At dusk, the sun goes down in a haze of red fire between two poplars. […]
Then everything falls away.
The world for a little longer
is something to see, then only something to hear, […]
Then sleep takes this away also. […]
I open my fingers—
I let everything go.
When Bella Swan opened her eyes, something was different. Static filled her head and shrieked in her ears. She heard her alarm clock ringing, distantly, and someone (Charlie?) was shouting from miles away. Had she overslept again? Rolling her head to the side, she blinked away the red glow that pulsed at the edge of her vision. Bella pushed herself into a seated position, frowning at the chill of wet asphalt under her palms. She must have fallen, then – hit her head and knocked herself out, maybe. It was bound to happen eventually, and the black ice that coated the school parking lot hadn’t done her clumsiness any favors. She certainly felt like she’d hit her head, she thought, glaring into the distance where hazy figures darted back and forth, bathed in flashes of red and amber light. The ringing in her ears resolved into the steady high-pitched drone of sirens; Bella spotted a ring of pale police cars parked nearby, warning lights blaring, huddled around one red-and-white striped ambulance with its doors flung wide open.
She scraped her oversized jacket off the ground and put it on, pulling it tight across her chest as she stood. Stumbling over her numb feet, Bella tried to call out but her voice dissolved into hacking coughs. “Hey,” she croaked. It felt like she’d swallowed sand, her tongue thick and rubbery just like after she’d had her wisdom teeth removed last year. Her head felt just as fuzzy now as it had waking up post-surgery, her mouth stuffed full with dry cotton-balls and blood. Faceless strangers rushed past her, the reflective stripes on their dark blue uniform pants gleaming amber and red. Bella cleared her throat – “Hey!” she said again, louder this time. No one looked up. A crowd of students circled like carrion crows around two nearby cars. The first car’s front wheels were buckled inward, pigeon-toed from the force of the crash, the headlights shattered, the bonnet peeled back at one corner to reveal the sparking viscera underneath the hood. The rear wheels had been pushed over the parking lot’s edge and onto the grass, gouging two parallel trenches in the turf. At a glance, the wreck was unrecognizable as anything but scrap-metal in the vague shape of a truck; it had been cordoned off with white and yellow tape, abandoned save for a few on-lookers and a lone white-gloved photographer snapping picture after picture of the carnage.
The second car – a blue van – was the better-off of the two by far, lying toppled on its side with one missing door and a deep gash across the van’s nose. A few blue uniforms were crouched in the space between the van’s up-turned wheels, reaching into the dark crater where the driver’s side door had been. As Bella watched, a body emerged from the wreckage, a curl of splayed limbs that was carefully unfolded onto a gurney and rolled away. A boy broke away from the watching crowd and rushed the ambulance – “Tyler!” he shouted. “Tyler! Oh fuck,” he choked. It was Mike, his tear-tracked cheeks burning bright red. A grim-faced Eric grabbed his arms, restraining him as Tyler was fed through the doors of a waiting ambulance; even from yards away, Bella could see his body seizing, his legs jittering and jumping off the gurney like marbles on the head of a beaten drum. Behind Mike and Eric stood Jessica and Angela – the two girls had their arms hooked tightly around each other like the contact was the only thing keeping them upright.
Walking up beside them, Bella opened her mouth to ask what had happened but cut herself off as she saw— “Dad!” In full police chief uniform, complete with scowl and well-groomed mustache, Charlie Swan usually cut an imposing figure. Today, however, he looked a mere shadow of his normal self – his eyes were dark with burst blood vessels; his uniform windbreaker drooped from slumped shoulders. The flashing emergency lights of the ambulance and nearby police vehicles cut black shadows below his sunken eyes. Even his mustache looked limp and disconsolate. Stoic though his expression was, he’d very obviously been crying; this more than anything she’d seen so far shook Bella down to her bones. The combination of the ambulance, two trashed cars, Tyler’s broken body, and the cluster of crying friends hadn’t hit her until now, but seeing Charlie – the unshakable Chief Swan – look this visibly upset felt wrong. It was like a fault had opened in the asphalt under Bella and swallowed her whole, then spit her out in a universe twisted enough to nearly kill Tyler and to make her father cry.
Charlie stepped in front of Jessica and Angela, ignoring Mike and Eric, who were too busy cursing and being cursed at, respectively, to notice the new addition to their circle. “Girls,” he addressed Angela and Jessica, then cleared his throat. His gaze stayed fixed on the tree line several feet to their left. “Do you, uh. Did you see what,” he coughed, “what happened?”
Angela tore her eyes away from the ambulance long enough to stare at Charlie like she’d never seen him before in her life. After a long moment, she replied: “Yeah, we. We were getting ready to leave. Jess and I were going to go downtown. There’s a,” she swallowed, “a new shop that just opened, we were going to go see if they had, had prom dresses.” Here Jessica whimpered and buried her face deeper into Angela’s shoulder. She stared unblinking over Angela’s shoulder at the edge of the parking lot where the remnants of the totaled car sat crumpled on the grass like a discarded beer can. Angela continued, “We heard what happened” – she placed the same strange emphasis on the phrase that Charlie had – “but we didn’t see anything. Um.” She sniffed and trailed off, stroking Jessica’s hair with one hand and taking slow, unsteady breaths.
Charlie nodded and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. Bella took the terse silence that followed as her signal to step forward: “Dad, what’s going on? Is everything okay? Did anyone else get hurt? I saw Tyler…” she trailed off when her rapid-fire questions garnered no response. A muscle in Charlie jaw clenched and Bella could almost hear his jaw creak from the strain. Behind him, Mike’s full-body flailing had dulled to a tremor – at some point, he’d stopped trying to escape Eric’s hold and the pair had sunk to the ground in a shivering heap, their eyes locked on the ambulance as it pulled away in a blaze of sirens and flaring lights. Bella wrapped her arms around herself as a sudden chill washed over her; swollen clouds pressed down on Forks High School, the humidity suffocating. It was going to rain, Bella thought idly. The ambulance shrieked down the highway, trailed by a flock of white police cars with lightbars strobing red and amber, red and amber, parting the sea of evening commuters straight down the middle. In the absence of the emergency lights’ warm glow, the perpetual gray haze that loomed over Washington swooped back down and Bella frowned as thick shadows pooled under trees and parked cars. How long had she been unconscious? Other students were filtering out of the dim parking lot in clumps of two or three, their bodies twined together, wobbly many-legged creatures shambling toward waiting cars. The school-buses had all left already, and a glance towards the highway across from the school showed streetlamps lit-up pale yellow; despite the dawdling crowds, Bella thought the school day must have ended hours ago.
Eric cleared his throat to draw attention to where he and Mike sat collapsed on the ground. “Chief Swan, do you – do you think he’s gonna be okay, sir?” Angela kicked Eric’s leg gently, shaking her head when he looked her way. “I mean,” Eric amended quickly, “he, um. Shit, Chief, I’m so—”
Charlie cleared his throat, his gaze skating over Eric as Angela kicked him again. “You kids should head home,” croaked Charlie. Angela turned wide eyes on him; for a moment it looked like she wanted to reach out and put a hand on his arm, maybe sit him down beside Mike and Eric in their ragged circle of mourners. Bella even thought for one fleeting moment that Charlie might have welcomed the comfort, yet whatever nameless grief they all shared couldn’t quite bridge the gap between teenager and adult, stranger and stranger, so instead Angela wrapped her arms tighter around Jessica as the momentary connection passed them by. Charlie turned to walk away, a hunched, solitary figure outlined in the waning daylight. Bella had to jog to keep up with him; from the corner of her eye, she watched Angela heed Chief Swan’s advice, shepherding the others into her car with promises to drive them back to her place. No one protested, not even Mike, who looked totally deflated after his earlier outburst; they seemed to have all made an unspoken agreement not to be alone after today. Bella turned to her father, who stared straight ahead, unseeing. “Dad,” she said, and she reached out a hand to touch his shoulder.
“Chief Swan!” called someone behind them and Charlie turned, facing Bella, looking straight through her. Bella watched with disconnected awe as her hand touched Charlie shoulder and passed through him like fog. Her hand where it connected with his body felt cool and oddly prickly, like the feel of blood rushing back into numb fingers. She distantly heard someone walk up behind her and start talking to her father; unconsciously she stepped forward and gasped as her upper body collided with Charlie’s and continued forward, that icy feeling enveloping her again. She reeled backward and fell through the person behind her with a shout, landing sprawled on the blacktop. Bella stared up the unknown police officer standing in front of Charlie—the pair spoke normally but their words were lost under the roar of static that swarmed in Bella’s head. This couldn’t be real. She scrambled to her feet— “Dad please, what’s going on?” She aimed a shove at Charlie’s chest and stumbled forward upon meeting no resistance, her arm sinking elbow-deep through his chest without really touching it. “What happening?” Charlie stared forward over the shoulder of the cop in front of him. “Dad, this isn’t funny, come on!” she begged. This could not be real—her mind rebelled against the treacherous reality before her. Feeling almost untethered from her body, Bella watched transfixed as her hands skated through her father’s solid shoulder, over and over, meeting no resistance save that same implacable cold wherever her flesh and solid material overlapped.
Charlie turned to walk away once more, this time with the other officer following him; helpless to do otherwise, Bella trailed them to Charlie’s car and tried to get into the passenger’s side, then swallowed a horrified giggle when her legs slid right through the body of the car and she nearly overbalanced. The unnamed officer was still talking and Charlie nodded along, staring somewhere over his shoulder; Bella followed his harrowed gaze to the other end of the parking lot and the totaled truck and van, now deserted, the photographer and paramedics from earlier having left with the ambulance. The longer Bella looked at the twisted ruins of the truck, the more they made her skin crawl (did she still have skin? she wondered hysterically). She could feel her head pounding, her heart racing, which was odd for reasons that evaded understanding. A realization scratched at the edges of her mind—the flaky, orange-painted curve of the truck’s warped chassis stared back at her, taunting her with some blatant truth that she couldn’t bring herself to know.
As he was about to leave, the officer turned back to Charlie and started, “Listen, Chief, if there’s anything we can do—”
“Lieutenant,” Chief Swan cut him off tersely, the vein in his neck near to bursting from the strain of maintaining a stoic expression. There was a fury in his eyes like Bella had never seen, ice cold and raw. The lieutenant’s mouth shut with an audible clack and he nodded, suitably cowed, then scampered away, leaving Charlie standing stiff and immovable as a statue beside his car, eyes fixed on the other side of the parking lot. Bella wanted to run after the lieutenant and demand to know what he’d been about to say, yet somehow she knew he wouldn’t hear her. No one could. Charlie leaned heavily against the car door and sighed a stream of white fog. The evening chill began to set in, cool dew settling on the grass and over the blue juniper trees that enclosed the school and onto the misted windows of the few cars that lingered in the dreary parking lot.
Charlie slouched into the driver’s seat and slammed the car door behind him. Bella peered into the car through the driver’s-side window, careful not to lean on the glass. She watched Charlie lock the car door and then slump over the dashboard like a dropped marionette, his keys clutched in one trembling hand that made no move toward the ignition. “Dad, look at me,” she whispered, too quiet for him to hear even on a normal day. “Please, look at me.” Bella pleaded, “I’m dreaming. This isn’t real.” Bella watched through the window as her father took a long breath then pulled his phone from his pocket to dial a familiar number. She saw his mouth shape her mother’s name, his voice inaudible through the glass, his gaze never wavering from the mangled corpse of the old orange truck. “Please,” Bella croaked. “No. Please.”
The clouds overhead chose this moment to split open at long last, the rain chasing a few more stragglers into their cars. In an instant the lot was empty, save only the police-taped specter of the two crashed cars, Charlie, and one other car that was tucked into the side of the school building, sheltered almost entirely out of sight if not out of the rain. The four people clustered around the car didn’t seem to notice the rain, however, so passionately were they hissing at one another. Bella couldn’t hear what they were arguing about, but she imagined it must have been important to distract them so thoroughly from the now-pouring rain. Like them, Bella couldn’t feel the rain, and if she thought about it she could even feel it pass through her body and hit the ground underneath; needless to say, she tried not to think about it.
Charlie cleared his throat loudly, drawing Bella’s attention back to him; he had one hand clutched over his eyes, as if to stop himself from staring at the truck, and was nodding along to what he heard through the phone. Water streaked in thick rivulets down the window to either side of his face. With a few final words he hung up the call, started the engine, and flicked on the warning lights, going through the long-ingrained motions without pausing to think. Bella watched helplessly, a futile shout caught in her throat, as Charlie’s car pulled out of the parking lot and onto the highway; the flashing lights seared a bright hot scar across the dingy sky, the siren’s shrill scream echoing in Bella’s ears long after the reddish glare faded from view.
A man’s shout and a slammed car door tore Bella’s eyes away from the horizon where her father’s car had disappeared; the people arguing beside the school had escalating to shouting, loud enough that Bella could hear them over the pelting rain. “Babe, come on, this isn’t a big deal!” shouted the man as he swiped one huge hand over his wet face.
The blonde woman with him pointed one long, menacing finger at him and said, “Don’t you fucking ‘babe’ me! I knew coming here was a shitty idea, I told all of you—”
“This had nothing to do with any of that,” entreated the man.
She snarled, “The hell it didn’t! This place is cursed.”
A third figure approached them, this one more akin in looks to a drenched cat than a girl. Her sunny smile belied the miserable appearance of her soaked dress, however, so maybe Bella was just projecting. “Emmett’s right, Rosie,” said the new girl, who Bella now recognized as Alice Cullen. “This would have happened with or without us here.” The scary blonde woman (who must have been Rosalie Cullen) scoffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “We can talk about this more at home, with Carlisle and everyone,” Alice placated, raising her eyebrows at Rosalie expectantly. Emmett grinned innocently at Rosalie who, with an ease that spoke of years of practice, rolled her eyes and punched him lightly on the shoulder. Or at least, it looked to Bella like a light punch—the way a still-grinning Emmett yelped and rubbed at his shoulder indicated otherwise.
While Rosalie and Emmett ducked into their car, wringing water from their clothes and hair, Alice surveyed her surroundings with a frown. The way her eyes glittered in the faint light of the streetlamps reminded Bella of the scrawny coyotes that lurked behind her mom’s old house whose eyes would reflect the flat white of little’s Bella’s flashlight. The same raw terror that had cemented her feet to the back porch crept over her now and froze her in place, stock still in the middle of the vacant parking lot. The feeling left as quickly as it came, however, as Alice’s eyes swept past without seeing her and she turned away, shouting to the pair inside the car, “Has anyone seen Edward?” Bella couldn’t see through the back windshield of the car, yet it appeared that Alice could, for whatever response she saw made her frown deepen. She stared out at the parking lot again for a moment, then stopped at the wrecked cars and huffed. “Edward!” she called. Bella glanced in that direction and saw no one—then again, she thought, Bella herself was proof that just because she saw no one, that didn’t mean no one was there.
Sure enough, upon hearing Alice’s call a tall strip of the wreckage peeled away in the shape of a gaunt teenage boy. He might have been standing there all this time, as still and impossibly camouflaged as he’d been. Bella crept closer, fascinated, as he drifted soundlessly over the shards of shattered headlights on the ground, his down-turned face masked by shadow. Alice jogged leisurely over to him and held out her hand: “Come on, it’ll be okay. Let’s go home.” The boy didn’t say a word, only reached out his hand in return and both Bella and Alice gaped at the rich brown blood crusted between his fingers, under his nails. “What—” gasped Alice, grasping his hand in both of hers, her wide doe-like eyes darting from his hand up to his face. “Edward, what happened?”
Edward swayed dangerously and clenched Alice’s hands to keep himself from toppling over. Filthy, silent and trembling, his only similarities to the pale nuisance from Bella’s Biology class were his pasty skin and his clothes, though the jacket he’d worn that morning was now missing. He worked his jaw open and spoke at last, softly, sounding as if he’d not spoken for days: “Let’s go home.”
Alice stepped closer in an effort to meet his eyes; “Edward, what have you done,” she whispered, without inflection and softly enough that Bella had to take another step closer to hear her.
“Nothing,” he said bitterly, “I did nothing, now let’s go.” He pushed Alice aside and trudged towards the car where Emmett and Rosalie waited, staring at the ground, Alice trailing after him with a worried frown. As Edward stepped through a stripe of light cast by a streetlamp, Bella saw the dark stains that bloomed across the thighs of his jeans; his t-shirt was stiff with dry, dark liquid. He looked like he’d fallen into a gutter, or been stabbed, maybe, though Bella doubted he’d still be standing in the latter case since the blood looked hours old. His hair was the only part of his that was somehow pristine, as perfectly gelled at it’d looked earlier that day despite the torrential rain of the last few minutes.
So transfixed was she by the anachronism of an unkempt Edward Cullen that Bella didn’t notice him marching toward her until he was nearly on top of her. She gasped and braced herself for a rush of bracing cold when instead of Edward walking through her, she heard an answering gasp and saw him reel backward, causing Alice to nearly run face-first into his back. Hardly daring to believe it, Bella looked up—she was met with an equally stunned, amber-eyed stare fixed directly on her. Bella suddenly felt she couldn’t breathe. Edward was looking right at her, as intensely focused on her as he’d ever been, though never before had he looked so awed at her very existence. “Edward…?” Bella said hesitantly and saw him flinch backward and tumble into a surprised and very concerned Alice’s arms. Edward mouthed her name: “Bella,” voiceless, and a tiny, absurd voice in Bella’s head cheered at finally managing to shut Edward Cullen up.
“Edward? What is it?” Alice asked, absently running her fingers through his hair, then scrunching up her nose when hair-gel rubbed off on her hand. Bella laughed and then clapped both hands over her mouth, as the sound might’ve been jarringly loud had it not been for her and Edward’s ears alone. As it was, Edward only flinched again in disbelief then shook his head. Alice frowned. “Let’s just go home, okay? We should talk about this with everyone.” Edward nodded vacantly. His eyes looked scrubbed raw and, for some reason, so did his mouth, which looked swollen and pink against the ghostly white of his face. That, coupled with the blank-eyed stare, give him a vaguely concussed air and he didn’t resist much as Alice trundled him along toward their car. It was only once she’d opened the car door and prepared to shove him inside that he stopped, bracing his hand on the car’s roof, seemingly unwilling to go inside and break eye contact with Bella.
Bella licked her lips, half-expecting to taste cool rainwater instead of only dry, chapped skin. Edward searched her face for—something. It didn’t matter, for she might’ve let him stare at her all day if it meant that someone, anyone, could see her. His amber, red-rimmed eyes flashed across the dim lot, slicing through the rain, so potent that Bella swore she felt them pin her physically in place like a butterfly on a card. She imagined this was how those cells they’d examined in Biology had felt under the microscope. At long last he appeared satisfied, or else Alice’s hard shoves at his back had started to hurt, and he looked away, allowing himself to be pushed into the car with his siblings and the door to be shut behind him. The four Cullens drove off, into the gray dusk. Bella stood there, for a moment, in the middle of the empty lot, waiting—for what, she couldn’t say. To feel the rain on her face, maybe. For Charlie to come driving back, or for her morning alarm to wake her. She sat and drew her jacket tighter around her, waiting to wake up, or else to feel the ever-present chill that’d been her close companion since leaving Phoenix, but nothing came. Bella was alone, save the lingering feel of Edward’s eyes on her. Her memory of that day felt crushed together with school on one end and that caustic golden stare on the other, and only static in between. She closed her eyes and waited—waited for reality to come, and all the while she saw in her mind those impossibly bright eyes moving toward her, gleaming amber and red, amber and red, like two holes cut through the black lining of the world.