If Chief Swan had to get Mrs. Edison's white cat down from the tree where she‘d gotten herself stuck, Marshmallow Edison and her mischievous, impish temperament were the hot topic in town for two days. Life was that dull in Forks, Washington.
So, when the hospital hired a new doctor, who had five teenaged children and hardly looked a day over twenty-five himself, the small town I lived in literally twitched with excitement and speculation. The most accepted rumor around town was that one Dr. Carlisle Cullen had been with Doctors Without Borders until his leg was blown off by an I.E.D. on a road somewhere in Myanmar. After he came back to the US, he and his wife, who he met in a refugee camp in Bosnia, quickly adopted five people, not necessarily children, of varying ages, nationalities, and backgrounds, before settling in Alaska. There was even a whisper that she couldn't bear children of her own because of a badly botched abortion, but I didn't listen too closely to that one. If It was the case, it wasn't something that was anyone's business.
The northernmost of states, however, had apparently held little interest for this very eclectic family, and instead, they'd opted for wet precipitation-rain-over dry-snow-and moved to Forks.
As it turned out, Dr. Cullen had both of his legs, had probably never been to Myanmar, though no one dared ask, and was married to a woman from Wisconsin. They had adopted five children. Two were Mrs. Cullen's orphaned niece and nephew, and three were unrelated to anyone else in the family. The only thing that the people of Forks had gotten right was that they'd lived in Alaska before moving south.
Personally, I was mortified that the town I'd been born in had created stories so outlandishly fantastic and exaggerated about a family that had really done little more than boost the population of Forks by seven. Never mind, of course, that Dr. Cullen was apparently a highly skilled surgeon that could have worked anywhere he liked and he chose Forks.
Things only got worse when the rumor that Billy Black from La Push had banned any Quileutes from going to Forks Community Hospital as long as Dr. Cullen worked there proved to be true. It spread through the town like wildfire and only fuelled the interest in the strange new family.
Mrs. Cullen was the first member of Forks' newest and most interesting family that I met, and it was a fleeting encounter, at that. My mother was the president of the Forks Ladies Club, and she invited the new doctor's wife to a meeting. She'd asked me to help her give a PowerPoint presentation on past fundraisers that the Club had done, and it was then that I met Mrs. Cullen. The doctor's wife reminded me a little of Ingrid Bergman; I had a thing for black and white films, and Gaslight and Casablanca were two movies that I would never get tired of. Much more boldly than I usually acted, I told her just who she reminded me of the very second I shook her strangely cold, hard hand.
To her credit, she smiled sweetly and told me that she'd seen Gaslight so many times that her husband and children had started sneaking out of the room when it was her turn to pick a movie to watch. But then Mrs. Stanley and Mrs. Crowley rather rudely demanded her attention, and our brief conversation was over.
I met Dr. Cullen himself next, when Joshua shoved two red M&Ms up Isaac's nose while I was babysitting. Unable to get them out, I panicked like a minor league nutcase and dragged them in their red wagon straight to the hospital. Joshua insisted that the M&Ms would melt in one's nose, but not in one's hand, problem solved, while Isaac just found the way he sounded with candy up his nose the funniest thing he'd ever heard. He sang Old MacDonald Had A Farm all the way to the hospital, just to hear himself. I sobbed in the waiting room and fumed while the very sexy Dr. Cullen patiently pulled both candies out with a pair of tweezers, while lecturing the boys about what should and shouldn't be put up one's nose.
Mandy, the girl who had gotten macaroni noodles out of my nose when she babysat me when I was little was now a nurse at Forks Hospital, and she took the boys to wash their faces and hands, while I spoke with Dr. Cullen. He told me that Isaac would be absolutely fine, but that I was right to bring him in, even if I was worried that my parents would be upset about the bill. Listening to him talk and having his strangely golden eyes fixed on me, I completely forgot how embarrassed I was that I'd overreacted so very badly.
As it turned out, I didn't even have to tell my parents about the M&M incident myself. They'd stopped at the hospital to visit one of the elderly ladies who attended my dad's church, and Dr. Cullen had told them exactly what happened and given me a glowing review as a responsible, trustworthy caretaker. He'd been so nice that my dad announced I'd be getting an extra two dollars an hour when I babysat from then on.
School started a few days after that incident, and I immediately felt bad for the five adopted children of Dr. and Mrs. Cullen.
Small towns are notorious for weaving simple stories into wildly exaggerated tales of equal parts half-truths and lies, but high schools in small towns are the epicenter of the storm. It was a vicious cycle. Parents told their teenagers what they'd heard, the teenagers took those tidbits and added them all together to make something that bordered on horrific, and then they went home and reported the new story to their parents.
Anything not defined as known and accepted was immediately rejected.
In a town as small as ours, nothing new was permitted until it had been thoroughly chewed up and spat out again as a test of sorts to see if it could put itself back together again. Then, if it conformed, it was accepted.
The Cullens were no different than any other family.
Lunch on the first day of school reminded me of the time my parents had taken me to see the new Siberian tiger cubs at the zoo in Seattle. Two thousand people had stood and gawked as the cute white cubs were paraded across the stage.
This time, there were just under four hundred people openly staring at five others, but to me, at least, it felt the same.. It was embarrassing, and what was a little bit more upsetting was the fact that I kept catching myself doing the same thing. The strange thing, though, was that the Cullens didn't seem to mind that everyone was gaping at them. In fact, they hardly seemed to notice at all.
The two girls were as beautiful and graceful, like ballerinas. Even though Rosalie was tall and statuesque, she had the body of swimsuit model, ready to appear on the pages of Vogue at any moment, while Alice was short, ridiculously thin, and always had a shy, sort of faraway look in her eyes, but in her own way, she was even more enchanting than Rosalie. I found her fascinating.
The boys were just as poised and lithe as their sisters. It was a little bizarre to see Emmett, whose muscled body put the biggest linebacker on the FHS football team to shame, weave seamlessly through the crowded lunchroom and hallways. Jasper's smooth, agile movements were marred only by the intensely pained look on his face, although his eyes seemed to soften every time he looked at tiny Alice. The last brother, Edward, always seemed to have a smirk on his face when he joined his siblings at the table that Rosalie had claimed first; he looked a little like he was listening to private jokes.
Forks High nearly erupted that afternoon when Katie Marshall saw Rosalie and Emmett holding hands. Now not only were there five new students with pasts that they didn't seem keen to share, but at least two of them seemed to be a couple. We didn't find out until later that Alice and Jasper were together, too. They had a different dynamic that was much less obvious than their adopted siblings. Alice and Jasper holding hand didn't make the splash that Rosalie and Emmett had. By then, it seemed accepted that the Cullens did things a little differently.
In our Honors English class that year, Ben Cheney and I sat in a group with Alice Cullen and Jasper Hale. They cemented my theory that they were different to the others, even though they didn't speak unless they absolutely had to and never, ever started a conversation anyone. It did, though, seem to be a two-way street; Ben didn't bother to try and start one with them, and I was far too shy, or maybe in awe of the way that they seemed to communicate with their eyes. It was entrancing to watch and thoroughly distracting.
I desperately wanted to know why Jasper had a faint, feathery pattern of scars across his face and neck, but I didn't dare ask. And when no one else mentioned it at lunch during the first week, I let my curiosity fade, contenting myself with the private theory that he'd been burned in the fire that left him and his twin sister, who was strangely a year above him, orphaned.
My third conversation with a Cullen was with Edward, about three weeks after school started.
We were paired up by Mrs. Caldwell to do a presentation on Sacajawea and how she led Lewis and Clark to the west coast for our US History class. At first, we spoke only enough to agree to meet at the small Forks library on Saturday afternoon to research and write. I spent the next three days getting more and more nervous, as I wondered how in the world I was going to actually work on a project with someone who seemed perfectly content to never talk.
But Edward surprised me. While we took notes from a pile of books that we'd collected, he told me that he and his brothers and sisters appreciated that I didn't stare at them like they were part of some circus act. I apologized on behalf of my friends and blushed at the idea that they were still being such fools toward the Cullens. Edward smiled, wryly, and shook his head, telling me that I shouldn't apologize for people who wouldn't think of doing it themselves. I quickly got the idea that the Cullens and Hales were stared at wherever they went and that they either didn't care anymore, or it simply didn't bother them.
Fitting in and being part of the larger picture didn't matter much at all to them. It was very strange.
But I envied them intensely.
The novelty of the Cullens and the Hales had worn off almost completely by the start of my junior year, a mere twelve months after they'd started at Forks High. They'd managed to integrate themselves into the school without really ever being a part of things. On the rainy, dreary days that seemed to define Forks, it was a given that they would be at school, speaking only when spoken to, although it was extremely rare that anyone bothered. It was really only teachers who attempted to communicate with them, and given their nearly perfect grades, even the teachers had stopped calling on them to give the rest of us a chance.
On sunny days, it was just as much a given that none of them would be in school, their stellar grades allowing their parents to pull them out for hiking and camping. Lucky them.
Forks and the high school got another thrill when Chief Swan announced, to just one person that I knew of, that his daughter Isabella was coming to live with him. The word spread as quickly as ever. Isabella was already known to the people of Forks-to a degree anyway. Everybody knew Chief Swan, and even Isabella had come to town occasionally over the years. I even sort of remembered playing with her one summer when we were eight. The carpets in my parents' basement still bore the faint traces of our toe-painting endeavor that had produced the strangest picture of a tree ever known to two little girls.
Bella, as she told everyone to call her, was shyer than I was, if that were even possible.
I liked her. A lot. But two shy people do not fast friends make.
And then, somehow, she managed to get closer to the Cullens than the rest of the Forks High population had. Combined.
Edward was the object of her very apparent affection, and that had the gossip girls furious.
Meanwhile, I got to know Alice a little bit better when I offered to be her partner in our spring semester photography class. Lauren Mallory didn't speak to me for two weeks when I left her to work with Holly Simms and picked Alice Cullen over her, but I didn't really care. Lauren was nice enough, but two weeks of not hearing her snipe and gossip was actually a little refreshing. The only real drawback was that Jessica followed Lauren's every move like a lady in waiting, and Jess, who I liked much more than Lauren, only spoke to me when she was absolutely sure that Lauren wouldn't find out.
In a way, though, it was worth it.
Though she remained very quiet and shy, almost like she expected me to run for the hills at any moment, Alice was very sweet and nice.
For our big project, we decided to make hands our subject of choice. We agreed that we would use a black and white camera and take candid shots of hands. It seemed silly, and Lauren, to her great discredit, even snickered over the idea and asked if the ‘the freak' picked the idea and I was just too nice to tell her that it wasn't crap. Alice wasn't nearby when she made the comment, so I chose to ignore it. Lauren had picked flowers for her topic, and I didn't see how that was possibly any better.
Taking pictures with Alice was actually fun. She had a way of sneaking up on people and snapping the picture without them knowing. It gave me the confidence to do the same thing. And since the pictures were just of hands, we didn't need to bother telling anyone that they'd had their picture taken.
We spent three Saturday afternoons working on it. Once, when we went to Port Angeles for a new crop of possible subjects, Alice asked if I minded Jasper tagging along. She told me that he needed to do some research at a library there and would just drive us there and back, otherwise staying out of our hair. I thought it was sweet that he couldn't stand to be away from her for too long, because that was clearly what was going on, and quickly agreed. I was pretty sure that Jasper didn't stay at the library, that he sort of followed us around, but I didn't say anything. It would have made for a very awkward conversation.
I wasn't absolutely sure of it anyway.
We were supposed to use the lab at school to develop all of our pictures on the third Saturday in April, but Alice had mysteriously disappeared from town. Bella and Edward were gone, too.
Mrs. Bowen gave me permission to have Eric, who wasn't in the class but knew about the lab from the newspaper, help me in Alice's place. But it wasn't the same, and I was a little worried about my new friend's sudden absence.
She was back, though, a few days later, as abruptly as she'd gone. Apparently, Bella had gotten way more dramatic than I honestly thought she had it in her to do and had run away, back to Phoenix, as a result of a fight with Edward. It was very un-Bella like, but it wasn't my place to judge. I was just happy that Alice, to make up for missing the developing session, had written the entire report about what lenses, shutter speeds, and apertures we'd used, along with a detailed description of what each photo meant to us and why we'd taken it.
After we turned in the project, Alice went back to only talking to me if she absolutely had to. I was more than a little surprised, although I don't think I gawked quite as openly as the rest of the junior and senior classes, when all of the Cullens came to prom. I had a sneaking suspicion that they were there to support Bella and Edward. Even though it seemed like an odd thing for them to do, given the distance they kept from everyone, they naturally put everyone else to shame on the dance floor that doubled as the high school gym, but I liked that they came out into the world that was Forks more than they usually would have.
When the Cullens came back to school very late in the year, Los Angeles was the place that was most often cited as where they'd gone, I wanted smack them. Or at least, I wanted to smack Edward. Bella had been a shell of her former shy and quiet self when he disappeared so suddenly a few days after her birthday. And it's hard to be a shell when you were so shy to begin with.
Bella had been gone for three days; no one knew why, and I don't even want to get into the speculation that raced through the school about the girl that hardly anyone cared enough to talk to anyway, and when she came back with Edward, it wasn't like he'd never been gone. It was like she expected him to disappear at any moment, like she was convinced that it was no more than a dream that he was beside her again.
I wasn't sure that I liked it. It seemed like an almost unhealthy relationship, especially given how she'd reacted when he left before, but I doubted he'd be leaving again anytime soon, and I worried for my friend.
Things had changed, though. Edward joined Bella at our table, and Alice and Jasper followed him. I ended up sitting between Ben and Alice, and after a while, I even found myself starting conversations with her. She had a really adorable sense of humor and always thought about herself last. It was just a little odd when she got that faraway look in her eyes that always made Bella squirm and Edward act weirdly outgoing.
Only Jasper didn't seem to worry overly much. He just held her hand until she came back around and smiled at him. Sometimes, you could see his shoulders relax when she smiled.
Their relationship was like that-silent, but so obviously incredibly strong.
I'd long since lost count of the number of times I'd seen them standing together in the hallway, always outside of classes that he had separate from her. They would stand together, not talking, with their fingers linked together until there was less than a minute before the bell rang. With just enough time, Alice would pull away, slowly at first, until only their fingertips were touching, and then more quickly, as she hurried with enviable grace to her class. She was never late, and he always seemed a little more...calm and confident when she was gone.
It was hard to explain, but the best way I'd figured was that he, for some reason that only the two of them knew, wasn't sure that he could do it-high school-without her. That final touch of their fingertips gave him the strength to make it through whatever would happen over the next few hours.
I'd never known I was such a romantic at heart until the Cullens came to Forks.
I couldn't help but wonder what he was so afraid of. Even as aloof as he was, Jasper still held the same poise as the others. It didn't make sense that he would be so afraid of simply being alone.
I kept my thoughts to myself, though. Alice and Jasper's relationship was private, and I respected that, even if no one else did.
It was after one of those occurrences that I got to know Jasper a tiny bit better.
Alice had just broken contact with Jasper, when I heard Lauren, who'd been gossiping with Jessica about who Tyler would ask to prom, say something way too loudly about ‘the freak' finally leaving. I'd looked up from drawing a mouse on my notebook and seen a half second of pain flash in Alice's golden eyes. But like the Cullens always did, she just turned and walked away to her class.
In an uncharacteristic flash of confidence, I spoke up, telling Lauren that Alice was most certainly not a freak, that she was a sweet, shy girl who was far too good for people like Lauren Mallory. And then I walked into my psychology class and took my seat next to Jasper.
For the first time, he spoke to me. He thanked me for standing up for Alice and said that she'd talked endlessly about how much she'd liked doing our photography project together the year before. I promptly blushed, causing him to look away, and insisted that I hadn't been a very good friend because I hadn't stood up for her more. When he could look at me again, he told me that Alice considered me the best friend she'd had in a very long time.
I could have cried. I felt like I should have done more to make Alice more at home in Forks, but how at home in Forks was I? And she could have done more, too, I suppose. But I knew that he was telling me the truth. He was telling me that I'd touched someone's life without even trying. Maybe that was the best way to make a real difference in a world of hurt and pain-not trying.
I wasn't proud of myself, that would have been wrong, but I was contented. I'd done something right for someone who didn't seem to expect to have things done right for them.
The last time I saw the Cullens was when Bella and Edward got married in August.
It was a wedding fit for royalty on a miniature scale.
And it seemed somehow otherworldly.
At the reception, outdoors and beneath twinkling lights and drifting flower petals, I found myself standing next to Jasper on the edge of the dance floor as he watched Alice flit elegantly from one spot to the other. The way he looked at her-his golden eyes never leaving her and his body turning slightly ever time she came close to disappearing to view, always searching for her-made me want to cry. If I'd let myself do that, they wouldn't have been tears of anger, pain, or jealousy. They would have been tears of honor that I was able to witness what the two of them shared so silently. I knew, in that moment, that I had little hope of ever having anyone watch me quite like Jasper watched Alice. And I was okay with that.
I didn't know half of their story, but I would have bet anything that there was enough to it that they more than deserved the happiness, peace, and hope that they gave each other.
They deserved to have it forever, and I hoped, with all my heart, that they could.