The pain was bewildering.
Exactly that—I was bewildered. I couldn’t understand, couldn’t make sense of what was happening.
My body tried to reject the pain, and I was sucked again and again into a blackness that cut out whole seconds or maybe even minutes of the agony, making it that much harder to keep up with reality.
I tried to separate them.
Non-reality was black, and it didn’t hurt so much.
Reality was red, and it felt like I was being sawed in half, hit by a bus, punched by a prize fighter, trampled by bulls, and submerged in acid, all at the same time.
Reality was feeling my body twist and flip when I couldn’t possibly move because of the pain.
Reality was knowing there was something so much more important than all this torture, and not being able to remember what it was.
Reality had come on so fast.
One moment, everything was as it should have been. Surrounded by people I loved. Smiles. Somehow, unlikely as it was, it seemed like I was about to get everything I’d been fighting for.
And then one tiny, inconsequential thing had gone wrong.
I’d watched as my cup tilted, dark blood spilling out and staining the perfect white, and I’d lurched toward the accident reflexively. I’d seen the other, faster hands, but my body had continued to reach, to stretch. . . .
Inside me, something had yanked the opposite direction.
Ripping. Breaking. Agony.
The darkness had taken over, and then washed away to a wave of torture. I couldn’t breathe—I had drowned once before, and this was different; it was too hot in my throat.
Pieces of me shattering, snapping, slicing apart. . . .
Voices, this time, shouting, as the pain came back.
“The placenta must have detached!”
Something sharper than knives ripped through me—the words, making sense in spite of the other tortures. Detached placenta —I knew what that meant. It meant that my baby was dying inside me.
“Get him out!” I screamed to Edward. Why hadn’t he done it yet? “He can’t breathe! Do it now!”
He wanted to wait, to give me painkillers, while our baby was dying?!
“No! Now—,” I choked, unable to finish.
Black spots covered the light in the room as a cold point of new pain stabbed icily into my stomach. It felt wrong—I struggled automatically to protect my womb, my baby, my little Edward Jacob, but I was weak. My lungs ached, oxygen burned away.
The pain faded away again, though I clung to it now. My baby, my baby, dying. . . .
How long had passed? Seconds or minutes? The pain was gone. Numb. I couldn’t feel. I still couldn’t see, either, but I could hear. There was air in my lungs again, scraping in rough bubbles up and down my throat.
“You stay with me now, Bella! Do you hear me? Stay! You’re not leaving me. Keep your heart beating!”
Jacob? Jacob, still here, still trying to save me.
Of course , I wanted to tell him. Of course I would keep my heart beating. Hadn’t I promised them both?
I tried to feel my heart, to find it, but I was so lost inside my own body. I couldn’t feel the things I should, and nothing felt in the right place. I blinked and I found my eyes. I could see the light. Not what I was looking for, but better than nothing.
As my eyes struggled to adjust, Edward whispered, “Renesmee.”
Not the pale and perfect son of my imagination? I felt a moment of shock. And then a flood of warmth.
I willed my lips to move, willed the bubbles of air to turn into whispers on my tongue. I forced my numb hands to reach.
“Let me… Give her to me.”
The light danced, shattering off Edward’s crystal hands. The sparkles were tinged with red, with the blood that covered his skin. And more red in his hands. Something small and struggling, dripping with blood. He touched the warm body to my weak arms, almost like I was holding her. Her wet skin was hot—as hot as Jacob’s.
My eyes focused; suddenly everything was absolutely clear.
Renesmee did not cry, but she breathed in quick, startled pants. Her eyes were open, her expression so shocked it was almost funny. The little, perfectly round head was covered in a thick layer of matted, bloody curls. Her irises were a familiar—but astonishing—chocolate brown. Under the blood, her skin looked pale, a creamy ivory. All besides her cheeks, which flamed with color.
Her tiny face was so absolutely perfect that it stunned me. She was even more beautiful than her father. Unbelievable. Impossible.
“Renesmee,” I whispered. “So… beautiful.”
The impossible face suddenly smiled—a wide, deliberate smile. Behind the shell-pink lips was a full complement of snowy milk teeth.
She leaned her head down, against my chest, burrowing against the warmth. Her skin was warm and silky, but it didn’t give the way mine did.
Then there was pain again—just one warm slash of it. I gasped.
And she was gone. My angel-faced baby was nowhere. I couldn’t see or feel her.
No! I wanted to shout. Give her back to me!
But the weakness was too much. My arms felt like empty rubber hoses for a moment, and then they felt like nothing at all. I couldn’t feel them. I couldn’t feel me .
The blackness rushed over my eyes more solidly than before. Like a thick blindfold, firm and fast. Covering not just my eyes but also my self with a crushing weight. It was exhausting to push against it. I knew it would be so much easier to give in. To let the blackness push me down, down, down to a place where there was no pain and no weariness and no worry and no fear.
If it had only been for myself, I wouldn’t have been able to struggle very long. I was only human, with no more than human strength. I’d been trying to keep up with the supernatural for too long, like Jacob had said.
But this wasn’t just about me.
If I did the easy thing now, let the black nothingness erase me, I would hurt them.
Edward. Edward. My life and his were twisted into a single strand. Cut one, and you cut both. If he were gone, I would not be able to live through that. If I were gone, he wouldn’t live through it, either. And a world without Edward seemed completely pointless. Edward had to exist.
Jacob—who’d said goodbye to me over and over but kept coming back when I needed him. Jacob, who I’d wounded so many times it was criminal. Would I hurt him again, the worst way yet? He’d stayed for me, despite everything. Now all he asked was that I stay for him.
But it was so dark here that I couldn’t see either of their faces. Nothing seemed real. That made it hard not to give up.
I kept pushing against the black, though, almost a reflex. I wasn’t trying to lift it. I was just resisting. Not allowing it to crush me completely. I wasn’t Atlas, and the black felt as heavy as a planet; I couldn’t shoulder it. All I could do was not be entirely obliterated.
It was sort of the pattern to my life—I’d never been strong enough to deal with the things outside my control, to attack the enemies or outrun them. To avoid the pain. Always human and weak, the only thing I’d ever been able to do was keep going. Endure. Survive.
It had been enough up to this point. It would have to be enough today. I would endure this until help came.
I knew Edward would be doing everything he could. He would not give up. Neither would I.
I held the blackness of nonexistence at bay by inches.
It wasn’t enough, though—that determination. As the time ground on and on and the darkness gained by tiny eighths and sixteenths of my inches, I needed something more to draw strength from.
I couldn’t pull even Edward’s face into view. Not Jacob’s, not Alice’s or Rosalie’s or Charlie’s or Renée’s or Carlisle’s or Esme’s… Nothing. It terrified me, and I wondered if it was too late.
I felt myself slipping—there was nothing to hold on to.
No! I had to survive this. Edward was depending on me. Jacob. Charlie Alice Rosalie Carlisle Renée Esme…
And then, though I still couldn’t see anything, suddenly I could feel something. Like phantom limbs, I imagined I could feel my arms again. And in them, something small and hard and very, very warm.
My baby. My little nudger.
I had done it. Against the odds, I had been strong enough to survive Renesmee, to hold on to her until she was strong enough to live without me.
That spot of heat in my phantom arms felt so real. I clutched it closer. It was exactly where my heart should be. Holding tight the warm memory of my daughter, I knew that I would be able to fight the darkness as long as I needed to.
The warmth beside my heart got more and more real, warmer and warmer. Hotter. The heat was so real it was hard to believe that I was imagining it.
Uncomfortable now. Too hot. Much, much too hot.
Like grabbing the wrong end of a curling iron—my automatic response was to drop the scorching thing in my arms. But there was nothing in my arms. My arms were not curled to my chest. My arms were dead things lying somewhere at my side. The heat was inside me.
The burning grew—rose and peaked and rose again until it surpassed anything I’d ever felt.
I felt the pulse behind the fire raging now in my chest and realized that I’d found my heart again, just in time to wish I never had. To wish that I’d embraced the blackness while I’d still had the chance. I wanted to raise my arms and claw my chest open and rip the heart from it—anything to get rid of this torture. But I couldn’t feel my arms, couldn’t move one vanished finger.
James, snapping my leg under his foot. That was nothing. That was a soft place to rest on a feather bed. I’d take that now, a hundred times. A hundred snaps. I’d take it and be grateful.
The baby, kicking my ribs apart, breaking her way through me piece by piece. That was nothing. That was floating in a pool of cool water. I’d take it a thousand times. Take it and be grateful.
The fire blazed hotter and I wanted to scream. To beg for someone to kill me now, before I lived one more second in this pain. But I couldn’t move my lips. The weight was still there, pressing on me.
I realized it wasn’t the darkness holding me down; it was my body. So heavy. Burying me in the flames that were chewing their way out from my heart now, spreading with impossible pain through my shoulders and stomach, scalding their way up my throat, licking at my face.
Why couldn’t I move? Why couldn’t I scream? This wasn’t part of the stories.
My mind was unbearably clear—sharpened by the fierce pain—and I saw the answer almost as soon as I could form the questions.
It seemed like a million deaths ago that we’d discussed it—Edward, Carlisle, and I. Edward and Carlisle had hoped that enough painkillers would help fight the pain of the venom. Carlisle had tried with Emmett, but the venom had burned ahead of the medicine, sealing his veins. There hadn’t been time for it to spread.
I’d kept my face smooth and nodded and thanked my rarely lucky stars that Edward could not read my mind.
Because I’d had morphine and venom together in my system before, and I knew the truth. I knew the numbness of the medicine was completely irrelevant while the venom seared through my veins. But there’d been no way I was going to mention that fact. Nothing that would make him more unwilling to change me.
I hadn’t guessed that the morphine would have this effect—that it would pin me down and gag me. Hold me paralyzed while I burned.
I knew all the stories. I knew that Carlisle had kept quiet enough to avoid discovery while he burned. I knew that, according to Rosalie, it did no good to scream. And I’d hoped that maybe I could be like Carlisle. That I would believe Rosalie’s words and keep my mouth shut. Because I knew that every scream that escaped my lips would torment Edward.
Now it seemed like a hideous joke that I was getting my wish fulfilled.
If I couldn’t scream, how could I tell them to kill me?
All I wanted was to die. To never have been born. The whole of my existence did not outweigh this pain. Wasn’t worth living through it for one more heartbeat.
Let me die, let me die, let me die.
And, for a never-ending space, that was all there was. Just the fiery torture, and my soundless shrieks, pleading for death to come. Nothing else, not even time. So that made it infinite, with no beginning and no end. One infinite moment of pain.
The only change came when suddenly, impossibly, my pain was doubled. The lower half of my body, deadened since before the morphine, was suddenly on fire, too. Some broken connection had been healed—knitted together by the scorching fingers of the flame.
The endless burn raged on.
It could have been seconds or days, weeks or years, but, eventually, time came to mean something again.
Three things happened together, grew from each other so that I didn’t know which came first: time restarted, the morphine’s weight faded, and I got stronger.
I could feel the control of my body come back to me in increments, and those increments were my first markers of the time passing. I knew it when I was able to twitch my toes and twist my fingers into fists. I knew it, but I did not act on it.
Though the fire did not decrease one tiny degree—in fact, I began to develop a new capacity for experiencing it, a new sensitivity to appreciate, separately, each blistering tongue of flame that licked through my veins—I discovered that I could think around it.
I could remember why I shouldn’t scream. I could remember the reason why I’d committed to enduring this unendurable agony. I could remember that, though it felt impossible now, there was something that might be worth the torture.
This happened just in time for me to hold on when the weights left my body. To anyone watching me, there would be no change. But for me, as I struggled to keep the screams and thrashing locked up inside my body, where they couldn’t hurt anyone else, it felt like I’d gone from being tied to the stake as I burned, to gripping that stake to hold myself in the fire.
I had just enough strength to lie there unmoving while I was charred alive.
My hearing got clearer and clearer, and I could count the frantic, pounding beats of my heart to mark the time.
I could count the shallow breaths that gasped through my teeth.
I could count the low, even breaths that came from somewhere close beside me. These moved slowest, so I concentrated on them. They meant the most time passing. More even than a clock’s pendulum, those breaths pulled me through the burning seconds toward the end.
I continued to get stronger, my thoughts clearer. When new noises came, I could listen.
There were light footsteps, the whisper of air stirred by an opening door. The footsteps got closer, and I felt pressure against the inside of my wrist. I couldn’t feel the coolness of the fingers. The fire blistered away every memory of cool.
“Still no change?”
The lightest pressure, breath against my scorched skin.
“There’s no scent of the morphine left.”
“Bella? Can you hear me?”
I knew, beyond all doubt, that if I unlocked my teeth I would lose it—I would shriek and screech and writhe and thrash. If I opened my eyes, if I so much as twitched a finger—any change at all would be the end of my control.
“Bella? Bella, love? Can you open your eyes? Can you squeeze my hand?”
Pressure on my fingers. It was harder not to answer this voice, but I stayed paralyzed. I knew that the pain in his voice now was nothing compared to what it could be. Right now he only feared that I was suffering.
“Maybe… Carlisle, maybe I was too late.” His voice was muffled; it broke on the word late.
My resolve wavered for a second.
“Listen to her heart, Edward. It’s stronger than even Emmett’s was. I’ve never heard anything so vital . She’ll be perfect.”
Yes, I was right to keep quiet. Carlisle would reassure him. He didn’t need to suffer with me.
“And her—her spine?”
“Her injuries weren’t so much worse than Esme’s. The venom will heal her as it did Esme.”
“But she’s so still. I must have done something wrong.”
“Or something right, Edward. Son, you did everything I could have and more. I’m not sure I would have had the persistence, the faith it took to save her. Stop berating yourself. Bella is going to be fine.”
A broken whisper. “She must be in agony.”
“We don’t know that. She had so much morphine in her system. We don’t know the effect that will have on her experience.”
Faint pressure inside the crease of my elbow. Another whisper. “Bella, I love you. Bella, I’m sorry.”
I wanted so much to answer him, but I wouldn’t make his pain worse. Not while I had the strength to hold myself still.
Through all this, the racking fire went right on burning me. But there was so much space in my head now. Room to ponder their conversation, room to remember what had happened, room to look ahead to the future, with still endless room left over to suffer in.
Also room to worry.
Where was my baby? Why wasn’t she here? Why weren’t they talking about her?
“No, I’m staying right here,” Edward whispered, answering an unspoken thought. “They’ll sort it out.”
“An interesting situation,” Carlisle responded. “And I’d thought I’d seen just about everything.”
“I’ll deal with it later. We’ll deal with it.” Something pressed softly to my blistering palm.
“I’m sure, between the five of us, we can keep it from turning into bloodshed.”
Edward sighed. “I don’t know which side to take. I’d love to flog them both. Well, later.”
“I wonder what Bella will think—whose side she’ll take,” Carlisle mused.
One low, strained chuckle. “I’m sure she’ll surprise me. She always does.”
Carlisle’s footsteps faded away again, and I was frustrated that there was no further explanation. Were they talking so mysteriously just to annoy me?
I went back to counting Edward’s breaths to mark the time.
Ten thousand, nine hundred forty-three breaths later, a different set of footsteps whispered into the room. Lighter. More… rhythmic.
Strange that I could distinguish the minute differences between footsteps that I’d never been able to hear at all before today.
“How much longer?” Edward asked.
“It won’t be long now,” Alice told him. “See how clear she’s becoming? I can see her so much better.” She sighed.
“Still feeling a little bitter?”
“Yes, thanks so much for bringing it up,” she grumbled. “You would be mortified, too, if you realized that you were handcuffed by your own nature. I see vampires best, because I am one; I see humans okay, because I was one. But I can’t see these odd half-breeds at all because they’re nothing I’ve experienced. Bah!”
“Right. Bella’s almost too easy to see now.”
There was a long moment of silence, and then Edward sighed. It was a new sound, happier.
“She’s really going to be fine,” he breathed.
“Of course she is.”
“You weren’t so sanguine two days ago.”
“I couldn’t see right two days ago. But now that she’s free of all the blind spots, it’s a piece of cake.”
“Could you concentrate for me? On the clock—give me an estimate.”
Alice sighed. “So impatient. Fine. Give me a sec—”
“Thank you, Alice.” His voice was brighter.
How long? Couldn’t they at least say it aloud for me? Was that too much to ask? How many more seconds would I burn? Ten thousand? Twenty? Another day—eighty-six thousand, four hundred? More than that?
“She’s going to be dazzling.”
Edward growled quietly. “She always has been.”
Alice snorted. “You know what I mean. Look at her.”
Edward didn’t answer, but Alice’s words gave me hope that maybe I didn’t resemble the charcoal briquette I felt like. It seemed as if I must be just a pile of charred bones by now. Every cell in my body had been razed to ash.
I heard Alice breeze out of the room. I heard the swish of the fabric she moved, rubbing against itself. I heard the quiet buzz of the light hanging from the ceiling. I heard the faint wind brushing against the outside of the house. I could hear everything.
Downstairs, someone was watching a ball game. The Mariners were winning by two runs.
“It’s my turn ,” I heard Rosalie snap at someone, and there was a low snarl in response.
“Hey, now,” Emmett cautioned.
I listened for more, but there was nothing but the game. Baseball was not interesting enough to distract me from the pain, so I listened to Edward’s breathing again, counting the seconds.
Twenty-one thousand, nine hundred seventeen and a half seconds later, the pain changed.
On the good-news side of things, it started to fade from my fingertips and toes. Fading slowly , but at least it was doing something new. This had to be it. The pain was on its way out.…
And then the bad news. The fire in my throat wasn’t the same as before. I wasn’t only on fire, but I was now parched, too. Dry as bone. So thirsty. Burning fire, and burning thirst…
Also bad news: The fire inside my heart got hotter.
How was that possible ?
My heartbeat, already too fast, picked up—the fire drove its rhythm to a new frantic pace.
“Carlisle,” Edward called. His voice was low but clear. I knew that Carlisle would hear it, if he were in or near the house.
The fire retreated from my palms, leaving them blissfully pain-free and cool. But it retreated to my heart, which blazed hot as the sun and beat at a furious new speed.
Carlisle entered the room, Alice at his side. Their footsteps were so distinct, I could even tell that Carlisle was on the right, and a foot ahead of Alice.
“Listen,” Edward told them.
The loudest sound in the room was my frenzied heart, pounding to the rhythm of the fire.
“Ah,” Carlisle said. “It’s almost over.”
My relief at his words was overshadowed by the excruciating pain in my heart.
My wrists were free, though, and my ankles. The fire was totally extinguished there.
“Soon,” Alice agreed eagerly. “I’ll get the others. Should I have Rosalie… ?”
“Yes—keep the baby away.”
What? No. No! What did he mean, keep my baby away? What was he thinking?
My fingers twitched—the irritation breaking through my perfect façade. The room went silent besides the jack-hammering of my heart as they all stopped breathing for a second in response.
A hand squeezed my wayward fingers. “Bella? Bella, love?”
Could I answer him without screaming? I considered that for a moment, and then the fire ripped hotter still through my chest, draining in from my elbows and knees. Better not to chance it.
“I’ll bring them right up,” Alice said, an urgent edge to her tone, and I heard the swish of wind as she darted away.
My heart took off, beating like helicopter blades, the sound almost a single sustained note; it felt like it would grind through my ribs. The fire flared up in the center of my chest, sucking the last remnants of the flames from the rest of my body to fuel the most scorching blaze yet. The pain was enough to stun me, to break through my iron grip on the stake. My back arched, bowed as if the fire was dragging me upward by my heart.
I allowed no other piece of my body to break rank as my torso slumped back to the table.
It became a battle inside me—my sprinting heart racing against the attacking fire. Both were losing. The fire was doomed, having consumed everything that was combustible; my heart galloped toward its last beat.
The fire constricted, concentrating inside that one remaining human organ with a final, unbearable surge. The surge was answered by a deep, hollow-sounding thud. My heart stuttered twice, and then thudded quietly again just once more.
There was no sound. No breathing. Not even mine.
For a moment, the absence of pain was all I could comprehend.
And then I opened my eyes and gazed above me in wonder.