The noises from out back took Edward by surprise with their distant familiarity. He heard a young child’s laugh, punctuated by a dog’s frequent bark.
They were the kind of sounds he went out of his way to avoid, and they immediately made him feel trapped in his own home. He winced and moved to the front of the house to get away from them.
The barking came closer as the dog ran to the front of the yard next door. The little boy called after the animal as they both headed toward the street.
A door slammed, and a woman screamed, “Seth! Stop!”
When the calls of “Seth” became more frantic, Edward couldn’t ignore them anymore. In several long strides, he reached the door and yanked it open to see the boy and the dog in the road. The woman was just about to reach them.
The boy turned to face her in the street, and she yelled again in frustration and fear. She scooped him up quickly, and then looked both ways for cars, something the child never did. The chocolate Lab barked and leaped around them as the woman clutched the boy, kissing his face and murmuring.
As they headed back to her house, she noticed Edward on the porch and immediately looked embarrassed. She walked across the front lawn and held out her hand in greeting. He saw how gracefully she moved despite holding the child, who seemed to weigh half as much as she did.
“Hi, I’m Bella Swan,” she said, smiling. “This is Seth, and our dog George. We just moved here.”
She waited for a response, but Edward just eyed the boy with a pained expression. Bella knew that look; she’d seen it often enough from adults who disliked children. She dropped her arm to her side.
Discreetly, she took in her new neighbor’s careful, neat appearance. He was about as old as Bella, and quite good-looking, but he also seemed aged, somehow. And he stood absolutely still, as if he wasn’t used to moving very much.
Great. We’re living next door to Mr. Wilson, and he thinks my son is Dennis the Menace.
“He doesn’t usually act like this,” Bell said hastily, glancing at Seth. “He’s a little wound up because it’s moving day.”
Edward shook his head slightly, as if waking up. “I apologize,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Edward Cullen.”
Her hand felt warm and soft in his, though slightly dusty. Edward watched as she wiped it on her shorts. She blushed and said, “I’m sorry. I’ve been hauling boxes around all day, and I’m probably filthy.”
“It’s okay. I understand.” He managed a smile. “Well, I’m sure I’m keeping you from your work. Good luck with your unpacking.” He turned to go.
“No, wait!” Bella was still there, looking at him eagerly. “Um – do you know anyone who has any kids? Seth here is dying to have someone to play with.” She jostled the boy in her arms.
Edward stood stiffly as Bella’s grin faltered with the awareness that she had said something wrong. Finally, he shook his head once and said, “No, I don’t. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He left without another word or glance.
Bella stared at the closed door.
After a few more seconds, she stepped off the porch with her son. Edward pulled aside the curtain and watched as his new neighbor walked across the lawn, her long dark hair swaying with her movement. The boy looked a lot like his mother – same expressive dark eyes and heart-shaped face. He could faintly hear her chiding him to never, ever run into the street like that again.
He sighed and thought about the woman’s warm gaze and her son’s cheerful grin, even though he didn’t want to. Just seeing a child Seth’s age tore at his heart and left a fresh wound. Reluctantly, he acknowledged he’d have to adjust. Many along this street, including the previous owners of Bella’s home, were elderly, and leaving in one way or another. It was inevitable that more families would move here.
Edward wondered if the current lack of children would cause Bella to re-evaluate her new home. Surely she’d want more playmates nearby for her son. The house could then be sold to someone who knew that fences make the best neighbors.
He was suddenly ashamed. The world kept moving along even if he couldn’t, and he knew this. He just wished it wouldn’t impose itself in such a grand manner. Only recently, he’d gotten used to living alone since he and Tanya separated. They’d adjusted to the quiet until they couldn’t anymore; then she left, and he slid into an isolation balanced between work and home. It looked like that ended today.
The humidity of June was oppressive and made everything feel close, so Edward decided that a simple omelet would do for dinner. He’d pulled nearly everything out of the cabinet where the pans were kept before he remembered that Tanya had taken the omelet skillet. Edward now recalled that he didn’t put up much of a fight. It hadn’t been worth arguing over.
Next door, Bella began preparing her son’s favorite dinner: hot dogs and baked beans. He was still revved up from the excitement of moving, and she was waiting for the inevitable crash. All day, Seth had been loaded with energy, and she knew when that happened, a meltdown almost always capped it.
At least it didn’t start when they met the guy next door. Bella thought about her sad, solemn neighbor as she rinsed some broccoli. She had some concerns about how they would get along. It seemed he didn’t like children – at the very least, he looked annoyed with Seth. She wondered if the years ahead would be full of complaints about the noise and mess that were a normal part of life for parents but not for people who didn’t have kids.
Edward Cullen was handsome, there was no doubt about it: tall and lean, with a muscular build; long, graceful hands; and slightly disheveled, unusually bronze hair. And his eyes – they were beautiful, but their glorious green color was completely overshadowed by the sorrow that tinted every part of his features. The fine lines around his eyes and mouth, and the knit of his eyebrows, told her there was heartache and worry in whatever life this man led.
Bella knew a few things about heartache. She certainly knew it when she saw it.
The window above her sink was at the side of the house, and it looked directly across to Edward Cullen’s home. She saw movement, like a shadow, behind some curtains that hung in what was probably his kitchen window. Bella wondered if anyone else lived in the house with him.
School was over, and Edward was off for the summer. He taught history at Forks High School, and he hadn’t taken on any additional work in the summer. With Tanya gone, he wondered whether he should have tried to find a part-time job. It probably wasn’t too late to volunteer, maybe with Olympic National Park or even some place in Port Angeles. He should look for something to fill his hours, he thought. Not right now, though. He put it off with the decision to do some yard work.
A row of juniper bushes separated his property from Bella Swan’s, and he used electric trimmers to clip the branches that bordered his yard. Then he noticed how uneven it looked, and he stepped over the bushes to shape the other side. He’d worked through about half of it before he wondered whether he should have consulted Ms. Swan before landscaping some of her property. No one seemed to be home now – she probably worked during the day, which meant she’d have less time for chores like this anyway.
Then he realized he’d voluntarily done something for someone else without any internal debate about it. It had been a long time since he’d acted so generously, and so spontaneously.
At the end of the day, Edward heard a knock at the door. Bella Swan stood on his porch, looking off to where Seth sat on the bottom step, rolling a small car over the edge. She turned quickly and smiled at Edward once his tall form filled the doorway.
“Hi,” she said, waving her hand as if they were at a distance from each other. She dropped her arm self-consciously, and then held out her other hand with a newspaper in it. “I think we got your paper this morning.”
Edward took the newspaper, and in an effort to show he was indeed polite, said, “Thanks. I wondered what happened. I thought maybe the kid who delivers went on vacation.”
Bella visibly relaxed at his friendly tone. “I guess his aim is just bad.” She turned to her son and said, “Seth, come up here and say hello to Mr. Cullen.”
Edward felt himself instinctively withdraw, but he forced a smile. “Hello, Seth. What’s that you’ve got?”
“A car. I have lots of them. Is that your car?” The little boy turned and pointed at the Volvo in Edward’s driveway.
“Yes, it is.”
Seth frowned and said, “That’s really boring.”
Bella looked horrified. “Seth! Don’t be impolite.”
Edward’s smile grew broader. “You’re right, Seth. It is. I drive a boring car because I’m a boring person.” He shrugged his shoulders almost childishly to try and ease the situation. Seth made a goofy face and plopped down on the stair again.
Bella looked at Edward apologetically. “I’m sorry. He’s pretty outspoken. We’re working on that.”
“Well, he’s what? Four? It goes with the territory.” It hurt to say those words, but Edward found himself wanting to set her at ease. He took in her beautiful eyes, with the shadowy smudge under them from wearing mascara for eight hours; the curl at the end of her hair from the damp weather; the wrinkled button-down blouse that covered the expanse of her breasts and ended just below the belt of her pants. He saw exhaustion through the brightness of her smile, and he realized then he’d yet to see evidence of a husband.
“Uh...I was trimming my side of the juniper, and I cut back yours, too. I just thought, as long as I had the clippers out…” His voice faded slightly. “I hope you and your husband don’t mind,” he said carefully.
He caught her wince. “Not at all. That was very thoughtful.” She glanced down at her son and said in a low voice, “My husband died about a year and a half ago.”
That more than explained her tired appearance and constant presence with her child. It also made a sudden, seismic difference in how Edward felt about her. She knew loss, too.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said quietly, and she saw that his words were real. He waited a respectful moment, but Bella didn’t elaborate. She frowned, and then said suddenly, “Do you live here alone?”
“Yes. My wife and I separated earlier this year.”
Bella’s face softened. No wonder he looks so lost. “I’m sorry. That’s very hard.” She impulsively reached for his hand.
Edward didn’t reply; he was watching their clasped hands, and without thinking, his thumb began to soothe back and forth across two of her knuckles. Seth chose that moment to wriggle between them and ask, “Hey Mr. Cullen, do you have a DVD player?”
“I do. How about you?” He was reluctant to take his attention away from Seth’s mother, but he was amused by the boy’s demands.
“Yeah! Do you watch Sponge Bob?”
Bella saw how Edward flinched at the mention of the popular cartoon. She didn’t know why he suddenly looked upset, but she squeezed his hand a little harder to ease it.
“Seth, we’ve taken up enough of Mr. Cullen’s time. We should get home now.” She extracted her hand from Edward’s and smiled apologetically.
“It was nice to see you again.” A pause, and then she regarded him thoughtfully. “If you ever need company, just come over.” One small smile, and then she and Seth were gone from his front porch.
Edward immediately missed the brief warmth of her grasp. He wondered why this small measure of contact was so much more rewarding than any touch he’d had from Tanya for months before she left. The mere calculus of the time he’d known these two women made it illogical. He also knew such questions would lead to an endless litany of why he and Tanya weren’t stronger, why they couldn’t stay connected, or why they broke apart when others in the same circumstances held together.
They’d shared their young lives and the creation of a child, and then the most unwelcome bond of all: grief over the loss of their four-year-old daughter. When the freshness of their sorrow turned hard and became permanent, there wasn’t enough between them to carry them through it. Their marriage had become like the driest kindling –useful only to combust. It wasn’t long before the impatient, sometimes sharp exchanges ceased and only silence remained.
One bedroom had been theirs; now it was his. A second bedroom was a combination guest room and home office space. The third remained locked and unopened, until now.
Edward resented how the little boy’s sweaty sweetness made him want to enter a room he always avoided. He turned the knob and heard the quiet click, then opened the door. The first thing he saw was the mobile of Disney characters, still hanging over the bed. Dust coated the faces of Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine and Snow White. It seemed the sadness had rubbed off on them and made their gay smiles counterfeit in a way that Edward couldn’t bear.
Then in one sweeping look, he took in the rest of it: the white bedroom set, the four-poster bed, the dresser with framed photos on it. Tanya had taken some of Katie’s dolls, clothes, and books, but everything else remained in the room. A bulletin board held their daughter’s juvenile drawings and the pictures she’d cut haphazardly from magazines, including a few of Sponge Bob and his friend Patrick Starfish. Her backpack still dangled from the back of her desk chair.
Neither he nor Tanya could bring themselves to put Katie’s things away, much less throw them out. Even two years later, the finality of it was beyond them.
He stared out the window, his hands useless at his sides. He wasn’t even aware of the tears rolling down his face until he felt them glide over his jaw. Edward pressed his eyes closed as if that could stop them, and then wiped his face with his fingertips.
He felt the familiar anger that was his constant companion, but something else surfaced that surprised him. Edward was tired – exhausted was more like it. The blackness that had weighed him down for so long needed to be pushed aside. It was too much to carry, and now he saw that it was wearing him out.
Edward grew afraid that he was betraying Katie’s memory by even considering any other life than what he’d been enduring. But perhaps that fear was part of the blackness. And maybe that fear needed to go first.
After dinner, Edward heard the noises from the back that had grown recognizable. Bella and Seth were kicking around a soccer ball in their yard. He heard the boy’s laughter, then Bella’s words of encouragement and George’s enthusiastic bark, float through his window.
He considered joining them but couldn’t really think of a reason why. Did he need an excuse? Wasn’t it enough to say hello to his neighbors?
Edward made it outside as Bella was admonishing Seth to watch where he threw the ball. She stopped and pushed her hair out of her eyes when she saw him walking over to the bushes.
“Hey Mr. Cullen!” Seth kicked the ball into Edward’s yard. Bella was about to scold him for it when Edward caught her eye and shook his head. He palmed the soccer ball and with an easy underhand, tossed it back to the boy.
Seth screamed in delight and kicked the ball hard enough for it to fly right back to Edward. George jumped over the bushes, barking like crazy, and then ran home just as Edward tossed the ball to Seth once more. The dog circled behind the boy and hurdled back to dash behind Edward when the boy again returned the volley.
George ran this circuit again and again, creating, a tight, invisible oval around the three humans as the soccer ball flew back and forth. Edward grinned at the unbridled joy of it all; at being at the center of such simple play. He felt they were protected by this imperceptible barrier created from the noise and speed of a hyperactive Labrador. It was as if nothing could breach it, if only for these moments.
Edward woke up that rainy morning with a heavy weight in his stomach. He lay there without moving, trying to figure out why he felt particularly crappy. Then it came to him: today was Father’s Day. It was like his body remembered before his mind did.
He had almost no inclination to eat breakfast. If anything, he wanted a shot of Scotch right now, at 9 a.m. Instead, he started a pot of coffee and toasted a slice of bread.
The newspaper arrived - thrown on the correct lawn - and he read through it in about a half-hour.
He drained the last of the coffee while finishing off the John Irving novel he’d been reading.
It took ten minutes to empty the dishwasher and load it with the cup and plate from breakfast.
His shower, as always, lasted 15 minutes. He scrubbed himself absently and thought about Bella Swan. That might have increased his time in the shower a bit, but he felt guilty over fantasizing about his neighbor, and somewhat shocked that he was even interested in doing so.
While filing away some bill statements, he noticed that colored paper clips were mixed in with plain silver ones. He sorted and separated them.
It was not yet noon.
With a sigh, Edward decided to call his father. All contact with Carlisle had been awkward since his daughter died. His dad was a doctor, and the elder Cullen felt guilty over his inability to find the magic answer that would have cured Katie. Many of Edward’s conversations with Carlisle ended with one telling the other not to blame himself for what happened. It was heartbreaking and draining, and Edward avoided it when he could. But it was hard to deny his father on a holiday, particularly this one.
He picked up his phone and held it against his chest, squeezing his eyes shut.
Meanwhile, Bella was trying to decide what to do about dinner. She wanted to barbeque and eat outside, but the rain made that impossible. Maybe she and Seth could make an adventure out of it anyway and set up a picnic in the house.
Although her son wasn’t particularly aware that it was Father’s Day, Bella knew. She wanted to make it up to him even if he didn’t understand the significance. She thought it was important to honor her husband Mike’s memory and his own brief time as a father. Just making the effort for Seth made her feel better, and less guilty.
Her dad had given her a used gas grill he’d got from a friend on the Quileute reservation. Charlie had checked it thoroughly and filled the tank. Bella just had to figure out the controls, and how to turn on the gas….and how to adjust the heat…and how long it would take to cook chicken or beef on a grill she’d never used before.
Charlie had gone over all the details with her when he brought the thing over, but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember where to start. As usual, she’d been distracted when he was talking.
Edward was returning from the tool shed that afternoon when he heard a not-too-soft voice utter a few choice words. He looked up to see Bella standing in front of the grill with an intense look of frustration. Seth played about five feet away, seemingly oblivious to his mother’s swearing.
An amused grin crept over Edward’s face. He stepped over the juniper bushes and walked toward her, his hands in his pockets. It had just started to drizzle again.
“Most people wait until the sun is out before they fire those up, which is why you don’t see a lot of barbeques in Forks,” he said mildly.
Bella jumped and yelled, “Shit!” She whirled around and clapped her hand over her mouth when she saw him.
“Mr. Cullen! Oh my God, you scared me!” she said, her hand pressed against her chest.
Edward thought for a moment about her racing heart and the skin that lay above it. She was wearing a tee shirt with a slight v-neck that showed a small area of her pale chest. It revealed nothing substantial, except for Edward’s surprise that he would notice it. He liked it.
“I apologize. And please, call me Edward.” He gestured to the grill. “Can I help you?”
“Do you know anything about these things?”
“Yes, we have one. I haven’t used it in a while, but I remember how.” Bella noticed his use of the word “we” but ignored it for the moment. “What’s giving you a problem?”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “I tried to get this going,” she said as she fiddled with the on-off dial, “but I don’t think anything is happening.”
“It’s customary to turn the gas on first.”
She turned around slowly and raised one eyebrow in an exaggerated stinkeye. “Really. So that’s the secret behind a gas grill? Providing fuel?”
“And not blowing anything up in the process, yes.” Edward bent down and sat on his haunches to inspect the tank.
Carefully, he opened the valve, and Bella noticed his forearms flex. They looked strong – as did his back muscles, which she could see through the fitted tee shirt he wore. Maybe he did more work around his home than she’d thought. She’d sort of assumed that he wasn’t very active. He seemed so depressed. Then she realized she didn’t know what Edward did all day. She suddenly resolved to find out.
“Would you like to join us for dinner?”
“What?” Edward looked up from his place on the ground. His eyelashes were so long. From the angle at which he’d turned his head up, they brushed against the skin just below his eyebrows.
“Um…maybe you’d like to join us for dinner? I mean, there is a purpose behind all this,” she said, gesturing to the grill. “I’m going to barbeque some chicken and burgers. There’ll be more than enough.”
He brushed his hands off on his jeans and stood, looking slightly uncomfortable. “Well, you probably have family coming over. I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
Bella shook her head firmly. “Not at all. My dad is on duty today. We saw him yesterday, so it’s all good.” She looked at him eagerly – maybe too eagerly.
He glanced off toward his own house, and Bella wondered if he’d make a run for it. Maybe she’d pushed him a little too far. But she felt so clearly that something in this man needed to be touched, or brought out, or even just acknowledged. She wanted to try everything until she found whatever worked.
Edward cocked his head for a moment, then said, “Okay. I’d like to bring something, though.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary.” Bella waved her hands at him dismissively.
“No, I insist. What time would you like me here?” His eyes were verdant, and more alive than the first time they’d met. She realized how much more expressive his face was now, too. She was staring at him, and she blushed.
“Come over at 5. I’ll see you then.” Bella called to Seth, and Edward watched as they went into their home. She turned slightly and smiled at him over her shoulder.
Bella was in her kitchen later, preparing chicken for the grill, when there was a soft knock on the side door.
Edward was standing there in a pair of beige khakis and a burgundy shirt which set off his bronze hair and pale skin. His green eyes were sparkling. Something stirred in Bella as she realized the man in front of her was coming back to life. Bit by bit, he was shaking off the depressed, grey exterior to reveal a warm and personable man underneath.
He looks almost happy. God, what a difference.
He handed her a plate of carefully covered brownies, made from a recipe that dated back to his great-grandmother. It had long been a family favorite, and Edward thought it was time for another family to love it, too.
“These are for you,” he said, suddenly self-conscious.
Bella peeked under the aluminum foil. An enormous, bright grin lit up her face. Edward thought using the last of his eggs was worth it, to see that smile.
“This is very thoughtful. Thank you, Edward.”
She’d changed out of her tee shirt to a deep blue top with a cowl neck. Edward noticed that it showed a little more of her neckline.
Bella asked him if he’d mind starting the grill. “You know, since you’re the expert,” she said with a sly smile.
He wasn’t really sure if she was flirting with him, and he never was very good at that anyway, so he merely smiled back and took the plate of burgers and chicken that she handed him. Once the heat was on, he set out enough pieces for the three of them and found the utensils on the small table next to it.
Bella looked surprised when he returned to the house in a short time. “They’re done already?” she said in disbelief.
“That’s one of the benefits of a gas grill. It cooks a lot faster than the older ones,” Edward said.
She looked flustered, and Edward noticed she was still setting up the table. “Here, I’ll get the burgers ready,” he said, gesturing for the buns. “We can pull this together in no time.”
By the time they were sitting down to eat, she seemed less upset but more nervous. Edward tried to put her at ease by complimenting her cooking, especially when she revealed that she’d made the potato salad herself. Food seemed to be a safe neutral ground, so he asked her more questions about what she liked to cook. They talked a lot about cuisines of different cultures, and while Bella often chimed in with her own preferences or the food that Seth was willing to try, she never mentioned anything about her late husband’s tastes. Edward thought she might be avoiding the subject because of Seth. But then, he didn’t say anything about his own family, either.
Seth asked a number of questions about what Edward did during the day, whether he had a dog, and whether Seth could ride his lawn mower. Edward explained that he taught history, he didn’t own a dog but he did like having George as a neighbor, and that if Seth was around the next time he took out the riding mower, he would let Seth steer it.
“As long as it’s okay with your mom,” Edward said, looking at Bella over of his glass of beer.
Suddenly self-conscious, Bella wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Seth, I think Mr. Cullen has answered enough of your questions,’ she chided her son gently.
“I don’t mind,” Edward responded, and while that was actually true, he realized might like to have Seth’s mother answer instead. He didn’t want to force anything, though.
Seth asked to be excused so he could play with his Legos. Edward offered to help clean up, and Bella asked him to put the perishables back in the refrigerator.
“How long have you been teaching?” She was scraping the plates and then stacking them for their trip to the dishwasher.
“Just about ten years. I started right out of college, in Olympia. When I got married, there was an opening here at Forks High. I’m from here, so we moved back,” he said.
Bella nodded. “What does your wife do?” she asked carefully.
“She’s an accountant in Port Angeles,” he replied, then added, “She lives there now.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, brief but genuinely sympathetic. “How long were you married?”
“Also nearly ten years.”
She bent over to load the dishwasher, which created a gap in the front of her shirt. Edward, who was standing next to her, was mesmerized. By the time he realized he should look away, she’d stood up, seemingly unaware of what had happened.
“Do you have any children?” she asked.
The leap from the first remotely sexual experience he’d had in ages to the source of his greatest pain was so enormous that Edward couldn’t respond. Bella saw his expression and a look of uncertainty, then horror crept over her own face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice now at high pitch. “I shouldn’t have asked-“
Edward closed his eyes and shook his head. “Don’t be. It’s hard to talk about, but I don’t mind that you asked.” He took another beer from her refrigerator, opened it and drank from the bottle, ignoring the glass.
She grabbed the wine and motioned to the table, taking her seat again. “You don’t have to say anything,” she said, looking at him with concern. She waited, letting him set the pace.
“You haven’t told me yet what you do. I assume you work?” Edward asked. He promised himself he’d get back to the other topic before the night was over.
Bella looked surprised at the change in subject but humored him. “I work at the NOAA station in La Push. I do climate studies.”
Edward looked at her with even greater interest. “That’s different.”
She gave a brief laugh. “I majored in environmental studies and did a lot of atmospheric research for my graduate thesis. I got interested in climate change, but I also know how to predict the weather.” She grinned and shrugged. “Always have something to fall back on, you know?”
“It can’t be that difficult to do weather forecasts here,” he said teasingly. He was anxious to ease the discomfort that still lingered over her earlier question. “Today: rain. Tomorrow: rain. Next week: precipitation. Is that why you came here?”
“No,” she said with exaggerated annoyance. “My dad’s here. He took a job with the police force when he and my mom divorced. He’s the chief now.”
Recognition slowly dawned on Edward’s face. “Of course. Chief Swan.”
Bella smirked. “Have you met up with him very often?”
He chuckled. “No, not like that. I just didn’t put your name with his. But I’ll bet he’s glad to have you and his grandson around.”
“I guess. He’s not a real talkative type, you know? He’s too much of a cop.” She shrugged, trying to look like she didn’t care. “I moved here to be closer to him and we hardly see him,” she said, with a short laugh.
Edward knew it wasn’t fair to bring up his next question considering that he’d just dodged one of hers. He couldn’t stop himself, though.
“What happened to your husband?” he asked quietly.
“He was stationed in Iraq. He died there,” she replied.
There were already enough “I’m sorries” exchanged this evening, and Edward believed repetition would dull the sentiment. He wanted his words to mean something.
“That’s really rough. Now it’s just you and Seth, and that’s so hard,” he said, feeling a strong well of emotion – for someone besides himself.
She caught the rasp of his voice and glanced at him swiftly. What she saw there - compassion, interest, no judgment - inspired honesty.
“He was a career Army guy stationed at Fort Wainwright in Alaska,” she said slowly. “I met him there when I was doing graduate field work. I was this gung-ho environmental type who wanted to get everyone to believe in global warming. And, of course, I was opposed to the war. He took that as a challenge.
“Logically, we never should have been together. But almost everything was a surprise when it came to Mike,” she said. “It was surprising that we were attracted to each other. It was a surprise that he asked me to marry him, and even more when I agreed. Getting pregnant was a surprise. Him wanting to go to Iraq – well, that was pretty much expected,” she said ruefully.
“And his death – it was a shock, but not a surprise.” Bell stopped, staring intently into her wine.
She’d answered enough. What else could she say? That she’d had longstanding doubts that ebbed and flowed through her almost from the start? There were probably many couples who could build a marriage on a platform of opposites attracting. She didn’t think she was the kind of woman – or wife – who could. She took everything so seriously. And right around the time she thought they should consider that everything had gone too far, she got pregnant. Shortly after Seth arrived, Mike was gone, and he never came back.
The guilt kept her from sorting through her feelings very often. It never did any good to believe that Mike would have gladly enlisted as many times as they’d have him, and the chances were always strong that he’d get killed. She always wound up thinking he deserved better from her before he left. He deserved a wife who was certain of his career and his beliefs. In other words, certain of him.
She snapped back to the present, where Edward sat looking at her intently but not pushing her to go on. “Don’t get me wrong; he gave me Seth, and I wouldn’t trade my son for anything,” she said emotionally. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
A look of deep pain shot across Edward’s face, and he glanced into the living room where Seth was absorbed in a movie. He began peeling the label off the bottle.
“We had a four-year-old daughter. She died a few years ago from a brain tumor,” he said simply. From across the table, he heard Bella draw in her breath. She extended her hand as if to touch his but left it on the table, waiting.
“We loved her more than anything. It was exactly as you said: she was the best thing that happened to us. Still the best thing that happened to me. But once we lost her, there wasn’t anything there to keep us together. Maybe there wasn’t anything really from the start, but we made her, and as long as we had her, there was love. And when she wasn’t, it was gone.”
Bella moved her hand further and lightly brushed his hand with her fingers.
“I don’t know. Maybe we just dated too long and drifted straight into marriage.” He looked at Bella, and she nodded her head in understanding. “I don’t know whether we would have split up if Katie was still here.”
He slumped back against the chair and tilted his head up so he was looking at the ceiling. “What I hate, and what kills me every day, was finding out this way. Maybe I would have had the marriage too if I’d had my daughter. Now I don’t have either.” His voice broke, and Bella saw his Adam’s apple moving, though he stopped speaking.
She didn’t say anything. When Edward lowered his head, he saw her crying. He almost told her not to, but he stopped. Her tears were a sign that he’d made a connection with someone for the first time in months. She was showing him that she knew what he felt, and that she understood. It was better than saying it with words.
He took her hand and turned it over, rubbing his fingers against her skin over and over again. He relished the warmth that passed from her palm to his own hand, which was chilled from the beer bottle. Edward finally threaded her fingers through his own, and they sat like this in a silence that felt more comfortable than he would have ever believed.
Edward was shoving clean towels into the laundry closet when the phone rang. Normally, the only calls he received were from his family or Tanya. He was surprised to see the caller ID list “NOAA.”
“Edward? It’s Bella,” she said, sounding frantic. “Look, I’m sorry to bother you, but I just got a call from Seth’s day camp. They had to close because there’s no electricity – some wiring problem - and they’re telling everyone to pick up their kids.” She hesitated, and Edward heard her quietly swear.
“I really hate to impose on you, but could you get him? I only started working here a couple of weeks ago. I can’t just leave!” His stomach tightened at what she was asking of him. Even so, he could hear the stress in her voice, and he sympathized with her plight.
It meant spending some time alone with Seth, and he wasn’t sure he was up for that. What could he do with a four year-old boy?
“Please. I’m so sorry to even ask. I’ll cook you dinner for a week,” she said, her attempt at levity completely undercut by her desperation. “I tried to reach Charlie, but he’s off on assignment somewhere. I really don’t know anyone else.” He could tell she was almost crying, and it was enough to overcome the last of his reluctance.
“All right. I’ll pick him up and stay with him until you’re home.”
She exhaled in a gush of air. “Oh my God, thank you so much. I mean, he knows you a little, so he’ll be okay with you. He’s got all his toys and DVDs . You can let George out of his crate and he’ll keep Seth busy, too.” She hesitated. “I wouldn’t have called you... I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I hope you’re okay with this… I mean, I’d never…”
Edward knew what she was saying, and there was no denying he was nervous about it, but there was no sense in letting on about that. It wouldn’t help her state of mind right now. She continued to babble apologies that made them both feel more awkward.
“Really, it’s all right,” he said gently, cutting her off. “Where is the camp located?”
Bella gave him a location down the block from Forks Elementary School and said she’d let the counselors know that they could release Seth to Edward’s care. She told him about the house key hidden under the eave by the side door, and gave him the exact location for the spare car seat in the basement. Now she was all orders and specificity, and this shift into mother mode touched Edward deeply. He remembered how important it was to be organized for a child’s well-being. It was part of what he missed so much. Surprised, he felt more warmth toward Bella for it, instead of the usual twist of grief in his gut.
He easily found the hidden key at Bella’s house and made a mental note to insist she put it somewhere more secure. When Edward arrived at the day camp, there were still about a half-dozen kids, clambering around the playground. Seth saw him from the top of the slide and waved enthusiastically while Edward feared for the boy’s balance. But he slid down effortlessly and ran to Edward, giving him an unexpected hug around his knees.
“Hey, Mr. Cullen! Why’re you here?”
“Your mom is really sorry, but she can’t leave work right now. She asked me to bring you home and stay with you until dinner,” Edward said carefully. He had no idea how Seth would react to his presence instead of his mother’s.
“Can I have a cookie and some milk when I go home? We didn’t have snack time here yet,” Seth asked.
Edward agreed before he remembered that he hadn’t cleared this with Bella, but he decided to take the blame for it. He signed Seth out of the camp, then belted him in the car seat and made sure it was secure. It was like a reflex that resurfaced after many years of dormancy, and he didn’t even have to think about it. Edward was pleased that he remembered it for Seth’s sake.
Seth ran in calling for George, who barked and banged against his crate in excitement.
“Should we take him for a walk?” Edward asked, fully aware of the absurdity of expecting a rational answer from a four year-old.
“Yup. He always needs to go out when we get home. C’mon, George!” Seth ran to the kitchen and grabbed the dog’s leash off a hook near the counter. After some intense negotiation over where George should be walked, Edward finally decreed that they’d follow the sidewalk to the end of the street and take a brief walk through the woods.
Seth reminded Edward that he was promised the snack he never got at camp. “I can wait until we’re back,” he said, scowling slightly, “but I want it when we get home. I want cookies.”
“You can have one.”
“No way! Just one?”
“I don’t know what your mom usually gives you, and I don’t want her getting angry with me for giving you too many snacks before dinner.”
“It’s okay!” Seth’s face brightened until Edward could practically see the light bulb going off on top of the boy’s head. “She usually lets me have, um, five! I get five cookies at camp, or at home.”
“I don’t think so, buddy.” The term of endearment slipped out before Edward was aware of it. If Seth thought it was odd, he didn’t show it. Edward raised his eyebrows at his own behavior and focused on the sidewalk while Seth held the leash and half-ran, half walked, with George trotting at his side.
Once they reached the woods, Seth insisted on climbing every large rock to see if he could make it to the top, where he’d stand with his arms out as if he was going to jump. Edward, hovering, remembered the feeling of wanting to let your child spread her wings, but not so much she’d get hurt. With true clarity, he recalled this fine line of parenting that got cut off too soon, and thought about how Bella felt it every day, all alone. She had no one to talk about it with, no one to help her reflect on the split-second decisions or back her up on the choices she made about her son. For the first time, he wondered whether that intensified the loneliness she must feel.
Seth bent down to inspect some bugs on a fallen tree, and Edward called to him so they could head back to the house. Surprisingly, he didn’t get much argument from the boy. He thought Seth would ask for something to eat, but as he unclipped the dog’s leash from his collar, Seth ran down the hall to his room.
He came out a few minutes later carrying a plastic bin with toy soldiers and animals. He dumped them on the floor and began arranging them in some order that wasn’t immediately obvious to Edward, though it seemed to make sense to Seth.
They were all different sizes. Edward saw he grouped together the plastic soldiers who were on horses, and also set up other toy horses near them.
“Do you like soldiers?”
Seth nodded. “ ‘Specially the ones on horses. I really like animals.” Incongruously, he tried to get a small stuffed camel to stand up by itself on the floor near the soldiers.
Edward picked one up. “It looks like this one is from the Civil War. Have you ever heard of that?”
Seth took a six-inch plastic dog that resembled George and set it beside other toy horses.
“Just a little. I know it’s an old war.”
Edward nodded at this accurate if unusual description. “Yes, it was. It took place about 150 years ago. I’m sure soldiers like these fought in that war,” he said, holding the toy in his hand.
Out of nowhere, Seth said, “My daddy died in a war.”
Edward inhaled sharply. “I know. I’m sorry about your dad. I’m sure he was very brave.” Seth didn’t reply, and he figured Seth’s thoughts of his father probably flitted in and out of his mind in the inconsistent way of a four year-old. He wondered how much Seth hurt over his father’s absence. Sadly, the boy probably didn’t remember him, and saw him only through his mother’s recollections.
“Did you know that horses were very important during the Civil War?” Edward waved the toy for emphasis. “The Army used them in battle and to move troops around. They used them to bring in food and water. If it wasn’t for horses, they wouldn’t have been able to do anything. There were no cars or tanks or anything like that.”
Seth looked at him with interest. “Did they have bombs?”
Edward shook his head. “No, not back then. They used other kinds of weapons.”
“Mommy said my daddy died from a bomb.” Seth plucked at the shoelace on his sneaker.
“I know. Bombs are horrible. They kill people, or they hurt them really bad,” Edward replied gently.
“Maybe if my dad fought in an older war, he wouldn’t have been killed.”
“Maybe,” Edward agreed, “but those older wars were way before your dad and mom were born, so your dad was way too young to be in one. They used guns back then too, but they also had cannons, which could shoot huge cannonballs. The cannonballs acted like bombs when they hit the ground.”
“What’s a cannon look like?”
Edward tried to describe it at a suitable preschool level but soon gave up. “Would you like to see a picture?”
Seth looked interested, if not excited. “Okay. Can we go now? I’ve never seen your house.”
Edward was about to respond when they heard Bella call out. “Hey guys! Where are you?”
“In here,” Edward called.
Seth looked at him accusingly. “You never gave me my snack. And now my mom’s home, and it’s close to dinner, so she won’t let me have it.”
Edward was reluctant to let this newly-developing friendship founder over his own forgetfulness, so he said, “Tell you what. If it’s okay with your mom, we’ll all get ice cream after dinner.”
Bella stopped as she was about to hang up her coat and looked at Edward as if to say, “Are you sure?”
Edward grinned and said, “We’ve had a pretty good afternoon together.”
She invited him to stay for dinner, and Edward found himself more comfortable in accepting. It was getting easier to say yes to Bella.
She took a London broil steak out of the refrigerator and was about to set up the broiler when Edward offered to fire up the grill. She looked at him in amusement and said, “I keep forgetting I have the darn thing. Thanks for reminding me.”
“Think you’ll ever use it on your own?”
She laughed. “As long as you’re here to help, why should I?” Bella blushed as she considered how that sounded. Edward enjoyed watching the light red tint creep up from her neck to the middle of her cheeks.
“I’m going to run home to pick up a book on the Civil War for Seth. I’ll be right back.”
Seth got through about half of the pictures in the book before declaring that he was starving. Over dinner, they discussed the options available at Forks’ ice cream shop. As Bella instructed Seth to get his jacket, Edward realized that the last time he’d been there was with Kate and Tanya. He wondered if he’d bit off more than he could chew right now, but then he saw Bella eyeing Seth’s toys on her living room floor, and her face softened in a slow, sweet smile. She lit up at her son’s creativity, and she looked lovely.
When Bella rose to get a hoodie, she didn’t see her own grin mirrored on Edward’s face. She pulled her arm through a sleeve but it got stuck, and she huffed in annoyance. Chuckling, Edward came up behind her to help.
He gently pulled on the sleeve until it straightened out, and watched as she guided her arm through properly. When her fingertips edged out, he grasped them and tugged at the hem of the sleeve until it sat properly around her wrist. None of this was necessary, of course, but Edward was enjoying touching Bella, and standing so close to her.
She turned her head to her side but dipped her chin down, looking at the floor instead of at the man behind her. Bella’s hair was tucked inside the sweatshirt. Edward lifted it out, slowly raking his fingers through it. He couldn’t remember ever feeling anything that was so soft and so thick at the same time.
Not really sure what came next, Edward put his hands on Bella’s shoulders. She slowly moved them off, and Edward thought at first he’d offended her, but then he realized she was turning around to face him. There were questions in her eyes even as she seemed to know he needed her patience. He was grateful for that.
He gently touched the sides of her face, still a little hesitant. A few stubborn strands of her bangs stuck out from her forehead, so he brushed them aside. Bella closed her eyes and hummed softly at his touch, and it was enough to make him feel braver.
What would it be like to kiss someone different? Edward didn’t want to think about Tanya right now, but he couldn’t help it. All those years of being with one woman was too much history, especially for a history teacher.
But he had another woman in front of him now, and he wanted to kiss her. He wanted to find out how Bella would feel. Was kissing like riding a bike, where you never forgot how? Even if it was the first time with another person? He couldn’t help fretting about that.
Before he lost his nerve or Bella lost her patience, Edward leaned in and closed his eyes. Her lips were warm, vital, and very receptive. They moved slowly, not aggressively, giving him more time. She was helping him remember.
He gently captured her lower lip between both of his and enjoyed the feel of it, of the lushness that was at first strange but then quickly became very familiar. Bella moved her mouth to kiss him back, pressing her lips more firmly against his. He remembered the enjoyment of something so soft yet so hard at the same time, and when Bella sighed, he committed to memory the sound and the feel of this new woman. He liked her noises.
It was a simple kiss, and it was enough – for now. It had to be; they heard Seth bounding back down the hall, calling to Bella that he’d found a long-lost stuffed animal.
Unaware of anything else, Seth grabbed them both around their knees in a hug as big as four year-old arms could accommodate. “Come on, you guys! I want ice cream!”
Edward smiled again as he extricated himself from Seth’s grip. “I think we’ve received our marching orders.” He held out his hand to Bella, as much a question as an offer.
She nodded and grabbed it. “Yup. It’s time.”
* * *