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One More Birthday Wish

Judge's Honorable Mention Winner in A Picture Says it All Anonymous O/S Contest 
(Thank you Kharizzmatik!)

A/N: Thanks to Katmom and LJSummers, the beta dynamic duo! This is one of my very first fan fic stories, and it holds a special place in my heart.

I walk slowly into the center of the meadow. It’s been such a long time since I’ve been here, and it hasn’t changed a bit. A gentle, warm breeze caresses my cheeks and blows softly through my hair. The wildflowers and sunshine scent the air. I close my eyes and lift my face to the light. I raise my arms and extend them from my sides in gratitude for the warmth and light. A bubble of joy rises through me, causing me to spin and hug myself.

When I finally open my eyes, he is there in the shadows watching me. I grin sheepishly in welcome. He smiles back warmly and walks silently toward me. I am so happy to see him, I can’t stop myself from meeting him halfway. As his arms go around my waist, I slip mine around his neck and we pull each other close. I breathe in his extraordinary scent and revel in being in his arms again.

His black t-shirt is the same as always. I’d tried to get him to wear other colors, or even white to no avail — it’s always black. I sigh. His slightly stubbly chin feels scratchy as he kisses my forehead.

But, wait a second. What is this shirt I’m wearing? It’s familiar, but not with him and his black t-shirt. It’s soft flannel, but it has elastic at the wrists and a bit of lace at the sleeve ends. And it’s long sleeved. Why would I be wearing long sleeves in the sunny meadow? I always wear short-sleeved tops when we come here.

And these hands. These are not my hands, but yet they are. These hands are old and wrinkled, the veins prominent through the thin, age-spotted skin. These hands are bony and thin, the nails brittle and yellowed. What happened to my pale, soft skin? These are the hands of an old woman. They look like my grandmother’s hands. But she died years ago.

I look up into his face in confusion. He looks just like he did yesterday at school. He grins mischievously and grabs my hair, tugging it a couple of times as he drapes it over my shoulder.

“A braid today, Bella? You know I like it better when you wear it down.”

I look down at the thick braid as it wound down my chest. It hadn’t been braided a minute ago when I twirled in the sun, so how did that happen? This isn’t my hair — grey with streaks of white – my hair is brown. What’s going on here? I can’t seem to form words with my mouth, it just keeps opening and closing without a sound.

I gape at him, hoping that he’ll tell me what is going on. He simply reaches up and caresses my withered cheek. It was my cheek, for sure, but it doesn’t feel the same under his fingertips.

“Happy Birthday, Bella,” he whispers just before pressing his lips to mine. . . .

“Happy Birthday, Gramma! Happy Birthday, Gramma! Wake up! Wake up! Look what we brought you! Lookie, lookie!”

My eyes flew open and fell on the blurry, cherubic face bouncing next to me. I squinted in confusion for a few seconds — oh, it was just a dream — and grabbed my glasses from the nightstand.

“Good morning, Sweetheart. What have you brought me?”

“We brought you breakfast in bed! I made you all my favorites. See?” He looked over his shoulder towards the door where my daughter was standing holding a loaded tray.

“You did? Well, thank you very much. I think I’m going to need some help eating all that, though. Think you can help me?”


I sat up and scooted over to make room for him to crawl in next to me. Bree set the tray across my lap and stroked her son’s head. “You need to sit extra still now so nothing spills on Gramma, okay?”

“Yes, Mom.” He rolled his eyes at me, and mine watered just a bit. He looked so like someone else when he did that.

“Well, what have we here; what did you make for me?” I couldn’t identify anything on the tray except the glass of juice.

“Toast with peanut butter and a face of raisins and bananas. Look, see? It’s smiling. Choco Crisps with milk, bacon in maple syrup, and grape juice,” he explained pointing to each item in turn.

“Oh my, I can see you went all out. What should we eat first?”

“The Choco Crisps cause they get soggy fast.”

He wasn’t kidding. They were a soggy mess floating in a sea of milk. I hid my disgust well from years of practice. I could never bear to diminish the innocent delight and pride in preparing my breakfast feast with a critical word or expression. When my eyes drifted up and met my daughter’s, she simply shrugged. She was as powerless as I against the force of nature that was my grandson.

Once breakfast was done, I climbed out of bed and began my day in earnest. As I sat in front of the mirror brushing out my hair, I studied my face intently. When did I become so old? Where had the years gone? My eyes were no longer clear and bright, they’d become slightly cloudy as time passed. My skin had shriveled like a peach left in the fridge too long. It was crisscrossed with wrinkles deep and shallow, and was liberally blotched and sprinkled with spots and freckles. All trace of brown was gone from my hair.

When did that happen? I wondered. It seemed the last time I looked, it was brown streaked with grey.

I touched my cheek with my fingers and my reflection did the same. Who was this old woman in the mirror? She wasn’t a reflection of how I felt on the inside. I wasn’t this old, was I? My hand stretched out and touched the reflection of my face on the cool surface of the looking glass. My morning’s dream came unbidden in my mind. It had once been my worst nightmare. How could he smile at me the same way when I didn’t look at all the same? How could he touch me? Kiss me? He was just the same, I wasn’t, and in this moment, I wasn’t at all sure who I really was — the me in the mirror, or the me inside. The young woman trapped in this suddenly old body.

“Mom! Are you ready to go?” Bree called from the kitchen, startling me out of my reverie.

“Yeah, Hon, I’ll be right there.” Time to face the rest of this strange day, I thought grimly.

~  ✧  ~

There was shopping and lunch, a short nap, and afternoon tea with the girls. By late afternoon my son and his family had arrived. My youngest, Mary Alice, hadn’t shown up yet, but we knew she was coming; being late was nothing new. Actually, we expected it. The only time she’d been early was when she had been born.

The adults were in the kitchen, drinking wine and preparing my birthday feast while catching up on the latest news and family gossip. The kids were out in the back yard – supposedly decorating and setting the table, but I could hear them running around and squealing as they played some game instead. It was a rare thing to bring everyone together like this. It happened only at Christmas or Thanksgiving and sometimes my birthday, so this was an extra special day.

I sat quietly in the dim family room just listening, letting the hubbub of all the sounds surround me like a cocoon. There was life in this house again, and I loved it. It had been too quiet for too long with just me within these four walls. I missed the companionship of my dear friend and husband who’d died a couple of years ago. Such a patient, loving man, the father of my children. He was steady, faithful, and kind, and I was grateful for the life we’d shared together. I was glad he suffered only briefly before he passed. I loved him dearly, it’s true, but he was not my true love. No, that love was locked away, a secret in my heart of hearts. My husband knew, of course, but no one else did. . . .

My thoughts were interrupted by the banging of the front door. “Hi, hi, hi! I’m sorry! I know I’m late, but I made it in time, right?! I didn’t miss anything, did I?” Mary Alice. Always running, slightly out of breath, a human tornado. Like my grandson, she was also an irrisistible force of nature.

She went breezing down the hall to stop in the kitchen first, before going out back to corral the kids. She was the only one of us that could actually pull them all together, unite them in purpose, and get them to actually accomplish a task. I knew her secret, of course – she was simply a bigger version of them while carrying off being an adult at the same time. Mary Alice was like a bridge in so many ways, and if I were being honest (though I’d never admit it to anyone else), she was the most like me of all my children. Bree was most like her father, and was becoming more stodgy as she aged. MJ (for Michael Junior) was an interesting hybrid of Mike and me, and in many ways was secretly my favorite because of this.

With the kids firmly on task, Mary Alice came back inside. “Where’s Mom?” she asked.

“I think she’s in the living room. White or red?” MJ answered.

“Red, thanks,” and I could hear her feet coming down the hall towards me. “Mom, what are you doing, sitting here by yourself?”

“Oh, I was just trying to stay out of the way. You know how your sister is in the kitchen.”

Mary Alice rolled her eyes and we laughed together quietly.

“And the kids wanted the garden to be a surprise, so. . . .”

“Here you sit.”

“Here I sit and listen to the life around me. It’s quite wonderful, actually.”

“Mmmmm, I’ll bet,” she murmured.

~  ✧  ~

Dinner was lovely and lively – full of laughter, teasing, bickering, and funny stories. I loved it when we could all get together like this, it happened so rarely now, with everyone getting older making for busy lives and busy schedules. I told the kids early in the year that I didn’t want gifts for my birthday; that the best and only thing I wanted was for us to gather as a family. I was glad they listened for once, and gave me the best gift they could.

Bree had even made all my favorite dishes for dinner. When Mary Alice brought out my birthday cake, I felt tears slip down my cheeks. Red velvet cake with butter frosting. I used to make it for them when they were kids. It was my all-time favorite, favorite cake, and a real luscious treat. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten the old family recipe. She’d only put two candles on the cake, a “7” and a “3” because 73 individual candles would never fit. I closed my eyes to make a wish and found that for the first time I didn’t have one. I had everything I could wish for in this moment. So I smiled my secret smile, pretending I had a wish, and quickly blew out the candles to great cheers and acclaim. I hadn’t felt so deeply happy and content in a very, very long time.

Twilight had long been my favorite time of day and I lingered in my garden while the kids cleared the dinner mess away. Mary Alice, calmer now, fluttered over and sat with me on the swing. Long years ago, Mike had erected a bench swing in the middle of the yard for me. He knew how I loved to softly sway and read surrounded by the fragrant natural beauty of my garden. After several minutes of silence, Mary Alice reached into her pocket.

“Mom, remember the last time I was here I took a few more boxes from the attic to sort through?”

She had taken it upon herself to clean out the attic. It was too full of memories for me, and the kids were worried about the fire danger because it was full to the brim and none of us knew exactly what was up there.

“Yes, of course, dear. Did you find something interesting again? Maybe something we should take to Antiques Roadshow?” I laughed. She was so enthusiastic about whatever she was doing and more than once thought she’d found something to make me rich and I’d had to shoot her hopes down.

She rolled her eyes. “No, nothing like that.” She handed me a photograph. “I found this. Do you recognize it? I’m pretty sure it’s you, but that doesn’t look like Dad. Without heads it’s kinda hard to tell.”

My hand trembled slightly as I brought the picture closer to my face. I didn’t really need to do that, but I was stalling for time. I knew this picture well and it was indeed me, but it wasn’t her father I was leaning against. I brought my free hand unconsciously to my lips. This picture had become lost to me so long ago I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it.

“Where did you find this?”

“It was stuck in the fold of a box with a bunch of baby things. They were Bree’s, I think. They certainly weren’t mine, and I don’t think you dressed MJ in pink, did you?”

I shook my head.

“It was wedged in the corner with the image side stuck a little bit to the cardboard. I had thought the box was empty and had taken it to the dumpster. When I broke the box down, this fluttered out and landed on the ground. I didn’t know if it was important or not, I’ve never seen it before, and it wasn’t with any other pictures.”

I was having a hard time finding my voice and I knew I needed to. Quickly.

“Yes, I know this picture and that is me, but it’s not your father. It was taken by my mother – you know how good she was with a camera – that’s why our head are cut off,” I rolled my eyes before I continued, “It’s just one of the boys I knew in high school.”

“Oh. Do you have other pictures of him?”

“No, this is the only one.”

“Someone you dated before Dad?”

“Not really.”

“Why are you being cryptic all of a sudden? You’ve never been shy to talk about the guys before Dad. Was he your secret love or something?”

“Or something.” And with that, my tone of voice indicated the subject was closed. She sighed, but knew not to push me further on the matter.

“Are you ready to go in, now?”

“No, I’d like to sit here a while longer, thanks.”

“Company or alone?”

“Alone, I think.”

“All right, I’ll go help the others. Holler when you’re ready to come in. The path is pretty uneven these days and I don’t want you to fall.”

I nodded, but internally rolled my eyes. I walked that path nearly every day without a problem, but I had to admit it was nice to be fussed over a bit. She stood from the swing and went inside. The warm light from the windows streamed into the backyard, becoming brighter as the sun set and the light outside continued to fade.

I looked again at the picture in my hand. I ran my finger along the figure on the right. It was the one and only time he’d ever worn a white t-shirt. He’d done it for me because I’d begged and it was my birthday. It was his gift to me. He didn’t really have anything else to give and it had made me so happy. Such a simple thing, but those were the things that always meant the most to me. Mike never did understand that. I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and sighed.

I felt the swing shift slightly as someone sat down next to me. I hadn’t heard anyone approach and I was a little peeved as I really just wanted a few minutes to myself. It had been a full, busy day and I was a bit tired. I was used to being alone almost all the time, and while having my family around was wonderful, it was also wearying. I sighed again.

“Hello, Bella.” The sweet, soft voice spoke and my eyes flew open. “Did you have a nice birthday?” My mouth popped open and stayed that way. Was this another dream? I didn’t think I was asleep.

“No, you’re not dreaming.”

“How. . . what. . . .” I gasped. “Hallucinating? Delirious?”

He chucked, “Nope.”

“Then what?”

“I came for your birthday.”

“You. . . came. . . for my. . . birthday?”


“Wha. . . why. . . um, why now?”

“Because this one is special. All your birthdays have been special, but this one is especially so.”

I was dumbstruck. Why was this birthday so special? It wasn’t even a “speed limit” birthday as MJ’s son called them. I couldn’t get over the fact that he was here, sitting next to me, on the swing, in my garden.

“But. . . how. . . how. . .”`

“Is this possible?”

Again with the mind-reading. I hated when he did that. It was so annoying. But in this case helpful, because I didn’t seem to be able to form many coherent thoughts much less speak them.

“I asked and was given permission.”

“You. . . you. . .”

“Yes. I asked a long time ago, but it wasn’t time, then.”

“But, it’s time now.”

“Yes. It can be, anyway. That’s kinda up to you.”

“Oh.” If it were possible, I was even more confused, and the question that had rattled around in my head for years popped out. “Why did you leave me?”

“Oh, Bella. Sweetheart. I had to go. I couldn’t stay. You know that. We talked about this.”

“But I never understood. Not really. I’d have followed you anywhere.”


“Well, okay, maybe not there, but anywhere else.”

“I know, Sweetheart. But you’d never have been happy. Not really. C’mon. Be honest with yourself.” He looked deep in my eyes and touched my cheek. An air of sadness suddenly surrounded him. “Mike made you happy. Admit it. If not to me, at least to yourself, please.”

“But. . . .”

“No buts.”

I sighed and closed my eyes, just letting the feeling of his fingers on my cheek and the smell of him burn through me.

Distant memories flooded my mind. We’d had this very conversation so many times. Ugh, I’d forgotten that. I didn’t believe him though, I didn’t think he’d actually go. I compared my dreams of life with him to the life I’d actually had, and I knew he was right. I sighed again.

“Okay, I admit we wanted different things then. But don’t you think. . . .”

“No, Bella. I would never have been happy with the life you wanted. I’d have been happy with you, but I would have eventually come to hate and resent you for tying me down. Be real.” He ran his hand through his hair in exasperation. “Look at the picture closely, Bella. Really look at it. Tell me what you see.”

“I see the two of us. I’ve got my cutoffs on, and you’re wearing a white t-shirt for once. I’m standing behind you with my arms around you, and I’m leaning my head on your upper back. My mom cut off your head and most of mine when she took the picture.”

“Look carefully. Are your arms actually around me?”

“Oh. . . um. . . not really. Not quite. You have my hands in your hands, our fingers intertwined.”

“Yes. You wanted to put your arms around me, but I couldn’t stand to be restrained in that way, so I took your hands in mine. Even for just a picture, I couldn’t be caged in by you. I’m facing away from you Bella. Your arms were like a gilded cage for me, and I was always looking for an out. I always had one foot out the door. I wasn’t faithful to you. I wanted you, yes, but I needed my freedom more. Surely you knew that?!”

“But, but. . . .”

“No buts. Bella, I loved you. I loved you enough to want for you what you wanted for yourself. I knew I could never give it to you and remain me. I would have gotten lost in that life and then I wouldn’t be the man you loved. We simply wanted different things. For once in my life, I was trying not to be selfish. Can’t you see that?”

“Trying not to be selfish! What do you call what you did, then?!”

“Well, what happened wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but I was headed out either way.”

“Wait, what do you mean what happened wasn’t quite what you had in mind? I thought that was intentional. You mean to tell me now that you weren’t trying to kill yourself?”

“No, actually I wasn’t. I was ready to get out of dodge, but didn’t have a ride. I met those dudes at a party, and they said they were heading to Vegas at the end of the month. I asked if I could bum a ride and they said yes. We started hanging around together after that. They seemed pretty cool. They were already living the sort of life I wanted and I thought maybe I’d hang with them beyond Vegas.”

“Yeah, I remember all that. Those dudes were crazy, though.”

“Yeah, they were, but I didn’t see that. I really wasn’t much different from them. You know me, I was always high on something then, well, except when I was with you. You do know that, right?”

I sighed. “Yes.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted me to be, Bella. I really am. I just didn’t have it in me.” He put his arm around my shoulders, drew me into his side, and kissed the top of my head.

I sighed again remembering their wild antics. Honestly, those two had been like a house doused in gasoline and Edward was simply the lit match. When the three of them were together there was no restraining them, and they liked to do wild, dangerous shit. Crazy stuff like playing chicken with oncoming trains, climbing to the top of the old city water tower and wrestling around to see if they could throw one another off, getting drunk and high before taking guns into the woods for a little target practice a la paintball with real bullets.

The three weeks before my birthday that year made me a frantic wreck. I was filled with dread and relief every time the phone rang. They were supposed to leave at the end of August, but Edward convinced them to stay until my birthday, the day of the picture I still clutched in my hand. I was so desperate by the time my birthday rolled around, I’d have done anything to keep Edward from leaving town with Paul and Jacob.

~  ✧  ~

He was waiting for me just outside the back door. He grabbed my hand and led me quickly across the backyard and into the woods. I was so excited about everything that I had to clamp my free hand over my mouth to muffle my giggling. I was breathless by the time we were in the safety of the trees, and could only gasp when he pulled me into his arms and pressed his lips to mine.

It was a sweet, tender yet hungry kiss, and briefly we were what we were, two teenagers kissing each other happily. He pulled back to look into my eyes, so we could both catch our breath. In that moment, something shifted. The mischievous sparkle in his eyes darkened to something I hadn’t seen before, and the air between us crackled with life. The next thing I knew, he was pressing me against a nearby tree, one hand tangled in my hair, the other gripping my waist, his lips and tongue devouring mine. Now I was breathless for a whole different reason. My hand found its way into his hair while the other snaked around to his back, both pulling him closer to me. My heart pounding, my hope soared. We’d made out before and fooled around a bit, but never with this kind of intensity.

I wanted him. I’d wanted him for a long time. I hadn’t been ready to make love, and still wasn’t sure if I was, but this was it — my last opportunity. He was to leave for good in the morning. I didn’t want him to go; I wanted him to stay with me. I knew he wouldn’t take me with him despite all my begging and pleading. I held out a kernel of hope that if we finally sealed the deal, he’d stay. Or, lacking that, that this one final night might leave me with a part of him taken root in my womb. Anything. I would take any little thing he’d leave with me.

His lips left mine and trailed warm, wet, sucking kisses along my throat and neck. I was now panting and fully aroused. His hands slipped under my shirt and traveled up to my breasts. My nipples were already erect, and when his thumbs stroked over them as he bit gently on my shoulder, I groaned out loud and threw my head back into the tree.

“Oh God. . . uhng. . . .” I couldn’t stop the noises coming from my mouth and throat as he continued to tease and pluck at my nipples while nuzzling and nibbling across my shoulders and neck. I had purposely not worn a bra and chosen this loose fitting top to give him easy access.

“You’re so soft and warm,” he breathed into my skin and suddenly licked his way from my upper chest to my lips. He plunged his tongue into my all too willing, already open mouth and I panted against him. My hands had been all over his chest and back over his t-shirt and I suddenly had to feel his skin under my fingertips. I pushed him back just enough to rip his shirt over his head and then mine. I was frantic. He was making me wild. It made me brave.

No sooner than my breasts were revealed, before my shirt was even on the ground, he was suckling and biting my nipples. I didn’t think they could get any harder, any more erect, but I was wrong. The sensation was fucking unbelievable and took what little breath I had left from me.

“Ungmphf. . . .” nonsensical, guttural, primal noises arose from deep in my throat, my head thrown back, my eyes squeezed shut, my mouth open. My hands buried themselves in his hair, fisting it tightly to pull him closer. He groaned against me in response. His hands were now at my waist, arching my back, pulling my body to his. I became aware of the heat pooling between my legs. I’d been turned on before, but this, this was something else. Something totally new.

I pulled his mouth back to mine. When I drew his tongue into my mouth and sucked on it, he moaned deeply and pressed his hips against me. For the first time, I could feel every inch of him pressed tightly against my body. I moaned in return and my hands found their way to the sides of his ass to hold him to me. I wanted him to grind on me. I need the friction, the pressure. I was writhing against him trying to find some sort of relief.

He broke the kiss, panting heavily, but his lips never left my skin for long. He gasped against my neck, “Oh, God. . . oh, Bella. . . you are. . . so. . . beautiful. . . .”

“Edward. . . oh. . . uungg. . . oh please, baby. . . .”

“What, baby?”

“Oh, Edward. . . please. . . oh, God. . . oh. . . please make love to me. . . I want you so badly. . . .”

He froze completely. He even held his breath before letting it out in a long sigh. His lips went from sucking wetly to gentle little pecks. His hands slipped from my breasts and planted themselves at the sides of my waist. He pushed himself back despite my attempts to pull him closer. It was as if I had doused him with a bucket of ice water, so quickly did the energy between us change.

“Baby? Edward?” I pulled his face up to mine. He closed his eyes and sighed again as he rested his forehead on mine. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong, Bella, and everything’s wrong.” He placed a quick, chaste kiss on my lips before bending down to retrieve his t-shirt.

I stood there totally stunned, still leaning up against the tree. I couldn’t comprehend what he was doing and just gaped at him. After he put on his shirt and I still hadn’t moved, he picked up my shirt and redressed me, pulling me away from the tree and into his arms.

“Bella, I can’t. We can’t.”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand?”

“Sweetheart, I’m leaving in just a few hours. Whether we do this or not, it won’t change that.”

“But, but. . . .”

“No buts.”

“I thought. . . I. . . uh. . . don’t you. . . ” but I couldn’t get the words out. They were just too painful. Shame rose up unbidden and unwelcome. I wished I hadn’t said anything. He’d turned me down, and I had begged. Oh God, how humiliating. Tears burned my eyes, but I couldn’t let him see me cry.

“Of course I want to. I’ve wanted to for a long time. But it’s wrong. For once, I’m doing the right thing. I can’t take advantage of you like this. We want different things. Having sex won’t change that. It won’t make me stay and I won’t take you with me. You know I never want children and I won’t let you steal my seed in the hopes of having my baby in your belly.”

My eyes flashed to his, wide with amazement. How did he know that? I hadn’t told anyone about that.

“Bella,” he sighed and tapped my temple. “I saw it in your mind. Even if I hadn’t, I’d have felt it in your heart.” He reached into my shorts pockets and pulled out the condoms I had shoved in before meeting him in the yard. “Did you really think I’d let you put one of these pin-pricked ones on me?”

I dropped my head in shame, letting my hair cover my face, grateful for the darkness. I could feel the blood burn in my cheeks. I couldn’t control the tears this time. He tried to get me to look at him, but I refused. I was too ashamed. My desperation had pushed me to try anything, do anything – including puncturing condoms with a pin – and it had all failed. Miserably.

“Sweetheart, please don’t be like this. I understand what you were trying to do. Please understand me. You are better than this. You deserve better than me. You deserve a warm, soft bed, candlelight and rose petals your first time. Not some horny fuck up against a tree or on the cold, wet, muddy ground with a man who’s not faithful to you. And babies are to be shared with someone who wants them and that’s not me. That will never be me. It’s no good, I’m no good.”

His words didn’t register through my shame and humiliation. I heard the murmur and passion in his voice, but nothing more. The man I loved, who said he loved me, didn’t want me. That’s all I could focus on. He just didn’t want me.

I was suddenly tired. I just wanted to go home. I wanted to crawl in bed, pull the covers over my head, cry myself to sleep, and sleep until next week. Or maybe next month. I wondered vaguely if I could get away with staying in bed until next year. Whatever. It didn’t matter because he was leaving. No matter what, he was leaving, and nothing I could say or do would change that. I just wasn’t enough somehow, in some way. He didn’t want me. I don’t think I would ever understand this. Not really. Not now, not ever.

~  ✧  ~

“I turned you down because I loved you too much,” he murmured into my hair. “I wouldn’t have stayed and I just couldn’t break your heart that way. It would have been cruel. It didn’t mean I didn’t want to. I did. Badly. You have no idea how badly. I know you don’t believe that, but it’s true.”

I pulled back to look him in the eye and I could see the truth there. For the first time, I actually believed him. I touched his cheek and he closed his eyes with a sigh.

“It was as hard for me to leave as it was for you when I left. I think it fueled what happened next.”

“What did happen next?” I’d never gotten the answers to my questions. There was no one left to ask.

“We headed south. They wanted to take a detour to visit some friends. We stopped in some podunk town in northern California for a couple of days. Turns out their friends were growers and dealers, and we scored some really good shit. We got incredibly high and headed out into the desert toward Vegas. I can’t even tell you how much we drank and smoked; I was completely blitzed. There were pills, too. Don’t know what they were. Probably acid. All I could do was laugh and say yes.

“We’d been taking turns driving and it was my turn. I couldn’t even walk, so they stuffed me into the back seat of the car with a Coke trying to sober me up some and Paul slipped behind the wheel. The next thing I knew, we weren’t on the pavement anymore, we were driving down some dirt road. It was late afternoon or early evening, whatever.

“The sun was setting behind us and everything was golden and red in the rays of the sun. I was just tripping in the backseat and not paying attention to much of anything, really. Paul and Jacob were both drinking beers while passing a joint back and forth. They were laughing hysterically and punching each other.

“I noticed a dark line at the bottom of the buttes we were rapidly approaching. ‘Whoa,’ I’d said from the backseat and leaned forward pointing between them. ‘Cool!’ ‘Awesome!’ ‘Let’s do it!’ Jacob shouted and Paul floored it.

“That’s when I realized it wasn’t a shadow or layer in the rocks, it was a chasm and there was no bridge across it. It didn’t look very far across until we were airborne. I knew we weren’t going to make it. I laughed at our stupidity until I thought of you. I saw your face in my mind, and that was my last thought until I woke up here.”

“By here, you mean. . . .”

“Wherever it is that I am now. It’s kinda some place in between, I think. But I don’t know. They don’t tell me much.”

“Does it. . . did it. . . hurt?”

“You mean physically?

I nodded.

“Nope, not really. It’s the emotional ties that sting.”

“Oh.” I found I had nothing else to say. What do you say to that?

And then I thought of something. “Why is it that you look like that,” and I gestured to him with my hand, “and I look like this?” I gestured similarly to myself.

“Because I’m dead and you’re not.”

“It’s that simple?”


“When I. . . when I die, will I look like I do when I died?”

“That’s up to you. You’ll have some choice on that because you’ve lived longer and died naturally. I don’t because I died young, at my own hand more or less.”

“Oh, I see.”

“It’s not a punishment per se, I just didn’t live long enough to provide myself much choice; and when you take yourself out, your choices are simply more limited, that’s all. A body, a life, is a blessing, and the Big Guy doesn’t take too kindly when his gift is casually disregarded.” He winked.

“Are you. . . stuck, I guess. . . where you are now for always?”

“No, just for now. I have a job to do — one I asked for and was given — and once it’s done, I’m pretty sure I get to move on. That’s what I’ve been told, at least.”

“A job?”

“Well, sort of.”

You asked for a job?!”

He had the grace to laugh. The guy I knew hated any sort of work, job, or labor, and wouldn’t lift a finger to help out ever.

“Yeah, well, things do change, ya know.”

“I see,” I sort of harrumphed. “So, what is this sort of job, exactly?”

“Watching over you.”

“Watch. . . wh. . . wait. . . what?”

“Watching over you.”

“You mean like a guardian angel?”

He threw his head back and laughed loudly. God, how I had missed that sound. I couldn’t stop the smile that spread across my lips.

“Well, I don’t think anyone would put the word ‘angel’ next to my name, but. . . I guess. . . . Yeah, that description sort of works.”

“Wait. Watching over me, have you visited me before?”

His smile vanished and he suddenly looked wary. “What do you mean?”

“Um. . . well. . . there have been a few times where I could have sworn I saw you somewhere. Like the grocery store, or walking down the street. I knew it couldn’t be you – you were dead – but. . . .”

“But. . . .” He prompted when I stopped, lost in my thoughts.

“But, it was like I could feel you. I’d catch up to the person and it wasn’t you, of course, and so I just thought I was crazy. Was that you?”

“Sometimes, yes,” he admitted with visible chagrin. “I wasn’t supposed to be seen or felt, but there were times you were just so sad or so lost or so forlorn, I couldn’t resist. I’d immediately get in trouble and have to cover my tracks by making you see me in someone else. I love you, Bella. I always have. And when you hurt emotionally, I could feel it. I wanted to help. I’m sorry I made you think you were crazy.”

What a relief. I had seriously doubted my sanity on more than one occasion.

“It’s been a long time, though, since that’s happened. Slacking off?” It felt so good to sit next to him, I just couldn’t help teasing him a little.

“No. Actually, I got into so much trouble they threatened to give my job to someone else. I didn’t want that, so I had to stop it. I eventually figured out other, more subtle ways to reach you. Ways that were okay.”

“Oh. You really got into trouble over me?”

He laughed lightly. “Always, my love. Always.”

I looked at the picture in my hand again, grateful to finally understand what had really happened to him.

“Do you have any other questions?”

“Um, yes. Two.”

He raised his eyebrow in question when I hesitated. I knew he knew what I wanted to ask, but he was making me say it out loud.

“Will you get in trouble for coming to see me today?”

“Probably not.”

I wanted to ask why not, but I’d said two, and my other question was more important.

“Will I see you again and if so, when?”

“That depends entirely upon you.”


“Yes, you.”

My brow wrinkled in confusion. Of course I wanted to see him again. I wanted to see him all the time. That had never changed.

I suddenly realized the twilight was fading into the blackness of night. I hadn’t realized we’d been sitting out here so long. I knew Mary Alice would come soon to get me if I didn’t go in. While Bree was stodgy, Mary Alice was the worrier.

“I think I’d better head inside. It’s getting dark and Mary Alice will be coming for me soon.”

“If that’s what you want.”

“What I want is what I’ve always wanted but could never have. I want to be with you.”

“Well, you can finally have what you’ve always wanted. You’re sure you want to be with me? It means leaving all this,” he gestured to my garden, my house, my family.

“Oh. . . .” I breathed, realization dawning. “Is it. . . is. . . it’s time?” I finally gasped out.

“Only if you want it to be. This time it’s your choice. Next time it won’t be.”

“Oh, I see.” I looked to the house, listening for the voices of my children and grandchildren. “Will you come next time?”

“Um. . . no.” I could see him look down into his lap out of the corner of my eye. He looked sad. Disappointed. He masked it quickly when he realized I saw him.

“But why not?” My tone was slightly petulant.

“Because. . . it won’t be my job anymore. I only got to come when you had a choice. It will be too late next time and they’ll send someone else.”

“Who else would come for me?” Thoughts of my mom and dad flitted through my mind.


“Can you tell me?”


We sat in silence then as I puzzled who else would possibly come for me. And I suddenly realized exactly who it would be. Mike.


“Why didn’t he come for me now?”

“It was my job.”

“But. . . . He was my husband.”


“Our short time together trumped my lifetime of marriage to Mike? How can that be?”

“Think about it.”

I tried, but was at a complete loss.

“Look in your heart for the answer.”

Oh. . . .

Before the words had died away, I knew. I understood. He was here because he was my life’s first great love, my true love.

I had loved my husband dearly, but it just wasn’t the same as the love I had for Edward. Mike had known that. I had always been honest with him about it, and bless him, he had loved me anyway.

“He made you happy in ways I couldn’t. He gave you the life you always wanted. The life I was incapable of giving you. I’m forever grateful for that.”

“And now I have to choose between the two of you? Between you and my family?” I cried, tears beginning to pour down my face.

How could I make this choice?

“Yes and no. You will be surrounded by all your friends and family, including Mike, and your parents and grandparents. You’ve earned that in this life. I haven’t. I didn’t. I can only be near you if you choose. It’s entirely your choice. You can walk away as I did all those years ago. It’s truly what I deserve. It’s only your love for me then that has given me this chance now.”

“But. . . but. . . .”

“No buts. I can say no more. I’ve already said too much.”

I closed my eyes.

An eternity with Edward if I go now, or eternity without him if I stay a little longer. How much longer? Would I see Mary Alice graduate from college? Or my grandkids graduate from high school? Who would marry next? Would I see great great grandchildren? What would I miss? What could I live with?

My heart ached and I felt Edward’s cool fingers briefly squeeze mine. For the first time, I truly understood how hard it was for him to just walk away. All this time, I had naturally been focused only on my own pain of being left.

How had he ever made this choice? How could I?

I was suddenly filled with rage.

Why did I even have to make this choice? If this was a reward, I really didn’t want to know what punishment might look like.

He chuckled dryly next to me, listening to my thoughts.

I sighed again. My head spun just a little.

Oh, my blood pressure must have spiked. Did I take my pills this morning? Can’t remember. . . .

I opened my eyes to steady my head and gazed around my garden in the moonlight. The yellow squares of light from the windows of the house streamed onto the lawn. Sudden laughter from inside wafted to me on the breeze.

I remembered every face I’d seen that day – the love and friendship there for me; the confusion in my own this morning. I remembered having no wish for my birthday as every wish I could think of then had been fulfilled. I never in all my wildest dreams, my deepest grief, ever thought I could have this, the deepest wish of my heart. It had been sealed away, carefully kept hidden for more than 56 years, buried so deeply I had completely forgotten about it.

I thought about what life was like in this empty house, in this old body. And I knew. It wasn’t a choice, really. When I breathed into it and truly thought about it, I realized my heart and soul had already made the decision for me long ago. My brain and ego simply needed to catch up.

I felt the swing shift under me as he stood up. He turned to me with a soft, shy smile and held out his hand. “Are you ready to go now?”

“Mom! What are you doing sitting out here in the dark? It’s getting chilly. Time to come in now.” Mary Alice stood right next to him, her hand extended, too.

I felt myself stand and without hesitation, I placed my fingers into his long cool ones. I looked over my shoulder and saw myself still sitting on the swing, holding the photograph. It’d felt like it had been an eternity since I’d held his hand last. Now I’d have his hand in mine forever.

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