She advances toward me slowly, unbuttoning her blouse. For some reason, the typically well-lit corridor is dark, except for a tunnel of light that ends at me, leaning against my locker. The expression on my face is . . .
“Who can tell me what famous politician coined the phrase ‘iron curtain’?” Mr. Jefferson tosses the question to an outfield of somnambulant juniors. Nobody moves to catch it. “Come on now. Think, people. It was just after the war in 1945.”
No, it wasn’t. It was 1946. I know. because I listened to that speech on our old Philco radio, the one Emmett attempted to convert into a jukebox.
As far as I can tell, only five people in this room are paying attention to the lesson – Angela Weber and a couple of conscientious girls like her; David Kemper, who’s actually interested; and me – somewhat.
Mr. Jefferson’s words scroll across my consciousness like a CNN headline crawl, while I search for something to relieve the tedium.
We’re in the forest, and I have her backed against a tree. We’re not completely dressed. I lean closer, whispering how I’ve wanted her since the first day we met, how I have to have her – now . . .
Worse. There are some things far worse than boredom. I seldom grit my teeth over sheer monotony, and right now, I could snap a crowbar in half with my clenched jaw.
“Churchill, Winston Churchill, class. One of the great orators of the 20th century.”
He’s right about that at least. The man had a way with words. Good. Something to think about, something to block out the . . . other.
I wonder if it’s true that Lady Astor accused him of being drunk, and he responded that she was ugly, but that he’d be sober in the morning. Wonder if I could edit that little gem to use on my sister.
I smirk to myself, and the clenching eases.
Attribution? No problem. Rosalie wouldn’t remember a single thing Churchill ever said, since he considered the survival of the western world more compelling than fashion news.
Still, even I couldn’t claim Rose is ugly, and although it wouldn’t be wrong to classify me as a “problem drinker,” alcohol is not one of my many problems.
Now she’s beckoning me from a bed, wearing what I’m guessing is supposed to be a come-hither look and a few threads of cloth designed more for emphasis than modesty. Whatever happened to the subtle approach? I refuse to look at myself, instead scanning the small room. It’s obviously hers; understatement is not in her repertoire. I’m not particularly flattered by the other men she finds attractive, as evidenced by the myriad posters on her wall. It’s a motley crew that leads me to believe she’s attracted to anyone with a–
I force myself back to the man with the cigar. Blenheim . . . the Boer War . . . Home Secretary . . . Mr. Jefferson drones on, managing to make an interesting subject sound dull, and I conjure up my other favorite anecdote – Lady Astor telling Churchill that if he was her husband, she’d put poison in his tea, and his retort that if she were his wife, he’d drink it. No way to use that one on Rose either.
And here it comes again like a black wave. I try to keep it out, but the intensity is ridiculous.
She steals up behind me, slipping her arms around me, standing on tiptoe to scatter kisses on the back of my neck. Her hands slide over my body, one up, one down.
Intolerable. But at least her imagination’s giving out. From two rows behind me, the only visual aid to her fantasies is my back. That’s not much to work with, but suddenly the scene changes again.
Night, and we’re in the back of a car. She’s writhing under me. The leather seats squeak with our movements.
Oh hell, not the Volvo!
This time she’s gone too far. Before I can stop it, the beginning of a growl has become audible to human ears. I know this because Mr. Jefferson has abandoned his effort to lull the class to sleep and turned to look at me.
“Is there a problem, Mr. Cullen?”
“Not at all,” I say between a couple of excellent human-sounding coughs. “I’m looking forward to hearing your views on Lend-Lease.”
He hesitates a beat before turning away, and I wonder if he realizes how common that little pause is among the humans we deal with. Whatever vestiges of animal instinct linger in their species senses that we are “other,” that we’re dangerous, but it seldom translates into coherent thought.
The vague discomfort we stir in our teachers is offset by the fact that no matter how many slackers they’re burdened with, the presence of a Cullen will always reflect favorably on their teaching skills.
We’ve done all this before. Honor rolls were designed for the likes of us. It’s only our peculiar aversion to extra-curricular activities that lets us dodge spotlights like valedictorian and class officer.
The bell rings, and I make for the door before I have to come face to face with my nemesis, possibly doing something that would reflect extremely poorly on my whole family.
Within seconds Alice has glided to my side in the crowded hallway. “You okay?” She peers up at me with that open gaze that sees so much.
“Then you might want to lose the scowl. You’re making the natives nervous.”
“The natives were born nervous. Wait.” I stop and do a quick scan of the people around us. “Where’s Jasper?”
“Gone,” she says airily, taking my arm to urge me forward. “Cassie Phelps came down with a nosebleed halfway through class, and he was out of there.”
“Are you sure it’s a good idea for him to be on his own?”
“He went straight home. See?” She smiles, tilting her head as if inviting me inside. “He’s going to play video games.”
I do see. My newest brother rips through a shelf of DVDs, lips tight, full of thwarted energy. Probably angry at himself. At least he’s safe in our own personal fortress. He finds what he’s looking for and jams it into the player.
“Well, he’s going with GTA. That should burn off some aggression. I wonder if we aren’t being unfair, expecting him to sit in a room with humans all day.”
“He wants to do it, Edward.”
“He wants to be with you.”
“I want that too. See how it all works out?”
With one tap of her tiny finger, Alice opens the heavy door to the outside, something only I’m in a position to see. The others are already waiting for us - Emmett perched on a picnic table, Rosalie on the bench between his legs. She gives me an arch look.
“Somebody’s in a sulky mood.”
“I’m not sulking. I’m under siege.”
Alice and I sit down in a bid to look human, although the fact that we’re doing this in a freezing drizzle probably negates the effect. None of us is particularly eager to go inside just so we can pretend to eat lunch. A little vamp break in the middle of the day.
“Stanley again?” Emmett guesses.
“Yes. She’s amazingly persistent – and detail-oriented.”
Emmett does his best to look sympathetic. “I know it drives you nuts, bro, but since you’re stuck with her anyway, you might as well give us a rundown. Just what kind of dirty deeds has she got in mind?”
“I’m trying to ignore her, not pimp out her playbook to random pervs.”
“Hey, who are you calling random?” Emmett grins. “You know, most guys would kill to star in some hot girl’s x-rated fantasies.”
“Killing has crossed my mind.”
“Especially in the middle of class, right under the teacher’s nose. So where does she see this happening – in her bed?”
“Among other places.”
He leans forward, enthralled. “Has she got a mirror on her ceiling?”
“No. She has a poster of Donny Osmond on her wall.”
“For real? Man, that’s messed up.” Temporarily derailed he frowns at Rosalie. “Do you think Donny Osmond’s hot?”
Her tone is as cold as the relentless rain.“Sorry, I’m still processing the fact that you think Jessica Stanley is.”
“What? No . . . I didn’t mean me. I was talking about most guys, most guys except Edward.”
“You have no idea how intrusive it is to have someone like that in your head,” I insist.
“Oh, don’t we?” Rosalie counters. “You think nothing of rummaging around in ours any time you feel like it!”
Neither Emmett nor Alice says a word, which tells me they don’t plan to refute her argument. I clarify too quickly, leaping from the frying pan into the fire.
“You’re not aware of my reading your thoughts. It doesn’t impact you. I’m talking about being used as a sex object against your will, having to watch that and not being able to do–”
Too late I hear my own words. Damn, if I haven’t let Stanley throw me off my game.
“Are you saying that thinking about violating somebody is just as bad as doing it?” Rosalie spits out, her face rigid.
“No, of course not. I didn’t mean to imply I was equating the two.”
Rosalie’s defensive, but she’s not stupid. Living with me this long, despite our sporadic sniping, she has to know I’d never purposely use the worst experience of her life against her.
“It was thoughtless of me. I’m in a bad mood and talking crap. Please . . . accept my apology, Rose.”
Her eyes are still shooting daggers at me. I count on the sincerity in mine to deflect them. After a minute, she drops her gaze and makes a kind of grunting sound. It’s the closest thing to forgiveness I’m going to get.
“What was that girl’s name back in the ‘50s?” Alice asks. “You know, the one who followed you around when we were at Tallmadge High?”
“Oh, yeah,” Emmett says, perking up. “The one with the tight sweaters and pointy boobs!”
“That was everybody in the ‘50s,” Rosalie reminds him.
“Well, I was only looking at the chicks. Patty somebody, right?”
“Blumenthal,” I supply. “She was a nice girl.”
“With nice sweaters,” my brother adds, earning a smack on the leg. “Hey, I just meant she had good fashion sense – like you, babe. Those poodle skirts you all wore? Hers had a rhinestone collar.”
“Which she copied from me,” Rose huffs. “Only mine were real diamonds. I can’t believe you forgot that!”
“Whatever happened to those diamonds anyway?” Alice’s interruption is meant to rescue Emmett, but I benefit from it as well. Thank goodness we’re an easily distracted species.
“Don’t you remember? That’s how we financed our shopping trip to Carnaby Street in the ‘60s.”
“You’re right! Oh, that was the coolest ever! When we came back with all those minis and tights and boots, the girls were falling-down jealous. And then there were the beehives and the–”
“I thought we were supposed to be talking about the ‘50s.”
Of all people, it’s Emmett who gets us back on track.
“You were rocking the James Dean thing in those days,” he continues. “Leather jacket, popped collar, the hair.”
“Yeah, like he ever got over it.” Rose rolls her eyes and looks bored.
“Well, it’s a good look for him, babe. Man, those rides we had back then wouldn’t even fit in the big-ass garage we’ve got now.”
“Couldn’t close the door for the fins,” I add with my first smile of the day.
“Remember when we dropped that flatty in the ’49 coupe and added glasspacks –“
“We’re getting off the subject,” Alice says, cutting off Rose’s first show of enthusiasm.
“What was the subject?”
“Edward’s little problem, Em. So how did you solve it back then? Maybe you could try the same thing with Jessica.”
“Patty wasn’t running a porno film on a continuous loop. Girls then were less . . . aggressive in their fantasies.”
“But she still wouldn’t leave you alone. She asked you to all the Sadie Hawkins events, managed to intercept you everywhere you went, and she was always writing you notes in class.”
“He got caught that one time by ol’ Mrs. Whatshername. Remember, she demanded to see the note and you said there wasn’t one.” Hints of rebellion always make my brother cheerful. “So she orders you to open your hand, and there’s nothing there but dust. Ha! Good times!”
“That was surprisingly difficult,” I confess. “It’s much easier to pulverize a rock in your fist than a piece of paper.”
“No kidding? Huh, I’ll have to try it.”
“So everybody in school knew she had it bad for you,” Alice persists, “and I never understood what you did to get her off your back.”
I shrug. “She moved on. That’s all.”
“To that football player.” Rosalie nods. “The one that got us the state championship, Art ‘The Dart’ Larson.”
“Yeah, we used to call him Art ‘The Fart’ before that,” Emmett reminisces. “He never even suited up till halfway through the season, but after that play he must have grown a pair. He was awesome our senior year.”
Alice is eyeing me speculatively. She can be immensely annoying in her own right, primarily because she knows me better than anyone.
“What?” I ask her. “You know the jock is king in high school. What girl wouldn’t want to date a sports hero?”
“Are you sure you didn’t have something to do with that?”
“Such as what, Alice? Do I look like a football coach to you?”
“No, you look like you do when you’re not telling us everything. Come on – give.”
“It was nothing really. I happened to be there for the final.”
“Happened to be?” Rosalie scoffs. “Since when are you into amateur sports?”
“What can I tell you?” I say coolly. “I was ready for some football.”
Rose laughs in spite of herself. “So what happened?”
“You remember a kid named Stuart Schimmer?”
“A little guy,” Emmett says. “Used to sniff all the time.”
“Right. Apparently, nobody else was available to film the game. He was struggling with the equipment, trying to set up on the 20-yard line when he got tangled up in the tripod and nearly dropped the camera in the mud. I went down to give him a hand.”
Rosalie pretends to shiver with excitement. “Oooh, Edward Cullen, superhero of the audio-visual department.”
“Shut up. I was standing on the sidelines when the famous pass whizzed overhead. Larson turned to grab for it, but the trajectory was off, and he fumbled. At the same time, a Richardson player – the size of a buffalo – cut across field dead on for the tackle.”
“I remember that dude,” Emmett says, getting into it. “He played for Auburn later. So what did you do to him?”
“Nothing. I just happened to catch his eye, as he was bearing down on Larson.”
“You gave him ‘the stare’!” Alice guesses. “Was he totally freaked?”
“For a microsecond – yes, he was. There was a hitch there so quick no human would notice. By the time he actually made contact, Art had control of the ball and enough momentum to slide right out of his grip for the winning touchdown.”
Emmett slaps his thigh. “Hah! I love it when our baby brother cheats.”
“Technically, it can’t be called cheating if you’re not even in the game.”
I sound pious enough to make myself puke, but Emmett enjoys it.
“Just think what we could have done if we were in that game!” he goes on. “Any game, for that matter.”
“Sweetie, don’t start that again.” Rosalie sighs. “You know it’s out of the question.”
“Really, Em,” Alice says cheerfully. “You’d kill half our own team before you were out of the locker room, and then we’d have to move again.”
“Well, it’s an interesting story.” Rose stands up, smoothing imaginary split-ends in her impeccable hairdo. “But I don’t think it’s going to help you with Jessica. The Spartans don’t have any potential Art the Darts on their squad.”
“Plenty of Stuart Schimmers though,” Emmett adds glumly, as he rises to join her. “Guess we should go chew on some carrots or something before the bell rings. You two coming?”
I shake my head.
“Mind if I stay with?” Alice murmurs beside me.
“Of course not.”
When Emmett and Rosalie disappear through the cafeteria door, she gives me a rueful smile. “They really don’t understand what it’s like for you. They just can’t.”
“It’s not a big deal, Alice. In the larger scheme of things, Jessica’s daydreams are a minor annoyance. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“I’m not talking just about that.”
Ironically, Alice, who can see a future that’s uncertain at best and frightening at worst, is the true optimist among us siblings. I hate it when melancholy clouds her impish features, as it does now.
“I think about it a lot. How nearly every night the rest of us . . . pair off and leave you alone for hours. You know perfectly well what we’re doing, and it’s got to be so hard–”
“If this is about my eavesdropping on what you do in your private time, forget it. I learned to throw up a very efficient wall against that back at the beginning, when it was just Carlisle and Esme. I have no more desire to sense what you’re doing than you have for me to hear it.”
“Oh, I know that, but it’s not just the sex. It’s the way we each have someone to confide in, to share everything, someone who will never judge us. I think of you all alone reading or listening to music or whatever you do, and it just seems so unfair. You deserve as much happiness as we do. It makes my heart hurt, Edward.”
My smile is almost genuine. “Better have Carlisle check you for hypochondria. Our hearts are as stone dead as the rest of us. I’m used to being alone. Even in my human life, I was an only child. I learned how to entertain myself a long time ago. Maybe not as loudly as the rest of you sometimes do . . .”
“Very funny,” she says, but I’ve coaxed a shadow smile.
“Seriously, Alice. I know what my life has to be, and it’s not that bad. I’ve managed to stick to Carlisle’s rules for decades. I’ve got our family, and all the time in the world to learn new things. I really enjoy that. I’m a knowledge geek. If you don’t believe me, ask Rosalie. She’ll swear to God I’m a smartass.”
Her smile widens just a little bit. “No doubt. It’s just that I love you a lot, Edward.”
“I feel exactly the same,” I say, reaching out to squeeze her hand. “How’s Jasper doing? Is he coming back to school?”
She’s still looking at me, but her expressive eyes move slightly out of focus. She stays like that for a minute or two and then announces, “Not today, but he’s killed 3 Forelli’s, 8 policeman, 20 Yardies, 4 hookers, 12 innocent bystanders, and he’s found the Dodo in Shoreside Vale. I think he feels better.”
“Well, who wouldn’t?”
The bell rings, and people start pouring out of the lunchroom for next period. Alice and I join them, hanging back and walking slowly.
“On the bright side,” she says, “I heard Mrs. Goff mention that we’d have to reconfigure our study groups, because the junior class is getting a new student next week.”
“Is that so?” I answer, pretending an interest I don’t feel. I’m just glad the half-truths I’ve spouted have restored my little sister’s good spirits. The last thing I want is to drag anyone else into that dark place I can never escape. “Boy or girl?”
“She didn’t say, and I have no idea where to look, so I guess we’ll have to be surprised. I’ve got my fingers crossed for an all-state athlete just itching to lead the Spartans to victory.”
“And Jessica Stanley out of my head?” I raise an eyebrow her direction.
“Hey, history could repeat itself. We better hope he’s good-looking too, just to be on the safe side.”
“With a six-pack.”
“Oh, at least. Maybe a 12.”
“And a weakness for irritating girls with curly hair.”
We part ways at Building 3, and she twirls around once to call, “You never know when something could happen to turn your world upside down!”
Yeah, I’ll be on the lookout for that. I don’t say it out loud, knowing the sarcasm might spoil my one small accomplishment of the day – convincing my favorite sister not to worry about me.
Three days later our whimsical hopes are dashed when word gets around that the new student will be a girl.
Seven days later . . . my world turns upside down.