Hiiii. Happy New Year! This is a collab piece from myself and the lovely VampiresHaveLaws. Our friendship is pretty much the same as Stephen King's "Misery", except neither one of us brought our sledgehammer.
Thank you so much to everyone who read, reviewed and voted. We received 1st Place Public Vote, 1st Place Judges' Vote, and Judges' Pick from the lovely jandco in The Blue Watch Contest.
We have a couple of people we'd like to thank especially, as their help was invaluable: Susan, Jen, Peri, Meg, Vic and Tracy. We love you all. Thank you for being our friends. And thank you so much to the incredibly talented Time Lights for making us the most perfect banner. You can find it on our profiles. We love her lots, too.
THE VIOLET HOUR
Passion. It's something we all possess. Mr. Crowley, my neighbor, he has it. It lies in the bristles of his paintbrush. In the patches of color on his easel: in his blacks and his browns and his reds.
He'll sit for hours at the edge of a smoking forest, or on top of an old table outside an abandoned building, aiming to capture the scene in front of him as best as he can before the day begins to dim.
I was told he used to be really private about his work, but now he likes to paint pictures of destruction to tie in with the images of before he has hanging on his walls.
Before hailstones the size of baseballs were pitched from the diamonds in the sky.
Before never-ending snowstorms flushed through the streets, sticking to the ground like cotton candy.
Before lightning flashes swam through the night like fish, dipping in and out of clouds.
I asked him once why he would want to capture something that represents pain for so many people, and he replied with, "How do you think history is made, kid? Some people, they can't see with words. There's gotta be proof you can hold between your hands."
I like to go over there sometimes, to his house, cluttered with a museum's worth of mismatched furniture and heavy drapes at the windows; shelves crowded with stories without lips to set the words free. It's a good place to think, between the old and the new. He'll let me sit on the bottom of his stairs and look at all the pictures I want as long as I don't get under his feet.
If I had to choose a favorite painting, I think it would be the one of our street before the natural disasters became so frequent. It reminds me of my mom before passion carried her away.
It was the two of us for so long, I forgot there were other people out there. Then one day, she met a man with tobacco-stained fingers and a cloud of hair as gray as ash… a man she swore painted the world in varying shades of orange; a reaction so bright and exciting it reminded her of the horizon, of chasing her dreams.
I didn't tell her all I could see was the smoke he liked to blow over his shoulder, choking the sense out of those unfortunate enough to be trailing behind. Or that his eyes were cold and hard like freshwater pearls.
Even if I had, I think she would have been too dazed to hear me.
His name was Billy. He was all brains, all madness, but to her, he was more exciting than the man with the name as foreign as Father. Someone I hadn't known existed until the night she planted his address beneath my pillow while I was sleeping.
Her departure hadn't been that much of a surprise; many people thought the world was ending, so it was only natural she'd want to see as much of it as she could with a man who made this madness bearable. But if I had known the last time I saw her would be the last, I would have stared at her face a little while longer, taken a moment to memorize her scent. After all, she was my mother, and regardless of what she'd done, you were only given one of those in life.
A few days later, my father picked me up in a truck more rusted than any memory I could ever have of him, a moustache like the bristles of Mr. Crowley's paintbrush—which was ironic, as he wasn't the sort of man to put color to anything.
He had a face like a hand of cards; the blank canvas to a world being swept into the sky, while my mother was busy chasing rainbows.
The Heavens opened the day I arrived in Kansas. Raindrops so big they were like quarters, drenching us in fake money. As I used my fingertip to trace their descent down the truck's window, wondering where mom was and if she was safe, each one a different route she was taking, I remember feeling more alone than I ever had before. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to shake it.
Charlie didn't say much the three days it took us to get here. Looking back, I think he was at a loss for words as much as I was… like our alphabet was missing letters.
It didn't matter that we shared DNA—we were strangers. I found out he'd known about me, though, the whole time, which was initially hard to swallow.
Why hadn't he tried to contact me?
I caught him looking at me a lot after that, thinking maybe he was going to elaborate, but he never did.
Three years later, and neither one of us are any better at giving voice to what we're thinking.
"You leaving the house today?" he asks, rising from his chair. Hunter, his old Basset Hound, moves from across the room to lie by my feet, giving me those sad eyes as he notices the half-eaten slice of toast on my plate. I love this dog, all loose-skinned and a tongue that rolls like cigarette papers when the air gets too stuffy. He's made my time here considerably less lonely.
"I was thinking about it," I say, tearing off a crust. Since school was cancelled six months ago, I've taken to walking around a lot, looking out for areas Mr. Crowley might like to paint. It's better than sitting at home all day worrying about things.
"Right… Well, remember to stay inbounds—no going past the fence. And if you need anything, head across the street. I'll be at the station most of the day, so I won't be home until late."
"Okay… " I meet his eyes and wonder if I'm ever going to be comfortable enough to call him Dad.
"Right," he repeats, nodding. With an exhale, he turns for the door and shouts, "Come on, Hunter, let's go!"
Charlie works at the old weather station about an hour's drive from here. It's based in the town's airfield which has since become abandoned after the storms. No one wants to risk flying now, not with the unpredictability of the weather. I've only ever been there once, but it's hard to forget a place like that. Open space stretches like a rubber band around the handful of cabins and towers congregated in the middle of the grounds, all of them huddled together as though they're trying to keep warm.
It's like no one else in the world exists out there.
Our technology used to be so much more advanced, but the changes in the atmosphere have disrupted the reliability of the newer equipment. Phone lines eventually went down last year. Satellite signals fade in and out. The electricity we do have comes from backup generators. Everyone is back to basics.
Safety is our number one priority now. A chain-link fence cuts through two-thirds of the town like a razor blade, separating our small community from the empty landscape that occupies the space beyond it. A few battered houses are still standing out there, but no one lives inside them anymore. They're considered too much of a risk with nothing around to help protect them from the one hundred and fifty miles per hour winds that come knocking on our doors.
We're assured the government is working around-the-clock to find a solution to these disasters, but how do you fix something that was never meant to break?
How do you stop the sky from unslotting itself like a giant puzzle, dropping out piece by piece?
All we can do is try to survive, and hope it's enough.
Metal crisscrosses my vision, distorting the barren land kept from us. I curl my fingers around the links in the fence and press my face against the diamonds to get an uninterrupted view.
Though I know leaving the boundary is a punishable offence, I spend more time than is considered normal watching and waiting for something—anything—to happen out here. Every wind-bowed tree or decrepit house entices me—beauty waiting to reveal itself if only I can take a step closer.
I'm not sure why today is any different—maybe it's the electricity gathering overhead, or the subtle glint of something unidentifiable in the fading sunlight—but I find myself walking to the part of the fence I know is weakest.
I noticed the disturbance almost three days ago. Carved out by a pair of hands or an animal, there's a small gap widened by the weakened ground underneath. I can't decide if I'm brave or stupid as I drop to my knees, intent on making the gap bigger.
Sand and grit fill my nails until there's enough space for me to crawl under. I ignore the blood thumping through my ears—the nagging voice inside my head reciting the dangers of beyond the fence—until I'm standing on the other side, brushing dirt from my knees.
The line of the fence as far as the eye can see is desolate; no patrols—their unique black uniforms eternally dusted with the sediment of our disintegrating town—hover at the boundary limits.
I head straight for the dusty red line encircling the woods—another warning to keep me out. The patrol started drawing up these lines years ago for our protection, but it only takes a second for me to step over, kicking up the dried-up paint with the toe of my sneaker. It leaves a mark that will single me out as a trespasser. I'll wipe it off before Charlie sees, but for now I leave it there. A badge of freedom if only for a moment.
I peer into the trees, my eyes following the greens and browns until they fade into shadows. I wonder if birds still rest among the branches. If it weren't for the rising winds rattling the leaves, there would be a deathly silence. Animals have more sense than humans. They would have fled a long time ago instead of clinging to the hope of safety in numbers. Maybe that's why my mother didn't cling to me; she had wings I couldn't see until she was already flying.
For the first time since crossing the fence, I start to feel guilty. Mr. Crowley would love it out here, would kill to pin all of this to a canvas. I shape my brain into a camera, determined to capture every little detail to take home and share with him. Pine cones the size of my fist litter the ground around my feet, some as black as charcoal, a result of the fires. Intent on collecting a few of the smaller ones to stuff inside my pockets, I crouch down.
My calves have barely brushed the backs of my thighs when a voice shatters the air around me.
"Do you have a death wish?"
I freeze. It feels like all of my muscles have been replaced with blocks of ice. Fear shoots up my spine, the tiny hairs on my arms standing at attention as I glance to the side and spot the standard-issue boots all the patrols have to wear. A lump forms in my throat. My curiosity was a mistake.
"Get up," the voice demands.
My pulse drones inside my ears, slow and steady like an underwater siren as I push myself to stand. I hear the ground shift beneath his boots, but he doesn't offer to help me. Wiping my palms against my thighs, I meet the gaze of the person standing in front of me and almost stop breathing.
The green eyes staring back at me are all too familiar.
I'm in so much trouble.
Edward Cullen has that severe first impression about him that all the patrols seem to have, like their faces have been wiped clean of any emotion. Dressed in their usual black fatigues, some part of me always expects them to be carrying a gun, but what good would a bullet be against a hurricane?
Graduating two years ahead of me, he looks older than I remember—his jaw more defined and his body leaner. His hair is still the same, though—as uncontrollable as the weather.
I know I should say something—apologize quickly to reduce whatever consequences are coming my way. Night is drawing in on us, eager to trap us in its web. What's left of the light looks like it's been dusted in soot. In about an hour, someone will have painted the sky black.
"I suggest," he begins, his stance confident, as though he's used to barking out orders, "that you tell me how you got in here."
I haven't had much experience with the patrols before. More often than not, they stick to their own kind, guarding the boundaries, the town hall, the hospital—buildings of importance. With police forces at an all time low, the mayor introduced a league of boys straight out of school to help fill in the gaps. His son, a member, stares back at me now. Edward Cullen has caught me trespassing.
I take a covert glance to the side, but my desire to run must be splashed clearly across my face, because he warns, "Don't even think about it."
I get the impression these boys are meant to come across as intimidating with their stony exteriors, their cavalier attitudes, like they can't be touched. I wonder if that's how Edward is trying to come across now as he refuses to leave me alone with his eyes. He took me by surprise earlier, but I'm not afraid of him. When your mother abandons you in a world being strangled by invisible hands, you realize the biggest threat out there is the possibility of being truly alone. Everything after that is transparent: easy to smash through like glass. It's why the lie comes tumbling out my mouth as easily as blinking.
"Well?" he prompts.
"I can't remember," I answer, finally getting my tongue to work.
I expect some semblance of annoyance to flash across his features, but he's well-schooled in controlling his emotions. I know he'll find the gap come morning, when the sun switches itself back to life, but until then, it feels wrong to give away my secret. With everything that has been removed from our lives, something as small as a hole in the ground suddenly becomes a huge deal. It becomes something to fight for.
"It's not only my time you're wasting," he says, unfolding his arms from across his chest. "Did you cut the fence? I know there's no way you could have climbed it—"
"If the next words out of your mouth are because you're a girl, we're going to have a problem." I bite the inside of my cheek hard enough to shut myself up. Not only am I out of bounds, I've threatened him, too. Maybe I do have a death wish.
His gaze pins me in place. "Watch it, kid." He's firm, but he doesn't look angry. I think I've surprised him. I doubt he's used to people speaking to him like this. I'm not used to speaking to people like this.
"The fence is crowned with about six inches of barbed wire. If you'd climbed it, you'd be pretty torn up right now. That's how I know. Gender has nothing to do with it."
I rub my forehead and look away, my cheeks hot. I don't have a response for him this time.
"You got a name, Breakout?"
There's a beat of silence as I hesitate, but I see no point in lying this time. A lot of people know who my father is. He'd only have to ask another member of the patrol, maybe someone a little older, and they'd tell him.
"What are you doing out of bounds, Isabella Swan?"
"Taking a walk."
"The fence is there for your protection," he reminds me. It makes me wonder if all the patrols have some sort of unwritten handbook they carry around inside their heads, ready to spout off at any available opportunity.
"The fence makes me feel like I'm an inmate in a cell." I don't realize how true it is until I've said it.
"And, what, you decided to let yourself out on good behavior?" He shakes his head, pressing his lips together. "Look, this isn't a game. People get hurt out here. These houses," he says, pointing behind him, "they're empty for a reason. The red line you're standing behind, it's there for a reason." He takes a step toward me. "What do you think happens if you get lost out here during a storm, or get injured? There are no phones. There's no one you can call. You could try and shout for help, but inside all this space? Your voice would get swallowed up. You wouldn't exist. It's why I'm wearing this uniform. And it's why I'm taking you back to the fence, right now, so let's go, kid."
Tired of being treated like I'm stupid, I grab the sleeve of his shirt and say, "I'm not a kid."
His feet stop moving. He gives a quick glance to my fingers wrapped around his sleeve, before settling his eyes on my face; I've never been more aware of my heartbeat. Then, so quick I almost think it never happened, he rakes his gaze over my body before tearing his eyes away.
"No, but you're behaving like one."
Torn between the desire to retaliate or run, I wait until his back is turned before choosing the latter. I'm through the fringe of trees before he has time to react. I don't turn around to see if he's following me.
"What are you doing?" Edward raises his voice but the rest of his words are drowned out by the branches snapping and leaves crunching under my feet.
A bramble, winding its way up a tree, snags against my cheek, its thorns tearing my skin. I bite down on a curse and quickly wipe away the blood, my irritation with Edward stinging more than any scratch. I don't need a babysitter.
The light filtering through the trees dims the farther I go. The sky begins to bruise and the wind chases my footsteps with an eerie howl. Familiar with the many variations of storms, my skin prickles at the sight of the violet sky. "Shit, shit, shit."
I've stubbornly been ignoring the warning signs ingrained in me by my father all day, but flight dissolves any fight I might still have thrumming in my veins as I blindly retrace my steps through the forest.
It only takes me a few minutes to realize I'm lost. Without light, I can't tell which direction I'm heading. The trees and thick blanket of clouds block out the stars and any pinprick of light they might have offered. Panic becomes my heartbeat, deafening inside my ears—pounding and petrifying. I've never been caught outside in a storm before, but I know those who have, don't tend to come back.
A noise breaks through my escalating fear—the harrowing wail of the siren. Its warning scream is enough to curdle even the bravest blood.
I imagine the hive of activity back in the town: shutters pulled down over windows, families herded into shelters, the patrols racing to collect any stragglers in the outer edges. When a tremor of fear scales my spine, I know I should have listened to Edward.
I drop to the ground to control my shallow breathing and pull together my knowledge of the woods. I can't hear anything above the alarm as it bends into the increasing winds, but I can sense a decline to my right. I allow myself to feel a small flare of hope that it leads to the old riverbed, knowing I'll be able to follow it back to the town. Stumbling over gnarled roots, I find myself in the bottom of a ravine, dried out and dusted with dying foliage. I scramble along for what seems like hours, the creaking and cracking of the woods around me hastening my feet to find shelter before the storm hits.
The sky above flickers as if someone is striking a match; silent for now, but soon it will catch, and light will tear open the sky.
I use the flashes to guide me to the edge of the woods, but my relief at escaping is crushed when I see nothing. No fence blazing with spotlights. No familiar buildings huddled together for protection. I've come out at the wrong side. Nothing but empty land sleeps out here. Part of me wants to collapse to the ground and give in to the panic flooding my chest, but I clench my fists and stare into the storm, determined not to let it win.
The lightning finally strikes, followed by booming thunder. Jagged bolts of light fall to the ground as if the sky is ripping in half, illuminating the clouds as they swirl in a dangerous rhythm.
Tears prick my eyes, but I don't allow myself to cry. I have to think. I have to try and stay calm. It's as I'm struggling to control my breathing that Mother Nature gives me a second chance, showing me a tumbledown building in the distance. My only hope is that it was once a home with shelter from the storms.
The wind is picking up, sending dust spiraling through the air. I haven't got time to plan my route, so I take the shortest path—directly across the open plains. Adrenaline pumps through my veins as I sprint, feet thudding into the ground, racing as fast as my body will allow. I don't focus on anything other than the structure ahead. The gathering wind tries to blow me off track, and the darkness hides dips and holes my feet seem to find too easily. A sharp pain rips up the side of my ankle as it twists on its side, dropping me to my knees. My cry is lost to the storm.
The earth shudders with thunder like an animal waking from sleep. The motion terrifies me, numbing the pain and allowing me to stagger upright. I have to go on. My chances are slipping away, and as I push harder, reaching for my last ounce of strength, my thoughts drift to Charlie. On shift, I currently know he's safe—it's his responsibility to sound the alarm: wind the handle on the old siren to alert the town of the storm. But safety dies within seconds out here. Safety is as imaginary as my mother.
As the building grows nearer, its lines only visible in brief flashes, fingers of despair clamp around my throat. Though we live together like strangers, I've never been without him during a storm, and it is this thought that pushes me through the burning cramp in my calves and the crushing pressure in my lungs until my hands slam into the cool wall of the shelter. My fingers dig into the rough brickwork, the power of the storm threatening to rip me away. I feel my way to the entryway; there's no longer a door, and as I stumble inside, lowering myself to the floor, I see that there is barely a roof.
Dread slithers across my skin as I take in my paltry shelter; if the storm directly hits, there's no way I won't be crushed. It's all I can do to hope it takes a different path, away from me, away from the town and my father. I bury my head in my knees and squeeze my eyes shut.
It takes me a moment to differentiate the noises of the storm: the howl of the wind, the sand barreling across the ground into the unstable walls around me, the deafening thunder. It's only on the third or fourth time of straining into the maelstrom that I hear something different. A sound that jump-starts my heart. I scramble to the entrance and squint into the darkness, grit immediately blinding me.
I hear him as he gets closer. He's screaming my name. "Isabella! Bella!"
"In here!" I yell but my voice is almost lost in the dark. After a few seconds, I see a shadow dart toward me.
"Get out of there, it's not safe!" He grabs on to my coat, wrenching me to my feet. "We have to get to shelter!"
"There's nowhere to go!"
His voice is frantic as he grasps my hand. "I know somewhere."
His calloused palm grips on tight as I stumble blindly behind him, trying to keep up.
The storm has other ideas—a sheet of metal bounces across the ground in front of us, followed by smaller bits of debris flying dangerously faster.
"Get down!" Edward pulls us to the ground, covering me with his body. Dirt fills my mouth as his weight is pressed on top of me, my fingertips clawing into the earth. I can barely breathe with his body caging mine, but he pulls me even closer, curling over me protectively. His curses are harsh and panicked next to my ear, his breath warm. A sharp grunt falls from his mouth, and I know he's been hit, his arms tensing almost painfully around me.
The whistling quiets, and Edward wastes no time in pulling me to my feet. "Are you okay?" I can't make out his features but I see blood pouring down his forehead and I lift my hand instinctively to touch it—sticky and warm. "You're hurt."
He steps away from my touch and instead reaches for my arm, pulling me another hundred yards until the ground beneath our feet turns to something sturdier, flatter. We drop to our knees to push away the earth the wind has deposited.
Edward struggles to get the door open, and I'm no help. Standing would be a death sentence; my weight could easily be lifted up and away in the storm's claws. He manages to lift the door wide enough for me to wriggle inside. In a flash of lightning, I see the strain of holding it open in the set of his jaw, the grimace of his lips.
"Get in!" he shouts. I hold my breath and drop down. He follows me seconds later, and we struggle together to shut the door. The reassuring clang of the lock snaps off the ferocity of the storm.
The only sound in the dark is our harsh breathing. He's so close to me—I still have his shirt clutched in my fingers. It takes me a moment to let go, the rise and fall of his stomach, warm against the back of my fingers is somehow reassuring.
Again, it is Edward who steps away. He's still mad at me. I can't find it in me to resurrect my own feelings of irritation tempered with humiliation. The only thing I feel toward Edward Cullen at this moment is gratitude.
Then he lights a match.
The glow revealing the shadows of his face doesn't distract me from the row upon row of shelving behind him. Edward follows my gaze, but he doesn't attempt to explain. He reaches up to light one of the lanterns hanging from the ceiling. There are cans of food and bottles of water—innocuous items anyone would expect to find in a storm shelter. But I can't tear my eyes away from the multitude of first aid supplies and medications that fill the far side of the enclosed space.
Bandages, iodine, antiseptic wipes; pain killers and bottles of pills with names I haven't seen in years. I walk along the shelving and pick up a brown bottle. I think of all the ailments people in the town have suffered, with only the basic treatment available to help them, and anger unfurls inside my body like a red flag. Edward is the wind it catches in.
"Where has this all come from?" I turn to face him. He's sitting on a small metal bench that's bolted to the wall. His face is weary, his uniform coated in dust.
"I don't know." He turns his attention to the radio attached to his belt. Pulling it off, he twists the dials, gaining nothing but white noise.
I resist the urge to snatch it out of his hand and smash it into the concrete floor. "Bullshit. How did you know about this place?"
"Look, I had no idea what was in here."
"That's not what I asked you."
"Could you cut me some slack?" he snaps. "Part of the training for the patrols was to memorize the exact positions of all the shelters located outside the boundary line. I don't know what you're trying to suggest, but I'm as shocked as you are about the drugs, and I'm tired as hell. So please. Stop."
Guilt for assuming anything about him settles over me. I might not be able to hear the storm, but I can remember the hopelessness I'd felt cowering in the old building. Still, how could the son of the mayor not know what's going on out here? If his relationship with his father is anything like mine, however, I have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
There's dried blood across Edward's forehead and matted into his hair. As a peace offering, I find the supplies I need, standing on tiptoes to reach for a bottle of iodine. I can feel his eyes on me as I move. It makes me feel self-conscious, but I push the feeling aside, and stand in front of him.
"Here. Let me look at your cut." I motion to his head.
Edward raises his hand to the wound, wincing as he gingerly presses the angry skin before inspecting his fingertips. "It's hardly bleeding. I'll be fine."
I don't want to push him, so I find a place to sit on the other side of the bench. The sharp smell of antiseptic tickles my nose.
"If we're going to do this…" He sighs.
"You've cut your face."
I remember the sharp snag of the thorns, and feel the deep scratch on my cheek. "I did it in the woods."
"I did tell you they were dangerous."
I don't have the energy to think up a snarky response. "You were right."
I let him press the cool antiseptic wipe against my skin, his movements gentle as he cleans the scratch.
"You should grab some water... eat an energy bar. The sugar will help with the shock."
I move until I'm almost between his legs. "Let me sort out your head wound first."
The warmth of his body feels like a radiator in comparison to the cold air behind me. I want to step closer, wrap my arms inside his jacket, but for the moment the barrier between us still stands.
I wipe away the blood with a cotton ball and water. The muscles in his jaw tense when I pour iodine onto the inch long gash buried in his hairline, but he doesn't make a sound.
"It's stopped bleeding," I say once I'm finished.
I'm supremely aware of Edward watching me again. There's nowhere to sleep in this shelter and despite the multitude of objects lining the shelves, I can't find any blankets. I give up and slump down to the floor in the corner.
In the silence that follows, the damp air is charged with more than the storm, but my body wants to give in to its tiredness. I feel myself being lulled, tugged down into the sands of sleep.
Edward's voice breaks into the dreams lapping at the edges of my consciousness, but I don't get a chance to respond before I'm pulled under.
I find Edward toying with his radio again when I wake seconds, minutes, hours later. There's no way of telling down here. Though he's staring at the device between his hands, it's easy to see his concentration is elsewhere. I wonder if he realizes he's still doing it... if he realizes a voice isn't going to jump out of the speaker and into the room with us.
Goose bumps march across my skin. The temperature has dropped considerably in the time it's taken Edward to move from one end of the shelter, to the other. He's no more than five feet away from me now, his back flat to the wall, his legs stretched out in front of him. It takes me a second to realize there's something different about his appearance, and notice his jacket is missing from his shoulders the same time I register its weight against the backs of my fingers. Sometime during the night, it has walked away from his arms to hold me instead.
I send another mental thank you note to this boy as I pull it a little higher, tuck it beneath my chin. My hands start to warm, but it doesn't stop the waves of cold from washing over me, the chill in the air pulling and tugging at my arms and legs like a current. My entire body aches, and I have to grit my teeth to stop them from chattering.
Edward chooses this moment to look up, hauled back from wherever his head had taken him. For a second, our eyes hold, then the tide is dragging him back out again, severing our connection.
Shoving the radio to the side, he draws up his knees and runs his hands roughly through his hair—I don't think he's slept at all. Shame rushes through me: it's my fault he's stuck in here. I close my eyes, desperate to rewind time, to retrace my steps back through the forest, back past the fence; back to the night before my mother left as the sun set over the city like a fuzzy red blanket. To a time I felt safe... a time I didn't realize the things we couldn't see still had the ability to hurt us. My stomach turns. If I think about it too much, the red blanket starts to look a lot like blood, a huge tear in the sky. A sign of the imminent separation I was about to feel.
Soon enough, another round of shivering starts up again, and this time, I try to stretch out my legs; unravel the coils of ice from my muscles. A grimace overtakes my face.
I hear Edward move before I see him.
It's strange how attuned I am to him, how every little movement he makes is like a flashlight flicking on and off in the dark. Sensing him standing over me, my gaze travels up a sea of black until I reach his face. His eyes almost look amber under the influence of the lantern.
"What? Why?" I ask, but I'm already doing it.
"Because," he begins, his sigh floating down to whisper in my ears as he settles himself behind me, "you're freezing, and I don't want a corpse on my hands."
His touch instantly seeps into my skin. I suddenly don't know what to do with my hands, suddenly can't stop staring at his as he brings them down to rest in fists on top of his thighs. I will myself to relax, but my body is tense, a block of ice against his chest. I'm not the only one who notices.
"Jesus Christ, I'm not going to hurt you." His words brush the back of my neck, skate down my spine.
"I know," I say shortly, watching my breath cloud up in front of my face.
My heart is thumping against my ribs, tripping over itself when I think about the fact my legs are between his legs, my elbows tucked into the creases of his elbows. His chest rises and falls with his breathing, and I rise and fall with him, unable to stop. I try to focus on the flame dancing inside the lantern, the ebb and flow of light trickling down the walls, but I feel buried under his heat, all too aware of his mouth inches away from my skin. The whole world seems to have fallen silent apart from my brain.
Then my gaze lands on the rows of medication lining the walls, and my mood changes instantly.
"How many shelters are located out here, past the fence?"
The one we're inside now is wide enough for us both to lie on our backs and pretend the chips in the ceiling are stars if the light catches them a certain way, and what it lacks in height, it makes up for in length. It's almost tunnel-like in shape, the roof arched like a frown—which is fitting, with the darkness and dampness clinging to the air.
"Why?" he asks matter-of-factly.
I instinctively turn my head to the side, my cheek grazing his chest. "I'm just trying to make conversation."
He knows I'm baiting him; there's no way he can believe me, not after my initial reaction to this place.
"Sixteen, that I know of," he says, biting anyway.
"Have you ever been inside the others?"
He takes a slight pause here. "No."
"Has anyone else?" I push, sitting up a little straighter. I've absentmindedly used his thighs for leverage, and quickly pull my hands off him.
He clears his throat. "I don't know. Probably."
His chin brushes the side of my head as he goes to move and realizes he can't. "Look, I already told you I had no idea about any of this stuff."
"I know, but you have to admit, that's a surprisingly large number for an area that is completely out of bounds for those of us who don't walk around wearing black all day. I mean, how are the shelters supposed to help us if we don't have access to them, or even know about them?"
Giving him an itch to scratch, I leave him to think about it. Some part of me is still screaming that he's lying, that he knows more than he's letting on. The same part of me that hid inside my room for days waiting for a stranger to come and collect me; the same part of me that is waiting for my mother's body to turn up somewhere. But Edward Cullen doesn't look like a coward. I think back to him pulling me out of the broken building... how he risked his life for my own. It shouldn't be surprising—it's what he's been trained to do. But I've never met anyone as selfless as that before. It's impossible to remove the knots from that logic.
His breath curls through the cold like steam. "Do you remember when my dad went off the grid, a few years back?"
I feel my brows dip, surprised he's about to share something so personal. Slowly, I nod.
"He was out here, reinforcing all the shelters. Became so obsessed with keeping people safe. He didn't want anyone to have to go through what we were going through."
Edward doesn't elaborate the main reason behind his father's disappearance, but then he doesn't have to. The whole town mourned his mother's passing for months, black clouds that had nothing to do with the weather shadowing heads everywhere. I'd only met Esme Cullen a handful of times before she died, but she was a bright spot to a lot of people during a period when hope was wilting faster than a field of daisies under intense heat.
Feeling his Adam's apple bob in his throat, he finishes with, "Not everyone has dark motives, Bella."
I try to see the same man he does, a man broken by loss. But all I can focus on is his father's cold eyes, his confident smile. It's always those in power who think they can hold a little more.
I feel rattled. His speech has hit too close to home, and I begin to wonder if there's a window carved into the back of my head he can see straight through. A scene with a man blowing smoke rings over my mother's face, staining the ceiling brown instead of orange.
It's hard to think the best of others when they've shown you nothing but their worst.
"Do you think your father's looking for you?" I ask him. It hadn't occurred to me before, but of course he would be. The mayor's son would be a priority.
I feel his spine stiffen, something so subtle, that if my body wasn't anchoring his, I never would have noticed.
"No," is all he gives me. The sound of his boots sliding across the ground grate through the tension. He finds it as hard to keep still as I do.
"That's it?" I ask, having to resist the urge to swivel around and pull what he won't say from his eyes.
"I don't believe that."
"Not my problem."
"But you're his son."
"And you're someone's daughter," he fires back, his patience unraveling as fast as the sky above us. "Where are your parents?"
Annoyed, I push his jacket to the side. A huff of amusement leaves his mouth, and his knee has started to bounce, unsettling me even more.
"Why is this so important to you?" he asks, that undercurrent of frustration travelling over his tongue like an oil spill, something he practically spits out.
"It's not," I lie. "I just don't buy that someone won't notice you're missing."
Sitting up taller, he brings his hands to his hair. "Look, my father doesn't give a shit, okay?" The venom in his voice kills whatever else I may have said long before his next words do. "I get it, you want to get out of here, but you don't know me, and you don't know my father, so just… stop talking."
Just like that, the boy who spoke about his mother has been replaced with the boy who caught me trespassing. We're back on opposite sides of the fence, with me looking in, waiting for something to happen.
I shoot him a look over my shoulder; his fingers accidentally brush through a section of my hair as he lowers his hands.
"I'm sorry." My gaze hits no higher than his chin. He has a small scar there, barely visible even this close up.
I nudge his jacket into his hand. "You should take this back."
I can sense him staring at it, that self-conscious feeling crawling over my skin again. Wrapping his fingers loosely around my wrist, he returns my arm to my lap and says, "I don't need it." But he doesn't remove his hand.
"I won't tell anyone if you do. This macho act you've got going on will stay in tact. Our little secret."
A laugh breaks free from his chest. I feel the push of it against my back, the breeze of it against my cheek. It makes me warm all over. "Trust me, you need it more than I do."
Giving in to the urge I've had all night, I swivel around to look at his face… meet the dark green of his eyes… find myself getting stuck in them a little. In the dim light, his mouth looks a lot closer to mine than it actually is. "What's that supposed to mean?"
There's no way this isn't about gender this time. "Remember what I said back at the fence?"
"So do we have a problem?"
He leans his head back against the wall, looks down his nose at me. "I don't know, you tell me."
There's something in his eyes, something that makes my heart feel like it's running away from me, chasing something I can't identify. I become crazily aware of my hand on the inside of his thigh, the heat of his torso against my arm.
I turn back around, my response stuck in my throat.
"You don't strike me as the kind of girl who gives in this easily," he says when it becomes apparent I don't have a reply for him.
"Then it's probably a bad idea to assume I'll do it again."
He doesn't say anything this time, so I follow his crumbs of silence and close my eyes. But before I can lose my nerve, I stretch out his jacket to cover us both.
When his fingertips brush over my knee, I know it's as good as a thank you.
Sunlight and silence stream into the shelter until the only thing I can see is the river of violet sky above me. It's a lot paler than last night, a softening bruise. Edward pauses before he hoists himself out of the entrance. I feel his reluctance under my skin, too—a layer of lead pinning us both down.
Almost as if he can sense this, he calls out, "You ready, Breakout?"
We're back to nicknames—an easy way to recreate the distance we shared before he closed it last night; before I woke to his heart ticking like a clock beneath my ear, reminding me it was time to leave.
I expect him to look at me, but he keeps his eyes trained on his hands. "Good."
His arms tense as he lifts his weight off the floor until his body is clean over the other side. I want to ask him how bad it is up there, but how do you put a measure on the word bad?
Just when I think he's forgotten about me, Edward reappears, his body sliding into view. I'm not as tall as he is, so I can't reach the opening without a little help. Flattening himself to the ground, his arm acts as a rope as he captures my elbow in his fist.
"Hold on tight," he says, the command back in his voice, the boy back in the patrol. I do as he instructs, the muscles in my arms burning as he pulls me out of the shelter.
Unlike our first meeting, Edward helps me to my feet, his hands hovering over my hips as he steadies me from behind. The sun is pinned low in the sky, tacked on all sides by wispy strings of clouds. It's like time has completely stopped, the eyes of grief frozen wide. All that greets us is the cheerful gaze of the open sky. That's when I notice the smoke seeping through the blue, deep coughs of gray puffing away like chimneys. Shards of glass and metal wink at me, aiming to gain my attention, and scorched turf eclipses my vision. I follow their tracks to the building that harbored me last night, and feel all the color drain from my face. It has completely collapsed—nothing more than a pile of red brick is slouched in its place. Suddenly, Edward's hands are tightening around my hips, and I know he is seeing what I'm seeing. Panic pinches my lungs, making it hard for me to breathe.
"Don't look," he says, inching closer. "It didn't happen. You're okay."
My stomach wrenches as I tear my eyes from the body of rubble buried beneath the sun. Everything is stark and pallid and dreamlike as I watch the light shimmer softly against the dew in the grass. Reaching blindly for his hand, I feel my own start to shake as I slip my fingers between his. Part of me expects him to pull away, but his hand grips mine firmly, rooting me in place.
I am lucky to be alive.
Edward walks ahead of me, pausing only to sweep back branches or help me climb the roadblocks of fallen trees that obstruct our path. He's hasn't spoken a word to me since we left the shelter, choosing to keep his own company rather than walk by my side. Stopping abruptly, he leans back against the wide berth of a tree and waits for me to catch up. His face looks tired, faint shadows below his eyes. Before I can open my mouth, the rise and fall of voices become so apparent they practically tap me on the shoulder.
"Patrols," he murmurs, motioning behind him. I follow the direction of his hand and see the fence glinting beyond the web of branches pixelating our view.
"They're why we've stopped?" The smoke has thinned out now, and with it, so has the pressure inside my chest.
"I don't need to tell you your situation could have gone a lot differently if it hadn't been me who caught you trespassing yesterday," he says, lifting his attention from his feet. "We both know you're kind of a smartass, which the boys behind us won't respond well to, so let me do the all talking so you don't get into any more trouble, okay?"
It's obvious he's wound up about something, his hands clenching and unclenching. The entire forest has frozen despite the heat, apprehension binding us all together. I could retaliate, ask him what his problem is, but I know he won't tell me. With his arms locked like this, a barricade over his chest, I know it's to keep people out.
"What are they going to do, take me prisoner?"
His laugh is more breath than sound as it escapes his mouth. "Thanks for proving my point."
For a long time, all we do is stare at one another. "I guess it makes sense," I say eventually, his attitude rubbing off on me.
"You being so insistent to be the one to talk. I mean, this is something you've done before, right, strolled out of the woods with a girl on your heels?" Heat floods my cheeks, but it's too late to take my words back now.
He studies me in that silent way of his, like he's recording every detail of my face. "I think you're forgetting that most people don't share your talent for bad decision making. I try not to make a habit of wandering into places I shouldn't and get myself killed."
His reply stings, the sudden tightness in my throat making it impossible for me to speak. I dig my nails into my palms to distract myself from the ache carving out my insides, and refuse to look at him, even when I hear him push away from the tree.
It's not only bad decisions I'm making, it's unsafe ones. And I don't want to admit it, but I think it's because I feel closer to her that way: my mother. I am tracing her footsteps, looking for something lost. I am looking to feel alive.
Irritation pulses through me when his fingers grasp my chin, urging my face back to his. His eyes look overwhelmingly green in this light, the intensity of his gaze squeezing my lungs. I can't think straight when he's this close, and hate the effect he seems to have on me. I try to push his hand away, but he holds me steady, his brow furrowed.
"Stop fighting me all the time." His voice is quiet now, his anger faded.
"I didn't start this," I point out, "you did."
His lips barely twitch as he shakes his head, keeping whatever he's thinking locked inside his brain.
"How's your cheek?" he asks, his thumb brushing my chin instead of the cut higher up on my face.
"Fine." I swallow. "How's your head?"
"I can handle it."
There's a heavy pause, like the sky will fall down on us at any moment. "What can't you handle?" I ask him, another moment of braveness or stupidity, my heartbeat swallowing me until it's all I hear.
The margin between us has gotten smaller, stripping the moisture from my mouth. Each time his eyes rest on my face, they unsettle me.
He shakes his head again and tucks my hair behind my ear, his fingers momentarily lingering on my neck. "Come on. Let's get you home."
We pass through the trees in time to see two patrol members stationed at the fence yards away from where Edward found me yesterday. They stop talking as soon as they spot us, but that's not what holds my attention. Half of the fence has been torn cruelly from the ground. The fluidity of Edward's steps don't falter at the sight, which is more than can be said for my own.
I recognize the shorter of the two patrols immediately. Michael Newton. He was in my physics class at school. His father drove a shiny red car he liked to brag about. The other boy I've never seen before.
"Who's this?" he asks, giving a nod in my direction. He pushes his brown hair from his face and fixes his eyes on me. They remind me of the sky before a storm hits, dark and full of anger.
"Isabella Swan. She was caught in the storm last night. We had to take shelter until morning." I try not to bristle at his tone—he's acting as though I'm a million miles away instead of standing right beside him.
"I see," Sam says. I can tell he wants to push for more, suspicion heavy in his features, but surprisingly, he lets it go. "You're late for the roster. Also," he takes a slight pause here, his eyes momentarily shifting to Mike at his side, "your father's looking for you."
"I'm sure he is," Edward replies coolly.
All thoughts of keeping quiet evaporate like steam. "I have to go home first. I need to find my dad."
I feel Edward's eyes slide over to me, and know he's pissed, but I keep mine firmly on the boys in front of us.
"That won't be possible. Rules are, you have to head straight to the town hall. It's how we eliminate who's missing. Your father will find you there." Sam's stance exudes confidence—it's easy to see this boy relishes his role.
"I know what the rules are," I say slowly, "but I also know where he'll be waiting for me."
Mike finally finds his voice. "You know, if this is going to be such an issue, all three of us can always escort you there."
From the tightening of his jaw, I know I don't quite succeed in keeping the distaste off my face. "Thanks for the offer, but I'm fine with one."
Before Mike can fulfill his threat, Edward rests his hand at the small of my back and puts his mouth beside my ear. "Move. Now."
He shuffles us forward, but it's not until we're completely out of sight that he brings us to a halt. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"What?" I say defensively.
"I tell you to do one thing, and you disobey it."
"Look, I'm not one of your buddies," I snap, pulling out of his hold. "You can't order me around."
He presses his palms to his eyes and groans. "I swear to god, I'm this close to walking the-fuck-away and leaving you here."
"Then what's stopping you?"
He rakes his fingers through his hair. "It's my job."
"No, it's not. We're past the fence now, which means I'm not your responsibility. You can go home. I can go home. I don't need a babysitter. I've managed fine without a mother for three years, so I think I can deal with this separation."
Tears have sprung to my eyes, and I wipe them away angrily.
"Ten more minutes, Bella. Ten more minutes, then I'll leave you alone."
And I know this is no longer purely about us, or my mother. It's about his, too. A threat we'd all forgotten about stole Esme Cullen away prematurely. We were all so busy staring at the sky, we forgot to look inside ourselves. Too focused on solar systems instead of immune systems. Too naive to believe mothers could be taken away from sons. Cancer ate away at her organs while tornadoes swept houses under their wings; while comets fell from the hands of God like giant lumps of coal; while nonstop rain played percussion against our windows.
We were both too busy looking the other way when someone swooped down and plucked our mothers from this world. Which is why we both stare too much. Which is the real reason his eyes unsettle me.
And it's why, when he starts walking again, I follow, because no one should have to live in that dark space alone.
The town hall is teeming with people when we get there. Despite what I said earlier, I have this ridiculous urge to reach out and grab Edward's hand, like I won't see him again after this. The past twenty-four hours have felt like an eternity.
We pause by a set of double doors that lead to a smaller room. Ahead of us, the registration line is increasing by the second. The woman behind the desk looks flustered as she studies the clipboard in her hands, crossing out names and urging the next person forward. I almost expect to see a timetable somewhere, a clock stationed on the wall—rows of chairs filled with voices ranging from hushed to hysterical. But none of these people are going anywhere.
Children wail and parents scold and the whole time I am searching their faces for the one I'll recognize.
Edward nudges his elbow against mine. "You should get in line."
But there's no point.
He's not here.
No one else will be looking for me on that list.
Suddenly, the space beside me is empty. I whirl around in time to see Edward look over his shoulder. "Wait there!" he calls back.
Anxiety skates through me when I see where he's headed. His father stands at the other end of the hall, a group of patrols shadowing his footsteps. The relief I expect to see on his face is not there when his eyes fall on his son.
Edward was right—he doesn't care.
There are no violent hand gestures or raised voices, but it's easy to see they're having a disagreement. Without warning, his father's eyes are cutting through the crowd to my face.
Blood roars inside my eyes.
His expression makes me feel cold.
Uneasy with the pressure of his gaze, I escape to the line of people in front of me and push my way to the front.
The woman behind the desk opens her mouth to complain, but I'm faster. "Has Charles Swan checked in?" I can see she doesn't want to look, but her eyes scan down the list anyway. A couple of minutes pass—she's taking too long. I grab the clipboard from her hands, ignoring her exclamation of surprise as I trail my finger down the list of names—he's not here.
Dropping the clipboard back on her desk, I rush toward the exit.
I don't get very far before Edward intercepts me.
"Where are you going?" he asks, his voice breathless.
"To find my dad," I say, like it should be obvious. "He's not on the list, and he should have at least checked in by now. He could be hurt, or worse, he could be…" But I can't get myself to say it.
He clamps his mouth shut, and glances behind him, obviously warring with himself about something.
"Let me come with you. Let me help."
I study him for longer than I should, because even though he hasn't come right out and said it, he's right.
What can I do alone?
A horn blares.
"Get in!" Edward calls from the open window.
Exhaust fumes burn my eyes as I race toward his Jeep. The urgency to find Charlie makes my hands shake as I try to fasten my seatbelt. Edward reaches over to help me, making me feel like a child. In any other situation, I'd insist on doing it myself, but I don't say a word.
The whole time, his eyes are set intently away from my face, his brow creased with worry.
I wonder how much disobeying his father is costing him.
"Where are we going first?" he asks, pulling onto the empty street.
"My house," I answer, not wanting to think about what it means if Charlie's not there.
The familiar roads flash by, but as we get closer, debris begins to line our path. We pass what used to be a convenience store, its roof collapsed, cans of food glinting like bullets on the ground. Like they're responsible for the blown out windows and holes in the walls. It's slow progress, parts of people's lives left in pieces and strewn all over. I have to sit on my hands for fear I'll irrationally wrench the steering wheel from Edward's grasp to speed him up. Either that, or reach for his hand again.
We pull up to my house after what feels like hours, and at first glance, nothing seems out of place. Then I see the distinctive figure of Mr. Crowley sitting on our porch swing.
"Is my dad here?" I ask, running to meet him.
"Jesus, kid, I've been so worried," he exhales, wiping his hand down his face as I pull the spare key out from under the flowerpot and tear through the downstairs. My shoes slap the steps as I race up to his room, the bathroom, but the entire house is empty.
I feel a sob building in my chest as I burst back outside. "He's not here."
Mr. Crowley grips my shoulders. "Have you checked the station?"
"We'll head there now," Edward says, appearing by my side.
"If Charlie comes back here, will you tell him I'm safe and that I'll be home soon?"
He assures me he will before directing his attention to Edward. A grim line forms around his mouth. "The storm headed east."
Amidst my panic, I can't fathom the grave silence that passes between the two men, but slowly, it begins to align, like thread through a needle.
The storm has hit Charlie.
Keep her safe.
Mr. Crowley's parting warning tumbles through my head as we gun it to the station.
The road roars beneath us, an ocean of ups and downs and side to sides. I lean forward and press both of my hands against the dashboard to steady myself, but it's not long before we have to abandon the Jeep and go the rest of the way on foot.
It's easy to see a tornado has danced its way through here, dipping trees and spinning houses straight off the ground. We scramble over trunks and abandoned cars. Duck under wilted streetlights and dart through fields. A strip of bark catches my knuckles. My hands are a network of scratches, stained with blood and moss, but my only thought is to keep moving.
Fire spreads through every single one of my limbs as we slide down a bank of rubble. A cloud of dust shadows us, coating my mouth with dirt.
"Are you okay?" Edward asks, holding out his hand to help me.
"I'm fine," I say, coughing into my arm. "Keep moving."
The runway appears on our right, a long, flowing river of tarmac. One of the old aircrafts sits in pieces like a child's toy, its wings missing, its nose dented. It reminds me of the first time our cat brought a dead bird into the house when I was growing up—which inevitably makes me think of my mother.
Can you grieve someone who isn't dead… someone who walked away? I'm starting to believe that death and abandonment go hand in hand, but this fear for Charlie is real. I don't know how I'm supposed to survive losing him, too.
The station lies up ahead through a broken gap in the trees.
Edward glances over his shoulder, his expression tight as he tries to remain emotionless.
Just a few more steps.
We burst into the lot and for a second, nothing looks real. I think I am dreaming.
The tower is gone, erased from the world, leaving nothing but an impression of where it once stood—a hollowed out space that blends into the earth. The surrounding cabins have been crushed, buried under the weight of the rubble: a heap of glass and metal and brick.
It's as though a bomb has detonated.
Nothing is where it should be.
My heart sounds like it's beating underwater, a wet, muffled sound. All the oxygen gets sucked into the sky. I drag in deep, gasping breaths, but my lungs are being crushed. There's too much pressure. I have no room for anything else. I blink as the picture in front of me becomes distorted, and it's only when Edward cups my face in his hands, brushing his thumbs to catch my tears, that I realize he's speaking. I can see his mouth moving, but there is no sound.
"You need to breathe, okay?" I hear him say, his voice breaking through the deafness. "In and out. Take the air deep into your chest. Come on, Bella. Slowly. In and out."
Once the world has stopped spinning, I'm standing with my hands wrapped around Edward's wrists, his palms gentle against my jaw. I focus on him. His face that blocks out the hell behind him. His green eyes that tell me it's going to be okay, because he's here. "We're going to go and look, all right? I won't let anything happen to you."
He looks so sure. Sturdier than I could ever feel. I don't know how he can stay so calm. It has never been my job to look after anyone.
We start the search together, calling out Charlie's name.
But there's no response, not even an echo of our voices.
Eventually, we split up to cover more ground. I never stray too far, though. I keep Edward in my line of sight, waiting for the inevitable. He's almost flat to the ground, searching beneath one of the ruins, when his movements freeze, and then I know.
I rush over to him, my feet slipping in the rubble. "No," he says, trying to block me. "Stay where you are."
But it's too late.
A man lies face-down under a corrugated sheet of iron. His eyes are open—frozen that way. A thin trail of blood has streaked and dried down the corner of his mouth, pooled into a dry puddle in the dirt. My mind starts giving him a background he may not have. A story that's not mine to write. A wife, two children. He reads them bedtime stories every night. Kisses his wife before work. I give him back his life when it can never be his again.
When I can't take it anymore, I turn and press my face into Edward's chest.
He covers the back of my head with his hand, holding me tight. "Try to forget."
But can't he see? I made that man my father, and now I can't pull Charlie's brushstrokes from his face.
The sun is being pulled from its perch by the time we reach the far end of the station. The defeat I've been feeling is starting to bleed to Edward's face. Without light, our search becomes impossible.
I'm about to voice my concern when I hear a high-pitched whine.
"Did you hear that?"
We both stand in silence, too afraid to breathe.
When the noise ribbons through the air again, raising the hairs on the backs of my arms, we break into a run.
"It's Hunter! My dad's dog!"
The sound is coming from one of the cabins, its skeleton snapped and bowed. Hunter's whines grow louder, leading us right to him. His fur is matted and stained with blood, but he doesn't appear to be hurt. The blood is not his.
Nausea pushes against the back of my throat, fills my mouth with saliva. I feel like I've been encased in stone, my body buried inside its own fear.
I don't know how to break free.
Edward flattens himself to the ground, squinting through the small gap in the rubble—squinting into the darkness swallowing my father. I try to speak, but nothing comes out.
My hands have barely hit the floor when Edward starts negotiating his way through the hole.
"Wait, what are you doing?"
His eyes shoot up to meet mine, softening a little. "I'll be careful."
I lose track of time after that. I'm straining to make out noises, but all I can hear are Hunter's consistent whines. I reach out to comfort him, scratch behind his ears, but it doesn't help. All my bravado from yesterday has drained away, spilled out across the wreckage. I am no longer brave. I am no longer anything. I am a just girl who's scared of losing her dad.
A flurry of gravel flies out of the opening. Edward is climbing back through, his uniform smothered in dust. For a terrified second, I think he hasn't found him, but then he's reaching back into the darkness, sliding my father's body out from under the wreckage.
My heart threatens to burst out of my chest as I spring into action. I lower my father's head into my lap, taking an assessment of his injuries so quickly, I can't remember where I have and haven't looked. His skin glistens with sweat, and I don't know if he's shivering, or if I'm trembling.
"Is he breathing?" My voice cracks, so I don't try to say anything else.
Two of Edward's fingers are pressed against Charlie's neck. "There's a pulse," he assures.
The relief that spirals through me makes me so dizzy I think I'm going to be sick.
"We need to get him to the hospital," I say, desperate to be moving again.
In the dim light, I almost miss the wince that flashes across his face.
"Bella, there is no hospital. The storm destroyed it."
The doctor tells us it's sepsis.
Charlie has a gash in his leg that travels from his knee halfway down his calf. We've managed to stop the majority of the bleeding, but he needs antibiotics we don't have in the house. No one has medication to spare.
Charlie flickers in and out of consciousness, trying to leave the bed one minute before lying so still the next, I think I've imagined it. Mr. Crowley stands at his side with one hand braced against his shoulder, ready to stop his attempts when they happen.
Edward slips away during the chaos. The door closes behind him, leaving the rest of us to swelter in the senseless noises tumbling out of Charlie's mouth. A bead of sweat rolls down the back of my neck as I grip my father's hand. It's clammy and caked with blood—a crimson glove. This is the first time I've held his hand and he's not awake to witness it. I squeeze his fingers over and over again but there's no response. I've never felt so helpless.
The grim expression Edward wore before he left flutters behind my eyelids, but there's no time to be afraid. The doctor is barking out orders I can no longer hear. Charlie's face is as pale as I've ever seen it—whitewashed and sticky. Tears of sweat melt into his hairline, soaking the pillow beneath his head. He tries to open his eyes, but the action is too much for him, the fever spilling over his skin pulling him in and out of consciousness.
Nausea grabs hold of me.
He is going to die. I know it as well as I know my own name. He was out there too long, and we don't have access to the medication he needs. The infection in his leg will travel to his heart, choking the life out of the muscle until it can't breathe. Until I can't breathe. I have to get out.
"I'll be right back." My tongue feels too big for my mouth as I stumble away from the bed. I can sense Mr. Crowley's eyes on me, but I'm flying from the room and down the stairs in seconds, an entire orchestra strapped to my back—panic clattering in my chest.
Edward is halfway down the porch steps when I wrench the front door open. My voice is breathless when I call out to him. "Wait!"
He freezes, his hand wrapped tightly around the banister.
"You weren't going to say goodbye?" I say to his back. He's a dark silhouette against the colors trapped in the sky, the day as bruised as the air inside my lungs.
His shoulders drop in resignation. "Go be with Charlie. He needs you."
He still hasn't turned around, but he hasn't attempted to leave again, either. I take a deep breath and close the distance between us. "Where are you going?"
It's a desperate question. I know where he's headed: home. He's done what he came here to do. I can't expect him to stick around forever.
"I have an errand to run," he answers vaguely, circling to face me. We're almost the same height, standing this way, with me one step higher than he is. It feels nice that we're finally even in something.
"Important?" I ask, stalling him.
He exhales, silent but heavy. "Yes."
"More important than this?" There's too much turbulence inside my head. I don't know why I'm trying to pick a fight with him—if that's even what I'm doing. I just feel like I need to speak without having the right words to say.
"Don't go there with me right now," he warns. "You have no idea—"
"No idea of what?" I interrupt.
He doesn't answer, but the look he gives me—eyes boring into mine—it's like he's pulling the sadness right out of them… Like he has this ability to make me feel what I don't want to feel. My vision gets blurry and I look up, blinking it all back.
"He's going to die, isn't he?" I say. "He's going to die, and he's never going to know how grateful I am that he took me in. He's never going to know how terrified I am of being alone or that I didn't get to know him because people always leave. I wasn't a surprise to him like he was to me. He knew I was out there somewhere and he didn't care enough to look or get in contact. He just got saddled with me when my mom split, and I guess I thought that's what family was sometimes, being there without really being there. Like two separate pieces of furniture in the same house, gathering dust until a better alternative came along."
The silence stretches from our mouths to the pavement to the sky. Loops around the two of us until I let my end go.
My eyes fall back on him. His body is stiff, his hands balled at his sides as if he's resisting the urge to reach out and touch me.
"Lie to me. Tell me everything's going to be okay." My voice comes out as a whisper, my desperation bright enough to mingle with the stars. The wind has picked up, rattling more than the leaves overhead.
Time stops… teeters for a moment.
"Is that what you want?"
I swallow hard and look the other way, wishing the truth wasn't so complicated. Wishing I could swim through this grief instead of sink in it. An agonized groan resonates from the house, vibrating in the air around us. My stomach lurches, falls like a rock to the ground. I lock my knees so I don't fall with it.
"Go back inside, Bella."
Instead I shake my head… close my eyes… shut out the world… sit in the dark place where parents don't exist.
I sense the closeness of his face, feel his hand brush over my hair like air. "You are not alone," he tells me, an edge to his voice.
When I open my eyes, Edward is gone.
There's nothing peaceful about silence.
Charlie's mumbling has stopped. The doctor has stitched the wound in his leg, but the skin around the sutures is pinched and angry. I listen to the rhythm of his breathing, his sandpapered breaths, and run a damp cloth over his forehead.
Each rise and fall of his chest is painful to watch. He's been given a timeframe of hours, of days, and it's not enough.
I can still feel the weight of Dr. Berty's hand haunting my shoulder as he gave me the news.
My father's future is beginning to fade.
All I can think about is the wasted medication back at the shelter. It didn't occur to me before, but the image of those pills become as familiar to me as the paintings lining Mr. Crowley's walls.
I hear the pipes groan.
My neighbor is downstairs making tea. It's what people do in times like this. They keep their hands busy so they don't have to watch them shake.
Hours have passed since Edward left. His absence is as notable as the night sticking to the windows, boxing us inside our cell of grief. Outside, the wind whistles and roars, rattling the glass. I've been trying to formulate a plan to get back to the shelter, but after the damage the fence suffered last night, the boundary will be swarming with patrols.
There's no way I won't be spotted.
The only option I have left is to head straight to the source—Edward's father. There will be consequences, going to his home—I know this—but I can't sit by and watch my father die when he has the resources to stop it.
Mr. Crowley is still in the kitchen when I slip out the front door. I zip up my coat and move faster. Some of the streetlights are on tonight, warming the darkness. They always sputter to life after a storm. I think they're supposed to come across as reassuring, but instead they illuminate the despair we'd all rather forget.
Edward lives in the wealthier part of town where cars still fill driveways despite the ration on fuel; where curtains shield the windows instead of boards. Not everything is perfect, though. The road is torn up in places, asphalt melted into strange lumps like chewed gum.
The mayor's house is nestled behind thick shrubbery. I make myself as invisible as I can and peer through the branches. Patrols are stationed outside the door—they'll never let me pass. Darting to my left, I can't help wondering if they're there to keep people out, or keep someone in.
I sprint silently through a neighbor's garden until I come out at the other side. An overgrown pathway forms a sort of alley behind the row of houses. I take a moment to catch my breath, and stare at the wooden fence that has replaced the shrubbery out front.
In the distance, a dog starts barking, propelling me into action. I dig the edge of my sneaker into a groove in the wood, prepared to haul myself up and over, when something seemingly drops from the sky and lands at my side. Almost instantly, I'm pinned against the fence. A whoosh of air leaves my lungs. I'm disorientated for a second before the face of my captor blurs into focus. The arm against my throat is loosened instantly.
Edward runs his hands through his hair and stares at me incredulously. "What the hell are you doing here? Do you know how much trouble you could get into, breaking into the mayor's house? Did you learn nothing from yesterday?" He's angrier than I've ever seen him, the muscles in his jaw working in and out.
"I'm here to see your dad." I know I don't have to explain to him the reasons why.
"Are you crazy?"
"I don't know, maybe," I say, feeling a wave of hysteria rush through me. "I feel like I am." I shake my head. "I can't let him die, Edward. I can't…"
His breaths shape the air around his face. "He won't."
"I don't want you to lie to me this time."
Without saying a word, he reaches into his pocket and holds something out to me. Tucked inside his palm, is the same bottle of pills that have been rattling inside my head for the past hour.
"Where did you get those?" The words collide quietly in my mouth.
My heart is beating so fast I'm afraid it's going to burst out of my ribs.
"Where do you think?" he answers. "I went back to the shelter, but he'd cleared the place. So I asked him." This is a different boy than the one who spoke about his father last night. I feel guilty knowing I've had a hand in putting him there.
"Is that where this is from?" I ask softly, touching the new bruise I can see forming on his cheek.
"It's not nothing, Edward."
We stay this way for a minute, me with my hand on his cheek, him with his breath tickling my wrist.
"Why?" I ask, needing to know.
My eyes dip to his Adam's apple bobbing beneath his skin. "Why did you do this for me?"
He's on the verge of saying something, when he seems to change his mind, growing visibly uncomfortable at our closeness. He takes a step back, and I think I could push him, I think I could get him to break down his walls, but there are enough casualties around here already. I don't want to be responsible for another thing falling apart.
Instead of pressing him for an answer, I rise up on my tiptoes and kiss the edge of his mouth. There's barely any pressure behind it, a light brush of my lips, before I'm floating back down to earth. Time seems to slow, blur at the edges. I hear the change in his breathing, sense something shift, but still neither of us move. All traces of the calm he carries around with him disappears. He closes his eyes, opens them again.
His mouth is on mine before I can think.
His hand cups my face, and then he's pressing us against the fence, his body holding me there, warm and strong in a way I'm not used to. His lips are soft, and hot, and he makes this noise that floods my entire chest. A noise that strips the rest of the world of its sound. Like he's in pain. Like he likes it. His hair is in my face and his stomach tenses beneath my fingers and I'm kissing him back, trying to pull him closer even though there's nowhere else to go.
I've never felt this way before. I don't know what to do with it. How to contain it. I can feel his heart beating just as fast as mine when he opens his mouth and teases my tongue with his. Tilts my face higher with his finger beneath my chin.
Warmth spreads through me, and my hips instinctively push away from the fence, push into him.
He breaks away abruptly and leans his forehead against mine, panting heavily against my mouth. "I need to…" His voice is strained, hoarse.
"Need to what?" I say, just as affected.
His hands squeeze my hips, like he's trying to find the courage to say it, before he forgoes words completely and slides his hands over my ass, down to the back of my thighs. He lifts me the same time I wrap my legs around him, and then we're kissing again, and I don't know how to stop.
For a second, I forget the world around us is dying.
By the end of the second week, Charlie's fever has completely broken. I take him bowls of soup, encouraging him to eat as much of it as he can. It doesn't always stay down, but when it does, he regains some color in his cheeks.
On the bad days, he's still too weak to stand, but on the good, he can prop himself up in bed without any help. I know it's killing him not to be out there, assisting with the restorations, but it's like the doctor told us: baby steps. He has to build up his strength again.
At first, these new roles we find ourselves in are awkward, but as the days pass, they begin to get easier. Loss does that, I think, or at least the threat of it does. It makes you appreciate what you have right in front of you.
I have a father.
He has a daughter.
I'm starting to believe they're more than titles given at birth.
"I think I'm going to head out for a little while," I say, opening the curtains to let in some light. The sun catches the dust in the air, thousands of fireflies whizzing around my head.
"No going past the fence," he warns. He tries to sound stern, but his voice comes out thin.
I still haven't told him what happened. That I disobeyed him. That I met a boy. That the chain-link isn't really linked anymore. I don't want him to worry.
Satisfied, he goes back to reading his newspaper. I call Hunter from the end of the bed, figuring he could do with some exercise.
I'm almost out of the room, when I turn at the door and say, "I'll see you later… Charlie."
He clears his throat and glances back up. "See you, kid."
I smile. It's still not Dad, but it's a start. I'm trying.
The streets are full of sound as I steer Hunter away from an overturned trash can: sawing and sharp voices and drilling noises that make my teeth vibrate. Those who aren't helping with restorations have their faces pressed up against their windows, too afraid to leave their home—ghosts trapped between four walls.
I turn away before their expressions can stick.
Up ahead, a group of patrols step out onto the sun-drenched pavement. My heart starts beating a little faster. I know Edward is not among them, but it doesn't stop me from looking. Doesn't stop the reaction I get every time I spot those black uniforms.
I haven't seen him in almost two days. As part of his punishment for the pills, his father moved him to a different post, claiming he couldn't trust him around the shelters. It's farther afield, practically encroaching the next town over. This means the time Edward and I have together is limited.
This means Edward's punishment is also directed at me.
The mayor knows I know his secret, and I think he's testing me, waiting for me to break. Waiting for the moment he can truly enforce his hand.
We still haven't figured out why he was storing so much medication, but it's only a matter of time before he slips up again.
It's only a matter of time before we find the right key and unlock the truth.
Edward is silent when he climbs through my window later that night. My heart speeds up, and I wonder if I'll ever be able to look at him without that strangled feeling. I don't know what we are, if what we have is a relationship, all I know is I feel like something is missing when he's gone.
Straightening, he reaches back to pull the hood from his head, and lifts his eyes to mine. He looks different in his hoodie and jeans. It's the first time in almost three years I've seen him wear something other than his patrol uniform, and as his eyes trail up my bare legs, I realize it's the first time he's seeing me in only a T-shirt and underwear. Nerves settle in my stomach as I begin to remember what it's like to be a normal teenage girl, worrying about my appearance instead of the threat of the sky.
The distance between us is no more than six feet, but my chest heaves as though he's standing right in front of me. Other than the muscles working in his jaw, his face gives away nothing. Like it's the most natural thing in the world for him to be standing in my room with me in the middle of the night.
I'm coiled as tight as a spring when he walks toward me. He grips the hem of my oversized T-shirt and tugs on it. "Old boyfriend's?" he asks, trying to sound neutral.
The air turns thick as I glance down at his fingers. "No."
He runs his thumb along my bottom lip, and then he's kissing me, long deep kisses that steal the air straight from my lungs. I grip the sides of his hoodie and whimper when his hands slide under my shirt, curling around my ribs. I arch my back, urging him on, but he's careful not to touch me in the places I want him to be reckless. This lasts for seconds, minutes—I lose count after the first kiss, too lost in the feel of his lips to care about numbers.
We end up on my bed, his hands running up my thighs as I sit astride him. My hair falls around us like a curtain, our faces so close his breath becomes my breath.
"You drive me crazy." He's looking at me with that resentment reserved for the person who makes you feel more of everything. I wonder if he can sense that in me, if it's like looking in a mirror.
"Is that a good or a bad thing?" I ask quietly.
"I don't know."
I can feel him hard beneath me and I rock forward a little. He gets very still, his hands tightening almost painfully around my hips. My cheeks flood with heat, my heart beating so hard I know he can feel it.
"You sure?" he asks, searching my eyes, looking for assurances this isn't another one of my reckless decisions.
He wraps his arms around me and flips us until I'm on my back. He starts out slowly, teasing me, his tongue hot in my mouth as he curls his fingers through my hair and kisses me roughly. I slide my hands down his chest, frustrated at the material in the way. He pauses to pull his hoodie over his head, and then I'm under him again, his skin hot against my skin as he starts pushing my shirt up my stomach. I'm suddenly nervous as I arch to help him.
He sits back on his heels, naked apart from his jeans. The glow from the lamp turns his bare skin gold. I find it hard to look at him sometimes, but he watches me for what feels like an eternity. As his gaze moves over me, it's as though I'm being touched. Something inside of me fractures, breaks into a million pieces. No one has ever looked at me the way he's looking at me. Like I'm someone special. Someone he needs. He slides his hands up the inside of my thighs, over my stomach, all the way up to my breasts. His eyes meet mine for a fraction of a second, but that small action, it's like a trigger has been pulled, setting off something inside of us both. The urgency from our lips bleeds to our hands, and soon we're touching wherever we can.
He hooks his fingers into my underwear, pulling them down my legs, and this is different. This makes everything real. I grasp the fly of his zipper, and lower it slowly, trying to hide the tremble in my fingers. The noise is so loud, his breathing so hard, hitting my face. It's urgent and frantic as he loses the rest of his clothing, the rest of his reservations.
His exhale is rough and shaky as he settles his weight between my thighs, as he grinds between them, letting me feel him, not pushing inside yet. My blood turns to wildfire as he tilts my head, slides his tongue into my mouth. He shifts his hips a little harder, and the metal headboard knocks against the wall. It's deafening, freezing everything but our labored breathing.
Edward stares down at me, his lips swollen, before sliding off me. I think he's changed his mind, but he scoops me up along with the blankets and lays us on the floor. Settling between my legs, he hooks his hands behind my knees and tugs me closer. His arms are either side of my head as he lowers his hips, pushing my thighs apart.
"Do you think you can be quiet?"
I nod, his eyes drooping when I push up against him, and then he's there, and we both stop and study one another again. That silent moment when there are so many things to say, but not one of them can get vocalized. Then he's finally pushing inside and I make a small noise, and he whispers he's sorry, his brow furrowed in concentration until he's all the way in.
"You okay?" he asks hoarsely, holding still, letting me adjust.
I nod, not trusting myself to speak.
When he finally starts moving, it's slow, so slow, and when it begins to feel good, I wrap my legs around him, bringing him deeper.
"Fuck," he breathes into my mouth, settling his face in my neck as he tries not to move faster like I know he wants. His shoulders are tense beneath my fingers and his mouth is warm against my skin and I can't get my heart to slow down.
Eventually the outer world falls away until all that remains are his hands clasping mine. His eyes roving my face. His lashes against my neck. The feel of him between my legs.
And when it gets too much, and I can no longer look at him, all I can think is, if this is what it feels like to be in love, I want to call it love, and if this is what it feels like to fall, I don't ever want to reach the ground.
Mr. Crowley already has his easel set up by the time I reach him. I sit at his side and stare at his painting. A pile of metal bones glint back at me from the canvas. A broken-down ribcage that makes my chest ache.
"Do you ever miss your wife?" I ask quietly, picking at the whiskers of dried grass.
He pulls his brush from his work and dips it into the little pot of water between us. "What's brought this on?"
Mr. Crowley's wife moved away years ago, long before I became his neighbor. He still has her picture up on his wall. I catch him staring at it sometimes. I wonder if it's so he doesn't forget her face.
"I guess I just want to know if the missing ever goes away."
He glances sideways at me. "This about your mom?"
I take a deep breath and nod. I have memories so bright of her sometimes, it's like looking into the sun.
Mr. Crowley sets down his brush and rubs his hands over his beard. "Sure, kid, I still miss her sometimes. But she did what was best for her. People can't always handle everything they should. It doesn't make them bad people. It's just who they are. You can't hate someone for being themselves."
I lie back in the grass and stare at the sky. It's splashed with orange, like my mother's horizon. I know he's right, but sometimes it's hard not to think: Who does that? What kind of mother leaves her daughter behind?
He starts telling me a story about the first time he and his wife met. I've heard it before, but I don't say anything. I just listen. His voice has always been reassuring to me. I stare at his hands as he talks, lined and creased like notepaper. Like he's had a lot to say over the years.
Gray angles fill my vision as he blots out more of the fence, building diamonds with the tip of his brush. Each one looks like a kite. As fragile as an eyelash. A wish to send into the universe.
I know I'll never be able to forget my mother, but I can try and let her go.
So I close my eyes, purse my lips, and blow her away.
It's something we all possess.
Mine came in the form of a boy who arrived at the violet hour. A boy with hair as wild as the storm he came in on. Someone who picked me up and spun me around until north faced south, changing the way I saw the world.
As the days blurred by, his presence stirring up something inside of me, I couldn't decide who had affected me more.
Edward tucks our hands into his pockets. The sky above us convulses, shivers as though it's cold.
"We need to get inside," he urges.
"Thirty more seconds," I say, the colors of dawn pouring over our heads.
His grip on my fingers tightens. He doesn't understand this part, my need to watch a new storm crack open. It makes him worry. Makes him think I'm reckless. But I'm not. I tried explaining it to him once. Called it my own before and after, like the paintings on Mr. Crowley's walls. That even though the world was dying, we were still alive, and that was something to experience. Afterwards, he touched my cheek and stared at me like he was never going to stop. Like someone would pluck me away, too.
"Okay, thirty seconds are up," he says, steering us inside the house.
Behind the closed door, he kisses me, reminding me why storms are named after people.