TITLE: Winter in My Heart
WORD COUNT: 9925
SUMMARY: The fiercest storms are those that live inside us. "I've been lost for so long. Maybe I need to be found."
"I don't want to marry a boy, Daddy."
Gracie is resolute, too serious for four years old, and much too young to talk about boys.
"What makes you think you have to get married, Little Bug?"
"Because we watched The Little Mermaid today, and Mommy said that when little girls grow up, they marry boys and go away, like at the end. And I don't wanna. I was sad Ariel had to leave her Daddy."
I know she'll change her mind, and in ten years or less, I'll be arguing with her about whether or not she's allowed to date. I'll be on high alert, wishing for these moments, when she's here with me, safe in her tower, always my little princess.
"You'll never have to leave. Not if you don't want to, Princess. I swear it."
I startle awake, sweat-soaked and panting, choking on tears. My first instinct is to run to find Faith, to hold her, to make sure she's real. Because I can't touch Grace anymore. And it's ripping me apart. Then I remember.
Faith isn't here either.
The desperation and sorrow, the guilt and shame that eat at me every day, root down a little bit deeper.
I push myself out from under dampened sheets and cross the cold bare floor. There's no use trying to sleep now. Even if I managed it, I'd just dream of her again and be right back here. She's coming to me more and more now. This is the third time this week. Being here, being near Bella and near our old home, it's doing things to me. It's changing me.
I push thoughts of my lost little girl out of my mind. I don't think about what happens when you die. I ignore the argument I constantly have with myself. There's my brain - the rational, scientific part of me telling me there's nothing, we die, and we're gone. And then there's my heart. That living, beating part of me that swears Gracie could never be gone from this world forever. It's too dull, too empty without her. No God would be so cruel.
I stretch and shuffle, cramped from restless nights, and head out of the sleeping quarters that consist of a few small beds and a row of lockers. I didn't bother changing out of my scrubs, so the only transition for me from one unrelaxed state to another is the blaring brightness of the fluorescent bulbs.
When I get out to the nurses' station, I pour a cup of coffee that's been sitting too long. One of the RNs offers to make a fresh pot, but I simply smile and lie. "I like it this way."
The emergency room is quiet, most likely caused by the almost-blizzard outside. It's nearly silent, the hushed whispers and squeaky, soft steps of nurses blending with the beeps and drips of machines, interrupted only by the occasional ringing phone. All the TVs are on mute, and the LPN is sleeping upright at her desk.
I cross the empty lobby and look out a window to a scene that is strikingly familiar: white snow, fogged glass, blurred vision. My knees nearly buckle, and I must still be dreaming because I can see her walking to the sliding doors. But she couldn't be here. Not again. It's an apparition.
The doors slip open, and cold bursts in, whipping her dark brown hair up and around her face. It's almost as pale as the last time I saw her like this.
"Bella?" I whisper, hoping this isn't real.
She turns slowly, her chocolate brown eyes finding mine and emptying to blank slates before me. This isn't a dream, because she fades to an even more ghostly grey when our eyes meet. The shell of a person that used to be mine takes two steps in my direction, then collapses onto sterile white tile.
I'm frozen. Hot coffee in hand, eyes wide, muscles locked. I'm unable, ill-equipped, and begging not to handle what's happening. The RN yelps, and the room leaps to life. They rush to Bella, shouting out orders. I find myself in the middle of an emergency, the area of my expertise, and once again, I'm impotent.
My eyes sting. The LPN grabs my arm and shakes me.
Hot black liquid spills and burns my fingers, and it's enough, because I drop the cup where I stand and rush to Bella's side. I pretend not to know the lips that are dry, unmoving purple-grey. I imagine the mahogany hair isn't hers. When I shine my penlight into her pupils, I scream at myself, It's just another patient.
With these constant reminders, constant lies, I can treat her. She's got a gash in her arm that's wrapped in a kitchen towel soaked in blood. White and red checkered terry cloth that used to be in the kitchen we shared is dripping the color of merlot. When the nurse pulls it back, the blood that should pulse, flow freely from a cut so big, is only a drip, and we might be too late.
"Bella, fuck!" What did you do, what did you do, what did you do?
I only whisper her name, but the nurse hears. Now she knows that somehow, I know the patient. Her eyes fill with sympathy, and she touches my arm.
"Let me call Carlisle. He's on call. He'll be here in fifteen."
No. I want to say it out loud, but I can't. I just shake my head. It will take him longer because of the roads, and I can fix this. I need to fix this. My hands shake as I start with my instructions. She'll need blood and stitches, and I can't remember what her blood type is.
I can't remember.
I want to flip the switch. I want to be Dr. Cullen. But I'm Edward, and I'm losing another of my girls.
My cheeks are wet when I turn to the nurse.
"Start her on a transfusion. Clean the cut. Get her stitched up and in a room."
She nods. I turn to walk away, stomach soured and churning, my mind numb. Before I shut down, I turn back and add, "And call Charlie Swan. And mental health services."
I don't watch to be sure she agrees. I push myself, one step at a time, to the sleeping quarters where I was earlier, straight through to a private bathroom. I barely make it to a stall before bitter acidic coffee and bile race up my throat. I empty my stomach, dry heaving until I shake.
When my stomach muscles ache and I can't hold myself up any longer, I slide down, deflate, collapse and give in under the weight of it all. I let go. My rage and grief and sorrow come screaming up from my lungs, and I curse and yell and slam my fist into the door of the stall, the sounds of my aggression bouncing back to me off bare walls. I curl up against porcelain and kick at the flimsy sheetrock, leaving heel-shaped indentations.
I'm exhausted, sorrowful and guilt-ridden, and finally the anger gives way to tears. I fist my hair in my hands and cry.
I cry for Grace.
I cry for Bella.
I cry for myself.
But I can't blame her. At this moment, if I had a knife and the courage, I'd do it too.
I lean my head against the plastic stall, tilting my face back until the lights above blind me. They flood and fill my vision with nothing but brightness, and I'm helpless to stop the slow, sickening playback of memories I can't forget.
I surveyed the raging snow through the ice-misted doors of the ER, my bleary eyes making the parking lot blur into nothing more than a field of pure white.
I imagined how Grace would play in all that snow - how she'd ask me to make snow angels with her so she could have a Daddy and a daughter pair, and how she'd ask for extra marshmallows in her hot chocolate to 'keep her warm'.
I smiled, thinking of the puppy-eyed look that made her so dangerous, but it faded when I saw the clock in the corner. Eight p.m.
I was meant to be home hours ago, but the snow had stopped more than one doctor from arriving, and I'd been forced to stay, breaking my promise that I'd be home to tuck Grace into bed.
I wondered if she and Bella would be warm enough, whether the drafty rooms of our house would allow heat to circulate. My eyebrows pinched together as I pictured them shivering in the frigid air.
The ER doors opened then, jolting me from my mental images - not that I needed them, because suddenly Bella was in front of me, her wind-flushed nose seeming pale in contrast to the dark red rimming her wet eyes.
I moved toward her so fast I almost stumbled, the sharp gusts blowing through the open doors not the only thing causing me to shake.
"What is it, baby?" I asked, running my hands over her to check for injuries even though she'd run inside. "Are you hurt? What's going on?"
She cried harder than I'd seen someone cry before, her attempts at words more like mangled wails. She was breathing too fast, too hard, taking in gulp after gulp of air and getting nothing but sobs out. I felt her knees buckle and her weight sag. All I could do was hold her upright.
I saw an empty hospital bed being wheeled into one of the spaces of the ER, doctors and nurses rushing toward it. They were moving fast, but it seemed slow, like they were trying to wade through sludge. Everything had slowed except my frantic mind, trying to make sense of what was happening. My eyes darted around from Bella to the empty bed and back again, gripping her arms so tight it had to hurt.
"Bella, what is it?"
She just continued to hunch her shoulders as they quaked with sobs, indecipherable noises coming out of her mouth.
I turned back to the bed desperately, and that was when I saw a tiny bundle at the very top. My eyes skimmed across it fast, too fast, but still painfully, agonizingly slowly. The pieces slotted into place, trickling like molasses and then rushing in like a breaking tide.
First was the glimpse of a princess watch strapped on a pale, limp wrist, then the stark contrast of bright copper curls against the starched white pillowcase, a bright pink bow askew by her temple.
I stood in the middle of the bustling, noisy ER, feeling like I was drowning.
"Grace?" I tried to shout, but my voice was barely above a whisper. "Gracie?"
I turned toward Bella. "Tell me it's not her, Bella. God, please."
"She just… she stopped breathing." My own breath stopped. "She was blue and I couldn't… couldn't remember how to do those chest compressions." She coughed and spluttered through sobs, like the words were enough to choke her.
They were choking me instead, like a hand closing around my windpipe.
Her face twisted further, red and damp and sorrow-filled.
"Five… five minutes. Maybe more. I tried to do CPR, like you showed me, but my arms… they kept shaking and slipping. And she was so cold, Edward, and I couldn't…" She stopped, shivered, slumped into me.
"She'll be okay, right? She'll be okay. You can save her," she begged.
I wrapped my arms around her tight, her body vibrating with sadness as it met mine. I locked eyes with one of the doctors next to Gracie, and the way his fell seconds later told me all I needed to know.
I watched the frantic arms pumping in rhythm against my daughter's chest, hands so big they almost covered her entire torso.
I pinned my hopes on the flat line of the monitor next to her bed, waiting for the beep and spike that would let me breathe again.
It never came.
Instead all I heard was the steady drone, and I think my own heart stopped.
A harsh sigh, a frustrated curse.
A hushed "call it".
Bile filled my mouth. I swallowed it down, but the words I spoke next were even more bitter.
"She's gone," I whispered, my voice cracking and breaking even on those two short words.
My throat burned; my eyes stung; my gut clenched.
"No, no, no," Bella whimpered, pressing her face into my shirt like she could hide there.
I cupped the back of her head in my hand, feeling the way she tossed it from side to side.
"No. No, Edward!"
I held her closer.
She melted like the snow outside, her limbs going limp, like the will to hold herself upright was gone.
I was too weak for her to lean on, and we drifted to the floor, weightless.
People walked around us, nurses with hands clasped over their mouths and tears in their eyes, but I didn't register it.
All I cared about was the woman in front of me.
I tried to comfort, but my words bubbled and broke, tried to hold but my hands curled and jolted.
"My baby!" Bella cried, her hurt visceral. "I want my baby, Edward."
I shook my head, tried to bury my face in her neck, but she pushed me away.
"Go and get her! Make her okay, Edward. That's what you do!"
She hit my chest, pummeled my ribs with shaking fists.
"Make her better," she screamed over and over until her throat was hoarse and someone came to ask us to move, and then she stood.
She stood by herself without touching me, without needing me.
She stood and walked away, and when she looked back, it was only to check I wasn't following.
I ignored the pitying stares and the apologies as I pulled myself upright, my legs liquid as I made my way to the waiting room.
She wasn't there.
As the snowfall slowly eased, whirling and fluttering in the early morning air, the white of the parking lot turned to sludge. It melted, and I watched, wet-eyed, feeling just as alone as those last few patches of ice clinging to tarmac.
When dawn broke, I finally sucummbed to the hurt bursting inside me. I slid to the linoleum floor and pressed my face into my knees, feeling like I was splitting apart at the seams. Sunlight blazed, but I was too cold to be warmed. The rays brightened and shone against the white walls, but I saw nothing except darkness.
The sunshine of my life had faded, leaving nothing but black.
I wipe my eyes and clear my throat as I hear the flush of a toilet, blowing out an unsteady breath as I shakily stand, one hand clutching the paper dispenser for support.
The walk down to the ER feels like the longest of my life, the corridors seeming to get smaller with each step I take. The walls blur and converge, closing in on me. By the time I finally make it downstairs, I can barely breathe.
The same nurse from before spots me as I stand helplessly in the middle of the busy room, feeling like a stranger. She holds me by the elbow and pulls me back into the hall, her grip firm but her eyes kind.
"She was transferred to a room upstairs. If you wait a second, I'll go find the number so you can visit her," she says.
I don't know if I want to see Bella, but I know that I need to. I need to see her and listen to her breathe, even for a little while, just so I know she's alive.
So I wait, minutes seeming like hours as I ignore the curious stares of colleagues. When the nurse returns, we go to the station, and she pulls up the information for me. I thank her and turn to leave, but before I can, she calls my name.
"You should know that she's on a psych hold," she tells me quietly.
The words aren't unexpected, but they hurt just the same.
I just nod and walk to the staircase, telling myself to put one foot in front of the other and not worry about the rest.
It doesn't work.
Instead I'm an aching, breathless mess as I reach Bella's room, burning anxiety running through every vein of my body. I see her through the small glass window on the door. She looks so small in the big hospital bed, the sharp jut of her collarbone exposed by the too-big hospital gown.
I stare at her for so long my vision blurs. Her hair is the same length. Her face hasn't aged much, but I see none of the girl I used to know in her. She's pale and washed out, and I wonder if the attempt to take her life was only the physical manifestation of what had already occurred inside.
Her eyes meet mine, and it feels like there's so much more than just a door separating us. But even as I acknowledge that, there's still that same spark in her eyes - the one just for me.
I push down the handle of the door and step inside, hoping I'm not making a mistake.
I thought I'd died. Seeing him in the same place as before, as real and beautiful as ever, was the last thing I remembered before the world went black.
I always did call him my angel.
I'm still not sure if he was real. I remember my desperation, reliving the same winter storm that raged on in my heart every day, facing it outside my windows, outside the brick and mortar that encased me and kept me safe from reality. It was too much. I'd cried for Grace until I couldn't any more, haunted by her limp body and faded skin. I'd sobbed and asked myself who needed me now that she and Edward were gone. The same questions swirl, and I remember.
Why do I get out of bed in the morning? Without her, I'm nothing. She's the only thing I've ever done right in my life, and she's been gone so long now.
I'm so alone.
I think about Edward all the time. Every minute of every day, he's the beat of my heart and the blood in my veins. My pulse-giver, and I abandoned him. How difficult would it really be to leave behind his physical counterpart, that aching, wearied muscle in my chest?
So I drink too much vodka and walk heavily to the kitchen. I pull a knife from the wooden block on the counter - the set that Charlie gave me when I said I'd like to learn to cook. This isn't the first time I've felt the weight of glinting metal in my palm, not the first thoughts I've had of using the razor-sharp tip of the blade to find even the smallest relief, to release my grief and pain in tangible red stripes. I stare at my reflection in the polished blade, all tear-streaked and pathetic, before I put it back, unable to bear the thought of my dad carrying any of the guilt, and go instead to the cheap set that I bought for my first apartment.
They're dull and jagged. I choose the closest one and remind myself that it doesn't matter.
With tears streaming and snow falling and heart breaking, I drag the serrated edge from wrist to elbow, opening thin pale skin and feeling, feeling, feeling it all.
And pain - heat, fear, anger.
Then sudden, surging, smothering regret. More powerful, more potent than I've ever felt before.
What about Charlie? And Edward? And Esme, Carlisle, Renee. What about Alice?
I can feel my eyes open wide, my heartbeat increase, my blood leave my body. I can feel everything, acute and accurate, and I want it to stop.
I lunge for the oven, leaving a trail of crimson streaked over countertops and linoleum flooring, and grab the towel that hangs unused. I wrap it tight and bolt for the door, willing to risk ice and snow to stop myself, to take back what I've just managed to do.
As I fumble with my keys, I choke out a sob for Charlie and a burst of panic for Esme. The pain I might cause them grips at my chest, and I remember Gracie's funeral, burying a child, tiny coffin and little red roses and Edward, grey-suited and grief-stricken, with a handful of pink tulips, my baby's favorite flower.
No one should have to bury their child.
The minister's words echo, and I clamber with the car locks and the ignition, the headlights and the windshield wipers. The searing of the gash in my arm is fading to a dull, comfortable warmth, and that frightens me more than the pain.
I wrangle my car down the driveway and onto the road. All I can see is Charlie hunched over a child-sized casket, his shoulders shaking and his lip trembling, and my daddy should never hurt like that again.
I can't do it. Not to him.
I make my way to the hospital, like I did so many winters ago.
I watch snowflakes through my headlights, clutching the towel and the gash against my chest, near my heart. Right over my left breast, where Grace nursed the first year and a half of her life. Where my heart still beats, where there's such a gap, such a huge cavernous emptiness without her that I don't know why I'm going forward. Where I've beat my fist and begged for death and prayed and pleaded and fought.
I keep going, foot on the gas pedal and eyes on snowflakes, until I get to the hospital. I park haphazardly under the red-lit ER sign and pull myself out of the car and into the cold. When I get to the sliding glass doors, I'm so lightheaded it hurts. My head splits, and I can barely see.
But someone whispers my name. I instinctively move toward it, a little pull, calling me to my home.
When my eyes meet his, I wish for death because he'll be there. There can't be a heaven without Edward. This version of my soul is a little older, a little worn-down-weary and tired. But he's my angel - green eyes and green scrubs and concern, life-giving hands, warmed-pink skin, untamable fiery hair that our daughter shared. That thought… that one is when everything goes black.
And now he's standing on the other side of my door, his hesitancy palpable and cruel, a vicious reminder of all that's happened between us, of all that we're powerless to change.
"Hi," she whispers, moving her bandaged arm to lay under the blanket. The damage has already been done, the gaping hole where skin used to be imprinted into my mind forever, but I let her hide that white gauze as if I'll forget it exists.
I swallow hard, unable to push words past the emotion making my throat tight. I step closer, hesitating and so unsure as my hand reaches for hers. I let our fingers brush with the slightest touch.
Her skin burns mine.
"Bella," I whisper, because I can't say anything else. My heart is thumping and racing so fast, one beat merges into the next, but she's here. She's alive and breathing, and she's still so beautiful, and everything else fades.
"I missed you, baby," I say, like I still have the right. Like she's still mine. "I missed you so much, every day."
This time, it's her hand that touches mine. She fumbles, but then she clings, so tight the bones in my fingers push and rub together.
"How…" She shakes her head, looking as lost as I feel.
"Fate, I guess," I say, giving her a smile that feels foreign.
Bella just stares, though, those brown eyes roaming my face. I wonder what she sees - whether the pain of missing her and Grace is written in the lines by my eyes, if the bittersweet-tasting memories of every time she told me she loved me is etched into the creases around my mouth.
"Fate," she replies, but she doesn't smile. She just stares and clutches my hand even tighter.
'How have you been?' I want to ask. 'Do you think of me as often as I think of you? Am I a ghost that hides in your mind, sneaks in to haunt you whenever you let your guard down? Do I chase you through daydreams and through midnight-dreams that turn into nightmares?'
But she's in a hospital bed, covered in nothing but a scratchy white gown, and so I don't let those questions past my lips. I suck them down and seal them in tight, and instead I let myself think of nothing but the slide of her soft skin against my callused palm.
"This is a little awkward," she says, and now we're both smiling - shy, tentative, but smiling.
"Kinda," I reply, and the short laugh she gives feels like the first fall of rain after a too-long drought.
"You're still working here?"
"I stopped for a while."
She averts her eyes and nods, and I know she understands exactly.
"I'm back now, though. Obviously," I say, gesturing to my wrinkled scrubs.
"Some things never change." She points toward my sneakers. We giggle together, and the sound has a buried familiarity that makes my chest ache.
"Some things can't stay the same, though," Bella says, and I'm knocked even further off-kilter.
I can't help but let my eyes drift to where her left hand sits under the blanket, remembering the diamond I put on her third finger years ago.
"No," I whisper. "They can't."
Her eyes fill with tears, and she moves her hand back, and I can't help but feel I've disappointed her again.
I'm so tired of disappointing her.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I ask, inclining my head in the direction of her hidden arm.
She seems to deflate, falling back against her pillows with a sigh. "About which part?"
I breathe deeply once, twice. "Any of it."
"Things have been… bad, I guess. For a long time now." She lays her exposed hand flat on her thigh, but I still see the tremors in her fingers. "I was tired."
"What were you tired of?"
She laughs, but this one feels stifling and dangerous, like a summer storm.
"Did you ever do something that felt right at the time, and it wasn't until it was all over that you realized just what a mistake it was?"
"Yes." It sounds as tense as I feel.
She opens her mouth and shuts it again, her lips forming words she doesn't want to say. She clenches her hand into a fist. "Leaving you was my mistake."
I stumble slightly, my knees bumping into the chair behind me. I stay standing somehow, if only so I can run out of the room at any second if I need to.
"But you said—"
"I know," she interrupts, cutting me off before I can pollute the air around us with ugly words that came from broken hearts. "I just… I missed Gracie. I missed her so much, and every time I saw you, I saw her. The hair, the eyes, even the dimples when you smiled, and it felt like each thing was another reminder I couldn't cope with."
"And you thought I could cope?" I snap, pressing my lips tightly together afterward.
"Maybe," she says, shrugging. "No. I don't know. Everything from that time is hazy."
I dig my fingernails into my palm. "I was hurting too."
"I know that now." Her words are steeped in regret. "I was selfish and blinded. I was wrong."
I scrub a hand over my face. Even my skin aches. "Losing Gracie," I start, having to stop to clear my throat. "It broke me. My life fell apart in the space of minutes, Bella. Every dream I had for my daughter, every hope for the life she'd lead died in that room. It felt like she'd been stolen, except I couldn't even get her back. And then you… you left, and I had nothing but the memory of a family. That hurt doesn't fade."
I don't doubt it, but her apology does nothing for the sores riddling my insides. I stare out the window and watch as the last of the snow gleams in the sun. "Some mornings I forget. I wake up expecting your body to be next to mine and the lights of the baby monitor flashing on the nightstand. I lie in bed, and I turn to face you, but you aren't there. The bed is cold and empty. I'm alone. I remember then, and it's like reliving it all over again. Those are the worst days."
"I'm sorry," she repeats.
"Then why did you leave?" I ask, gritting my teeth against the anger that floods me.
"I needed to be loved, Edward," she says quietly, and I feel my heart splinter and crumble. "I had my own demons chasing me. I had to live with my own blame each day, and I didn't need yo—"
She cuts off, her lips mashing shut. The words she doesn't say are the loudest of all, jagged shards of hurt piercing the silence between us.
"I didn't blame you. I loved you more than anything, Bella. Even… even after, when I didn't think I had the capacity to, I loved you."
Her eyes close and squeeze tight, tears soaking the skin of her cheek. "I thought you hated me for what happened. You worked all the time, trying to avoid me."
"It wasn't that. Never that. I hated myself," I tell her, pain making it hard to speak. "I should have known, should have done something. Instead I worked too hard trying to provide a life for a child who only wanted me, and I denied her that. If I'd been home…"
"Please," she says, so weak and strained that it makes me ache. "Don't."
"It was never you, okay?" I ask, desperate for her to understand. "I just had to get away from it, Bella."
"And did you?"
"I moved to Portland and finished my residency there, so I guess you could say I got away." I attempt a smile, but the corners of my mouth drag downward rather than up.
"Good. That's good. And you did okay there?"
"It changed my life for the better."
She blanches. "Oh. Was there… someone else?"
I shift uncomfortably. "There was a woman, Tanya."
"She was your girlfriend?"
My stomach twists as the barely-concealed hurt in her question breaches the inches between us and grabs me.
The words won't come, my mouth too dry to speak them.
"Was she your girlfriend, Edward?" she asks, whisper-soft and wounded, like she already knows. Bella looks down at the blanket, running a finger along the frayed thread, and I wonder if this is making her heart ache as much as it is mine.
"She was my wife," I rasp, the admission feeling like sandpaper against my throat.
Her finger stops.
"And we had a daughter."
She breathes fast and deep, like she can't get enough air. She lets out a low, pained sound and slumps back into the bed, turning her face toward the window.
"A daughter?" Her voice is so fragile, so fraught.
She curls into a ball and buries her face in the coarse fabric covering her knees. Her sobs are soundless, but she's betrayed by the way her shoulders shake.
I stand next to the bed, wishing I knew how to comfort her.
"I'm so sorry," I plead, resting my hand between her shoulder blades. At my touch, she cries even harder.
"Why couldn't it be me?" Her words are warped by tears. "I wanted it to be me."
I blink fast, my own cheeks wet now. "Me too, sweetheart."
"That was meant to be my life. I was meant to make you happy. Me and you and Gracie were meant to be a family. It should have been me."
"I know, Bella."
"It isn't fair. It isn't fair that she died. I miss her so badly that some days it's all I can do to get out of bed. I want to stay there and waste away until nothing hurts anymore."
"Is that why you did this?"
"Her memory burns me, Edward. It feels like I'm in a living hell surrounded by flames that turn any bit of hope I feel to ash, and I can't find a way out of it. Tell me you don't feel the same."
"I don't." She curls even further in on herself, hiding from the sunshine coming through the curtains. "I did for a long time, too long."
"And getting married fixed you?" she asks, ugly words in a bitter tone.
"No, it didn't. I'm still hurting. I'll never not miss her, even for a second, but wasting my life won't give hers back."
"I wish I could see her again."
"I think she sees us."
"Yes, sweetheart. And I think we can see her too, whenever we remember the time we had with her."
"It hurts so badly to remember."
"I know. But it hurts even more to try to forget."
Bella rolls over to face me, her tear-stained cheeks shining. "I just want her back."
I smile sadly as I sit down on the edge of the bed, bringing a hand up to stroke her hair. "I do too."
"Will you help me get better?" she asks, her voice soft and pleading.
"Anything for you."
I kiss her forehead as the bright morning light fills the room.
I see Bella as much as possible during her week-long psych evaluation, but the visiting hours are short and strictly enforced. Each minute spent with her is achingly bittersweet as I try to align the girl I knew with the woman she's become. I see snatches of that girl - the way one side of her mouth curves higher than the other when she smiles, or how she twists her hair around her finger. Other times, it feels like sitting with a dead-eyed stranger.
If love is a language, my feelings for her are a foreign tongue that I can't seem to translate.
She's the sun, and I'm a planet that spun out of its orbit, but she pulled me back. She's scratched into my flesh, burrowed into my veins so deep I can't ever let her go.
She can't either - except it's not good for her. It hurts her, cripples her, and that stings. I don't know if her bad memories can be replaced with new ones or whether it'll be like putting paint over a crack in the wall, trying to pretend it doesn't exist.
I have to at least try, though, which is why I offer to drive her home, seeing as the hospital had her car towed. She agrees hesitantly, warily, but all I hear is 'yes'.
We walk out of the hospital slowly, not wanting to give up the safe routine we've fallen into. I help her into the car, each glimpse of the curling, faded-white bandage around her wrist cutting me to the quick. I let the crisp air soothe me slightly, but that falters when I sit down in the driver's seat only to see Bella staring into the back of the car with tears rolling down her cheeks.
I sit silent and still as she takes in Faith's pink car-seat and the toys scattered around it. I watch as pain twists her face, as memories haunt and wreck and ruin.
"What's she like?" she whispers.
"Beautiful. Sweet." I smile, unable to stop it. "A daddy's girl."
Her eyes close. "You deserve that."
"To be adored," she says. "For her world to revolve around you."
I take hold of her hand, bringing it to my lips so they can press against her knuckles.
"So do you."
She turns away to stare out the window, but she doesn't move her hand from mine.
Her apartment is small, set in a run-down building. Her living room is sparse, mismatched furniture only meant for one. Her bedroom is nothing more than the bare essentials, her bed narrow and unmade. There's one small spot that differs, though, one little echo of life - a large frame on the wall across from her dresser. It's filled with pictures from years ago - of old friends we shared, of her father, of her and Gracie and me, but none that seem recent.
It hits me that Bella's apartment looks this way because she is this way - empty, devoid, barely existing in the present because she's stuck living the horrors of her past.
Everything is cold. No warmth. No color, except for the kitchen. There lies a smeared trail of black-red blood, congealed and clinging to the cabinets, the countertop, droplets littering the floor like a trail to death.
I try to breathe deep, but I can't find air, instead inhaling blood fumes and Bella's heartbreak. My stomach lurches, and I rush to the tiny bathroom, vomit splattering the yellowed sink as I think of pierced skin and serrated knife edges. Sweat trickles down my forehead and wets the hair by my temples. The bathroom door opens just as the retching ends, and I feel a small hand on the base of my back.
"Pack a bag," I say quietly, my throat raw from all the acid. "You can't stay here."
Her hand fists my shirt.
She says nothing, just stands behind me silently as I turn on the tap and splash my face with cold water. When I stand up, my blurry eyes find hers.
Her thumb brushes my tailbone as she loosens her hold, her sigh the only sound she makes before she slips from the room.
I don't breathe properly until we're outside and away from the apartment building, the tensed muscles of my back relaxing finally. We get back into my car, and I turn on the heat full-blast, hoping to shake the chill that's chasing me.
"I don't have anywhere to stay," Bella says quietly.
"Stay with me." I face forward, refusing to let loose the 'always' that pushes against my lips.
"Tanya won't mind?"
I swing my head to the side, but Bella refuses to meet my gaze. "Tanya and I have been divorced too long for her to care one way or another."
She nods, but her face is still pinched. "Your daughter won't mind?"
I shake my head, my mouth twitching with amusement. "Faith loves everyone she meets."
"What if she doesn't like me?"
"How could anyone not?" I ask, teasing but truthful.
"But… who will you tell her I am?"
I clear my throat. "I'll tell her you're Gracie's mommy."
"She knows about Gracie?" Her voice is quiet, hard to read.
"Of course she knows about her. She was my daughter. I won't ever forget about her, and I want Faith to know all she can about her big sister."
The tears that slide down Bella's cheeks this time dip into the dimples that bracket her smile. Her fingers touch the back of my hand gently. "I'm looking forward to meeting her, Edward."
I turn my palm and encase her fingers in mine.
Somewhere deep inside my heart, fierce, unstoppable hope sparks.
I'm standing at the edge of the car, near the rear bumper, unsure and delicate. I've never felt more fragile, more like a piece of paper soaked through and unable to hold together, like I could crumble into a sopping wet mess right in Edward's hands. His house is small and quaint, and there are carnations growing on the front porch, their little yellow heads hunched down and together against the chill. It's welcoming and unexpected, the warmth. I always remember him so cold. And I wonder how much Faith has to do with that, if she's what's breathed the life back into him.
He's long and lean and leading me into his home. He's already at the front door, unassuming and calm, so much more man than I recall. I wonder when we grew up, when we grew so far apart. The boy I remember, lanky with long hair and laughter on his lips, is long Edward is confident, with cropped-close hair and a quiet smile. But when it's there, it's genuine.
I have no idea why he's suddenly so intent on caring for me. He wasn't there when I needed him, when I wanted him to follow me into the depths of despair, even after I left. I remember dreaming of him, waking with his name a desperate plea on my lips, crying into nothing, alone. I shudder and watch him enter his home, a quick look over his shoulder asking me to come, but only at my own pace.
That look, along with the memory of deep dark depression behind my eyes, makes me move into the unknown.
His house is just as warm on the inside as it looks from the curb. There's a little bench in the entryway, and tucked underneath are big men's boots next to little girl galoshes. There's a pink and green backpack with owls stitched on and a jacket tossed across the cushion. It smells like maple syrup and baby girl playtime, sticky and sweet, and I breathe it in deep. I hear him moving in the other room, but he doesn't call out for me. I take one last look outside and close the door, bolting it behind me.
I wander forward, through an untouched dining area and into an all blue and white kitchen. It reminds me of Esme, her touch evident here, and I miss teenage nights in her kitchen, sweet treats and brewed coffee and girl talk. These things - these hauntings - hit me like a wrecking ball and remind me of all I've lost. I want it back. I want it again, and I wonder if I can wriggle my way back there, back through time. The thought bounces through my mind, and my eyes bounce around the so-lived-in room until they land on Edward, standing over the stove, with a tea kettle in hand.
"Do you still like green tea, Bella? Can I make you a mug?"
I nod. "Thank you."
He lets me explore and starts picking up pink and purple plastic cups and small bright-colored plastic flatware, rinsing and putting them in the dishwasher. I step slowly through the room, my eyes on all the little touches of little girl that litter his house. There's a bar that's cluttered with crayons and papers, like she doesn't have to clean it up when she's done. And next to the painted-pink barstool is one that's his, where he sits and eats or colors or plays with her. Room for two. And I'm so afraid I won't fit into their life.
"You know, I haven't even asked. How often do you get to keep Faith?"
Edward clears his throat. "She's with me all week long and every other weekend. That's what I wanted, and it suited Tanya fine."
Anger burns in my chest, and bile creeps up my throat at the thought of a mother being in any way uncaring. Bitter jealousy at what she has, at what she takes for granted, threatens to turn me inside out again. But Edward hands me a steaming mug and smiles, leading me into the next room.
It's cozy, a hearth and mantle decorated with candid pictures of Edward and Faith, smiling into the camera. This is the first glimpse of her I've had, and I find I'm not ready. I turn away and wander the periphery of the room, on the edges of a reality I'm unprepared to face.
"So, she's with her mother today?" I ask, turning my back to the mantle to examine a bookshelf littered with plastic CD cases, a few paperbacks, and stacks of medical journals.
Edward answers from the seat he's taken on the couch. "Yes. I made her breakfast, and Tanya picked her up at 9 this morning. She'll be back tomorrow night. Bella," he says, and his voice lowers, "You don't have to do this right now. You should probably rest. Want me to show you your room?"
I know we're not together. We're no longer anything. I have no claim and no right, but I want it. I want so much for him to take me to his bed. To hold me, to wrap me in familiarity and warmth - things I haven't felt in so long. I'm lonely, alone, and exhausted.
He's better. I want him to make me that way.
The hole in my chest gapes and claws, and fear of feeling this way forever spreads beneath all my skin.
But I nod anyway and carry my tea, wrapping my cold fingers around the ceramic warmth while Edward grabs my bag from the foyer where he left it and calls out, asking me to follow him down the hall.
The room he leads me to is small and has only a bed, a bedside table, a lamp, and three black and white photos of lilies on the wall. It's empty, sterile, and unwelcoming, and I feel like it's where I belong.
"Thank you, for… everything," I gesture dumbly around the room.
The formality is killing me, but I'm unwilling and unable to ask for more from the man I've hurt in so many ways.
"I'm just going to go and call Tanya. Let her know you'll be staying here..." His words dangle, an unspoken time frame hovering.
My stomach turns, and I wonder how she'll react. Edward is so sure, so certain it won't be a problem. I twist my hands and look at the floor.
"Edward, I can go. I have my place. I really—"
He holds up a palm, wide-eyed and firm.
"No, Bella. Come on. You can't go back there."
"I don't want to be a burden for you. You have a child to consider."
Anger flashes in his eyes, and they cut through the distance between us more sharply than the words that follow. "Jesus, Bella. You think I haven't thought about Faith in all of this? What kind of a parent do you think I am? She is my first thought, my priority in everything I do, every decision I make. Do you really think I didn't even consider how this would affect her? Give me a little credit. I just, I can't take you doubting me, Bella." He touches my hand with long, warm fingers that feel like home and fill my missing parts.
I look at our hands, so weathered and changed. Then I look into pleading, earnest green.
"Okay?" he asks.
"Yes, I'm sorry. I trust you."
He smiles a little. "I'll just let you settle in."
I unpack, and I assume Edward talks to Tanya, though he says nothing. We order pizza and watch TV quietly. He doesn't push me, and I try to give him space and be unobtrusive. We both go to bed early, weary from back-and-forth, highs-and-lows, and the turmoil of finding each other in the middle of my storm-ravaged mess of a life.
When I close the door to the little guest room, there's a kind of anticipation, of all-over anxiety-riddled hesitation that washes over me. It always comes before sleep. I'm sure I shouldn't feel it - that my palms shouldn't sweat, and my heart shouldn't race, and my breaths shouldn't speed. A normal girl, an unbruised, untarnished woman wouldn't be worried about falling asleep.
But I am so very far from normal. I am the shattered shell of a mother, an empty womb with empty arms that ache. And if the dreams come tonight, if I see purple lips or feel cold skin, Edward will hear. Because I can never stop the sobs.
I'm stretched flat across the still-made bed, counting the ticks of the clock and trying to clear my head. Edward went to bed hours ago, but I try to keep awake. I sit up and move and open the windows, letting the cold open my eyes. I try not to remember, try not to feel, try not to succomb to exhaustion that is bone-deep and burying me.
I wake some time later, tears already flowing as I see flashes of little girl smiles and snowball fights, fiery auburn hair and snow angels, hot chocolate and blanket forts. But I'm here, like always, lonely and cold.
In my dream, we were a family. Whole. And that hurts more than when I dream of her death.
The longing I feel is new, attributed to Edward's renewed presence in my life and how I never realized how constant he was for me - how seeing him again, relying on him in any way, would bring back everything I've tried to bury. All the lies I've told myself seem so thin, so flimsy in the harsh light of reality.
Truly, I am his. And I always will be.
But I have no illusion that he is mine.
Her cries wake me.
Years of listening for codes and baby cries have conditioned me to be alert at the drop of a hat, and I curse each second I'm awake to hear the gut-wrenching sobs echoing across the hall. Bella's pain is mine, and I press my head into the pillow as hurt wraps around my heart. I can hear her heaving breaths, the high-pitched whimpers as she drags air into empty lungs, and it leaves me gasping too. I pad across my room and down to hers, slipping in the door like a thief.
She's curled into a ball in the middle of the bed, nothing more than a shadow in the night. I peel back the comforter and climb in behind her, molding my body to hers and pulling her back into me. She pulls away, but I don't give, my arm holding her to me. She fights, but then she goes limp. I gently turn her over and kiss the tears from her cheeks, cradling her head against my chest.
"I've missed you," she cries, cuddling closer.
My eyes sting as I kiss her clammy forehead. "I know."
"I'm so sorry," she says like a plea, clutching my shirt with shaking hands.
"I know," I whisper back.
"I love you," she goes on, and my heart knocks against my ribcage. "I've never stopped."
"Bella…" I hold her tighter, brush never-ending damp lines from her cheeks, stare at the contours of heartbreak that shape her face and twist her words until they're bent and wrong.
"I don't exist here." She gestures around like she means the house, but the palm she rests over my heart belies it. "I don't exist in your life anymore. I'm like a memory you'd give anything to get rid of."
Wind blows through the open window, and I swear I can taste the salt of her tears on my tongue.
I shake my head, but she's caught up in the thoughts that maim and ruin. I imagine how they run on a loop through her mind each day, and it's crystal clear why she ended up in the ER.
But she's wrong - so wrong, and so are the ugly words that spill from her lips like coal-black oil. I pull her back to me, tired of letting her go. Tired of letting her leave.
"You could never be a memory. You're too bright, too loving, too much to be confined to distant corners of my mind. I think of you in the minutes I don't mean to, like you're just out of reach and I can only find you if I stop trying."
"What if I wanted you to try?"
I see nothing but her.
"I've been lost for so long," she says, closing her eyes. I map the blue veins that trickle like water across her eyelids, wondering if the blood that flows there is branded by me. "Maybe I need to be found."
I take hold of her hand, press it on top of my breastbone over the heart she's always owned. It races beneath our palms. "I've always known where you were. Here. You were my girl - sweet and loving, beautiful and so good. The best mother I knew." I squeeze her hand tighter. "The girl I wanted to marry."
She purses her lips like the words hurt. "We've both changed so much. I'm broken." She says it like a disclaimer. "After Grace died, and I lost you too… Edward, I've been dead since then. Just a shell. Nothing. But seeing you in that emergency room was the best thing that's happened to me in so long. I thought I died. I thought I didn't make it and that you were there to, I don't know, take me to heaven. To Gracie." Her tears slip silent now. "And when I woke up and realized you were back and what I'd almost done, I can't tell you how terrible I felt. And I can't believe you're even giving me the hint of a second chance. A chance to be better. I'm so sorry for all the things I've done, the ways I hurt you and myself, but I need to be better. I know that now. I think I can be. I think… with you. Edward, I can't believe you're here. I didn't know how much I needed you, how much I love you."
"I'll never stop loving you," I promise, and her eyes fill with tears that make them glimmer. "No matter how far apart we are, no matter how long it's been, there is always a place in my heart solely for you."
Her lips are soft when she presses them against mine, gently enough to show me she's scared. I am too, but it's overwhelmed by the love, sadness, heartache warring inside me, and so I kiss her back. I wrap my arms around her, and then I show her how much I've missed her, letting my mouth heal the hurt that sits between us.
"What does this mean?" she asks when we break for air.
"It means I can't see a life that doesn't have you in it anymore. I need you. I miss you, and I love you more than words can say."
"Everything's so unclear…"
I stroke her forehead, push away the hair that blocks her eyes. "Let me be your constant. I'll be with you every step of the way, any time you need me."
"But I hurt you, Edward, and—"
"And we've spent too many years apart, running from things that were never our fault."
She closes her eyes, breathes those words in like they're her lifeline.
"I'm not asking you to get married tomorrow or to act as if everything can suddenly be fixed," I explain, running my thumb across her lips. "I am asking you to try, though. I need you to try."
She nods, the first hint of a smile I haven't seen enough of creeping across her cheeks. "We can try."
The relief that floods me brings tears to my eyes, but I blink them back. There's no room for tears here, not now.
"Sleep now. I have you."
She rests her head on my chest, clinging tight to my ribs.
In Bella's embrace, I sleep.
When morning comes, we're still lying in the same position, our bodies tangled in warm sheets and each other. I see Bella's sleepy smile and morning eyes, so love-filled I'm convinced I must still be dreaming, that it's just the ghost of happiness tricking me. Except she holds me like she's flesh, skin warm and flushed with blood, and then I remember.
For the the first time in years, an early-morning memory brings me happiness.
That only grows as we awkwardly explore our new dynamic, learning the new versions of ourselves through conversation and kisses, small touches that chart the changes in our bodies and declarations that show nothing has changed in our hearts.
Faith's scheduled to come home in the afternoon, and Bella's nerves are visible as the time grows closer. My chest aches at the thought she and my daughter won't get along, but it seems impossible. They're the sun and the moon, the two centers of my different lifetimes meeting, and I refuse to believe they could do anything but love one another.
Still, Bella's wary and tentative, especially when she hears Tanya's voice outside. She sits on the couch stiff-spined and terrified, but before long, I'm back at her side, excited toddler in tow.
I watch as Bella looks at Faith fully, taking in the curve of her cheek and the ringlet-curl of her hair so like our daughter's. I worry that she'll cry, but instead she smiles so bright it leaves me breathless.
Faith steps closer to me, chewing on her thumb as she leans her body against mine.
"This is Bella, sweetheart. You remember I told you about her and Gracie?"
A moment passes that leaves me sickeningly scared, where Faith's eyes stay blank and Bella's face falls. She looks toward the floor, averting her gaze and missing the spark of recognition that lights my daughter up from the inside out.
"Bella from the princess story, Daddy?"
I swallow the lump in my throat that appears when I see the hope written all over Bella's face.
"I love that story! Hi, Bella!" Faith springs forward and wraps her arms around Bella's neck, almost bringing them to the floor. Bella saves them, though, swooping Faith into her arms and wrapping her tight in a hug. Her face is sad, and I have no doubt the moment is so bittersweet it burns her, but she just buries her nose in Faith's hair and listens as my daughter rambles on.
In that moment, despite all that stands between us, I feel the last tattered pieces of my heart align and slide back into place. Outside new snow begins to fall, swirling and circling around the yard before drifting to the ground. So much is tied to those small flakes - my worst memories of nights that felt like years, and yet as the powdery white finds its bed on the grass, I can do nothing but smile.
Snow storms happen. They wreak havoc, turn something beautiful into a force that destructs and hurts. Snow gets muddied. It turns from pure white to slushy gray-black, from untouched to ravaged, but it always melts. It thaws and fades, and so does all the dirt and the darkness it held.
No matter how hard winter rages, it can't keep the rebirth of spring from blossoming.
As I turn back to see Bella and Faith still wrapped up in each other, it seems my seasons are finally changing.