Life isn’t the same. I feel like I’ve been robbed somehow, and I don’t laugh as much anymore. It used to be that I’d seek out Edward, who is a loner, but nowadays I’m finding that I prefer to be alone, too. Like now, as I swing on our rope swing in the back yard. It’s cold and my nose and cheeks are numb from the breeze that swinging creates, but it’s still bright and sunny out. So I’m going to swing until my nose falls off or until it’s time to go inside and fix dinner, whichever comes first.
It’s been two long weeks since we found Mom face-down on the couch, and she still hasn’t asked to see me or Edward. Dad told us she probably wouldn’t, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow. As soon as I have that thought, I wince. Maybe I’m going crazy.
Dad changed his shift hours down at the police station back to the daytime so he can be home when we’re home. Edward and I have been watching TV at night in the living room with Dad, partly because we don’t want him to be alone, and partly because we don’t want to be alone. Well, except for those moments when we do, that is. If Dad’s home, I want to be where he is. If he’s not, then I’m either in my room or the kitchen.
Being around Edward makes me uncomfortable. His eyes are too sad, too dark, too knowing, and I can’t take it. I need to believe that Mom will be okay, and that’s she’s coming back to us to stay.
. . .
Art class is my escape. Sometimes I get in a groove working on my project and I forget where I am. Those are the best moments, but they don’t happen often enough. We’re working on collages and mine is of my mom’s face. I sketched her as I remembered her: laughing, head thrown back. And now I’m gluing itty-bitty pieces of construction paper to the drawing. It’s slow and tedious work, but it calms me.
Jasper’s collage is one of the scenes from the movie Saving Private Ryan, one of the bloody ones. It’s grossly graphic, but it’s really good. Like, good enough to win an award. I’ve noticed that Mr. Meyer visits our table more than any other just to see how Jasper’s coming along.
Mammoth Boy, who’s actually Embry Call and is the shyest person I’ve ever met, is doing an airplane, one of the commercial jets. He draws them obsessively. Whenever we’re between projects, he’s sketching out some kind of airplane.
Tanya is doing the bunny from Alice in Wonderland, only he looks like a pink-nosed donkey. It makes me grin.
Today is classical music Monday in Mr. Meyer’s class. I recognize the tune, but couldn’t name it if someone held me at gun point. We all groaned at first, but I have to admit that it’s soothing and just perfect to work to.
“Is Edward going to the Awesome 80’s dance?” Tanya asks out of the blue.
Edward wouldn’t be caught dead at a dance. “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”
“Because I want him to ask me,” she huffs. She’s bitterly disappointed because Edward’s gone back to ignoring her after their bathroom kiss. Which I wouldn’t know anything about, since I’m kind of avoiding Edward, if it wasn’t for Tanya going on and on about it.
“He’s the best one I’ve ever kissed,” she sighed. “Can you tell him for me?”
I shrug at her. She’s going to have to figure out how to get him to the dance on her own, and good luck with that.
She’s staring at the side of my face. “He’s not … gay … is he?”
Now I’m mad. “Just because he doesn’t like you like that doesn’t mean he’s gay. He’s not. And don’t you dare start that rumor about him, or I will eff. You. Up.”
“SorRY. Geeze. I was just asking.”
I wish she’d change seats. Or disappear in a puff of smoke. Or get abducted by aliens.
“I’m going to the dance,” Jasper tells her.
Tanya rolls her purple shadowed eyes. “Good for you, freak.”
What a gross, sick-hog-pig-sow-cow she is. No wonder Edward won’t kiss her again.
I finish pasting on another row of Mom’s hair. It’s taking forever. Only half of her head is done, but what I’ve done looks really cool. The orange, yellow and brown make it look like her hair glistens.
“Who is that?” Tanya wants to know.
. . .
In Human Development class, we’re watching a film on the effects of cigarette smoking. The images of smoke being inhaled down the throat and into the lungs keeps playing, and each time we see that happen, the lungs change in color. And my stomach gets tighter. Until finally, the lungs are hard and black, as hard as my stomach feels now. Oh no. Unable to hold it in any longer, I wretch.
Beside me, Rose straightens and touches my arm. “You okay?” she whispers.
No, no I am not okay. I can’t get the smoke and black tarred lung images out of my brain. Before I can ask Mr. Molena for a hall pass, I’m up and running for the door. My throat is tight and full of saliva and if I barf before I get to the restroom, I will die.
I make it, but just barely. Everything I had for lunch pours out in Technicolor and then I’m crying. Again. I am so sick of all the crying I do now. I’m like the poster child for two-year-olds. Make a face at me funny, and I bawl. Stub my toe, and I bawl. Barf, and I bawl.
“You sound like you’re dying,” Rose says outside the stall door.
I growl-groan-spit. “That’s because I am,” I sob.
Now she sounds worried. “Are you really?”
“No,” I wail. “Yes. No. I don’t know.”
“Do you want me to get the nurse?”
That sobers me up quick. “No, I’ll live,” I sigh.
“Guess you’re never going to be a smoker, huh?”
My laughter sounds wet. Yuck.
“I want to go home,” I say after I rinse my mouth out and splash my face. I want to hide my head under my pillow and never come out, unless it’s for art class. “But I can’t. Dad’s at work.”
“Go tell the nurse that you need to lay down for a while.”
My face is red and my eyes are puffy. And also red. My lips are chapped and my mouth tastes bad. It feels like someone drove a fist into my stomach. All I need is a hunch back and a limp.
“Will you bring my stuff? I can’t go back to class.”
As we step outside the restroom, Rose grabs my hand. “I’m sorry, Bella.”
I shrink away. “There’s nothing to be sorry for. I’m better now.”
“That’s not what I—”
“I have to go.” And I take off in a jog. Which is a very bad idea because of my stomach, and I slow down as soon as I turn around the corner.
There’s nothing to be sorry for. I just got sick is all. Everybody gets sick now and then.
. . .
It’s contest night at Edward’s fencing club, and Dad wants us to go watch him. Edward isn’t happy about this, but Dad’s insistent.
“I want to see what my money is paying for,” he says.
Edward rolls his eyes. “You’re going to be bored out of your mind.”
“No, we won’t.”
Yes, we will. I saw Edward learning how to fence a year ago, and fell asleep sitting up. It’s just a couple of people coming together and then separating. Boring. But Dad wants to go, so we’re going. After he gets a load of what it’s all about, I’m guessing it will be the one and only time we go.
The club is actually a renovated shoe warehouse downtown. It looks and smells like a gymnasium. The sound of shoes screeching on the floor fills my ears until I poke my iPod’s ear buds into them. There are faceless boys and girls dressed in white, shuffling back and forth to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, which is what I do while I sit there. I shake it off, shake it off, woo-hoo-hoooo, shake it—
“Would you stop,” Dad says and hands me back my left ear bud.
I leave one bud in and turn Taylor down, then look for Edward. If only they didn’t wear those weird looking face-mask head things, I could spot him right away. His penny-colored hair is impossible to miss. He got Grandma Higginbotham’s hair. It’s gorgeous and he’s so lucky and there he is. He just raised his mask thingy to wave at us, so we know it’s him. While he might have been rolling his eyes earlier, it’s clear now that’s he’s glad we’re here. I sit up straight and wave back at him. I’ll pay attention for as long as I’m able to . . .
And then I notice that he’s wearing a diaper-looking thing over his crotch area. It’s big and hangs a little. Before I know it, I’m giggling and collapsing against Dad.
“What’s gotten in to you, little girl?”
Then I guess the contest starts because Edward and his opponent both crouch and raise their skinny-looking sword sticks. They both hold their position and then Edward does a leap frog move at the other guy, who leap frogs back. Then they leap frog forward and back again and again until something happens and they break apart. I don’t understand, but I guess the leap frog move looks kind of cool.
Forever later, Edward pushes the mask up to the top of his head. “Did you see that?” He’s all smiles. “I won! He got the first touch, but I got every one after that.”
“We saw,” Dad assures him. We trade a quick look. Yep, we’re both clueless, but happy for Edward. Deep inside, I thaw a little at seeing that smile of his. It’s been a while. And I want to hug him. So I do.
Afterwards, we go out for ice cream, even though it’s in the 30’s.
It’s a good night.
. . .
“So you were avoiding me,” Edward says as I race down the basement stairs the next night.
“Yep. Sorry.” I shrug and throw myself down the couch. I’m in sweats and slippers so I don’t have to share the blanket.
He keeps looking at me, even though I’m staring at the TV, which he’s paused on Andrew Garfield’s face. Spiderman II, yes! I’ve been wanting to see this one.
“You’re okay now?”
“I’m fine,” I say. “Play the movie.”
“Watching TV upstairs. Football.” I shudder.
“Oh, so you wouldn’t be down here if he was watching something you wanted to see?” His tone of voice is kind of crabby. He’s angry at me. “You know, Bella, I’m not going to lie about what I’m feeling just because you don’t agree with me.”
“I didn’t ask you to,” I huff.
“No, but you ignored me for two weeks. I might as well be gone with Mom.”
I study Andrew’s frozen expression on the TV and breathe. “I said I was sorry.”
“Yeah? Well maybe that’s not good enough.”
He’s giving me the look he reserves for his worst enemies. Seeing it sends my stomach right into my throat. I don’t know what to say now, and even if I did, I couldn’t talk anyway.
“You and Dad both think that Mom’s going to be just fine. That everything’s going to go back to the way it was. I’m the only one feeling this way, and I hate it. I want her to come back as much as you guys do, I want things to go back the way they were five years ago when she and Dad used to dance in the living room and take us on picnics every weekend.” He takes a jagged breath and pushes his hand against his forehead. “I want – so much. I just … I’m scared, too.”
I scoot next to him and wrap my arms around his bicep. He’s stiff, resisting, obviously still boiling over with the uglies.
“I don’t get why you would avoid me because of that. We’re supposed to stick together, stick up for each other, just like always. Especially now. Don’t you get it?”
“I’m trying,” I say and lay my head against his shoulder. Gradually, his breathing calms and he relaxes.
“I don’t like it when you ignore me,” he says. “You wouldn’t like it if I ignored you right now.”
“I know. I wouldn’t.”
I run my fingers through his hair and he lets his head fall against my shoulder with a sigh. We’re okay. We’re okay.
I nudge him gently. “The more you take of me, the more you end up leaving behind. What am I?”
“You make that one sound kind of sad,” Edward says.
Eventually we fall asleep on the couch together and Dad lets us stay there all night.
. . .
Mom comes home a week later. She looks better than she ever has before. Her skin and eyes glow, and her hair is shiny and loose over her shoulders. But she has trouble meeting our gaze and her voice isn’t as commanding as it used to be. It’s like … she’s not the parent anymore. Dad is the parent. And Edward and I are strangers.
“I missed you,” I say to her when I find her alone in her and Dad’s bedroom. She’s just sitting there on the bed, looking lost and lonely.
Her smile is sad and then she’s crying. I’ve got my arms around her. I forgive you, I tell her. I’m not mad. I missed her and I’m so glad she’s home. I love her.
It hurts that she doesn’t say it back.
. . .
The answer to Bella’s riddle for Edward: Footsteps.
. . .