead girl. The dorky love-interest would have heard his heartbeat whomp-whomping.
None of that happened.
I could hear Makenna reciting Keats—"For sidelong would she bend, and sing … A faery's song"—and Jasper slurping his apple juice, and all around me people were laughing and screeching and talking and carrying on like nothing was happening.
For the second time, I watched Jake punch Bella in the gut with his words.
Only this time, I figured he wasn't whispering, because Seth and Tyler's eyebrows were pretty much in their hair.
Looking at her lap, Bella shook her head, like she could shake whatever he was saying right out of her mind.
Her shoulders hunched in as he patted her back, his hands lingering on her in a way that made me want to pull his arms off his body and beat him senseless with them.
I was already on my feet as she pushed him away. He wobbled where he was crouched, and landed on his ass. No one at their table laughed. They were all watching Bella's ponytail disappear out the main doors.
I grabbed my bag and book, brushing off Riley and Tanya's questions. "Where are you going?" "Are you okay, Edward?"
But not really.
Jake was on his feet and heading towards the soda machine when I intercepted him.
"What did you say to her?"
Maybe he could hear the fury that boiled just under the even tone of my voice, because he squared up, puffing his chest ever so slightly in a show of male dominance. Whipping his hair back off his brow he said, "Nothing that isn't true. And she knows it."
Smug motherfucker. If he wasn't three inches taller than me ...
Who was I kidding—I'm not really a fighter.
He looked down at me and chuckled, pulling a fist full of coins from his pocket and rattling them in his palm. "You still interested, Eddie? I noticed you were giving her rides home for a while there. Figured you got what you wanted already."
I don't know what my face looked like in that moment, incredulity maybe, because Jake obviously felt like he needed to explain further. "Eminently hittable, Bella Swan. And totally quittable. Girl's got moves. But you probably know that."
I don't know what happened then. The next thing I was consciously aware of was Seth and Tyler, each with a palm against Jake's chest, holding him back. Hands on me, holding me back. Jake was spitting profanity, hissing that I was a nerd and a fag, and other original insults.
From the corner of the room came the bustle of Mrs. Cope, Mr. Banner following two steps back, the dean of students behind him.
"You're bleeding, Edward. I think we should take you to the nurse."
Makenna's soft voice brought the sensation of blood running down my chin into sharp focus. The bright white cafeteria around that sharp focus suddenly blurred.
I'm not really very good with blood. Especially my own.
"Yeah. Take your pussy-ass to the fucking nurse before you fucking faint. You fag."
I spat blood onto the linoleum as Mrs. Cope reached us, interjecting with, "Jake! Language!"
Our school has a no tolerance policy about fighting. I was sent home with an ice pack and three days worth of schoolwork, due after my suspension ended.
Carlisle remonstrated me, but I think that was mostly for Mom's sake. I saw him swallowing his smile as he turned away. It's a good thing he couldn't see Jake—I don't think I even bruised him.
My jaw hurt too much to chew, so I excused myself from dinner, grabbed my backpack and took off into the dusky desert on my dirtbike.
I drove, punching the throttle in an attempt to feel less like a weakling. Less like no girl's champion, especially not Bella Swan's. A girl who could do as many push-ups as me, if I squared the number of push-ups I could do.
I couldn't get my chin over a bar to save my life.
I had no business trying to intervene on Bella's behalf. She'd made her position clear. I hated myself for thinking it—but her rejection of me stung more in the wake of Jake's comments, burning my pride and bringing a throb to my throat that rivaled the pain in my face.
I never would have thought she was easy. Part of me still didn't. But another part was reminding me that I'm 150 pounds soaking wet, athletic as a punching bag, and my contact lenses probably haven't helped anyone to forget the glasses I used to wear.
All the way.
Carlisle met me in the garage as I was kicking the stand down on the Yamaha, draping my helmet from the handlebars.
"Have a nice ride?"
I shrugged. A tremor of pain pulsed from my neck down my arm. I tried not to wince, but dad saw it. He held out his hand. On it were two pills.
"I don't need it."
"Well, it's in the medicine cabinet if you change your mind." He paused, looking at me like he didn't just see me an hour ago. "A girl came by the house while you were gone. Short, ponytail, tracksuit. Know her?"
My heart did one of those twirly things Bella does on the uneven bars. Carlisle smiled.
"Ah, you do know her."
"What did she say?"
"Not much. I think she jogged here. She did leave her phone number though. Asked for you to call her when you got home."
He handed me a folded square of paper that I recognized as having been torn off the pad that hangs on our refrigerator. Where Mom keeps the grocery list.
I looked at her number, stared at it, in fact. Wondering if I should call. Wondering what I would say when I did. Wondering if I could change schools instead. That seemed easier than trying to work through the humiliation of talking to Bella about how her ex-boyfriend kicked my ass.
"Nice girl. Is she what this was about?"
I didn't want to talk about it with Bella, and I didn't want to talk about it with my dad either.
"Maybe," is all I said, moving past him into the house and up the stairs to the sanctuary of my room. Carlisle called up after me, "I gave her your number. Hope that's okay."
In my room, on my desk, the green light on my phone was blinking
I ignored it and headed for the shower—which was a foolish thing to do, really, because as I stood under the hot water, with the steam billowing around me like Bella's chalk dust, watching the dirt and dust from my ride splatter against the white tiles, my mind just wouldn't stop racing.
As I rubbed shampoo into my hair, I decided her text was probably a "thanks for the rides, but life was better when we were invisible to each other." Washing my face, I decided it was more likely "cute gesture, man, but I can take care of him myself." With the cake of soap under my armpit, I entertained the idea that it could be "what you did was kinda awesome," but that thought popped quicker than the soap bubbles on the floor of the shower.
And then it occurred to me it could just as easily have been from Makenna or Jasper.
I closed my eyes and let the hot water run over my face. The stream from the shower head was hard enough that I could pretend I didn't let a few tears escape at the thought that maybe that was it. We were done. Over before anything even happened.
Behind my closed eyes, images of Bella's face appeared like an old slide show, scratchy and flickering. I tried to push them away at first, but they were just as stubborn as the girl herself. Sighing, I gave in, replaying all those smiles I'd gathered up over the past few weeks. She had quite the repertoire of smiles. The cheeky one she gave her coach when she was back-talking. The small, proud one when she landed a new move. The superior smirk when we were arguing about the trash she called music. The bright, easy-looking grin that accompanied her hellos and thank-you-for-the-rides.
There was another one, too. I didn't see it often—it was one she seemed to fight, one that seemed to unsettle her. Smaller, closed-lipped, and fleeting. It started in her right cheek before it spread to her left, though she didn't often let it get that far. That smile, I couldn't interpret.
With her face in my mind, my body reacted. The pain in my jaw, the jumble of confusing emotions in my stomach, the way my heart felt like someone was holding it in their fist and squeezing—none of that was enough to stop me from taking myself in hand. It wasn't enough to stifle the low moan that slipped from my mouth; it wasn't enough to stop me seeing her face as my hand pumped, slow at first and then faster, harder. It wasn't enough to stop me whispering her name as I came.
Towel around my waist, I stepped back into my room, my eyes drawn like moths to the light flashing on the screen of my phone.
I snatched it up, thumbing across the screen to unlock it.
It turned out I had three missed calls, and one text message. Mak had tried to call twice. The other call was from a sequence of numbers that matched the digits on the slip of paper I'd chucked beside my phone. Bella.
Well that was something. She had tried to call. She wouldn't do that if she was totally done with me, right? She'd just have left things how they'd been for the last almost-week.
I hit the Messages icon, blowing out a deep breath.
From (702) 285-3310:
It's Bella. But you probably figured that out because I gave your dad my number and you have an eidetic memory. But maybe he didn't give it to you and was just humoring me. Can you call me? Or text. If you want to. It's totally fine if you don't, I get it. It'd be great if you did though. Bella :)
I had to chuckle. Most people try to keep texts brief, but apparently Bella wasn't most people. No abbreviations and punctuated perfectly.
My thumbs flexed as they hovered over the tiny keypad. I composed about eighty-four different responses before I settled on something simple.
Hi. It's Edward. But you probably figured that out ;)
I shook my head and hit send before I could change my mind, or second guess my use of the winky-face.
I didn't have to wait long for a reply.
Hi! Thanks for replying. Are you okay? Claire said you got suspended for fighting Jacob. It's pretty conceited, I guess, but I assume it had something to do with me. :( I'm not worth it, Edward. Whatever he told you – it's probably true.
I shook my head. If anything, her easy acceptance of his bullshit made me start to question it. Hittable—well, duh. The girl's fucking gorgeous. But quittable? That, I just couldn't get my head around. It took Herculean effort for me to not speak to her for the better part of a week, and even then, she was on my mind constantly. And that was just as friends—if I'd ever touched her … I clenched my fists, my fingertips tingling at the just the thought of feeling her skin beneath them.
I'm fine. Just a few bruises. You should see the other guy. No, really, he's amazingly untouched. Shocking, right? And true or not – you are worth it, Bella. And I'd let him hit me again to prove it to you.
I hit send on that as soon as I finished typing. I just couldn't seem to help myself with this girl—I was continually putting too much of myself out there. Usually, I hold back with people. I'm reserved. Shy. That's school report speak for "awkward as hell."
With Bella, though … well, it was less wearing my heart on my sleeve and more throwing it into her lap—no matter how many times she picked it up and handed it back to me.
This time, it took a few minutes for her to reply. I was just starting to worry I'd said too much when my phone vibrated in my clenched hand.
No! Please don't. I hate that you got hurt because of me. For the record, I didn't actually sleep with Seth. I just let everyone assume that because I wanted it to hurt Jake. So I basically brought this on myself. You know I see you differently from them, right?
And there it was. Friend material. Not someone you'd lie about sleeping with to make your ex-boyfriend jealous. I'm no Seth—whoever the fuck he is.
Yeah. You've made it pretty clear I'm just a friend. The constant rejection was a bit of a hint :)
I hoped the smiley face would take the bitter edge off the words.
Her response was quick.
Before I'd even managed to hit reply another text lit up my screen.
Are you grounded?
Not grounded. I did get suspended though.
Oh, maybe it occurred to her I'd be in trouble at home, too.
That new bookstore you told me about, did you end up checking it out? We could go on Saturday, if you want? I finish training at 11:30.
Ah, a pity not-date. I thought about telling her I was busy. For a good minute, I contemplated telling her "thanks, but no thanks." Truth is, though, I really missed her, and I realized now that I was in too deep. I'd take whatever she gave me.
Sure. How about I pick you up there after you finish up?
That'd be great. :D I gotta go. I'll see you Saturday. xx
I couldn't figure out how to reply to that without coming across as too eager, so I didn't. I saved her number into my contacts, threw my phone on my desk, and crawled into bed. I was asleep almost immediately.
The work I'd been assigned to complete over the duration of my suspension was a cakewalk, so by mid-afternoon on Friday, I'd finished it all.
I flipped on the television, but it couldn't hold my attention.
I shut it off and wandered into the kitchen. I opened the fridge out of habit, but I wasn't really hungry.
I walked back up the stairs, taking them one by one instead of two at a time, just to make it take longer. Once I got up there, I sat on my bed, looking around for something to occupy me.
I picked up the slim book tented on my desk. The rhythm of the Bard's iambic pentameter was soothing for a while, carrying my mind along with its steady beat.
Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love.
And thou, thrice-crownéd queen of night, survey
With thy chaste eye, from thy pale sphere above,
Thy huntress' name that my full life doth sway.
O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books,
And in their barks my thoughts I'll character,
That every eye which in this forest looks
Shall see thy virtue witnessed everywhere.
I made it to the third act before I snorted and chucked it back toward my desk. I missed, of course, and it hit the floor with a quiet thump.
I had a brief vision of myself scrawling poetry for Bella on the telephone poles, lamp posts and street signs of my neighborhood. It was disturbingly appealing. I felt like I had all these things I wanted to say to her, and about her, bottled up inside me.
I guess most people have friends for that—someone they can talk to about the beautiful creature they were crushing on. Jasper was my best friend, but we'd never talked about girls like that—and how did you even go about it, anyway? Would I just call him up and ask how his day was and then subtly drop it in conversation? "Oh, you finished The Brothers Karamazov? Awesome. By the way, I'm head over heels in love with Bella Swan."
I looked at my laptop and shrugged, pulling it onto my lap. Opening up a blank document, I wriggled my fingers over the keyboard. I shook my head and closed the lid. Typing wasn't going to cut it.
Rummaging around in my desk, I found an old exercise book. The cardboard cover was battered and the blue pigment printed on it flaked off and stuck to my skin. The pages were all blank—I must have torn out the ones I'd used.
Grabbing a pen, I flicked the off-switch on my self-consciousness and I started writing. Putting the analytical part of my mind on a timeout, I just let it all flow from the nib of my biro. All the feelings squished inside my chest—the ones that were too close to spilling from my lips every time I spoke to Bella—I let them bleed across the paper in a messy swirl of blue ink.
I eventually had to stop writing when the light started to fade and my eyes started to ache. I stretched out my fingers, rubbing at the smear of bluish-purple ink on the side of my hand. "Someone really needs to invent left-hander-friendly ink," I muttered.
I was washing my hands when Mom called out to tell me dinner was ready.
The obnoxious bring-bring of my phone woke me up at 1:30am. One eye squeezed closed, the other squinting against the brightness of my screen, I picked it up but didn't answer it immediately. Why the hell is she calling me in the middle of the night?
Annoyance was chased away by worry. Why the hell is she calling me in the middle of the night?
I slid my thumb across the screen. "Hello?" My voice was scratchy and hoarse.
"Yeah." Who else?
"Can you–" she broke off.
As my brain reluctantly left the white noise of sleep, I realized there was a lot of noise in the background. People shouting and laughing, electronic music. Ah. "Are you drunk, Bella?"
"Yes. At least, I think so."
I scrubbed a hand over my eyes. Concerned warred with the irritation of having been yanked from a deep sleep. "Are you okay?"
Her voice was soft, hard to hear. "I don't think so. Can you come get me?"
Even as I kicked back the covers, my mind was running two different scenarios. Either something was seriously up, in which case I needed to get my ass into gear. Or I'd just become that guy, the pathetic friend who gets called up to act as designated driver when his crush gets bored at a party. I don't know what it says about me that I was hoping it was the latter.
"Where are you?"
"At Newton's." She rattled off the address as I grabbed my keys and promised I'd be there inside of ten minutes.
As I pulled up I saw her. She was sitting on the stoop, hunched slightly forward, hair down and wild about her taut shoulders. She looked different, backlit by the patio bulb. Her face was in shadow, staring down at the red plastic cup dangling from grasp, her fingers hooking it just under its rim.
There was something odd about the way she sat there, somber, isolated. Set apart from the ruckus spilling from the house at her back. Even through the car window, over the purr of the engine and the whir of the climate control, I could hear it.
I idled at the curb, ducking my head slightly in an attempt to catch her eyes. From the distance, despite the darkness, it appeared she was looking at me, but she didn't move. Didn't rise. I gave her a wimpy wave, wondering if I should honk or turn the car off when she didn't respond.
I was reaching for the key in the ignition when she got to her feet, abandoning her cup on the railing and striding towards me. I leaned across the console to pop open the passenger side door, straightening up as she slid into the seat. She brought with her the smell of night air, the smell of alcohol tangled about her. Alcohol and shampoo and something else. Something I always smell when she's near. Warmth. Like energy. Like sun-baked girl in full flower.
She smelled like unending summer. Like Vegas nights and new bloom alyssum. Her presence rid me of chill, though her skin was only a few shades mismatched from the chalk that coated her arms and hands during her bar work.
"Can you just drive? I don't care where. Just ... away from here."
I acquiesced by simply pulling away from the curb, pointing the car towards the freeway, checking her profile out of the corner of my eyes. Watching her mouth open. Then close. She shook her head, almost imperceptibly.
"What is it? Party not so good?"
I tried to keep my tone light despite the concern and yes, frustration, simmering under my skin. This girl, this girl had some kind of power over me that I couldn't break. I couldn't get away from her, couldn't have her, couldn't say no to her. Didn't want to.
"You know, Edward. It's funny. I deserve to be there—I was supposed to be there. I've gone to school with these people for years, know their parents, went to sleepovers at their houses." Her laughter spills out, high-pitched and manic. "I've woken up cold and shaking on Jessica's trampoline more times than I can remember, because we always think it's such a great fucking idea to go to sleep there."
Her words, though mostly clear, came out chaotic, running together in some places. Drifting away in others. "Rachel, Jake's older sister, coached me in gymnastics when I was eight. Seth's mom teaches at the same elementary school as my mom. They lunch together. I mean... everyone. All of them. Somehow or another, we've known each other ... like. Forever."
She shook her head again, falling silent. I was about to prompt her when she blurted, "But I don't know any of them. Not really. Or, they don't know me. I don't know. Maybe they do. Maybe I just don't know myself. Maybe ..."
She twisted in her seat, turning her face to me. "Do you know you? I mean. Do you know ... yourself ... like really know yourself?"
I felt an awkward smile struggle to become something reassuring on my face. I didn't get the chance to answer before she went on.
"What does it matter what people say about me? It doesn't matter, you know? Am I slut? If I am, who really cares? Are you a nerd? What do those words even mean? You know?"
I felt something inside of me crumple at the word "nerd." I swallowed, not sure what to say.
"But it matters, Edward. When what people think you are becomes how they treat you. I don't care if people think I'm easy, but I do care when they think it means I want to be plied with alcohol and God knows what was in that drink–"
"What are you talking about?"
She waved her hand at me. As if what she said was no big deal. "It matters. Look at your face."
"What does my face have to do with anything?"
Her candid words cut me straight through. "You look like you got hit by a truck."
I could feel my ears burning, the back of my neck grew hot. I had forgotten that she hadn't seen me since Jake's fist redecorated my face in shades of blue and purple, now fading to a sickly yellow-green. No longer swollen, but still sore, the discoloration running from the scabbing split in my lip up to my eye probably made me look pretty unappealing.
"You can't champion me. You shouldn't. I put you in that position. My stupid ... actions."
I slowed the car for a blinking red light, preparing to flip a bitch and take her home. I could feel the direction the conversation would likely take, and the thought turned my stomach.
"Where are we going?"
"I'm taking you home," I said, my voice small. "Isn't that what you called me for? I can't be your champion, but I can be your chauffeur."
She snorted. An indelicate intake of breath that left me wondering further what the heck was going on in her mind. "My chauffeur. How ironic."
"Why did you call me?" I pressed again.
She didn't say anything.
"How would you have gotten home if I hadn't dragged my ass out of bed to come get you?"
Still she was quiet.
"I can't do this anymore, Bella. I don't think you understand how I feel ... and I just. I can't just be friends with you. It's too ... well. It's just too hard."
She turned abruptly in her seat. "You haven't heard a thing I've said."
"You haven't said anything. Aside from insulting me. And yourself." I pulled up to the walk outside her apartment, stopping short of directly in front of it, though it looked totally dark. This whole neighborhood looked asleep, the white rock lawns glistening in the dim moonlight.
"What?" I choked on the word, looking at her and away. Trying not to see the slight droop about her bright eyes, the manic pinch of her mouth. "You're drunk."
She nodded. "That's why it's okay."
I shook my head. "That's why it's not okay."
We sat in silence for a moment, me staring at my steering wheel feeling the heft of her gaze on me. I was afraid that should I look at her, my determination would disintegrate.
I didn't want that. At least, I didn't think I did. The thought of one kiss, possibly stolen against her better judgement and regretted later, a trade of sorts. I could get what I desired now, in exchange for her disdain and disregard tomorrow. Add to that the knowledge that it wasn't really Bella who wanted my kiss. It was the alcohol.
I still had some pride, apparently, which made itself known to me by igniting an indignant fire in my chest.
"Don't you want to?" Her voice was soft, barely there; it pulled at me, goading me into a simple swivel of the neck. I watched her lips form words, beautiful lips, soft, pouty, and pink. Tortuous words, bluntly jabbing at me with their invitation. "I do. I want you to."
No jewel is like Rosalind, her worth being mounted on the wind ...
I felt myself leaning in, drawn in, harpooned. Hooked. A fish on a line, a lamb to the slaughter, a fool. I took a breath, and drew back, searching her eyes when the lids lifted. They shone like polished jet, my folly fair reflected there.
I shook my head, both at myself and the poetry I couldn't keep from marching through my mind, and at her. Her and the expectation on her face, her unfathomable motivations, the depths of her eyes, and the shallow of her heart.
Her throat bobbed, mouth pursing as her eyes glazed.
"This is why I went to the party. I didn't want to go. I wanted to call you and … I don't know. Explain myself. But then I didn't. I decided I didn't want you to really know me. I went out in search of people, in search of myself. I didn't think you'd be at Newton's, but I hoped. You said you weren't grounded. But you weren't there ... and I realized. I wasn't there either. Not Bella Swan as I see myself. But Bella … Someone-Else."
She looked down at her hands, stretching her fingers, a hollow pop coming from one knuckle.
"I'm not making any sense. I know. I drank a lot. Mike and one of his buddies kept filling my cup. I started to get suspicious, the way they kept telling me they had me covered, leaving me playing Forsia as they fixed my drink. Then, I don't know what drink it was... the fourth maybe. It tasted ... odd. It might just have been my imagination. Probably was. But in that moment ... I don't know. I wasn't too drunk to envision myself in a really bad situation. You know?"
My jaw hurt, and I realized I was clenching it.
"And I thought of you. Truth is, I was thinking about you all night. Who would have given me a ride if you didn't? I don't know. Truth is... I went to that party, I drank a lot, just so I could call you to come get me. Truth is, Edward. I don't know what I'm doing. I mean ... when I'm sober I do. But being drunk ... somehow makes it okay. I needed the excuse."
Her face snapped towards me again, not letting me finish. "I'm just ... so sick of the pressure. From every direction ... myself worst of all. And I thought ... you know ... if I gave in to you ... it would be, you would be ... another source for that. Or just an incredible distraction. At first. Only at first. And then ... well."
She shrugged. I pressed my fingers over my eye, trying to still the blood that seemed to be thrumming just under the surface of my skin. Throbbing.
"Bella. I feel like I do when I watch you in the gym. Overwhelmed, lost ... and honestly, apprehensive. I think. I think you like to fly, and I used to think you were just tough. Not afraid to fall. But now I think you like it. That moment when you realize you've missed the bar and the next thing you'll feel is floor ... I might be wrong. But I think you like that moment. Part of me thinks you like having me standing on the sidelines, my feelings fastened to you as you twirl and bend and hit the ground."
It was quiet between us.
"My mom once told me that all an ultimatum can do is damage." I laughed, but it wasn't a humorous sound. It was more like the cynicism leaving me in a hearty breath. "You might win now, she says, but you'll lose later. But I don't think I'm asking for much. Either you can give me a chance or you can't."
It was in her face when she looked at me. It was in her movements, the way she reached for the handle of the car, giving me her back. It was in the way she walked, slowly up the path to her front door, not looking back.
At 11:15 on Saturday morning, my phone started flashing and trilling with a reminder. Pick up Bella.
Like I needed my memory jogged. Our not-date. Yeah, that was gonna happen after last night's bullshit.
I snorted as I silenced the chimes, then chucked the stupid thing across the room. It landed on my bed then bounced to the floor.
After that, the weekend passed quickly. Too quickly.
I had expected to return to school a sad joke—and maybe to some I was—but the geeky underbelly of Summerlin Academy seemed to have honorarily adopted me into their cliques. While the jock crowd sneered at me, which was nothing unusual, others, people I knew only as a label—hippie, drama-dork, skater, stoner—they nodded at me, said 'sup, and smiled. My own group seemed protective of me, proud, and they stuck to my sides defensively.
I'd managed to get through a few lunches without so much as a glance at Bella's table, until I saw Makenna, next to me, glaring across the room. She was chewing her cheese sandwich with an aggression I'd never seen. She swallowed, running her tongue over her teeth, and said, "She's coming over here."
The way Makenna said she, I heard in it all the things I think Bella was trying to say to me in my car. Bella was that girl. The slut, the athlete, the cause of my three day absence and my heartache.
"Edward. Can I talk to you?"
I looked up from my french bread pizza and jello cup. She stood over me, hair severe in its ponytail, callused hands hooking the loops of her jeans. As always, her nearness was like flame to fuse, and my heart exploded in my chest, my palms starting to sweat.
Her glance left me, trailed over Makenna and Tanya who sat positively growling, their faces as unwelcoming as yesterday's hot lunch.
"Maybe later? Can you meet me after practice?"
I vacillated. I really, deeply, with every molecule of my being, wanted to say yes. So I said, "I don't think so."
Tanya snickered beside me, and the sound made me feel bad. I wanted to take it back and give her the yes that was conceived in my heart that died there, never birthed by my lips.
Somehow I remained in my seat as she left.
Dedication to my flight, my fight, the fall.
I hit the mat and lose my breath, my sight, not unlike the way I feel when I'm near you.
It hung from my locker via an industrial magnet.
These walls a cage, they hold me in, like my skin which betrays me. In blush, your touch, I dream of flying free. I yearn for you to see.
It was tucked under my wiper blade.
I've lost my chance, we've danced our dance, our song is sung but not begun. Apologies, explanations, my heart upon my sleeve. I try to speak, to say my peace, but you would not believe.
Resting on the driver's seat, likely slipped in through the cracked window.
And there were more. I found one in my backpack. Another on my front door. Some were about her, others were about me. All of them twisted my insides until the scraps of paper bearing her script trembled in my hand.
I rubbed at my chest, the heel of my hand pushing at my sternum, as I looked at the little slips of paper spread over my desk. In these fragments of poetry, these little insights into her soul, I realized we matched, in a way.
My face and her spirit. Her bruises might have been invisible, but they were there, just as painful as mine—maybe more so—black and blue and throbbing under the surface of her words.
The honesty in them, the vulnerability, the way she'd stripped herself bare for my perusal—she had exposed herself in such a way that suddenly, all the other things she'd tried to tell me started to fall into place. Her drunken rambling, her halting explanations, I hadn't understood at all. But these words, these were spoken in a language I knew.
I stuffed my feet back into my shoes and picked up my keys.
At this time of the afternoon, I knew exactly where to find her.
Pulling up into the parking lot at the academy, I stayed in my seat for a few minutes, rubbing clammy hands across my jeans until the denim started to burn my thighs.
Telling myself that she did, after all, care for me was one thing. It was right there on the pages she'd pushed into my life all day … But walking in there and facing her, with all her teammates and her coach and everybody else, after the way I'd been so cruel to her at lunch yesterday? That was much harder.
Swallowing down the sharp-edged lump in my throat, I squared my shoulders and climbed out of the car. Walking across the lot, the sun burned fierce and unforgiving on the back and down my arms. Sweat rolled down my back, sticking my t-shirt to my skin.
Stepping through the doors of the school, the heat was squashed. Relief. Addled briefly as my eyes adjusted, I kept walking. It was like this every day in the Vegas sun. Momentary blindness as you moved from the outside in.
Walking down the hall, I tried to compose what I would say to her. What I could possibly say. But words eluded me. All I had was a catalogue of sounds.
The squeak of my sneakers. The uneven rush of my breath. Nearing the gym, I could hear the thump of the mat. It was as loud as the blood pounding in my forehead and behind my eyes. That sort of elastic sound of the bars as hands collided with them and they stretched against centripetal force. The squeak of skin, dull claps, and low encouraging voices of girls engaged in sport.
I pushed open the doors to the gym, feeling smaller than the space, smaller than what I was about to face. To the outside world, it wasn't a big moment. Like in the lunchroom with Jake, my grand gesture went unnoticed by most in attendance. But to the person who mattered, the girl who had inhabited my thoughts—both waking and in dreams—relentlessly for weeks, it was enough. Standing on the balance beam, she looked up from the chalk she was rubbing in with her toes and found me across the room. Saw me. As I was. As I wanted to be seen.
She smiled uncertainly, a tentative tilt of her mouth, the flicker of her eyes a series of questions. Did you get my notes? Was it the right thing to do? And the most important question, the one that would decide it all: Do you forgive me?
Silence and twelve pairs of eyes fell on me.
Ignoring them all, I walked right over to her, looking up at her, hoping she could find my answer in my eyes. Yes. Yes. Of course I do.
She stepped off the beam, landing in front of me with the dull thwack of feet against mat.
"Bella, I'm sorr–"
"You don't need to apologize. I–"
"Yes, I do." And I did, because even though maybe we'd both wronged each other, something made me think Bella wasn't often on the receiving end of anyone's apologies. When people hurt her, they'd shrug it right off—she brought it on herself. And if I had to guess, I'd guess she'd heard that so many times she believed it.
I stepped closer to her, but didn't lower my voice, not caring who heard me. "I'm sorry that I let you believe you are anything less than amazing, Bella.
"You never gave me the chance," I said, holding up a hand when she opened her mouth. "You never gave me the chance to tell you that listening to you talk too much, and reading to you over the phone until late at night, and spilling popcorn in the movies 'cause you're laughing so hard sounds kinda perfect to me.
"And you know what? I'm probably not a very good boyfriend—I mean, I've never been one before so …" I smiled and shrugged. "But I can be kind of emotional, too. And I'm definitely insecure. And you know, I'll probably be clingy and jealous, as well."
I scratched my ear, shifted my weight from foot to foot. "But maybe what makes us not-so-good for other people, would make us kinda wonderful, together."
Her teeth digging into her bottom lip, lines creased her brow. I pressed my thumb to her mouth without thinking, wanting to make that expression, that doubt, go away. I belatedly realized I was cupping her face. I could feel her pulse thrumming in the side of her neck, the silk of her skin under my fingers.
Not moving my hand, because touching her like this felt good and right, I hunched over so our eyes were level. "Bella." I swallowed hard. My throat felt constricted, like everything I still wanted to say to her—I'm sorry; I adore you; Give me a chance—was trying to fight its way out, all at once.
I registered the absence of her cheek against my palm before I understood the pressure of her lips on mine.
She pulled away, eyes wide. "I'm s–"
I couldn't let her say it, couldn't let her regret it. Not something I wanted so bad. I stepped closer, brought my hand back to the side of her face and lowered my mouth to hers.
Our lips moved together, awkwardly at first, then gaining confidence. Pressing harder, asking more, answering yes. The scents of girl sweat and chalk and sweet shampoo eddied around me, making me dizzy.
When I felt her tongue brush across my lips, my hands landed on her hips. With all the strength I could muster, I pulled back. Pressing my forehead to hers, my eyes squeezed closed, I tried to remember how to breathe. "Slow," I whispered.
She stepped back, and I opened my eyes, trying to read the expression on her face. Confusion, a flicker of hurt. I had to explain, and fast. "I want to," I promised. "I want … everything, with you. But I don't want to rush it. You're more than that, Bella."
Lips pressed tight, she squinted up at me, like she was trying to decide whether to believe me. "I'm not … less than that, though" she said, her voice soft.
"I know." I smiled. "And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't, uh, looking forward to … that." My cheeks grew hot with my admission. "But there's no rush. I–I just … I want … "
It was her turn to press a finger to my mouth. "Hey, it's okay. We've got time, right?"
I smiled, wondering if this is what turning a somersault would feel like. Giddy and terrified, but completely ecstatic at the same time.
Bella grinned up at me. Standing on her toes and wrapping her hands around my neck, she kissed my chin—which was as high as she could reach unless I stooped—then looked over my shoulder, as though she'd suddenly remembered we weren't alone.
"Yo, Coach," she called. Stepping away from me, she headed over to where she'd dumped her bag and clothes. I trailed after her, feeling the weight of the other girls' scrutiny. "I'm taking off early."
Laughing at Irina's irate muttering about making her pay for it tomorrow, she offered me her hand. "Wanna go check out that bookstore?"