The first week and a half of September was encompassed by some of the most tiring days Bella could ever remember. Her days had been filled with accompanying Edward to doctor visits, physical therapy sessions, cooking meals for the both of them and any company that had come to visit him, and assisting him around the house. It wasn't the work that wore her down, but his frustration when he tried and failed to do something for himself, or when he was just having an off day.
Unfortunately, most days of late had seemed to be off days to her.
On more than one occasion he'd barked at her, unleashing a side of himself that his brothers were all too accustomed to but she, herself, had never really witnessed in full force before. It was difficult for her to bear the brunt of, but she'd managed each time to keep her calm composure long enough for Edward to acknowledge his unfair behavior and apologize.
And apologize he did. Shamefully, sincerely, and relentlessly.
But on the morning of the thirteenth when she failed to show between eight and nine am as he'd been accustomed to, he worried his recent tumultuous temper had finally driven her away. All morning long he sat in his wheelchair, staring at a television he wasn't really watching, and lamenting to himself.
At nine thirty, Samantha, the home health aide that Edward couldn't stand, arrived. She always laughed too much, and not in an attractive or endearing way, and had this annoying habit of flipping her hair over her shoulder every ten seconds. He would usually interact with her just enough to pass as being polite, but that morning, his mind and manners were elsewhere as he blatantly ignored her while she tended to the dressing on the side of his chest where his chest tube had been. He hadn't been home a full four days before he'd had a major mishap and ripped open the incision the very first time he took a real shower.
It had been mortifying enough for him allowing Bella to shave part of his leg so the tape she used to secure the garbage bag around his cast with wouldn't hurt like the devil when he ripped it off. And worse yet had been his father helping him into the new handicapped accessible shower stall while wearing nothing more than a towel wrapped and tucked around his waist. But then, in a series of cataclysmic events, he'd gotten shampoo in his eye and dropped his washcloth, and upon attempting to retrieve it, had fallen off the sitting perch and landed hard on his left side—right against the two-inch raised edge of the shower floor.
Before he could even wrap his own head around what had happened, three people, including Bella, were in the bathroom and lifting him off the floor. Fully nude and his side covered in blood from his torn stitches, Edward's mortification soared to new and inconceivable heights.
That was the first day he'd snapped at her.
When his mother stopped by to make him some lunch, he glanced at the plate and resumed staring apathetically at the television. After futilely attempting to coax him into eating, Esme helplessly looked to Alec who could offer her no more than an unknowledgeable shrug as he told her he'd been like that all morning.
The truth was, he'd been like that since the previous night after snapping at Bella for hurting him when she was changing the dressing on his side. It wasn't healing the way it should after the damage he'd done to it, and the bandage had clung to the forming scar tissue—not that that was any of her fault, but she'd borne the brunt of his irritation. He'd apologized afterward, of course, but even Alec could tell that Edward's outbursts were beginning to wear her down when she'd left shortly afterward.
It hadn't come as a surprise to him that she hadn't called him yet, but he kept his thoughts to himself on the matter. Edward was a grown man. He was smart enough to learn from his own mistakes, and, as far as he was concerned, Bella deserved a vacation day away from Edward's turbulent mood swings.
Out on Commencement Bay with her parents, Bella checked her phone for the thousandth time that day as her father's boat rocked and swayed on the tidal crests and troughs. Seeing once again that she had no missed calls or texts, Bella contemplated calling him, just as she'd contemplated it each and every other time she'd checked her phone. She wasn't sure if she was more hurt or angry that he couldn't even call her to wish her a happy birthday, but he could call her for anything else under the sun. A simple text would have been just fine in her opinion, but she hadn't even received that much.
"He's fine, Bella," her father chuckled as he reeled in his line. "Everyone knew you wouldn't be there today. I'm sure they're all driving him insane with attention...unless you're expecting a call from some other important person I'm missing out on?"
Bella smiled weakly at her father's teasing grin and hopeful insinuation and shook her head, "Nope." Her answer was simple, but it sent a dagger through her heart. She shouldn't be expecting a call from anyone important, because apparently, she wasn't as important to them as she'd begun to hope and believe.
Looking out across the choppy waters, Bella began to think maybe it was time for her to lay her hopes of she and Edward ever becoming true friends to rest once and for all, because this—thing that they had wasn't friendship in the least. Friendship was based on mutual give and take, and with them, Bella was always giving and Edward was always taking. There was no equality; it was entirely one-sided, and by god, it hurt.
At seeing her crestfallen expression and saddened eyes turn out toward the vast open water, Charlie turned to look questioningly at Renee, worried something major had slipped by beneath his watchful eye. He'd always paid close attention to the happenings in his daughter's life, always known when and, more importantly, why something was bothering her. And whenever it was in his power to do so, he fixed it so she could return to being the happy person she usually was. The person he wanted her to always be.
"What happened?" he mouthed to his wife. She cringed slightly, casting her daughter a worried glance before looking back at Charlie and mouthing, "Edward didn't call," back as she shook her head and used her hand to simulate a phone beside her ear.
Charlie released a sighing breath before dropping his fishing pole's handle into the built in holder on the ledge, crossing the deck to Bella, and squatting down beside her. "I'm sure Edward has a reason for not calling, honey."
He wasn't sure if his words were true, but he hoped and prayed they were because he genuinely liked the kid. If he was honest with himself, he was hoping they might, one day, find something greater than friendship between them once they overcame their current hardship. It wasn't even just Edward's anymore, in his opinion, as his daughter had stood beside him through every moment she'd been able to, and had suffered right along with him each time he'd struggled in coping with his injuries. Her heart broke and her spirits fell every time Edward's did. Charlie wouldn't have wished the circumstances upon which they'd met on anyone, but even in the darkness of their current trying times, he could see that they could be good for one another.
When she did no more than nod while toying with her line between her fingers, Charlie sighed and reached out to smooth his hand over her hair, "If it bothers you so much, why don't you just call him?"
"Why?" she asked, her hurt eyes darting to his and taking his breath away. "Why should I have to call him when I do everything else for him? I know it sounds petulant, but is it really that hard for him to pick up a phone for something other than asking me to do something for him or bring him something? It's messed up, Dad. I do everything I can for him; I cook, I clean, I try to encourage him and keep his spirits up when he's having a cruddy day, and I'm constantly swallowing the bitter pills of his frustrated outbursts. I feel more like the paid help who isn't getting paid than his friend."
"Honey...if that's the way you feel, then maybe it's time for you to walk away."
"I can't..." Bella breathed, shaking her head. "You don't see what I do every day, Dad. No one sees how hard he pushes himself and how much it hurts him when he suffers a setback. If I walk away...what'll happen to him? His family can't even see his internal struggle as it is because they all believe his determination is infallible when it's not. When he reaches his breaking point and shatters, how will they help him put himself back together?"
Charlie looked at her and his heart broke for her. It was so obvious in that moment, but he asked anyway, "You care for him, don't you?"
She nodded, feeling incredibly fatuous for allowing herself to believe in the possibility of something so downright impossible, "Obviously more than he does me."
"Bella, just because he forgot to call and wish you a birthday doesn't mean he doesn't think of you as a friend," Renee said sadly. "Did your father ever tell you that he forgot my birthday every year for the first five years we were together? Or that he forgot our anniversary for the first two years we were married?"
"Did you really?" Bella chuckled faintly at her father's shamed grimace.
"I did, and I probably would have continued to forget both if she hadn't thrown me out the front door and locked me out in a pregnancy hormone induced rage," he replied humorously. His smile, however, faded as he saw the hurt still lingering in her eyes. "But, Bella, my forgetting the importance of those dates didn't mean I didn't care. I just wasn't always that great at remembering the days I'm required by estrogen law to remind her of how special she is to me because she may have forgotten at some point during the other three-hundred and sixty-three days of the year. In my defense though, I always remembered Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day once you came along."
"That's so not true! You forgot Valentine's Day one year, too," Renee laughed, slapping him on the shoulder.
"I did not," Charlie rebuked. "You just didn't like your gift."
"Charles Swan, I hardly considered you in your skivvies a gift when we were teenagers, and putting a bow on them in your thirties didn't change that opinion much..."
"Eww! Eww! Stop or I swear I'll go deaf! And possibly blind when I have a nightmare from that!" Bella wailed, dropping her fishing pole to cover her ears.
"Okay, okay," Charlie chuckled, pulling her hands away from her ears. "All we're trying to say is don't jump to conclusions that probably aren't true. He could just be as horrible as I was at remembering things like that...doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't care."
"Dad," Bella sighed, slumping down into her folding chair. "He hasn't called at all, not even to just shoot the breeze like he used to do on the rare occasions I was doing something other than hanging out at the hospital..."
"And maybe there's a reason for that, Bella. Your life may be revolving around him right now, but honey, right now...his life is only revolving around his injuries, and that might sometimes make it hard for you to feel like you're more than just a bystander."
Bella nodded as she looked down at her lap, her father's words striking a cord of truth within her that she'd failed to acknowledge before he'd spoken them. The imbalance in their... relationship - for lack of a suitable term at the moment - still hurt, but she felt if she could just get clarification on what role, exactly, it was that he wanted her to play in his life, maybe it wouldn't hurt as much.
She believed she could withstand having her feelings hurt from time to time if she knew, deep down, that even when he didn't act like it, that he truly counted her as a real friend. She even believed that she could manage just being the person in his life that he didn't count as a true friend, but needed for mental and emotional support until he made it to the end of his recovery journey. Bella had, for a long time prior to their life paths crossing, believed that some people are only meant to be a part of each other's lives temporarily. She could handle that, if that's what he really wanted or needed.
What she couldn't handle was the constant oscillation between the two role distinctions she felt at the hand of his mercurial behavior.
"What you're doing...wanting to be his friend and trying to help him, is admirable, Bella, and I'm proud of you for being the kind of person that's capable of putting someone else before yourself. That's not something that many people possess," Charlie smiled as he stood and leaned down to kiss the top of Bella's head.
"Cut the kid some slack, kiddo, but for shit's sake, put your damn foot down the next time he takes his aggravation out on you or I'll put my foot up his ass, understood?"
"Dad," Bella laughed, shocked, as Charlie grabbed his fishing pole and began baiting its hook.
"What?" he chuckled, throwing a wink at her as Renee's hand caressed his back momentarily as she passed by him. "I like the kid, I do. I happen to think he's a pretty honorable and decent man, but you're my kid and I won't hesitate to put him in his place if I hear he acts that way toward you again. Wheelchair or no wheelchair, I don't discriminate when it comes to someone hurting my little girl."
As Bella re-baited her hook and cast her line back out into the water, she smiled genuinely for nearly the first time all day; amused beyond reason at her father's overprotective tendencies. With some of the emotional clouds that had turned her day gloomy cleared away, Bella resumed fishing and began to truly enjoy the day for what it was and not wallowing over what she wished it could have been.
Back in Tacoma, Alec stood like a sentry in the kitchen, leaning against the counter as he watched Edward unenthusiastically throw baseballs across the yard for the dogs. His mood hadn't improved even by a single degree since earlier that morning—in fact, if anything, it had gotten worse as the day had progressed.
Alec understood and sympathized with Edward's daily struggles, but over the last few days, it had begun to seem as though his friend was starting to live beneath a perpetual rain cloud of doom and gloom. While he was no stranger to Edward's short tempered tendencies to lash out when something was causing him extreme duress, his recent brooding and sullen behavior was entirely foreign. For as long as Alec had known him, Edward's method of operation had been to keep everything under a tight seal until he exploded—and then move on as if nothing had ever happened.
His friend was changing right before his eyes, and he didn't like it. Not one bit.
Alec downed the rest of his beer and grabbed two fresh ones from the fridge before heading outside. He stepped out onto the deck and shut the screen door behind him. Walking up to stand beside Edward, he held the bottle out in his direction and then dragged a chair over to settle in for what was sure to be an unpleasant chat.
"You gonna open it?" he asked, twisting off the cap of his own.
"Can't drink it, so what's the point of opening it," Edward muttered, turning the bottle in his hands. "Just one more thing on an endless list of shit I can't do."
"Fine," Alec sighed, reaching over to grab the bottle. "Are you gonna talk about whatever bug crawled up your ass and died between last night and this morning, or are you just gonna keep moping? Because it's getting really old to watch, if you ask me."
"I've been that bad, huh?" Edward asked, chuckling humorlessly beneath his breath as he shook his head.
"Ed, man...bad for you is sleeping off whatever's bothering you. This," Alec stressed, gesturing toward him, "You sitting around acting all woe is me, I have no definition for because it's not you."
Edward nodded, unable to refute the claim because even he was aware that he'd been acting completely out of character all day. It wasn't like him to stew in self-pity the way he'd been doing as of late with increasing frequency, and it was entirely unlike him to waste an full day doing it.
“So what is it, bro? What’s got you in this unshakable...funk?”
“Bella...she finally had enough of my shit and bailed out...and I don’t blame her one bit,” Edward admitted, picking at the worn and torn hem of his favorite Big Dog firefighter hooded sweatshirt.
“I’m not gonna lie, you have been acting like a prick to her lately,” Alec nodded, pausing to take a swig of his beer. “But what makes you think she bailed out?”
“It’s kind of obvious, man,” Edward scoffed. “She’s not here and she hasn’t called or anything all day. I fucked up...big time.”
“Oh, wow,” Alec laughed incredulously. “So you’re all pissy and sulking because she’s not here hanging out with you for once?”
“Nice...I run the girl off and you laugh,” Edward grumbled, turning his head away from his laughing friend.
“She didn’t run anywhere, and if you wanted to spend her birthday with her so damn badly, all you had to do was accept her invitation instead of biting the poor girl’s head off.”
Alec had never felt worse for someone than he did for her that day. Seeing the tears she was trying to fight back in her eyes as she walked away from his explosion—it damn near killed him. If it hadn’t been for Edward’s immediate remorse and chase to apologize to her, Alec probably would have thrown him out of his wheelchair and beaten him to a bloody pulp.
“What?” Edward balked.
“She’s with her parents out on their boat, fishing,” Alec clarified. “They go out every year for her birthday. She asked you a week ago if you wanted to go but you wigged out on her because apparently it’s impossible for cripples to get onboard boats—never mind the fact that they make ramps to do specifically just that.”
“Shit...that was today? Her birthday’s today?” Edward sputtered, wide-eyed. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten her birthday, of all days, when it had been mentioned at least a dozen times in passing over the last week.
“Yeah, maybe if you’d pull your head from your ass once in a while you could save yourself, and her, from all this unnecessary emo-bullshit,” Alec replied bluntly, quirking a brow at him as he lifted his beer bottle back up to his lips.
“Goddamn...” Edward groaned, pulling his hands across the top of his head and down his face. “Can I possibly be any bigger of an ass?”
“Probably, especially if you keep going the way you have been,” Alec shrugged. “Which I’m telling you right now, I’m not standing for anymore. She doesn’t deserve that kind of shit from you...not after everything she’s done for you and your entire damn family.”
Edward’s head snapped to the left, his eyes narrowing as he spoke through clenched teeth, “I get it, dick. I’ve been a shitty friend.”
“No, you don’t get it, Edward,” Alec’s eyes blazed. As he continued to seethe, his arm shot out to the side, his finger pulling away from the bottle in his hand to point in an aimless direction, “That girl has walked out of here in tears almost every night for the last solid week. When I haven’t had to witness it firsthand, I’ve had to hear about it from Emmett. Emmett for fuck’s sake! Emmett who up until you were in a goddamn coma couldn’t give a shit less about anyone other than himself or his wife.”
Unable to cool his sudden boiling rage, Alec stood and picked up the spare full beer off the deck floor. “You call yourself her friend, Edward? I’ve seen you treat your enemies with less hostility than you’ve been treating her with. It’s a goddamn miracle she hangs around here at all.”
The slamming of the screen door in the wake of Alec’s heated departure made Edward jump. He and Alec had had their fair share of quarrels over the years, but he’d never been on the receiving end of that degree of his fury. He’d witnessed it aimed at others, but had never experienced it himself. He’d never earned it before, and he couldn’t deny that he deserved it now.
Edward stared across the yard as he tried to calculate just how many times he’d snapped at her since he’d come home from the hospital, but he found himself incapable of doing so. He could vividly remember the first in the aftermath of his extreme mortification, but other incidents seemed to blend together with such obscurity that he couldn’t differentiate them well enough to count them as separate occurrences.
In the end, after giving himself the start of a massive migraine, the only conclusion he could come to was that he’d become his own worst nightmare; a person so self-absorbed he couldn’t even see the hurt he was causing to those around him who least deserved it.
His torso spun toward the timid voice beckoning him with speed that left him momentarily dizzy, and her name fell from his lips on an expelled breath, “Bella...”
“What are you doing here?” he asked, surprise coloring his tone. Wariness began to seep into his skin as he took in her anxious eyes and nervous fidgeting while watching her hesitant steps approach him.
“Um...I...” she stammered, her nerves wreaking havoc on her vocal abilities. “I came because I need to talk to you...Alec let me in and, um...told me to tell you Jasper’s on his way over and that he’s sleeping at the station tonight.”
He watched the way she debated whether or not she should sit in the chair Alec had abandoned with guilt searing him from the inside out. He’d done that to her; his actions and misguided anger had made her unsure and clearly uncomfortable in his presence.
“Is everything okay? Did something happen?” she asked worriedly while reluctantly lowering herself down into the chair angled toward him.
“Nothing that wasn’t long overdue...” he trailed off as she nodded and looked around nervously. “I’m sorry I didn’t call or anything to wish you a happy birthday...I kind of...forgot it was today. I was just about to head in and call you when you showed up.”
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” she smiled halfheartedly.
“You said you needed to talk to me about something?” Edward prompted, something pulling at and twisting his gut as his wariness grew with her increasing fidgeting.
“Um...yeah,” she stammered as her leg began bouncing rapidly. “I...Edward, I can’t keep doing this...whatever this is,” she gestured between them. “I just...I need to know what it is that I am to you.”
As soon as she’d managed to get the words out there, her leg ceased its anxious movement, but her fingers continued to fumble with her keys. It had taken her a full hour to work up the courage just to bring herself to his doorstep with the intent of settling her confusion on the matter. She’d thought that getting it out there would ease some of the anxiety she’d felt over confronting the issue, but it really hadn’t. The only thing that had calmed her even slightly was his bewildered look.
“What kind of question is that? You’re my friend, Bella...”
“Am I really?” she asked skeptically. “Because sometimes...a lot of the time, it doesn’t feel that way.”
“I’m sorry for that. I know I’ve been...intolerable lately. And I really am sorry I forgot to call you today.”
“This isn’t about my birthday...”
“I swear I was just getting ready to head in to call you...”
“Edward, this isn’t about my birthday...”
“If it wouldn’t have skipped my mind I would have gotten you a gift...”
“Darn it, Edward!” she wailed as she stood from the chair, exasperated with the way they were doing nothing but speaking over one another. “This isn’t about my birthday. I don’t care about my stupid birthday, and I didn’t want a gift. I wanted you to come with us, but apparently if it isn't something you want or need, then it's inconsequential." Her eyes filled with tears as she realized just how inconsequential what few things she wanted or needed from him really were. “That’s what this is about, Edward. That’s why I had to ask what I am to you, because for the life of me I couldn’t answer that question for myself with how one-sided this...this...thing between us is.”
"Bella, it's not like that..." he trailed off, his heart plummeting into his stomach at the sight of a tear escaping her eye and speeding down her cheek.
"Really? Then how is it, Edward?" she asked, her voice quivering. “Tell me how it is if I’m wrong.” She waited for him to answer, but he found himself unable to because, from her perspective, that's exactly how it seemed—and it made his stomach churn.
Bella sighed, rubbing her forehead as every ounce of fight drained from her body. “I can’t keep doing this, Edward. I can’t keep wanting and trying to be your friend but keep getting stuck feeling like I’m just an...I don’t know...that I’m just convenient for you to have around. I can be your friend or I can try to be just the temporary unpaid help...but I can’t be both. So please, do us both a favor and figure out which one it really is you want me to be.”
Unlike Alec’s slamming of the screen door when he’d walked away from Edward, the only sounds that accompanied Bella’s departure were the soft thuds of her sneakers on the wooden deck floor and the gentle whoosh of the screen door sliding in its frame. Edward wasn’t sure which was more expressive of what the person was feeling when they had walked through that doorway, but he knew which one made a white hot flare of pain shoot through his chest and spear his heart.
He almost wished she would have slammed it on her way out, too, because anger he could handle. Anger he could remedy, but he didn’t have the slightest clue how to undo the anguish he’d caused her to feel.
Edward’s head was throbbing, his migraine beginning to pound and thrash against his skull, but the pain in his heart for how despicably he’d treated someone who owed him nothing, but gave him everything, eclipsed it entirely.
As he wheeled himself inside, his gaze flicked to his phone sitting on the desk in the corner of the den, and for a moment, he debated calling Bella. With a sigh, he told himself he'd call her in the morning. He knew all too well she needed some time away from him, as he even felt he could use a day or two away from himself. Unfortunately, he didn't have that luxury—stuck with himself and his remorseful, despairing thoughts as he was.
The house was too silent; too empty—absent of the warm voice and presence he'd grown so fond of over the last month since he’d regained consciousness. The silence bothered him, but his head was throbbing too badly to even contemplate turning on the television just to have background noise filling the empty void. In truth, the only thing he really wanted was to shower and go to bed; to start fresh in the morning and try to regain what parts of himself he'd lost over the last few weeks.
Edward wheeled himself around the den, grabbing a pair of sleep shorts and a t-shirt before heading into the bathroom. While it took three times as long with no one helping him, he managed to get his cast covered and taped the way Bella usually did for him and set himself up in his shower stall with only mild difficulty. He'd been working with Seth for the last week and a half, learning how to get in and out of his wheelchair on his own. Maneuvering his entire body on his own took all of the upper body strength he had, but in trade, he was granted a slight sliver of independence—and that, in and of itself, meant the world to Edward.
As he sat on the bench in his shower, with the water pelting down on him, Bella’s and Alec’s words began to batter his mind from all sides.
"You sitting around acting all woe is me, I have no definition for because it's not you."
“If it isn't something you want or need, then it's inconsequential.”
“She doesn’t deserve that kind of shit from you.”
“I can’t keep doing this, Edward...I’m just convenient for you to have around.”
“I’ve seen you treat your enemies with less hostility.”
“Do us both a favor and figure out which one it really is you want me to be.”
“If you’d pull your head from your ass once in a while you could save yourself.”
By the time he'd finished showering and getting himself settled back into his wheelchair, his migraine had fully set in, making the artificial light in the bathroom suddenly seem blinding. Knowing laying down in a fully reclined position would only make his migraine that much worse, Edward grabbed his pillow off his bed in the den and snatched the throw blanket off the couch before rolling himself over to the recliner. After depositing them into the chair, he made his way into the kitchen in search of some Aspirin - or if he was lucky, the last remaining pills in his bulk sized bottle of Excedrin.
He’d just tossed back his last three pills and was replacing the bottle of water in the fridge when he heard the front door open and close, hard. The obnoxious slam was followed directly by his brother’s voice booming through the hall, sending what felt like shards of shrapnel through his brain, “Yo, Eddie! Where ya at?”
“Kitchen,” he called back, rubbing circles into his temples. As soon as Jasper turned the corner, Edward dropped his hands and looked up at him. “Listen, I have a migraine from hell and I’ve had about the shittiest day in my entire life so, please, I’m begging you...I don’t care what you do tonight, but try to keep the noise level down to a minimum, okay?”
“That’s cool,” Jasper shrugged. “You care if I snag the PS3 and bring it upstairs?”
“No...by all means, have at it,” Edward sighed, relieved.
Two hours later, Edward found himself staring at the ceiling; his headache dissipating slowly in the near silence, but completely unable to fall asleep. His fingers, gripping the medallion Bella had given him, slid the pendant back and forth across the chain as his other hand rolled his cell phone around repeatedly.
His mind had cleared and he knew what he wanted. What he wanted had never been a question he’d needed to search for an answer to, because he’d known the answer all along. What he didn’t know, however, was how to go about earning it. But come morning, he was determined to find a way to begin setting things right, because he was sick and tired of them being wrong.
Flipping open his phone, he tapped out a quick message to Bella before closing his eyes and hoping he hadn’t damaged their relationship beyond repair.
When it comes to being a friend, you’ve always been one to me. If you can forgive me, I’d like to be one to you. I’m sorry. Happy Birthday, Bella - E