"I don't understand why you--No, let me correct myself. I can't understand--No, I choose not to understand why you won't."
Bella stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the exasperated plea coming from her equally distraught friend.
"I don't want to date," the silent and implied ' again' spurred her to continue, "plus, I'm only eighteen, so I have time, right? No need for a dating app." A flurry of motions indicated that her friend most likely moved the computer. Bella jumped when their face came into view way closer than she'd expected. "Yet," she added for good measure.
"Jesse, I appreciate your offer, but I'm good." It sounded flat even to her ears, so she qualified it. "I promise, bitch." Bella tensed as the word slipped. She realized they'd never discussed in detail if her preferred term of endearment for them was still alright. Before she could backtrack and dig herself into a deeper hole, Jesse smiled at her.
" I missed you, loser." Bella struggled to maintain her composure at the change in conversation. "It's weird how my messages didn't go through. I swear I tried to--."
Bella shook her head, "Really, Jesse. It's alright and absolutely my fault for assuming the worst. I could've been more understanding, at least before I moved."
" How were you supposed to know I had a crush on you and also wanted you to come back to Pheonix?" They shrugged their shoulders indifferently. "I also am glad you didn't get the message because I seriously went full confessions and asked you out practically." They chuckled nervously.
Bella nodded in understanding because they were right, as always. She had a terrible habit of ghosting people when too overwhelmed. While her mind trailed and her memory, Bella's sight landed on the clock above the stove. She stood in a panic, "fuck, I have to get to work."
They waved goodbye as they blew her a kiss through the screen. "Bye, missed you, and I cannot stress this enough but the joy that face timing with you again brings me salvaged this semester."
Bella hung up before speeding down the steps and out of the house in a flurry of motions. She double-checked her pockets as she walked out the door, only to run smack into her dad.
" Mija, watch where you're going." She gasped as the air failed to meet her lungs.
"Sorry," she managed to get out, "late for work."
He nodded and helped pick up her dropped granola bar from the ground. Her dad gently patted her back as if to comfort her, but it came off more sarcastic than anything. "Well, good luck, I guess." Then proceeded to step around her and shut the door behind him. She shook her head and hurried to work.
The holidays hurt more than people let on to believe, and in Bella's case, maybe more so considering that she tasted happiness on New Year's eve a year ago.
Bella spent the holiday with her dad watching a hand-selected assortment of films. It helped a lot in distracting her and comforting her—the nonverbal love language they adopted persevering at moments like those. Her dad's affection and humor evolved more to accommodate her better.
"I'm so sorry, Mike!" She called without looking up as soon as she burst through the front doors.
"It's cool." Bella spun toward the voice, and a smile broke out across her face. "I covered his shift today." Lauren stood behind the counter, leaning on it for support. "And a good thing I did."
"Before you even say it, I'm never late." She placed her book bag on the counter and leaned in to kiss Lauren's cheek in greeting. "But I am super grateful you're here. Mike would just tease me the entire time." Lauren giggled at the comment but remained quiet on the subject. Bella glanced down and zeroed in on the ring dangling from her neck.
She gasped scandalously. "What is this?" Bella caught the ring in her fingers and scanned the design. A smooth sterling silver band with slight floral additions reflected the lights beautifully.
Lauren looked away shyly as she allowed Bella to examine the jewelry. "Stacey bought it for me." She shrugged nonchalantly, and Bella swallowed the knot in her throat at the blush on her friend's features.
She knew that look very well. Once upon a time, Bella loved to see it on everyone, but now she wasn't sure what she felt. So she sucked it up and awed in support of her friend. Just because she suffered through a breakup doesn't mean others will too or that they deserve cynicism from her, but it didn't stop the slight sting.
"Lauren, this is too damn cute." She gently let it go from her clasped fingers. Words of assurance flew from her mouth, and she tried to stop them because who were they for? "I'm so happy for you." She fought back her wince as the words rang across the small space.
Although she meant them, people looked at her differently. Too afraid to show happiness or emphasizing gentleness in their PDA, Bella felt shitty.
She vividly recalled a friend of her dad's journey to sobriety, how her dad and others refused to drink or even speak about alcohol in front of him.
The only thing on her mind that she was that recently sober friend.
Embarrassment flooded her. A break up does not equate to sobriety. So then and there, Bella decided exposure was best for her because staring at Lauren, she realized how terrible of a friend she'd been to every one.
"I can't wait to meet Stacey." Lauren looked surprised.
"I can ask her to join our next movie night." She asked with a slight question. Bella nodded with a genuine smile.
'Fake it 'till you make it, right?' Bella thought as she helped restock the shelves.
Lauren looked over her shoulder with a blinding smile, and Bella felt better. The look, almost nostalgic, eased the tension in her body—a promise of something she can hopefully attain again on her own without Leah or any person, genuine delight.
The rest of their shift passed by smoothly. Bella's side hurt from their sporadic laughter, enough that all that came out towards the end sounded like wheezes.
That evening when she sat down for dinner, her dad hesitantly asked her what her plans were after graduation. And she didn't have an answer because for the longest time, getting to live long enough to graduate had remained her goal. As morbid as it sounded, she'd outlived her expectations and felt grossly unprepared.
Not to mention her first-ever serious relationship ended just as soon as she'd envisioned a future for them.
"I'm not sure. I applied to some places." She pushed the rice around on her plate. "I'm not even sure what I want to do with my life."
Her dad's look made her nervous for a moment when she suddenly understood what it meant. It was empathy, understanding that covered his aging features. "You don't need a purpose to enjoy life. Whatever you choose estoy orgulloso de ti, but don't be lazy. Please, Nena that's all I ask."
A week later, Bella decided to go hiking. It came to her randomly during her routine chores when she went to take the trash outside, and she noticed the uncharacteristically nice weather for a change. She packed her bag and donned her boots.
Leah sent her a message detailing her excuse, but Bella rolled her eyes when she understood what it meant. Leah wanted to stay in and watch television.
So boots strapped, jacket zipped, Bella drove to the trail.
The moss-covered roots and wildlife absorbed her within moments of entering the trail. Sounds blended, creating a song of nature. Bella lost herself in the moment. No thoughts, just existing.
It was serene.
The only word to describe the moment, balanced.
Until she felt the familiar sensation of eyes on her, and she snapped out of her meditative like state instantly. No reservations, Bella launched into a stream of curses and pent up anger.
"Honestly, fuck off! Why do you all insist on following me? I'm the worst person to follow or obsess over. There's legit nothing to see, for fucks sake."
Silence greeted her alongside an unnaturally stilled forest.
She stifled her bitter laugh. "Hello???" Throwing her hands up, she screamed. "It's like yelling at myself and feeling stupid or crazy for knowing this is happening. Is your goal to make me lose it?"
She waited a moment but signed in resignation. She moved to grab her bag and leave when a voice carried across the trail.
"Who are you yelling at?"
Bella's eyes widened at the unfamiliar voice from behind her. She spun on her heels and came face to face with an unknown young woman.
Wait, she narrowed her eyes in concentration and gasped when she recognized the girl's familiar features.
"What are you doing here?" She sputtered out after minutes of silence.
The black-haired girl shrugged indifferently. "Heard a bunch of yelling. Came to see what it was before ignoring it." She smiled. "Glad I did because if I do recall, you owe me a phone number."
Bella felt her hair prickle on the back of her neck. "No, what are you doing here?" She doubled down on the question; her eyes darted around to see her exit routes. Bella tried to keep her busy while she thought of a plan. "I don't even know your name."
A smile formed on full lips, and Bella gasped when brown eyes turned red. Her heart dropped in horror, but also at the realization that Vampires could possess different colored eyes.
And she thought she had it all down pat.
Teeth glistened, and Bella zeroed in on the slightly larger canines. "Everyone calls me something different, but you?" She watched as a tongue darted out to moisten her red lips. "You can call me Maria."
Bella's heart raced because she knew it was over. She couldn't outrun her or try to pretend she didn't know about vampires.
Bella's voice dripped with disdain, "Okay, Maria. Get on with it." Red eyes narrowed, taking in her visibly deflated posture.
Black brows creased in confusion after a few seconds. "You're...not afraid." Maria appeared in front of her faster than she expected, but she proudly avoided flinching. "You know?"
The silence, deafening in its presence, left the pair on edge. The wind ceased, and the air lacked potency. Bella waited on bated breath for her next course of action.
"I knew there was something special about you." She stepped forward, closer to her. "Your eyes never strayed from me like you were analyzing me. Your body tensed, but I assumed it was a natural reaction to a stranger, but no. You know more than others."
Bella, unwilling to show fear, nodded firmly. "So what?" She asked bitingly as possible. "Are you going to report me to the authorities?" Bella knew taunting a vampire with sarcasm would only bite her in the ass, but her only other option was to die without a fight.
"I could, but why would I if I'm also on the run."
"Wait. What?" Bella asked, genuinely caught off guard by the offhand remark.
Maria played with a strand of her silky black hair while visibly mulling over her next words. "Why do you smell like that?"
Before Bella could muster up a response to the woman, her phone rang in her pocket. She looked to gauge her reaction. Maria waved her hand in permission. Any other time, Bella would've scoffed and rolled her eyes alongside a snide remark, but she chose to hold off on her instinctual reaction.
Unavailable flashed across the screen, Bella typically never answered phone calls unless she recognized the number, but it seemed too well placed.
"Hello?" Bella tentatively spoke into the phone.
"They're on their way and almost there, don't panic, Bella." The line went dead, and her mouth dropped. Alice's voice carried into her ear, and that meant some of them were coming. What that meant she didn't want to find out, not then, now, or ever. Bella frantically gathered herself to get back to her car.
"I'll find you later."
Bella spun back to ask her what she meant, but the vampire disappeared before that could happen. She walked in silence, schooling her emotions, and getting her story together. Sudden gusts of wind notified her of their entrance.
A mess of bronze hair invaded her line of sight, but she looked forward, intending to walk through him. He had other plans, and so did the auburn-haired woman beside him. "Bella, what happened?" Edward frantically searched her for injuries or anything out of place.
On her right, a hand threaded through her fingers, halting her in place. The cool marble feeling upset her enough that she ripped her hand away without remorse. Even staring at the matronly figure she bonded to more than with her own mom and seeing her saddened features, she couldn't care less.
"Alice said she saw a nomad--" Edward looked beyond stressed as he cut himself off from finishing. He looked around wildly, and Bella noticed his eyes a deep black color.
That's when it clicked for her. Maria's eyes were bright red, which meant she held not mal intent, right? Bella wracked her memory for the tidbits of information the family granted her worthy of knowing.
"Can you tell us what happened?" Esme's voice brought her out of her thoughts. "You look overwhelmed. Did they hurt you? Do you know where the vampire went?"
"Esme, I can't get a scent." Edward's frantic voice cracked near the end.
Bella decided then to risk the off chance the woman would kill her. "There was another girl on the trail, and she left earlier..." Bella rolled her eyes for added effect. The sensation of payback felt beautiful as it rolled around her stomach. "I'm gonna go now." She moved to leave, but Edward frantically stopped her again.
"Bella, I saw the vision." She avoided his stare because she knew her face would give it away. "Her eyes were red, and her appearance looked like a traditional vampire."
Bella's smile took over her face before she could stop it. She looked up and stared into his eyes as her lips morphed into a smirk. "What are you talking about? Are you alright?" Bella's stomach twisted in delight at their faces. Her satisfaction building at the role reversal taking place, making them out to be making stuff up.
"I'm going to go now." She said as she mustered up her best attempt at a bewildered expression.
She casually strolled to her car and smirked at the feel of freedom. The lack of eyes on her person evident as she got into her car. No shivers, no hair standing, and no goosebumps, she smiled into the review mirror.
Bella drove home, and the closer she reached her destination, the more unsettled she became. The veil of satisfaction receding from her body every mile. When she parked in front of her house, she realized she had not paid attention to the drive at all. The euphoric high plummetted, leaving her trembling in confusion. On autopilot, she left her car.
Discarding her clothes and changing into sleepwear, Bella buried herself in the covers. Her chest heaved, and the weight of her day crashed down on her in the rapidly darkening room. She watched from an opening in the blankets as the darkness swallowed the remaining light. Every breath came and went with an infrequency that frightened her. Nausea rolled around in her abdomen.
She heard the loud sounds her dad made on the steps, the sound of him opening the door to check on her, and the sequential cracking of a beer from downstairs. Yet, she just rolled onto her side and brought her legs up to her chest, sinking deeper into the embrace of the mattress beneath her. A ringing in her ear started softly and gradually rose into a loud thudding in her head.
Looking back, Bella should've known she'd overestimated her ability to pretend she was over it, but the aftermath helped solidify her actual emotional health. Avoiding the thought of them did, in theory, help, but in practice, it did little for her.
Better, but not at all over it, Bella fell asleep hours later.