“YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS,” I SAID WEDNESDAY AFTERnoon. “You’ve completely lost your mind!”
“Say whatever you like about me,” Alice answered. “The party is still on.”
I stared at her, my eyes so wide with disbelief it felt like they might fall out and land on my lunch tray.
“Oh, calm down, Bella! There’s no reason not to go through with it. Besides, the invitations are already sent.”
“But . . . the . . . you . . . I . . . insane!” I spluttered.
“You’ve already bought my present,” she reminded me. “You don’t have to do anything but show up.”
I made an effort to calm myself. “With everything that is going on right now, a party is hardly appropriate.”
“Graduation is what’s going on right now, and a party is so appropriate it’s almost passé.”
She sighed, and tried to be serious. “There are a few things we need to get in order now, and that’s going to take a little time. As long as we’re sitting here waiting, we might as well commemorate the good stuff. You’re only going to graduate from high school — for the first time — once. You don’t get to be human again, Bella. This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot.”
Edward, silent through our little argument, flashed her a warning look. She stuck out her tongue at him. She was right — her soft voice would never carry over the babble of the cafeteria. And no one would understand the meaning behind her words in any case.
“What few things do we need to get in order?” I asked, refusing to be sidetracked.
Edward answered in a low voice. “Jasper thinks we could use some help. Tanya’s family isn’t the only choice we have. Carlisle’s trying to track down a few old friends, and Jasper is looking up Peter and Charlotte. He’s considering talking to Maria . . . but no one really wants to involve the southerners.”
Alice shuddered delicately.
“It shouldn’t be too hard to convince them to help,” he continued. “Nobody wants a visit from Italy.”
“But these friends — they’re not going to be . . . vegetarians, right?” I protested, using the Cullens’ tongue-in-cheek nickname for themselves.
“No,” Edward answered, suddenly expressionless.
“Here? In Forks?”
“They’re friends,” Alice reassured me. “Everything’s going to be fine. Don’t worry. And then, Jasper has to teach us a few courses on newborn elimination. . . .”
Edward’s eyes brightened at that, and a brief smile flashed across his face. My stomach suddenly felt like it was full of sharp little splinters of ice.
“When are you going?” I asked in a hollow voice. I couldn’t stand this — the idea that someone might not come back. What if it was Emmett, so brave and thoughtless that he was never the least bit cautious? Or Esme, so sweet and motherly that I couldn’t even imagine her in a fight? Or Alice, so tiny, so fragile-looking? Or . . . but I couldn’t even think the name, consider the possibility.
“A week,” Edward said casually. “That ought to give us enough time.”
The icy splinters twisted uncomfortably in my stomach. I was suddenly nauseated.
“You look kind of green, Bella,” Alice commented.
Edward put his arm around me and pulled me tightly against his side. “It’s going to be fine, Bella. Trust me.”
Sure, I thought to myself. Trust him. He wasn’t the one who was going to have to sit behind and wonder whether or not the core of his existence was going to come home.
And then it occurred to me. Maybe I didn’t need to sit behind. A week was more than enough time.
“You’re looking for help,” I said slowly.
“Yes.” Alice’s head cocked to the side as she processed the change in my tone.
I looked only at her as I answered. My voice was just slightly louder than a whisper. “I could help.”
Edward’s body was suddenly rigid, his arm too tight around me. He exhaled, and the sound was a hiss.
But it was Alice, still calm, who answered. “That really wouldn’t be helpful.”
“Why not?” I argued; I could hear the desperation in my voice. “Eight is better than seven. There’s more than enough time.”
“There’s not enough time to make you helpful, Bella,” she disagreed coolly. “Do you remember how Jasper described the young ones? You’d be no good in a fight. You wouldn’t be able to control your instincts, and that would make you an easy target. And then Edward would get hurt trying to protect you.” She folded her arms across her chest, pleased with her unassailable logic.
And I knew she was right, when she put it like that. I slumped in my seat, my sudden hope defeated. Beside me, Edward relaxed.
He whispered the reminder in my ear. “Not because you’re afraid.”
“Oh,” Alice said, and a blank look crossed her face. Then her expression became surly. “I hate last-minute cancellations. So that puts the party attendance list down to sixty-five. . . .”
“Sixty-five!” My eyes bulged again. I didn’t have that many friends. Did I even know that many people?
“Who canceled?” Edward wondered, ignoring me.
“What?” I gasped.
“She was going to surprise you for your graduation, but something went wrong. You’ll have a message when you get home.”
For a moment, I just let myself enjoy the relief. Whatever it was that went wrong for my mother, I was eternally grateful to it. If she had come to Forks now . . . I didn’t want to think about it. My head would explode.
The message light was flashing when I got home. My feeling of relief flared again as I listened to my mother describe Phil’s accident on the ball field — while demonstrating a slide, he’d tangled up with the catcher and broken his thigh bone; he was entirely dependent on her, and there was no way she could leave him. My mom was still apologizing when the message cut off.
“Well, that’s one,” I sighed.
“One what?” Edward asked.
“One person I don’t have to worry about getting killed this week.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Why won’t you and Alice take this seriously?” I demanded. “This is serious.”
He smiled. “Confidence.”
“Wonderful,” I grumbled. I picked up the phone and dialed Renée’s number. I knew it would be a long conversation, but I also knew that I wouldn’t have to contribute much.
I just listened, and reassured her every time I could get a word in: I wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t mad, I wasn’t hurt. She should concentrate on helping Phil get better. I passed on my “get well soon” to Phil, and promised to call her with every single detail from Forks High’s generic graduation. Finally, I had to use my desperate need to study for finals to get off the phone.
Edward’s patience was endless. He waited politely through the whole conversation, just playing with my hair and smiling whenever I looked up. It was probably superficial to notice such things while I had so many more important things to think about, but his smile still knocked the breath out of me. He was so beautiful that it made it hard sometimes to think about anything else, hard to concentrate on Phil’s troubles or Renée’s apologies or hostile vampire armies. I was only human.
As soon as I hung up, I stretched onto my tiptoes to kiss him. He put his hands around my waist and lifted me onto the kitchen counter, so I wouldn’t have to reach as far. That worked for me. I locked my arms around his neck and melted against his cold chest.
Too soon, as usual, he pulled away.
I felt my face slip into a pout. He laughed at my expression as he extricated himself from my arms and legs. He leaned against the counter next to me and put one arm lightly around my shoulders.
“I know you think that I have some kind of perfect, unyielding self-control, but that’s not actually the case.”
“I wish,” I sighed.
And he sighed, too.
“After school tomorrow,” he said, changing the subject, “I’m going hunting with Carlisle, Esme, and Rosalie. Just for a few hours — we’ll stay close. Alice, Jasper, and Emmett should be able to keep you safe.”
“Ugh,” I grumbled. Tomorrow was the first day of finals, and it was only a half-day. I had Calculus and History — the only two challenges in my line-up — so I’d have almost the whole day without him, and nothing to do but worry. “I hate being babysat.”
“It’s temporary,” he promised.
“Jasper will be bored. Emmett will make fun of me.”
“They’ll be on their best behavior.”
“Right,” I grumbled.
And then it occurred to me that I did have one option besides babysitters. “You know . . . I haven’t been to La Push since the bonfire.”
I watched his face carefully for any change in expression. His eyes tightened the tiniest bit.
“I’d be safe enough there,” I reminded him.
He thought about it for a few seconds. “You’re probably right.”
His face was calm, but just a little too smooth. I almost asked if he’d rather I stayed here, but then I thought of the ribbing Emmett would no doubt dish out, and I changed the subject. “Are you thirsty already?” I asked, reaching up to stroke the light shadow beneath his eye. His irises were still a deep gold.
“Not really.” He seemed reluctant to answer, and that surprised me. I waited for an explanation.
“We want to be as strong as possible,” he explained, still reluctant. “We’ll probably hunt again on the way, looking for big game.”
“That makes you stronger?”
He searched my face for something, but there was nothing to find but curiosity.
“Yes,” he finally said. “Human blood makes us the strongest, though only fractionally. Jasper’s been thinking about cheating — adverse as he is to the idea, he’s nothing if not practical — but he won’t suggest it. He knows what Carlisle will say.”
“Would that help?” I asked quietly.
“It doesn’t matter. We aren’t going to change who we are.”
I frowned. If something helped even the odds . . . and then I shuddered, realizing I was willing to have a stranger die to protect him. I was horrified at myself, but not entirely able to deny it, either.
He changed the subject again. “That’s why they’re so strong, of course. The newborns are full of human blood — their own blood, reacting to the change. It lingers in the tissues and strengthens them. Their bodies use it up slowly, like Jasper said, the strength starting to wane after about a year.”
“How strong will I be?”
He grinned. “Stronger than I am.”
“Stronger than Emmett?”
The grin got bigger. “Yes. Do me a favor and challenge him to an arm-wrestling match. It would be a good experience for him.”
I laughed. It sounded so ridiculous.
Then I sighed and hopped down from the counter, because I really couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to cram, and cram hard. Luckily I had Edward’s help, and Edward was an excellent tutor — since he knew absolutely everything. I figured my biggest problem would be just focusing on the tests. If I didn’t watch myself, I might end up writing my History essay on the vampire wars of the South.
I took a break to call Jacob, and Edward seemed just as comfortable as he had when I was on the phone with Renée. He played with my hair again.
Though it was the middle of the afternoon, my call woke Jacob up, and he was grouchy at first. He cheered right up when I asked if I could visit the next day. The Quileute school was already out for the summer, so he told me to come over as early as I could. I was pleased to have an option besides being babysat. There was a tiny bit more dignity in spending the day with Jacob.
Some of that dignity was lost when Edward insisted again on delivering me to the border line like a child being exchanged by custodial guardians.
“So how do you feel you did on your exams?” Edward asked on the way, making small talk.
“History was easy, but I don’t know about the Calculus. It seemed like it was making sense, so that probably means I failed.”
He laughed. “I’m sure you did fine. Or, if you’re really worried, I could bribe Mr. Varner to give you an A.”
“Er, thanks, but no thanks.”
He laughed again, but suddenly stopped when we turned the last bend and saw the red car waiting. He frowned in concentration, and then, as he parked the car, he sighed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, my hand on the door.
He shook his head. “Nothing.” His eyes were narrowed as he stared through the windshield toward the other car. I’d seen that look before.
“You’re not listening to Jacob, are you?” I accused.
“It’s not easy to ignore someone when he’s shouting.”
“Oh.” I thought about that for a second. “What’s he shouting?” I whispered.
“I’m absolutely certain he’ll mention it himself,” Edward said in a wry tone.
I would have pressed the issue, but then Jacob honked his horn — two quick impatient honks.
“That’s impolite,” Edward growled.
“That’s Jacob,” I sighed, and I hurried out before Jacob did something to really set Edward’s teeth on edge.
I waved to Edward before I got into the Rabbit and, from that distance, it looked like he was truly upset about the honking thing . . . or whatever Jacob was thinking about. But my eyes were weak and made mistakes all the time.
I wanted Edward to come to me. I wanted to make both of them get out of their cars and shake hands and be friends — be Edward and Jacob rather than vampire and werewolf. It was as if I had those two stubborn magnets in my hands again, and I was holding them together, trying to force nature to reverse herself. . . .
I sighed, and climbed in Jacob’s car.
“Hey, Bells.” Jake’s tone was cheerful, but his voice dragged. I examined his face as he started down the road, driving a little faster than I did, but slower than Edward, on his way back to La Push.
Jacob looked different, maybe even sick. His eyelids drooped and his face was drawn. His shaggy hair stuck out in random directions; it was almost to his chin in some places.
“Are you all right, Jake?”
“Just tired,” he managed to get out before he was overcome by a massive yawn. When he finished, he asked, “What do you want to do today?”
I eyed him for a moment. “Let’s just hang out at your place for now,” I suggested. He didn’t look like he was up for much more than that. “We can ride our bikes later.”
“Sure, sure,” he said, yawning again.
Jacob’s house was vacant, and that felt strange. I realized I thought of Billy as a nearly permanent fixture there.
“Where’s your dad?”
“Over at the Clearwaters’. He’s been hanging out there a lot since Harry died. Sue gets lonely.”
Jacob sat down on the old couch that was no bigger than a loveseat and squished himself to the side to make room for me.
“Oh. That’s nice. Poor Sue.”
“Yeah . . . she’s having some trouble. . . .” He hesitated. “With her kids.”
“Sure, it’s got to be hard on Seth and Leah, losing their dad. . . .”
“Uh-huh,” he agreed, lost in thought. He picked up the remote and flipped on the TV without seeming to think about it. He yawned.
“What’s with you, Jake? You’re like a zombie.”
“I got about two hours of sleep last night, and four the night before,” he told me. He stretched his long arms slowly, and I could hear the joints crack as he flexed. He settled his left arm along the back of the sofa behind me, and slumped back to rest his head against the wall. “I’m exhausted.”
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” I asked.
He made a face. “Sam’s being difficult. He doesn’t trust your bloodsuckers. I’ve been running double shifts for two weeks and nobody’s touched me yet, but he still doesn’t buy it. So I’m on my own for now.”
“Double shifts? Is this because you’re trying to watch out for me? Jake, that’s wrong! You need to sleep. I’ll be fine.”
“It’s no big deal.” His eyes were abruptly more alert. “Hey, did you ever find out who was in your room? Is there anything new?”
I ignored the second question. “No, we didn’t find anything out about my, um, visitor.”
“Then I’ll be around,” he said as his eyes slid closed.
“Jake . . . ,” I started to whine.
“Hey, it’s the least I can do — I offered eternal servitude, remember. I’m your slave for life.”
“I don’t want a slave!”
His eyes didn’t open. “What do you want, Bella?”
“I want my friend Jacob — and I don’t want him half-dead, hurting himself in some misguided attempt —”
He cut me off. “Look at it this way — I’m hoping I can track down a vampire I’m allowed to kill, okay?”
I didn’t answer. He looked at me then, peeking at my reaction.
I stared at the TV.
“So, any special plans next week? You’re graduating. Wow. That’s big.” His voice turned flat, and his face, already drawn, looked downright haggard as his eyes closed again — not in exhaustion this time, but in denial. I realized that graduation still had a horrible significance for him, though my intentions were now disrupted.
“No special plans,” I said carefully, hoping he would hear the reassurance in my words without a more detailed explanation. I didn’t want to get into it now. For one thing, he didn’t look up for any difficult conversations. For another, I knew he would read too much into my qualms. “Well, I do have to go to a graduation party. Mine.” I made a disgusted sound. “Alice loves parties, and she’s invited the whole town to her place the night of. It’s going to be horrible.”
His eyes opened as I spoke, and a relieved smile made his face look less worn. “I didn’t get an invitation. I’m hurt,” he teased.
“Consider yourself invited. It’s supposedly my party, so I should be able to ask who I want.”
“Thanks,” he said sarcastically, his eyes slipping closed once more.
“I wish you would come,” I said without any hope. “It would be more fun. For me, I mean.”
“Sure, sure,” he mumbled. “That would be very . . . wise . . .” His voice trailed off.
A few seconds later, he was snoring.
Poor Jacob. I studied his dreaming face, and liked what I saw. While he slept, every trace of defensiveness and bitterness disappeared and suddenly he was the boy who had been my very best friend before all the werewolf nonsense had gotten in the way. He looked so much younger. He looked like my Jacob.
I nestled into the couch to wait out his nap, hoping he would sleep for a while and make up some of what he’d lost. I flipped through channels, but there wasn’t much on. I settled for a cooking show, knowing, as I watched, that I’d never put that much effort into Charlie’s dinner. Jacob continued to snore, getting louder. I turned up the TV.
I was strangely relaxed, almost sleepy, too. This house felt safer than my own, probably because no one had ever come looking for me here. I curled up on the sofa and thought about taking a nap myself. Maybe I would have, but Jacob’s snoring was impossible to tune out. So, instead of sleeping, I let my mind wander.
Finals were done, and most of them had been a cakewalk. Calculus, the one exception, was behind me, pass or fail. My high school education was over. And I didn’t really know how I felt about that. I couldn’t look at it objectively, tied up as it was with my human life being over.
I wondered how long Edward planned to use this “not because you’re scared” excuse. I was going to have to put my foot down sometime.
If I were thinking practically, I knew it made more sense to ask Carlisle to change me the second I made it through the graduation line. Forks was becoming nearly as dangerous as a war zone. No, Forks was a war zone. Not to mention . . . it would be a good excuse to miss the graduation party. I smiled to myself as I thought of that most trivial of reasons for changing. Silly . . . yet still compelling.
But Edward was right — I wasn’t quite ready yet.
And I didn’t want to be practical. I wanted Edward to be the one. It wasn’t a rational desire. I was sure that — about two seconds after someone actually bit me and the venom started burning through my veins — I really wouldn’t care anymore who had done it. So it shouldn’t make a difference.
It was hard to define, even to myself, why it mattered. There was just something about him being the one to make the choice — to want to keep me enough that he wouldn’t just allow me to be changed, he would act to keep me. It was childish, but I liked the idea that his lips would be the last good thing I would feel. Even more embarrassingly, something I would never say aloud, I wanted his venom to poison my system. It would make me belong to him in a tangible, quantifiable way.
But I knew he was going to stick to his marriage scheme like glue — because a delay was what he was clearly after and it was working so far. I tried to imagine telling my parents that I was getting married this summer. Telling Angela and Ben and Mike. I couldn’t. I couldn’t think of the words to say. It would be easier to tell them I was becoming a vampire. And I was sure that at least my mother — were I to tell her every detail of the truth — would be more strenuously opposed to me getting married than to me a becoming vampire. I grimaced to myself as I imagined her horrified expression.
Then, for just a second, I saw that same odd vision of Edward and me on a porch swing, wearing clothes from another kind of world. A world where it would surprise no one if I wore his ring on my finger. A simpler place, where love was defined in simpler ways. One plus one equals two. . . .
Jacob snorted and rolled to his side. His arm swung off the back of the couch and pinned me against his body.
Holy crow, but he was heavy! And hot. It was sweltering after just a few seconds.
I tried to slide out from under his arm without waking him, but I had to shove a little bit, and when his arm fell off me, his eyes snapped open. He jumped to his feet, looking around anxiously.
“What? What?” he asked, disoriented.
“It’s just me, Jake. Sorry I woke you.”
He turned to look at me, blinking and confused. “Bella?”
“Oh, man! Did I fall asleep? I’m sorry! How long was I out?”
“A few Emerils. I lost count.”
He flopped back on the couch next to me. “Wow. Sorry about that, really.”
I patted his hair, trying to smooth the wild disarray. “Don’t feel bad. I’m glad you got some sleep.”
He yawned and stretched. “I’m useless these days. No wonder Billy’s always gone. I’m so boring.”
“You’re fine,” I assured him.
“Ugh, let’s go outside. I need to walk around or I’ll pass out again.”
“Jake, go back to sleep. I’m good. I’ll call Edward to come pick me up.” I patted my pockets as I spoke, and realized they were empty. “Shoot, I’ll have to borrow your phone. I think I must have left his in the car.” I started to unfold myself.
“No!” Jacob insisted, grabbing my hand. “No, stay. You hardly ever make it down. I can’t believe I wasted all this time.”
He pulled me off the couch as he spoke, and then led the way outside, ducking his head as he passed under the doorframe. It had gotten much cooler while Jacob slept; the air was unseasonably cold — there must be a storm on the way. It felt like February, not May.
The wintry air seemed to make Jacob more alert. He paced back and forth in front of the house for a minute, dragging me along with him.
“I’m an idiot,” he muttered to himself.
“What’s the matter, Jake? So you fell asleep.” I shrugged.
“I wanted to talk to you. I can’t believe this.”
“Talk to me now,” I said.
Jacob met my eyes for a second, and then looked away quickly toward the trees. It almost looked like he was blushing, but it was hard to tell with his dark skin.
I suddenly remembered what Edward had said when he dropped me off — that Jacob would tell me whatever he was shouting in his head. I started gnawing on my lip.
“Look,” Jacob said. “I was planning to do this a little bit differently.” He laughed, and it sounded like he was laughing at himself. “Smoother,” he added. “I was going to work up to it, but” — and he looked at the clouds, dimmer as the afternoon progressed — “I’m out of time to work.”
He laughed again, nervous. We were still pacing slowly.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded.
He took a deep breath. “I want to tell you something. And you already know it . . . but I think I should say it out loud anyway. Just so there’s never any confusion on the subject.”
I planted my feet, and he came to a stop. I took my hand away and folded my arms across my chest. I was suddenly sure that I didn’t want to know what he was building up to.
Jacob’s eyebrows pulled down, throwing his deep-set eyes into shadow. They were pitch black as they bored into mine.
“I’m in love with you, Bella,” Jacob said in a strong, sure voice. “Bella, I love you. And I want you to pick me instead of him. I know you don’t feel that way, but I need the truth out there so that you know your options. I wouldn’t want a miscommunication to stand in our way.”