I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Still days from the occasion I dreaded, I couldn’t help the bitter chuckle that escaped at the memory of the verse. The words pierced my cold, dead heart. No such fortune had been bestowed upon me. My so-called peace on earth consisted of an eternity of uninviting solitude, wedged mockingly into a perfectly paired family. “Good-will to men,” didn’t the poem articulate? I snorted at the irony in such words.
As frozen as the icy ground I rested upon, I listened warily to the sounds of scurrying feet nearby. In the brush, a tiny chipmunk gathered grains, preparing for the harsh season. Squirrels leapt from branch to branch, hoping to score their next acorn. A few hundred feet away, a doe tenderly nudged her fawn forward, accurately sensing the ominous danger I had been sentenced to inflict. Even miles away from civilization, I couldn’t find the isolation I so desperately desired.
As had become a recent ritual every evening, I had made my escape to the deep forests of beautiful Washington. Rain, sleet, or snow, I sought the desolate and dying vegetation, methodically counting the leaves as they fell one by one. Each one seemed to bury me deeper into my dereliction, often times in the literal meaning. I watched the swirl of reds and ambers floating above. How quickly their colors turned, yet season after season I remained unchanged. Nearly a century had passed since my last change, a permanent undoing that would seal my fate forever, condemning me infinitely to sleepless nights.
You can’t hide out here forever, Edward! Emmett’s thoughts yelled—as if the distance affected hearing his mind or his already booming voice.
“I’m right here, Emmett. And yes, I can.”
Too late in catching his menacing plan, my shoulders slumped in defeat, awaiting the shower of pine needles he had thrown at my back. The tiny needles sprayed my jacket, pricking the delicate fabric—Alice would not be happy—before shattering against the marble skin below. I shook the annoying pieces from myself and turned to my brother. I didn’t even bother to erase the boredom from my face, nor did he with triumph.
“Actually, you can’t. School starts in an hour,” he reminded, tossing another needle at me which I caught keenly between two fingers.
With a heavy sigh, I flicked the pine needle, embedding it perfectly into a thick layer of ice, and lifted myself to leave my agreeable isolation.
Emmett chatted while we walked—well, running at human speed would have better described it. He talked animatedly about the latest bet he’d made with Jasper. I pretended to listen, still disinterring myself from the depression, but vaguely caught something about a grizzly bear, tube socks, and air freshener. It sounded like something from an episode of McGyver.
The family was in its usual full swing at the house, which didn’t say much for a houseful of immortals. Esme hummed quietly as she flipped through swatches of fabric, dreaming up her latest upholstery design for the sofas. Carlisle was hidden behind a castle of books. Jasper and Alice huddled around the computer. Upstairs, Rosalie admired herself in the mirror as usual.
Esme smiled warmly at me as I walked through the door, and I was sure I caught a glimpse of pity. I knew it pained her to see me feeling so dejected. Without hesitation, I sped past her, touching her arm in acknowledgment, and ran up the stairs.
Too late, Edward. I already know about the jacket, Alice thought smugly.
“Talk to Emmett.” With one swift movement, I slipped out of the frayed jacket, tossing it into the trash.
Images of baby blue flooded her mind and I smirked silently. “You can return that as soon as it arrives,” I muttered.
“I already did,” Alice chimed, appearing at my side. As she normally did when she was trying to hide something from me, she mentally translated the Emancipation Proclamation—this time in German.
I raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“It’s your Christmas present, silly. Do you really think I’d let you see it?”
“Great,” I spat.
Linking her arm through mine, she steered me toward the closet she’d generously stocked over the years. She held up a gray knit sweater to me and smiled proudly. “Perfect,” she gleamed. She draped the sweater over my shoulder and skipped gracefully to the drawer full of shirts, her feet barely touching the ground.
“You know, Edward,” she breathed as she fingered the array of cottons, “your disappearing acts every winter are really becoming rather boring. And you know that Esme hates it when you leave her like that.”
And I hated talking about it. Year after year, the same conversation arose. I knew it could be avoided by feigning cheer for the season, but I could never seem to motivate myself enough to sing the ridiculous carols or fake the giddy foolishness otherwise known as “Christmas spirit.” I didn’t expect my family to understand. How could they? They had something to look forward to, a sense of purpose in the holidays that this so-called life had cruelly excluded from me. Each one was perfectly matched to their mate. They shared smiles meant only for each other, secrets, and nights cuddled up by the fire. I was the only one cursed to hear their silent adorations, cursed to watch their love grow exponentially for eternity while I stood to the side in numbing loneliness.
“Yes, I do know,” I murmured. “You remind me every year.”
I felt guilty separating myself from my family, especially Esme. I knew that my mother, for all intents and purposes, feared what had only been proven true my entire existence: I would die a lonesome man. If I could die, I added bitterly. Or if I were a man for that matter. If I hadn’t been able to hear her thoughts, I would’ve suspected she was making a mental tally of my lonely, single days. Alas, my family didn’t recognize the favor I granted them by not subjecting them to my own misery.
Hearing the sting in my voice, my favorite sister grabbed my hand, placing in it a neatly folded white t-shirt. I won’t bring it up again, she promised silently. “Here. Now get dressed so we can go. It’s the last day before winter break. I was thinking we could go to Seattle tonight. I want to buy Jasper another present, and I need you to figure out what he wants, since he won’t tell me.”
“You already know what he wants.”
“No, I know what I’m giving him. There’s a difference. I’ve changed my mind a hundred times but I still can’t see the perfect reaction that I’m looking for when he opens it,” she spoke quickly.
I sighed, the resentment settling over me again. “Another night, Alice. I’m not up for it."
“Too bad. The others are leaving already.” She was right; I could hear Rosalie fingering the keys to her flashy convertible in the garage. “You and I will ride together so we can go right after school.”
“You are so…” I fought for the right word.
“Clever and loveable?”
She left me to my privacy to change into fresh clothes and tidy myself for my tedious human role. A few minutes later we arrived at the high school, deftly pulling into the space next to our siblings.
The day carried on as normal. Despite working at a begrudgingly slow pace to keep up with appearances, I had finished each mid-year exam early, leaving me with over half an hour in each class to search Jasper’s thoughts. By lunch time, gifts still hadn’t crossed his mind, let alone Christmas. He was so intently focused on Alice, worshipping her in a way that only fueled my self-loathing.
We filed into the lunchroom, grabbing trays of food that would remain untouched. Our usual table sat empty; the children shied away from us, surely their innate survival skills at work.
The buzzing of non-stop mental chatter was in full force as the students of Forks High were anxious for their winter vacation to begin. The drone of thoughts tipped the scale of irritation, weighing in at an all-time high. They silently made lists of gifts that they still needed to get for family and friends or that they desperately hoped would be under their trees. Some counted the days until they would see a distant relative, while others prayed for snow on Christmas day.
“Ben Cheney wants a car for Christmas. He’s still daydreaming about your BMW, Rose,” I sneered.
“Ha!” she snorted, her tone matching mine. “Fat chance.”
Alice elbowed me in the ribs. “You two are terrible. Edward, be nice,” she chided. “Besides, I saw his dad in town the other day and he’s getting the car. Not an M3, of course. But a car, nonetheless.”
I felt a tinge of guilt at her words. When had I become The Grinch?
How are they going to get that under the tree? Emmett mused.
“Did Rose put your Jeep under the tree?” A smile threatened at the corners of my lips. Only Emmett’s childlike naivety could entertain me enough to challenge the seemingly frozen frown my face held during the holidays.
Oh. Right. If he could’ve blushed, his face would’ve been crimson.
Sensing his embarrassment, Jasper broke into laughter.
“Hmm. A car… I hadn’t thought of that,” Alice whispered to herself, her voice too low for human ears. She quickly flipped through her memories, recalling the Saleen S7 he had admired online a few months ago.
We shook our heads simultaneously as Jasper’s thoughts discounted the idea and Alice’s images disappointed—apparently the goofy grin she envisioned plastered on his face did not satisfy her.
“Alice…” he warned, his laughter quickly fading.
She playfully waved off his pointing finger and pouted. “Well, you won’t tell me!”
“You’ve bought enough gifts for me.”
“Only because I haven’t found the right one.”
Jasper gazed at her pouting ruby lips, mesmerized, and slipped, briefly revealing pieces of the mystery. He threw his hands over his eyes, acknowledging his error. “Don’t,” he said curtly, undoubtedly meant for me. I didn’t know which amused me more: his torment over his mate’s obsessive gift-giving or his one-word remarks.
Alice bounced in her chair excitedly, clasping her hands in anticipation of the clue to her unsolved puzzle. I made a face, indicating I didn’t have much to offer. Jasper’s slip was vague, full of missing pieces. I wasn’t sure that I could accurately determine his revelation. Alice’s face fell, but she remained resolved.
Rosalie stood, bored, and dumped her uneaten food in the trash. Emmett followed closely behind. They never had much patience for these secret conversations between Alice and me.
A few hours later, Alice and I parted ways from our siblings, speeding off toward the city. As we drove, I explained the fragments I had been able to pick up from Jasper; they had been mostly colors, and I couldn’t seem to connect them.
“I caught an image of the sky, light blue, very few clouds. It seemed like art.”
“A painting? Jasper’s not into art,” she deliberated. Her thoughts raced a mile per minute, which she vocalized instantly. “I mean, he appreciates a nice oil still life now and then, but he’s definitely no connoisseur like you or Carlisle. We went to the Louvre in Paris a few years ago…”
I listened to her prattle on, recounting their honeymoon in France, more to herself than to me. Stories of starlit lovers had not been on my agenda that day. I would’ve rather reread William Wordsworth’s love letters—at least I didn’t know him or Mary personally; I could pretend they were fictional characters in a fictitious world where true love actually existed for someone even like me.
Only once did she interrupt herself, sharing some insignificant tidbit of gossip about a new girl moving to town next semester, to which I replied indifferently.
Night settled upon us early as we arrived in Seattle. The melancholy nearly swallowed me whole as I watched couples strolling arm in arm along the piers lined with shimmering lights and garland. Smoke billowed from chimney tops; the smells of burning wood launched me straight away into human memories buried deep within. The rustling of shopping bags filled with gift-wrapped packages and tissues scampered all around. Peace seemed to emanate from all directions except from within.
We walked in silence as I envied our would-be prey—how easily they loved. I had often scowled at their love, detesting how they mathematically traded one romance for another, as if y equaled x, the affection of one as replaceable as the next. But once a year I was reminded “‘tis better to have loved cruelly and selfishly than to roam the earth eternally lonely”. It wasn’t a perfect transcript of the old adage, but it suited me fine.
Alice continued to probe for more clues but I wasn’t much help. I attempted to describe a flash of orange I had glimpsed from Jasper earlier, only to be pushed into a boutique, picking colors from a large wall of candles. The overpowering scents of cinnamons, berries, and lavenders—vanilla conquering them all—stung my eyes and throat. A pumpkin spice votive was the closest I could find, and Alice huffed again at the riddle. I ran through a list of eighteenth century paintings, none matching the lush blue and gingery tones of Jasper’s image.
I left my sister in the good company of boughs, poinsettias, and other holiday knick-knacks, and wandered to a small second-hand music shop a few blocks away. The calm spread through me before I had even consciously realized it. Music was my haven, my devout companion. The soothing sounds of Joseph Haydn played from overhead speakers, each note rhythmically kneading out the imaginary knots in my back.
The tiny store had the appearance of an attic more than a business. A mound of used guitars and saxophones leaned carelessly in the corner, dusty pianos lined the walls, and stacks of music sheet littered the floor.
I made my way to a large bookshelf crammed with musical compilations whose cataloguing had been undoubtedly overlooked through the years. I fingered the tattered books, recognizing a number of classical composers. I had memorized most of their works, but seeing the notations on paper warmed my cold heart.
I didn’t even hear the door. Quiet fellow…
The shopkeeper emerged from the back room, tripping over a broken violin. His thoughts were unusually simple, muted by a deafening overture. He replayed the number in his head so loudly, he wouldn’t have heard the door if I had shattered the triple-paned glass with my bare fist.
“Well hello, friend.” His voice was kind and strained with age. He wore thick glasses on the brim of his nose.
I smiled at the old man, careful not to show my teeth. Frightening someone into cardiac arrest would certainly not lighten my mood.
“Are you looking for Christmas music? I have a nice assortment near the window.”
“No. I’m…. not quite the Christmas type. Thank you though.”
The old man shrugged. “Well, Hanukkah then. I believe I have a copy of Sevivon somewhere around here.”
“Nor Hanukkah,” I chuckled.
Let him browse, Harry, the old man scolded to himself. He hobbled over to a worn set of strings, deliberating which to tune first.
My eyes returned to the old shelf where I randomly began plucking books. I came across a glossy bind and began to return it to its place, expecting to disregard it immediately—contemporary piano music rarely held my interest—but stopped myself. The modern-looking cover depicted a nineteenth century grand piano dumped on a beach. A woman stood mournfully next to the instrument, her daughter gazing at her wistfully.
The book flipped open on its own to the beginning of the last composition. I examined the pages, wrinkled and ragged in the corners. I imagined the original owner violently turning the pages to keep up with the music. Staff after staff, the song was filled with a continuum of arpeggios. I noted the time signature and markings throughout.
“Sempre cantabile,” I murmured.
Hearing me, the old man looked up from his task and nodded agreeably at my finding. “Ah yes. The Piano. Excellent movie.”
I blinked in surprise. “Movie?”
I never was much of a moviegoer, but surely I would have noticed a film with “piano” in the title.
“Yes. Michael Nyman wrote a lovely score, very compelling. I might have the soundtrack somewhere if you’d like to hear it.” He left his perch immediately, not waiting for an answer.
His ears rang silently with an unfamiliar tune. I stared at the book in my hands, noticing that while the last song had been battered relentlessly, the remaining pages appeared untouched. I wondered if the user had revered the same song the shopkeeper hummed, and I was able to quickly match the notes.
I sat at the nearest upright piano and caressed the yellowing ivory. I struck a few keys, the sound resonating nicely. The tuning was pitchy, but had a nostalgic antique quality that I found quite pleasant.
I listened to the music in the old man’s head again, trying to find the right measure in the notations in front of me. I was thankful when he started over—he was having difficulty finding the CD.
My hands moved gently along the keys, the right working a little harder to bring out the hidden melody. It was a beautiful piece. It reminded me of a modern Bach. Midway through, the refrain turned abruptly dark and foreboding, representing a struggle. I admired the composer immediately for his harmonic storytelling. The music slowly returned to a lighter but powerful sentiment, and I felt the triumph over the struggle. It ended the same way it began, trailing off with a hint of restored peace.
So enraptured by the arrangement, I hadn’t even noticed the shopkeeper’s return. He stood behind me, his thoughts mottled by shock and awe.
“Uh…” was all he managed to squeak. He sat a scratchy copy of the soundtrack absent-mindedly on the counter.
“You were right. It is very lovely,” I smiled weakly. “I’d like to purchase it.”
The old man wiped his brow with a threadbare handkerchief. “You’re an outstanding sight-reader.”
“Hardly. It’s written in the key of C. But you’re very kind,” I said modestly.
I stood from the piano, cradling my newfound treasure, and walked toward the counter. The man remained frozen, staring at the bench I’d just abandoned.
It took me two years to master that piece and I’ve been playing for over fifty years. I winced at his thought and immediately regretted discounting the difficulty of the key.
“But it’s a two-handed arpeggio without a single rest,” he gaped, demoralized.
My regrets began to include having played at all. I’d selfishly relieved my own discomfort at the expensive of this poor man’s self-worth.
The old man shook his head resiliently and sauntered behind the counter. His fingers stabbing at the ancient register, he rang up the purchase silently, eyeing me with curiosity. I looked away, slightly embarrassed, pretending to have found interest in some tacky key chains piled up in a tiny basket.
“Don’t give up, young lad,” he spoke without thinking.
Shocked, I glanced back at him. His eyes had turned softer than I thought possible, peering at me with familiar sadness through his outdated glasses.
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
A warm and crooked smile flickered across his face. He shrugged nonchalantly. His thoughts were wordless, filled with laughter and embraces exchanged with a quaint and elderly woman.
“You know,” he pondered, “I lived sixty years before I found my first and last true love. I never thought she existed.” His eyes twinkled at the memory of her. “Thankfully, I was wrong.”
He held out my bag and change silently. I took them gently, my eyes never leaving his. At a loss for words, I turned slowly toward the exit.
Music sheet fluttered in the cool breeze as I opened the door. I stopped myself mid-stride, pursing my lips, and turned back to the old man.
“Thank you,” I breathed.
I headed back to find my sister, picking out constellations in the navy sky as I dissected the old man’s words. I quickly decided I had reminded him of his younger days, striking a chord of longing.
I found Alice mulling over tree toppers, her shopping cart overflowing with tinsel and other decorations. She caught sight of me through the window.
You look… different, she mused, inspecting my demeanor.
My palms turned upward, indicating I didn’t know what she meant—surely one simple man couldn’t have bested my depression.
I entered the store, cringing at the piney smell of wreaths and mistletoe. She held up two delicate angels, prompting a selection. I rolled my eyes and grabbed them both, throwing them onto the heap in the cart.
Well, something is different. Something is changing.
“Is that what the crystal ball shows?” I asked sarcastically.
She swatted playfully at my arm. “Someday, Edward, you won’t question me. You’ll see.”