TITLE: All Fall Down
GENRE (optional): Angst/Romance
AUTHOR NAME: 09
LINK TO YOUR FFN PROFILE:
WORD COUNT: 8389
SUMMARY: Hurt, broken, and unable to change, Bella keeps secrets and builds walls. She's haunted, and she's hiding. Edward's trying, but is it enough? A story about marriage, family, and holding on too tight.
The summer sunshine is scattered across the side yard, a section of earth dense with bermuda grass that's warm and tickling my bare feet. I pace back and forth, my eyes unfocused and blurred on hazy hunter green.
In the distance, thunder rumbles, calling my attention skyward. It's dark grey-blue to the west, clouds rolling in heavy and fast. That color is my favorite - the one that accompanies angry summer weather - because it is so like his eyes.
I smile at the thought of him, the way his voice rumbles deep and his eyes flash sharp, my very own tempest.
The breeze picks up, lifting strands of my hair and tugging them different directions, caressing bare skin and bringing a chill even in the heat and humidity. I can smell it coming.
I walk toward ominous clouds and open pasture, pausing only to climb the three-rail wooden fence that separates me from the place I want to be. I stroll over dried, cracked clay where water used to sit and trail my eyes across the depleted little brown pond, brought low by weeks of dry heat. The storm that's coming promises to fill it to the brim.
When I get to the top edge of the shrunken pond, I can see downhill to the back acreage. The horses are grazing restlessly, walking from tuft to tuft, their eyes shifting between each other. They'll be easily spooked, aware as they are of what's coming.
So I lick my lips, breathe a lungful of heavy humid air, tuck my pinkies between my teeth and whistle. The sound carries, and three sets of fuzzy ears perk.
"Nevada, Montana, Utah!" I call, each named after their birth-state. Their registrations show something different, but this is what they answer to. "Come on, babies! Dinner time!"
They start a progression, Montana leading the other two in her quiet way, head down, ears forward. I walk toward the barn just as another roll of thunder threatens.
When I reach the hay and dust-scented space, I tug open stall doors and check water troughs. I open the tack room and fill the feed bucket. Just as I'm emerging, Montana's sleek silver face peers into the shade, and she nickers, low and soft.
"Go on, baby. I'm coming."
She takes her stall, the one closest to me, the other two horses on her heels. They wait patiently as she's fed first, her stall secured. Utah's next, my boy. Then Nevada, the youngest, the baby girl.
They each get two scoops and a scratch between the ears. The sound of their chewing fills the space around me, and warmth spreads through my limbs. I don't have children, but these are close.
I lift hay, bits trailing all over me, landing in my hair and sticking to my arms, sliding down the front of my shirt and settling between my breasts. I toss a flake into each stall before whispering a quiet goodnight and sliding the big, heavy doors shut.
Outside, it's darker, ominous, heavy. I head back to the house, hosing off dirty bare soles before I step inside.
It smells empty, and I think of him again.
We left so much unsaid. He's been gone six weeks and will be for eighteen more. When he left, we were sour and cold, and I'd like to say I regret it, but I can't.
My feet pad sticky-soft across the linoleum of the kitchen floor, and I pop open the fridge, taking a beer from the door. I stopped buying his brand on my last trip to the grocery store, sticking to my preference in light of his absence.
I take the cold comfort to the couch, settling in under a blanket. Smush, our mean-ass little Boston terrier, hops up beside me and curls himself into a ball, as close as he can without being right on top of my lap. I scratch his head and turn on the TV.
There's a weather warning scrolling across the bottom of the screen, and the darkness outside combined with the louder peal of thunder makes me antsy. I flip through channel after channel, settling on a game show I know I won't watch. Instead, my thoughts drift to that unavoidable place, to him.
I think of him leaving, the back of his head as he drove down the driveway without a look back. He said he had good reasons to go, that we needed the money and that six months isn't that long. I stood on the front porch, arms crossed and set stubborn until I couldn't hear the roar of our truck any more.
He left me, and I hate him for it.
I take a long drink from the strong beer, willing it to relieve any of the tension I constantly feel, the anger that creeps up my spine, the bitterness that scratches at my insides.
The television beeps, calling my attention to another warning, this one from the local weatherman.
Over-styled blond hair, a too-bold blue tie, and a grim smile greet me.
"Hi, folks. I'm Mike Newton, News Five's chief meteorologist, bringing you the latest update on the severe weather that's headed our direction."
I listen to him talk about a severe thunderstorm, going on about hail and high winds and staying indoors. I switch off the TV just before a streak of lightning flashes, briefly illuminating every inch of the living room. Smush's head pops up, and he huffs a half-bark. I scratch behind his ear while I count - one, two, thr - then the thunder rips through the silence and rattles the windows. Smush settles back in, re-calming.
"So tough." I pat his head and stand, wanting to keep busy, to keep my mind off our fights.
But heading to the back of the house, or anywhere else, is unmanageable. Half-finished projects eat up my space, my home in disarray, like my head. I open the door to our bedroom and hide inside, a fresh-washed pile of laundry waiting to be folded.
The phone rings just as I'm finishing matching the last pair of socks, and instinctively, I know it's him.
I consider not answering until guilt overpowers irritation.
"Hello?" I say.
The sound of his voice, raspy and soft for me, still melts my heart, even when I'm mad.
He doesn't have to know that, though.
"I heard there were some storms headed your way. Everything all right? Did you get the horses up?"
I roll my eyes, and it makes me feel a little better. "Yes, they're up, and I'm inside. Everything's fine. How did you hear about the weather? They aren't talking about that on the news where you are, are they?" The storm can't be that bad.
"Oh, no," he says, hesitating, and I know instantly.
"Ah, Esme called you."
"Yeah, she was just checking in on me."
"Bella, come on." I can hear the frustration lacing every word now, and good. Good, we're on the same page.
"Okay, Edward. I'm sure she was just thinking of you by calling to tell you about a storm that's happening here. Mmhmm."
He sighs, exasperated and exhausted, and I feel it too. I realize I'm standing up, on offense, already on the attack.
"Sorry," I say, muttering into the mouthpiece.
"It's all right. What's Smush doing?"
"Being a little shithead, as usual."
"Give him a scratch for me, will you?"
And just like that, we're out of things to say.
"I just wanted to check on you, see you were all right."
"I love you. I'll call you tomorrow, okay?"
"Sure. Love you too."
We hang up, and I see that the rain's started. I hadn't heard it over the conversation, but now it seems to roar and echo in the emptiness of the house.
I head back out into the darkened hallway, pushing past half-empty paint cans, sawhorses, and mess mess mess. At the end of the hall I open the undersized wooden door and look up.
Dark-stained walnut stairs distressed by age and high heels and work boots greet me, a narrow walkway, a low ceiling. I flip on the light switch and head up, closing the door and shifting myself inside the one uncluttered place in the house. My untouched haven, where I won't allow Edward, or Smush. It's mine.
At the top of the stairs the ceiling opens, and bare wood stretches up, vaulted, plank after plank reaching and giving me room to breathe. I cross the floor, plywood placed flat across beams, concealing the scratchy pink insulation. I've stretched carpet, pieced together from scraps we didn't need downstairs, to form my own little runner. It reaches from end to end, with chaotic bits jutting out in the places I like to sit, or read, or pace.
The most worn piece of taupe rug leads me to one of the dormer windows, and I lift open the glass, breathing in the sound of the rain and the smell of the soaking wet outside. The wind is fierce, and the lightning is nearly constant, peppered with thunder rumbling from heaven. I watch the trees in the front yard bend and twist, their leaves silver-green and wind-whipped.
I reach under and behind a beam, a hidden ledge where a pack of cigarettes and a lighter rest. Leaning forward, elbows resting on the open window ledge, I light the end and watch the rain. It splatters and splashes onto my heated skin, a delicate showering in the middle of a rage-filled storm.
I watch as brittle-dry ground turns soaked. I watch as it slowly starts to drown, puddles of water collecting and growing to streams.
When the cigarette is gone, and the storm has passed, I slide the window closed and slip silently downstairs to another night in an empty bed.
After I hang up with Bella, the tense call that lasted all of five minutes, I have a drink. The distance between us is more than just the miles. It's in her voice, and it's in mine too, even though I try to fight it. I knew taking this job would be hard on us, but I had no idea it would be like this. Like I'm haunted by her ghost. Like a vital part of me is missing. I find myself turning to say something to her constantly. Sometimes I pretend she's here just so I can get the words out, and I talk to nothing and nobody.
We've been together so long I don't know who I am without her. I'm less than whole when she's not here, of that I'm certain.
So I keep trying. I call her every day, and I mail her little things from time to time. Our anniversary is this Sunday, and I'm planning to drive in to see her. She doesn't know that yet. I'm mailing her a card and a locket, pictures of her mom and dad tucked inside, the day before to throw her off. Not that I think she'd guess. I don't think she thinks much at all about what I'm doing.
That's not really fair of me, but it feels like I barely exist in her world now that I'm here.
Marcus is my boss, and he asked to come over tonight. He and a couple of the other guys are going to stop by my lonesome little rental, and we're going to drink too much beer and watch too much baseball. I'm in the middle of throwing my last sock in the dryer when the doorbell rings.
"Hey, man," Marcus says as he comes in. He's pretty likeable in spite of his job title. He doesn't put up with shit, but he's fair. I look at my watch and notice he's about twenty minutes early.
"Hey," I say. I guess there's a question in my eyes or my voice because he answers like I asked.
"I came over early to talk to you."
I laugh. "Am I being fired?"
"Nope. If I was firing you, I'd do it after the game." He's smiling, and I try to do the same.
"Good. Want a beer?"
I get us both drinks, and we sit on opposite ends of the couch with the television on. The announcer drones in the background, ignored.
"So, here's the thing," he says, and I can't help but feel nervous. He's a friend, but he's a supervisor too. "I have to make a recommendation soon for my replacement. They're moving me to Germany for an eighteen-month stint."
"Wow, that's awesome, man. I bet that pay will be nice."
"Yeah, it should be. I'm wondering if you're interested in my position."
I know I'm good at my job, but I wasn't expecting this. Right now I'm contract. Temporary. Marcus is full time with benefits, and Bella and I might finally, finally be able to start a family. Start new.
But Marcus's job is also here, three states away from home.
"I know it's a big deal. Think it over. I have to give them my recommendation in two weeks. The position opens in four. You'll still have to apply and be hired, but it's pretty much a lock if I handpick you."
"I'm...wow. Thanks, Marcus."
"Think about it, and let me know, okay?"
"I will. I need to talk it over with Bella, of course, but I'll let you know something as soon as I can."
I don't imagine the conversation with my wife going well, but I have to ask. I have to. The possibility of so much more opens wide in front of me, and it's not something I'm prepared to dismiss.
"Thanks again, Marcus. That means a lot."
"Sure," he says, sips his beer, and turns to face the oversized rental television that's barely a hum in my mind. Thoughts of how our life could change, of what it could be like in a new city with a new job and a new home race and taunt and entice.
Jake and Tyler join us right before the game starts, and the four of us, as predicted, get a little drunk and little loud. We laugh and cheer and cuss, and momentarily, everything is good.
For the first time in weeks, I don't call Bella before I go to sleep.
Saturday morning comes, a blur of gauzy white morning light and Smush slobber. I push the little brute out of my face and rub sleep from my eyes. There are morning chores to be done and preparations for tomorrow's family lunch, and I want to take Nevada out for a ride as well. Baby girl is getting chubby.
I push myself out of bed and manage to tug on yesterday's clothes. My rubber boots sit by the door, and with all that rain, I'll need them.
As expected, my back yard is a mess of slop and standing water, green grass water-logged and beaten down. Smush darts around, splashing and sniffing and chasing little morning-greeting creatures here and there. Aside from a few last-minute crickets and the soft sing-song of tiny birds in my trees, it is quiet.
Sliding the heavy barn doors open breaks the serenity and signals the start of the day; six liquid-brown eyes stare and blink and greet.
I let each horse out, and they trot slip-sliding into the distance, toward the best grazing. I have stalls to clean and troughs to fill and a dog to feed.
I go about my work quickly, quiet-minded and assured, my muscles remembering the work and motion without prompting. When I'm done, I call Smush inside, and we have our breakfast. The phone hasn't chirped since last night, and I find myself wondering what Edward's doing, where he is. No matter how far or how frustrated, my thoughts are constantly of him.
I think of calling, but stubborn-strong will stops me. I sigh instead and dial Rose.
She's already wide awake, as usual.
"Morning, Bella," she says, all breathless energy and eager distraction.
"Hi, Sissy. What are you up to?"
"Just putting the boys out of the house for the day. What are you doing?"
"Eating breakfast. Trying not to call Edward."
She half-laughs and shouts into the distance, "Take it outside, you heathens!"
"What are they doing?"
"Ugh, they're wrestling. Emmett let them watch some kind of martial arts thing on TV last night, and it's all they've been doing since."
I smile at the thought of the brothers, all gangly elbows and knees, practicing deadly moves on one another.
"Listen, Mama wants to bring the casserole tomorrow, she said."
I groan. "Rose," I say, and I know I'm whining, but I can't help it. This is what she does.
"She's just trying to make it easier on you, Bella."
"I know, I know, but I'm perfectly capable of making a damn casserole. What else am I going to do all day?"
I hear a door close and water running in the background. "Well I don't know about you," she says, "but I'm about to get in the tub and not come out for about three hours."
"That sounds terrible."
"Whatever. You should put that vibrator I bought you to good use is what you should do."
"Ew, Rose. Come on."
"I'm just saying. Anyway, call Mom about the menu I guess. I'll still bring dessert and an appetizer, okay?"
I sigh and agree, and we hang up.
My finger hovers over Esme's name. I shouldn't feel so annoyed by her, so agitated by her countless attempts to help. I'm an orphan now, and I should be grateful for any parents I can get. But I can't help feeling smothered and overwhelmed, coddled and babied by a woman I feel like I barely know. She is so different from my mom.
And just like that, I'm teary-eyed and lonely again, the weight of this house, my home, my parents' only legacy, all I have left of them bearing down over me and making my heart heavy and my head hurt. I can't let it go. It's all I have.
Edward argues the point. He says I have him and his family, who love me. I have my job, my friends. He pushes me to let go, to be better. To move forward without them, leaving all they built for me.
But I am useless and unable without them, my life-givers and lesson-teachers. They left me nothing, nothing of themselves beyond this house. I put the phone down with a resolve to honor them, to remain stubborn and immobile, as close to their memory as I can be.
I get up and start putting together that casserole. I decide to make a salad as well, and baked potatoes. I make sure I have drinks and that the kitchen is clean. I get the house as ready as possible, shuffling paint and projects behind closed doors and into dark spaces. I hang fresh towels in the kitchen and bathroom. Then I start at the entryway and walk through each room they will visit, looking it over from top to bottom, moving and rearranging and stubbornly placing the portrait of my parents prominently on the coffee table, the others of him and his relegated to the shelves and sideboards.
I know I'm being childish. I'm stuck in a place of petty peculiarity, of need and want and desire for people I cannot touch any longer. But something stops me from bending, from being able to change. I stop and close my eyes to the guilt that pricks when I even consider leaving this place, whenever I consider letting go, even loosening my grip.
And I make up my mind again, not to change.
Alice calls a bit later, confirming plans and times and whispers into the phone, giggling, "I'll bring mini-bottles, Bella girl, and we'll slip them in our OJ, okay?"
This girl knows me so well. I love that she accepts where I am without pushing, just letting me be, understanding and supporting and loving with all she is.
We hang up, and I flop on the couch. Still nothing from Edward, and I feel a stab of worry but resist dialing his number.
The muted light that trickles in through lightweight shades tells me it won't clear up today, that the sun's still hiding behind yesterday's clouds. Just as I'm drifting, wrapped up warm and stretched out at home, I hear a crash.
It comes from down the hall, from the guest room, the one that used to be my playroom. It's the sound of domino-paint-cans, of disaster, of something I'll have to clean.
"Smush!" I yell as I toss the blanket off and stomp back to the source of the noise. When I push the door all the way open, sure enough, Smush is there, paint-splattered and tail-tucked, whimpering like he didn't do this to himself.
"Shit, are you hurt?" I scoop him up, thankful that I'm wearing work clothes and that until I know he's okay, I can ignore the mess. I pat him all over, finding only splotches of slick white wetness and no injuries.
"You little motherfucker." I take him to the master bathroom and drop him in the tub. He starts shivering and whining. "Shut it." I can't help but snap at him. And I can't help but grow furiouser and furiouser at his daddy.
"Just had to have a Boston. Just had to. Even though I told him they're high energy. They need attention. Then he goes off and leaves me to deal with you." I twist on the water and adjust it, mostly ignoring Smush's pleas from the back of the tub. "Not that I don't love you, Buddy, but come on. Look at yourself." He hangs his head lower.
When the water temperature's right, I put the stopper in and roll my pants up, dipping my feet in the already chalky colored water and dragging Smush fully into the bath.
"It's okay, baby boy." I sooth as I rinse, watching rivulets of milky water run off his back and into the bottom of the tub. "It's my fault for not locking the door. Scratch that, it's Daddy's fault for not putting the lid all the way on the paint can."
My blood boils, and I scrub him clean, a little harder and a little faster than I normally would. He just stands there, miserable, holding his front paw in the air and shaking, until we're done. Then I pull him out and wrap him in the old towel that's only his. He shivers and shakes and endures until I decide he's dry enough; then he bolts.
I drain the tub and rinse it, the paint sticking to the sides and swirling down the drain. Then there's nothing left to do but bite the bullet.
In the little room that Edward decided needed to be his home office, there are sawhorses, drop cloths, paint cans and dust. The walls are taped and trimmed in white, and an unopened gallon of deep taupe sits in the corner with a roller on top.
Best I can tell, Smush got tangled in a drop cloth, which knocked over a sawhorse, which was holding a half-closed paint can. And lucky for me, most of the paint must've gotten on him, because there's not too much spilled here, and what did spill landed on the twisted up drop cloth.
I make sure there's no paint on the hardwoods, the ones my father laid with his bare hands, tongue-and-groove, slat-by-slat. When I see nothing beyond the wasted paint, no real damage, I right the can, then turn around and leave the room exactly as it is.
When my phone beeps, I want to throw it across the room. It's a text message from Edward.
Happy day before our anniversary. Check the mail tonight. Love you.
The reminder of our anniversary and his constant kindness does nothing to lift my mood. Neither does the card he sent or the little locket tucked inside. I don't even open it to look at the pictures, certain they are of us. Who else could it be?
I didn't get him anything. Didn't even send a card. And I'm further reminded of all the ways I'm inadequate, all the things I fail to do.
I can't even be a proper wife.
When he calls later, I fill my voice with unfelt emotion. Excitement and happiness are forced and faked, but thoroughly, and he is pleased when we hang up. I go along because it's harder not to.
When the sun fades to black, and the horses and Smush have been fed, and I've forced down some concoction of whatever is in the pantry, I turn out lights and lock doors. I make sure everything is secure, the way Edward would if he were home. Smush trots along at my heel, content just to be near me. When I slip into the bedroom, I'm bone-tired, and my eyes beg for sleep. I get ready for bed and stare at my phone from under covers - two people looming, loving, and unreached because I won't call them. Esme and Edward.
I fall asleep alone.
I wake from a dream of his body over mine, the feel and smell of him all around me. I'm hyper-aware and conscious of the heat between my thighs, the soft rain on the roof, and the heavy need of my heart. It pleads and begs for him, its only home.
I'm sleep-weary, and I move slowly out of my cocoon, reaching to the nightstand for a cold, lifeless replacement - for anything that might fill me up. With the little toy in my hand, I settle back under the covers in our bed, slipping my hand down to where my pulse is strongest. I graze the back of my knuckles over my clit and jump, my body acting like a live wire. My eyes slip closed and a soft moan escapes.
I need so much, all over.
So I think of him, his full lips and pinched eyebrows, his solid frame, his heated skin, summer-salt-slick.
When the cool plastic touches my overheated skin, I think of our wedding night and the way he loved me: slow, lingering, full of carefully controlled fire, and I match my movements to the memory.
But it's not enough, the distance-dimmed memory bringing me higher, lifting me up only to dangle me over a so-needed edge.
So I turn to my side and slip the toy inside, imagining my love behind me. My unoccupied fingertips reach for my breasts, palming first one, then the other, the softness of my skin a poor substitute for his rough and calloused.
I remember words, whispered warm into my ear, "Where do you go in that head of yours, Beautiful? When your eyes leave me? When you're quiet?"
My eyebrows scrunch, and I pant, working myself to weightless with his words.
"Do you feel me inside of you? I want to exist in every part, Bella."
I pinch and twist and pull, needing more.
"I want to be inside you, Bella. Let me in."
I punctuate the replay of his words with gasps, so high and lost and on fire. Every nerve ending ignites, and I break out into a cold sweat, from my scalp to my toe-tips. They curl and squirm. And I try, try, try to get there on my own.
But I can't.
I'm suspended. Trapped. A purgatory of my own making confines me, and I can't break through to taste a little heaven.
I need him.
And with un-thought-through urgency, I grab my phone and call.
He answers immediately, his voice sleep-filled and concerned and exactly what I need.
"Bella, what's wrong?"
"Edward," I beg, "I need you."
"Okay, Beautiful. I'm here, Love. Tell me."
"I need…" My voice breaks, and my tears pool and start to fall.
"Baby, I'll give you what you need. Your voice is so sexy, Bella. Are you touching yourself? Tell me."
"Yes," I whisper, an answer and a plea.
"Oh, god," he says, his voice lowering. "I love you. Don't stop."
I don't. I use my hands and his voice and keep climbing, my whimpers needful and begging him to help me fall down. I moan and words spill out.
"I miss you so much, Edward. I'm so alone. I need you so bad right now. I'm so wet for you. Help me, baby. Help me."
"Fuck, I'm touching myself too, Bella, imagining your hand and your face, your body. I miss you too, and I need you just as much. Come for me, Bella. Baby, please."
I'm so close, so light and high and floating on his words, so full of his love. Our breaths echo in the darkness of the room, and with one final, fast swirl, I pulse. Low moaning, then tightly held breath tip him off to my orgasm, and he talks me through and back down.
"Yes, baby. Shit. I'm so glad you called. I need you too, Bella. I'm so hard it hurts. I hate being so far from you, gorgeous girl. All I think about is you. I want to wrap my hand up in your hair and fuck you slow, so you can feel all of me. I want to be so inside you, Bella, so deep in your heat. Yes," he says, breathing heavy, and I know he's close.
"I want it too. I'm laying open for you, baby. Just waiting for you to fill me up again. Please? I need to hear you."
He curses and sighs; then the line is silent.
"My god that was good, Bella. I needed to hear your voice so badly."
Exhaustion washes over me, and all-over bone-deep relaxation sets in.
"I know. I'm sorry, Edward. I'm so fucked up right now. I miss you so much it's killing me. Can't you come home, please?" I know the answer already, and to ask is futile, but I'm so tired of holding up walls and staying pretend-strong. I know my truth will only weigh on his guilt, but right now, I can't stop it from spilling out of me.
"I can't, Bella. You know that. I'm doing this for us." His own plea is cloaked in his answer but evident in his voice. Once again he is asking me to understand and accept his choices.
And I can't be without him. So what choice do I have?
"I know. I'm sorry." Always apologizing.
Regret and anger spoil my high, and I just want to sleep.
The next day, our anniversary and a Sunday, so "family" day for the Cullens, Esme and Carlisle are the first to arrive. I could have, should have predicted this, but still their presence in my house, without Edward to counterbalance, sets me off-kilter and uneven. I walk like a guest into my own kitchen and offer them something to drink. Carlisle asks for a beer, and Esme declines, moving instead to the counter where she begins unpacking her casserole dishes and utensils, shifting my knick knacks out of her way, rearranging. The way she moves in my kitchen - in my mother's kitchen - makes me want to scream. I feel it bubbling under my skin and in my heart, and I have to clench my eyes shut against the rage.
Her eyes are always on me, though, and she sees, so I lie.
"What's wrong, Bella? Are you okay?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry. Just a headache."
"Oh, darling, I'm so sorry. Do you have anything to take?"
"Yes. I'll just go get an Advil. You know your way around." I should phrase it as a question. I should be more gracious. But I can't manage it.
I slip from the kitchen, through the living room where Carlisle's already watching television with Smush on his lap, looking too much like Edward, and go down the hall and into my bathroom. I tell myself to get it together. I take the Advil even though I don't have a headache. I stare at my reflection and beg myself, plead with brown eyes to try harder, to be better. Do more.
But it does nothing to change the feeling in the pit of me, the strange, uneasy discomfort that accompanies their presence.
When I get back into the kitchen, I want to bolt again. Esme is at the sink, her back to me, her pretty auburn hair swishing with the movement she makes washing the dishes. I'd left my coffee mug there, waiting to load into the dishwasher, and she's washing it for me.
"Esme, you don't have to do that."
"It's nothing, dear," she says over her shoulder.
I go to the refrigerator and pray for Alice and Rose to hurry. I pull out the food I made, popping the casserole into the oven, and then pour myself a glass of orange juice.
Soon enough, the doorbell rings again, and this time it's Rose, Emmett, and the boys. Garrett and Felix bolt by me, calling out a quick, "Hey Aunt B!" before they jump on Carlisle and start roughhousing with Smush. Rose hugs me and kisses my cheek.
"You look good today, Isabella," she says and smiles, brushing by me on the way to the kitchen. Emmett gives me a half-hug.
"Sister-in-law," he says. "Smells good."
Then the boys retreat into the den, piling up on my furniture, with my remote, in my home. Emmett's large frame on my couch, the rowdy boys in my floor, and Carlisle's seat in my dad's recliner set me on edge. But the kitchen is just as bad.
Rose and Esme work in sync, never bumping, everything smooth and practiced. I feel out of place and cramped, crowded out of my space.
"How's Edward doing?" Esme asks me.
I pick at the potted plant near the window and avoid eye contact. "He's good. Fine. Working hard."
"He sounded tired this morning on the phone."
And I wonder why she bothered to ask me if she's already talked to him today. And I wonder why he called her and not me. I feel heat creep up my cheeks as I see her realize that she's talked to him and I have not. I try to push it down and play it off.
"I talked to him late last night. He was tired then, too. They're working him hard."
She gives me a small smile and goes back to work, helping Rose chop more vegetables for my salad.
I'm stuck between two rooms and desperately want to escape, so I head out the back door. Smush jumps off Carlisle's lap and follows. I pretend my intention the whole time was to walk him. He takes off after a squirrel while I head to the barn.
I'm scratching between Nevada's ears when I hear little footsteps, and Garrett sidles up next to me.
"Hey, little man. How's it going?"
"It's good, Aunt B. Can I give Nevada a carrot?"
"Sure. They're in the tack room. Do you know where?"
"Yeah, I remember."
He disappears, and in a flash he's back, carrot in hand and smile in place. He's always taken the most interest in horses out of all of Edward's family, and his quiet, confident demeanor makes them at ease around him. Nevada nibbles at the treat, and Garrett giggles at the feeling of her whiskers on his palm.
"Her nose is so soft," he says, looking up at me.
"It is. Like velvet. It's very sensitive, too."
We stand quietly, petting her until Felix shows up, looking for his playmate. The two boys take off down into the back pasture, and I call out after them to stay out of the mud.
When I decide I've hidden long enough, I head back toward the house. Smush trots up to my feet, and we walk, a little family among a much larger one. When I come in the back door, Emmett's absorbed in something on the television, and there are muted voices from the kitchen.
"Dad, stop it. She's Edward's wife."
"But she treats us like strangers, Alice. And I'm tired of your Mom working so hard and getting nothing back. It hurts her feelings, and Edward won't do anything about it, so I will. She needs to understand that the way she treats us matters. We should stop having these dinners until Edward comes home, or she changes her attitude."
I blanch at his speech and search my actions, every small detail, for some offense. I'm not incredibly open, but I am always polite. I'm not interested in shopping or cooking or flowers, but I listen earnestly. And I've never given any of them a cross word. Not yet, anyway.
"She's different, that's all. She's just not used to big families. But she loves us. I know she does." Alice is pleading and defensive, and I always knew she was my only ally. Sometimes she's more of one than even Edward.
Esme speaks softly. "I just wish we were closer. It doesn't matter what I do. She won't let me in."
"Mom, Dad, you two have got to let it go. She's Edward's wife. He loves her. We all love her. It doesn't have to be exactly like you envisioned it. She lost her parents, and they were all she had. She might never be exactly what you want her to be, but give her a fucking break. All this pressure is tearing them apart. Can't you see that?"
It's Rose this time, and I'm overcome with gratitude and mortification and fear.
Fear that she's right. Fear that Edward and I are being ripped apart and that all I have could be gone. Fear that they can see it; fear that they can't. Fear that I can't ever be what they want in a daughter-in-law, that I'll forever not measure up. Then comes anger, righteous indignation so hot and sudden that it fills my eyes with tears, and I have to clench my fists and bite the insides of my cheeks.
Jasper walks out of the kitchen and spots me.
His eyes go wide, and he knows I've heard. I'm sure my face says it all, but I force coldness into every limb and lift a finger to my lips, telling him not to say a word. Then I turn and walk to my bedroom.
When I come back out, after pacing and praying and cursing, Alice is at the end of the hall. Jasper didn't blow my cover, but I knew he wouldn't keep it from her.
"Bella," she starts, soft and soothing, like I'm a spooked mare. "It's not like you think, okay?"
"Save it, Alice." My voice is too calm and controlled, steady and false in its certainty.
"They love you. They do."
I push past her, through the den and into the kitchen, where I march up to my mother's stove and flip it off. Esme and Rose watch as I start packing up food, silent and moving too quickly, making more of a mess than anything. Alice stands in the corner with her hand over her mouth and tears in her eyes.
When I've got most of the stuff packed away, I turn around. I know my cheeks are flushed hot, and my hair's a mess, and I look like what I am - a wreck, a mess, a disappointment.
It's one word, but it's enough.
There's protesting and pleading and apologies, but I'm rock-solid and immovable.
It's the only word I utter.
Alice is the last to leave, and she squeezes my hand before she walks out the door, mouthing, "I'm sorry."
When she's gone, I shut the door and twist the bolt, and when I hear that click and know that I'm alone, I collapse.
Grief and shame cover me, drown me, suffocate me under the pressure of feeling like less than a person. With no one here to hold me together, I completely fall apart. Old insecurities about our relationship surface, reclaiming space in my mind and heart that I don't have to give. They edge out hope and love and grace and fill me up with desperation, fear, and anger. Above all that, though, I want my mom.
I want her to hold my hand. To tell me to pick myself up, that I'm being ridiculous. To take Edward's side, like she always did. To push me in all the right ways, the way only she ever could.
I don't know how long I cry or how many times I ask why I can't be good enough. I don't know why the sound of thunder, another afternoon storm, does nothing but send me further into darkness.
Finally sorrow twists into rage, and I push myself up. I ignore the bedroom where my phone sits, the bathroom where I could wash away my disappointment, the spare room where I could take out my rage on the walls. I go upstairs and straight to the window where I've stood so many nights.
The sun's still shining, but it's being covered by approaching clouds. I climb out the window and onto the steep roof, shifting and shimmying up to the very top. I get my feet under me and stand, hands at my side, watching the storm roll in.
Alice called me, her voice frantic and her words rushed. "Edward, it's Bella. She's - she overheard Mom and Dad talking about her and sent us all out. She looked different. Kind of unhinged. Are you almost there?"
At first I'm confused. Hours of driving will do that, and even with all the coffee, it still takes me a minute to catch up. What could she have overheard that would send her over the edge? Mom and Dad love Bella. They've always loved her. They want to be closer to her, to help her. Then I think of the way the words they say sometimes make me feel...lacking. Less than. Inadequate.
Bella can't take words like that.
"Fuck, Alice. Tell me exactly what happened."
When she gets through with the story, I'm angry and fearful, and every thought I'd had, every concern about our future and the decisions we have to make dims in the light of the overpowering drive to get to her. Bella's easily damaged and difficult to repair. She holds grudges and finds it hard to forgive. She's merciless in so many ways, and this will be difficult to come back from.
I'm forced into a decision that I made a long time ago and will continue to make as long as necessary. When it comes to her or them, I'll always choose her.
"I'm on my way there. Is she alone now?"
"Yeah, she made us all leave. Just kept saying 'out' when I tried to talk to her."
"Goddammit, Alice." I hang up.
Bella's parents, her life on that small farm and in our school, it was her world. It was all she knew. I loved her from the moment I met her, drawn in by those sad brown eyes and her quiet, calm attitude. She wasn't like other girls, and she made me feel like a man.
She's selfless and loving, beautiful and caring, but she's not easy. She's broken, and the shards of her life are sharp and cutting when you bump into them in the wrong way. There's nothing like her when she lets you in, when her eyes are clear and open and truthful. But when they get dark, they're the darkest I've seen.
My foot presses down on the gas pedal, an uneasy urgency washing over me. I think of the way her parents left her, alone and afraid, and I hurry to fix her hurt, to try to fill the spaces that are empty with my love.
When I tear into the driveway, I don't immediately think to look up. But my eyes are drawn there as lightning flashes and the skies open, dousing the windshield of my truck.
What I see makes me slam on the brakes and leap from the cab, leaving my keys in the ignition in my rush. She's on the roof, hands clenched at her sides, hair soaking wet, staring up into the clouds. I scream her name, but she can't hear.
I hit the front door at a sprint and find it bolted. I curse my own stupidity as I run around to go in the side door, which is unlocked. I race through the house, to the door that leads to the attic. Smush is standing outside, pawing at it, whining. I push him aside and bolt up the stairs, his collar jingling behind me the only sound I can hear. Nothing else registers. Not that the attic is a strange, untouched shrine to her parents, or that it's so well-walked that the carpet is worn into pathways, or that the carpet at the window is soaking because the rain is streaking in sideways now.
All I can think is her name.
I reach the window and hoist myself out. She's still standing, unmoved. And with the rain and the wind and the storm for backlighting, she looks like a goddess. Or a demon.
"Bella." I climb toward her, up the steep incline. I watch my footing, but the shingles are soaked and slick. I take each step one at a time, slowly, my work boots barely keeping traction. I notice her feet are bare and she's shivering.
"Bella!" I call out again. When her eyes meet mine I expect her to have receded like she does - to have withdrawn from the world and her pain. Instead, she faces me, and fierce determination flies from her, radiates from every pore. She looks like death, like an angel, and for a moment I wonder if she isn't Bella at all.
"Edward, go back."
Her voice is firm and cold and chills me to my core.
My foot slips, and I catch myself on trembling fingertips.
"Go back inside."
I shuffle forward, the grit of the shingles scraping my damp skin, until I'm on the peak of the roof with her. When I'm sure I won't fall, I stand straight. We're facing each other, ten feet apart, while the storm echoes around us.
"Stop it, Edward. Just leave me alone."
I shake my head and take a step forward, then another. She doesn't move. She closes her eyes and tilts her face to the sky. An act of defiance, or maybe surrender. I can't tell.
She's un-made-up perfection in all her open, visible pain, and I want to touch her, to tell her that I can't fix it, but I can share it. I want to let her cut me open, to feel her grief and anger and disappointment. I want her to destroy me, like she's destroying herself. I've never felt more desperate to connect to her, more determined to make us the same.
I move to her carefully and grab her elbows. When her eyes open again and she sees me, she gasps.
"Together." My voice is rough over the word that means so much.
He spits the word out, his voice grit and harsh and cold, like the roof under my feet. It hurts me, but it grounds me. It's how I know I'm still standing and not floating away, lost and hopeless. My eyes search his and his stormy-blue-grey-steels are alive with lightning stronger than any this storm can produce. He means it. Whatever comes, he means it, together.
The word reminds me that I'm not alone anymore. That I have him, and he has me, and we're one. That even when I'm buried deep and drowning in grief that's more than I can bear, he bears it with me. That if we go down, we go down together.
I look at him, really look at him for the first time in months. Maybe ever. He's breathtaking: wet hair in disarray, shirt clinging, muscles locked and eyes on me. He's breathing hard, and if not for that small movement, I would think him inhuman.
When I first saw him step out on the roof, I felt myself weaken, my barricades and carefully crafted walls trembling. But in that one word, he's managed to make them all fall down. My knees buckle, and I sag, but he has me. He holds tight, his fingertips digging into tender flesh and bruising, another little ache that makes it all so real.
And just like that, I feel every moment of happiness he's brought me. Every smile, every Christmas morning scattered with bits of torn wrapping paper, every birthday candle, every evening we watched the sunset on horseback. Every promise swirls, wrapping me up in memories so overwhelmingly perfect and so often overlooked that I could cry.
"Oh my god, Edward. I love you," I say out loud, my voice carrying the surprise I feel at the all-consuming relief of being back in his arms, of feeling something again. "I was so lost, Edward, but I love you so much. I need you." The tears finally break through, and I let them, let them wash over me and out of me.
He soothes me and holds me tightly to him, his cheek pressed to the top of my head. And even though I'm not fixed, even though I'm still fractured and unwhole, I think I might be okay. Right now, I'm okay. We have work to do, and decisions to make, crucial choices that might bring us back to this place, but his arms are my safe harbor, my anchor in the roughest of waters. As I catch sight of the smoky-grey giving way to pale blue and sink further into the embrace that feels like a shelter, I know there's no storm we can't weather.
When I'm calm enough, he holds me at arm's length. His voice is strong and sure, like he is, and it's exactly what I need when he says, "Happy Anniversary, Beautiful."