“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
With a short gasp, I bolted upright in bed. My hand flew up to cover my eyes from the sudden bright light. Renee must have forgotten to turn off the light before going to sleep, again. That made the fourth time in one week.
My senses slowly woke up and were about as happy as I was to be conscious again. I could hear what woke me up out of a sound sleep coming from down the short hallway. Isabella was screaming something awful in her room. Sometimes I wondered whether or not the kid waited until I had actually had a night off from work to exercise those lungs of hers. I loved my daughter, but I could swear that as rare as they were, these screaming bouts only seemed to happen on nights I was home.
“Renee, hun, can you get this?”
When she didn’t respond, I tried again, “Renee?”
I uncovered my eyes and found Renee still fast asleep, a how-to book on gardening laying open across her chest. I sighed and shook my head. Gardening was her latest thing. She wanted a large, stone-edged garden in the backyard. Not quite sure what she was hoping to plant in the middle of another Washington winter, but I humored her interest.
Renee mumbled something in her sleep, but it was too low for me to catch. How she couldn’t hear Isabella screaming down the hall was beyond me. That woman could sleep through anything.
“Alright, Isabella, alright. I hear ya, kid,” I grumbled as I threw the blankets off my legs.
After hurrying into a t-shirt, I stumbled as quickly as I could down the hall towards Isabella’s room. “It’s okay, baby. Daddy’s comin’.”
I flipped the light switch on and found Isabella sitting in the middle of her crib, face red as a tomato from crying. Even at fifteen months, she already showed quite clearly that she had inherited my tendency towards blushing like crazy. Poor kid. I’d always kinda hated the way anyone could figure out what I was feeling because of that damn blush.
At least she had stopped the screaming when she heard my voice from down the hall. I went over to my daughter and quickly checked her diaper. “No, all good there,” I mumbled.
I reached into her crib and picked her up. “Bellie Bear, what’s the matter?” I asked her, rolling my eyes at my accidental usage of her mother’s ridiculous pet name for her.
The redness was fading from most of Isabella’s face but was still really bright on her cheeks. Isabella looked around the room for a second and then made eye contact with me. Her face lit up into her patented, “Daddy’s here” grin. Sometimes I couldn’t help but think that she knew I was already a sucker for it. Lord help me one day when she wanted to buy new shoes or something.
“Did you plan this, little girl? Did you know Daddy was sleeping?” I asked as she watched my lips move.
Isabella’s eyes moved back to meet mine, and she smiled without making a sound. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she did know what she was doing.
I walked her to the rocking chair in the corner of her room and sat down. “Sorry you’re stuck with Daddy tonight. Mommy didn’t come for you this time since she fell asleep trying to save Forks from winter – one rose bush at a time.”
Isabella answered in some cooing sounds that probably would have been words if she’d put some more effort into it. Clearly, Isabella wasn’t in a talking mood tonight. She could get that way sometimes. She was a little lady of few words, just like her old man.
As I watched my daughter turn her attention away from me and towards the rest of her bedroom, I couldn’t help but smile. I didn’t know the first damn thing about kids when Isabella was born. Hell, I still had no clue what I was doing most of the time. I just hoped that she would keep teaching me in the years to come.
“You’re somethin’ else, Bells,” I whispered.
Isabella’s big, chocolate brown eyes continued to dance across the room. Tiny curls that matched her eyes covered the top of her head. How a little person who looked so much like me could be so damn beautiful was totally unexplainable. I ran one finger gently down the length of her cheek, still stained a bright red, and couldn’t help thinking she was going to be a real heartbreaker some day.
“But we’re not going to let any rotten boys get anywhere near you until you’re…what? Thirty? Does that sound good to you, sweetheart?” I asked.
Mumbling more nonsense under her breath, Isabella turned back towards me and grabbed my finger. She stared at it and responded, “Yeah.”
I laughed as I watched her. “Well alright then. It’s settled. I’ll beat those boys off with a shotgun until you’re thirty. Maybe I’ll have made chief by then. I’ll run ‘em right out of town.”
Just past the window on the far side of her bedroom, a tall tree swayed in the night breeze and caught my attention. I smiled to myself. “You know, Daddy checked that tree out last spring for you, and it’s a good thing I decided it’s far enough away from your window, kiddo. If it were any closer I think I’d be bolting the window shut to keep those Romeos the you-know-what away from you.”
We were quiet for a moment before Isabella suddenly released my finger and started struggling again. Whatever she had wanted in the first place was apparently still on her mind. Quality time with the old man wasn’t the charm, I guess.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart? What do you need?”
Isabella looked back to me for a moment and then pointed across the room to her ever growing collection of stuffed animals. Right in front was one of her favorites, a little brown teddy bear Renee had named Mickey. I stood and walked with Isabella over to the stuffed animal. I handed it to her and said, “Okay, kiddo, here ya go. One bear. What do you think about going to sleep, now?”
One look at the bear, and Isabella shook her head with a pout, “No.”
Damn it. She didn’t want the bear this time. Of course she didn’t. That would have been too easy. Isabella bent over to reach towards the stuffed animals. I laughed when I realized which one she was actually pointing at.
Renee had given Isabella a bright green stuffed monster for Christmas. It had four eyeballs and an open mouth stitched onto the front. The thing was completely ugly and the last stuffed anything I would have bought for our daughter, but Renee tended to approach life from a completely different starting point than the rest of the modern world. She had insisted Isabella would love it.
I put the teddy bear back and exchanged it for the green monster. “This thing? This scary-lookin’…eyeball thing? This is what you want?”
With a smile, Isabella grabbed the monster and stared at it completely captivated. Well I’ll be damned. Bingo.
“You’re a weird bird, Isabella Swan,” I laughed as I walked her back towards the rocking chair. “Works for ya, though.”
I sat down and arranged Isabella on my lap so she could still clutch her new stuffed animal. We rocked together in peace for a few minutes, Isabella babbling under her breath as she talked at the monster in her hands. Soon her eyelids began to droop, and I felt her body sag against mine.
“Close your eyes, Bells. Daddy’s here to protect you,” I whispered. I brushed the brunette curls away from her eyes and added, “You’ll always be my little girl.”
The rocking motion finally put her back to sleep not long after that.
With a jolt, I sprang up in the chair at full attention. I couldn’t believe I was stupid enough to fall asleep rocking Bella. I quickly glanced down at my arms to make sure she was okay.
Except she wasn’t there. When I looked down and found my empty lap, the fogginess in my head began to clear. It was not 1988. In fact, Christmas 2010 had come and gone a few months ago.
I wasn’t in a rocking chair. I was sitting in my living room, where I had been hunched over all night. Gonna feel that all damn day.
And then came the realization that usually hit me sometime in the first few minutes I was awake – my girl was gone.
Sunlight streamed through the open drapes, fading out the images on the television screen. I rubbed my face and listened as the sportscasters traded off stories and catchphrases. Their energy was damn irritating this early. At least, it felt early. What time was it, anyway?
I opened my eyes and searched for the clock, thankful that I had taken a few extra vacation days to grieve Billy’s passing. I couldn’t even imagine dragging my sorry ass into work this morning.
Before I could find the time, my eyes found a sheet of paper lying face up on the floor. Billy’s letter, the one Rachel delivered to me yesterday afternoon. It was the reason I had sat down here in shock in the first place. The reason why I had finally passed out to the annoying hymns of “Booya!” and other Sports Center ridiculousness that seemed completely secondary today.
She didn’t die, Charlie.
I bent over and grabbed the letter off the floor. Shit. What the hell was I supposed to do with this, now? Last night’s vendetta for the truth seemed a little silly in the very bright light of an unusually sunny Forks morning.
But that nagging itch in the back of my mind quickly reminded me that there had to be something to this letter. On the surface, the Cullens had been a wonderful family to the Forks community. Their presence here was missed, especially at Forks General Hospital. As much as that were true, and as much as I loved Edward’s gorgeous mom and sprite of a little sister, there was something off about the Cullens. Whatever that was, it may have had something to do with Bella’s death…or disappearance.
Foolish as it might be, I found myself again thinking about what Billy had told me right before he died. “There’s still a bunch of stuff out there in this world you haven’t learned yet. Make it your mission to find out.”
That would be my mission. A little hope never hurt anyone too badly. What was the worst that could happen? My daughter and her husband would still be gone, just the same as they had been yesterday before I was given this fool’s errand. But if by some miracle Bella was out there, I would find her and bring her home.
I stood up and turned off the TV, ignoring the throbbing aches in my muscles. I needed to find that PO box number the Cullens had sent me a couple years ago.
On the way upstairs to my bedroom, I carefully picked up Billy’s letter and clutched it to my chest. If Bella was out there, I would find her. I had nothing left to lose.