Friday, October 28, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 20 - Blindside

Edward Cullen’s Little Black Notebook
Saturday, September 11

I remembered to bring my camera with me today.

Too many times, I’ve taken Bella somewhere with breath-taking scenery, and then spent my time trying to memorize the way the sun plays off the highlights in her hair, or the way her cheeks flush in the breeze. Today I captured it all: the wind in her hair; the reflection of the water in her eyes; the glint of her teeth, as white as the sails behind her, when she laughed. The way she pulled my hooded sweatshirt close around her shoulders when the sun went under the clouds, then unzipped it when the warm rays reappeared. The way she rolled her eyes at me when I wouldn’t put the camera away, but then pressed her face to mine when I held the camera out in front of us to take our self-portrait.

But it was too late for me to capture the look of complete happiness she used to give me. I had already tarnished that with my duplicity. The minute she had discovered my lie of omission about Rosalie on Monday, I’d felt the tide turn. And now, as we drifted along the water, I tried to ignore the fact that she was drifting away from me.

The disappointment in her eyes over Rosalie’s confession had cut me to the bone. My withholding the truth had hurt her just as much as the truth itself. You’d think that this mistake would have been impetus enough to keep me from making another one, wouldn’t you? But perversely, it only cemented my fear in place, like concrete shoes dragging me under instead of letting me move forward.

Bella gave me several opportunities to tell her about you. She figured out that you’re gone. She just didn’t know how it happened. And, of course, that was the hardest thing for me to talk about. The thing I’d been beating back like a lion-tamer holds a beast at bay with a flimsy chair and a whip. I knew all along that the beast would win. And yet I continued the useless fight, when Bella only wanted me to give in.

I don’t know how I managed to skirt the issue all week. After Monday, there really was no point in the façade anymore. And yet she allowed me to dance around the elephant in the room for days. She did the dance with me, indulging my cowardice. Maybe the truth scared her. Maybe through my subterfuge, I’d only encouraged her to conjure up scenarios about you that were worse than what actually happened, though I doubt that’s possible. Or maybe her own past trauma had made her far more forgiving and patient with me than I deserved.

Either way, she let the beast lie, never giving it more than the gentlest of prods. Those were easily tamed, and she went along with my circus act, smiling fearlessly as I pretended that the beast was incapable of devouring us both.

But all of that ended today.

We started our day at the Seattle Tennis Club early so I could give Bella a quick tour before we met Mom’s sailing friend, Tom Rollins, at the boathouse. She viewed most of the club’s amenities with wide-eyed wonder, occasionally commenting on how beautiful the ballroom and dining rooms were. I loved seeing the places I’d grown up in through her eyes. She always gave me a new appreciation for the things I’d taken for granted.

After leaving a change of clothes in the club locker rooms, we headed down to the boathouse to meet our captain. A sturdy man in his sixties with silver hair and a beard to match, Tom Rollins had the kind of ruddy, weathered face that bore testimony to his love of the outdoors. His smile was warm and genuine, and it creased his face into deep, amiable grooves when he flashed it at us in welcome.

After I made the necessary introductions, he wasted no time in leading us to his beautiful fifty-foot sloop, Nessie, docked in the harbor. The yacht had a motor, as many modern vessels do, but once we were out on the open water, he killed the engine and hoisted the sails.

He gave Bella and I a few basic pointers as he put us to work, helping to ease out the mainsail and set the boom correctly over the transom. He showed us a few types of knots to use on the ropes, and gave us a basic understanding of things like close-haul and broad reach; tacking and jibing; beating and running. Bella seemed fascinated, and was eager to help trim the sails as we maneuvered up the coast. Before we knew it, the sun was high overhead, warm and dazzling under its canopy of vivid blue.

The city coastline was far behind us when our captain suggested we slow our pace and take a break for lunch. We were glad for calm waters as we ate the tuna sandwiches that Tom had thoughtfully packed for us. He barely took time to eat himself, instead regaling us with stories about journeys he’d made during weather much less favorable than this. He even remembered taking my mom and dad out once when they were dating.

“You’re a lot like your father, you know,” he commented to me with a grin.

“Really?” My tone was skeptical. “How so?”

“You’ve got the same calm, capable air about you, but there’s a fire in there, too. You’ve got that determined look in your eye.” He suddenly let out a chortle. “You look at Bella, here, the same way your dad always looked at your mom.”

“How was that?” Bella asked eagerly.

A sage smile split Tom’s grizzled beard and mustache. “Like he knew a good thing when he saw it, and wasn’t about to squander the opportunity to claim it for his own.”

He laughed at my sheepish grin while Bella elbowed me playfully.

“You’ve got your mother’s looks, though,” Tom added. “She’s still a beauty. The bloom hasn’t faded on that rose yet.”

“No, it hasn’t,” I replied. Bella murmured in agreement.

“Okay, hang on to your seats, and your lunches. I’m about to turn ol’ Nessie around and take her back to the harbor. You two want to give me a hand?”

“Sure,” Bella and I replied in unison, jumping up to help him with the sails. He instructed us how to jibe, a quick but slightly more dangerous way to turn the boat around since we’d be bringing the stern around into the eye of the wind. Tom put me in charge of centering and letting out the mainsail while he replaced the jib sheet. He talked me through the steps, but I was still surprised at how quickly the boom swung over the boat despite my best efforts to control it.

“Whoa!” Bella exclaimed, ducking down in her seat as I wrestled with the sail. After letting out the jib, Tom helped me trim the mainsail until we were at beam reach. As soon as the boat was at broad reach with the wind coming from the aft starboard side, I left Tom in the stern and sat next to Bella in the middle of the craft.

“You didn’t think I’d knock you overboard, did you?” I grinned.

“Of course not. Not intentionally, anyway,” she kidded. Suddenly her laughter subsided and a strange look came over her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“Nothing. I guess I just had a déjà vu,” she answered with a frown. Then, her eyebrows suddenly lifted in recollection. “No, I remember what it was. I had a dream about this! I dreamt that you took me sailing. It was weeks ago, before you were anything more than my therapist.”

“Really?” I was surprised that she’d had a dream that turned out to be more of a premonition.

“Yeah. We were sailing, and it was a beautiful day like this one. But then it turned stormy all of a sudden, and the boat began to get tossed around on the waves.”

“Typical for the Sound,” I interjected.

“Right,” she agreed. “You were actually steering the boat in my dream. When you turned it around to head back to the shore, I lost my balance and fell in the water. I was flailing around with the rain hitting me in the face, and you threw me a life preserver so you could pull me back in. I couldn’t seem to hang on to it, though, and the next thing I knew, you jumped in to save me. I saw you swimming toward me, and suddenly I knew everything would be okay.”

“So . . . was it?” I asked. I loved that she thought of me as her lifeline, before we were even involved. I wondered if her dream would have turned out the same if it had happened this past week instead.

“I don’t know---I assume so. I woke up then.” She suddenly smiled. “The thing that I remembered most about it was that it was the first time I ever heard you call me ‘Bella.’”

I smiled faintly at my ridiculous attempts to keep her at arm’s length then, when she’d already captured my soul within the first two days of our meeting.

Her eyes were focused on the memory of the dream as she continued. “Right before you jumped in the water, you yelled, ‘Hang on, Bella. I won’t lose you, too.’”

My heart skipped a beat, maybe two, as I stared at her. How could she have known about you then? She couldn’t have. She didn’t. Her dream had been prophetic in ways that now sent a chill down my spine despite the balmy weather.

The realization hit Bella a moment later, for her eyes grew round with fearful comprehension.

“Edward,” she gasped softly, putting her hand on my arm and searching my eyes for confirmation. “Is that how Tanya died? Did she drown?”

I stared at her pensive face and fought the urge to laugh at the unintentional irony of her question. She had no way of knowing that she had hit the nail squarely on the head while still completely missing the mark.

I took the easy way out once again. I would say it’s an art form, but there’s no talent in taking the path of least resistance.

I nodded quietly. “She did, actually.”

Her face twisted into a mixture of sorrow and pity that I could scarcely bear. She gave my arm a sympathetic squeeze, then added cautiously, “Were you with her?”

I shook my head. “No, I wasn’t. But not a day goes by that I don’t wish I had been able to save her somehow.”

There. That, at least, was a true statement. But my conscience felt even more burdened than before.

She took my hands in hers and explored them, rubbing my fingers with hers; a soothing gesture, I supposed.

“I know how hard it is for you to talk about what happened,” she said, still staring at my knuckles, her thumb softly stroking the hairs that sprouted there. “You must have really loved her.”

The uncertainty in her voice nearly killed me. I couldn’t believe I was hearing it. I thought she was past her insecurities now; I thought I had systematically destroyed each one of them. I withdrew my hands from hers and took possession of her face instead, willing her to look up at me.

“How can you not understand how I feel about you?” I questioned her, trying to quell my frustration. “I won’t say I never loved her. I did, at the beginning. But it was so different from what I have with you that it doesn’t compare in any way, shape or form. I’ve told you that from the start. Even alive and breathing, she wouldn’t be any competition for you. So trust me, her ghost is even less.”

I leaned in and kissed her solemnly, reverently. I looked deeply into her eyes and tried to make her understand that the past couldn’t touch what I felt for her in the present.

“I have never loved anyone the way I love you. I will never love anyone the way I love you. If you don’t know anything else about me, then please tell me you at least know that.”

“I know you believe that,” she whispered. Her doubt was maddening to me.

“Of course I believe it, and so should you. It’s an uncontestable fact.” I leaned back and studied her, trying to figure out where this was coming from. Did she actually think that my reluctance to discuss you was because I had loved you more than I do her? The idea had never even occurred to me, but apparently it had to her. She didn’t seem to realize how absurd it was.

I stroked the side of her face with one hand; let my fingers thread through her wind-whipped hair.

“You’re the one,” I said simply, emphatically. “The only one.”

I couldn’t tell if her eyes watered at my declaration, or were merely stung by the wind. But she put her hand over mine on her face, brought my palm to her lips and kissed it. I drew her close to me and held her most of the way back to Seattle, leaving her side only to help Tom tack when necessary.

Bella and I hovered somewhere between exhilaration and exhaustion by the time we were on dry land again. We thanked our captain profusely for the trip, the lessons and the lunch. As we said our good-byes, Tom leaned in and spoke to me confidentially as Bella walked ahead of me down the dock.

“It was a pleasure seeing you and your girlfriend enjoying each other’s company like that. Took me right back to the days when your old man was courting your mother, no lie. I gotta hand it to ya---the Cullen men sure do know how to pick ‘em.”

When Bella turned and looked at me quizzically, Tom gave her a wink, then chuckled and slapped me on the back.

“What was that about?” she asked when I caught up with her.

“Nothing. Tom’s a wise man, that’s all.”

Bella was still feeling her sea legs a bit, and we walked it off with a stroll around the club grounds before resting on a park bench looking out over the water. Bella soon dozed off, her head lolling against my shoulder as her eyes closed and her breathing deepened. I stroked her hair and gazed down at her placid face: forehead smooth, mouth relaxed, eyelashes casting a fringed shadow on her flushed cheeks. I began to worry that she had gotten a bit sunburned, so I reluctantly roused her and suggested we go inside and get ready for dinner.

We parted ways to use the men’s and women’s facilities. I showered and dried my hair quickly, but didn’t bother to shave. Even though Bella often complained about my scratchy five o-clock shadow, I knew she secretly loved it. There were many things she never said aloud that I discerned anyway, by the look in her eyes, the crook of her smile, or that delectable blush. In so many ways, I felt like I knew her as well as I knew myself. Yet in others, she was still a mystery to me.

I donned the suit I’d brought with me but ditched the tie. Though the club’s main restaurant was formal, I still balked at wearing a tie in a sports facility. Maybe that was the rebel in me, always wanting to stray a little left of center. That was certainly the part of me that was drawn to you.

I waited in an elegant wingback chair nearby the ladies’ locker room, knowing it wouldn’t take Bella that long to get ready. She wasn’t a fussy girl, but was still effortlessly elegant when she wanted to be. That was on one of the things I loved most about her. I wondered if she could read my unspoken language as well as I could hers. I always thought she could until this week, when I saw that doubt in her eyes surface more and more. Maybe my lie of omission about Rosalie had done more damage than I ever could have predicted.

I could feel my face still etched with worry when a familiar pair of long, ivory legs strolled into view of my downcast eyes. A smile defeated my frown at the sight of them. I let my gaze linger on those lovely limbs in their black pumps before climbing upward, over the simple lines of her short red dress to the matching scarlet of her lips.

“Wow,” I said dumbly, appreciatively, as I gazed up at her perfection. “You look incredible.” I quickly rose to my feet for a different vantage point, one that allowed me to peer lewdly down the crossover neckline of her dress.

She gave me the usual outwardly exasperated, secretly pleased look. “So predictable,” she chided.

“The day I stop trying to look down your dress will be the day I die,” I told her, tilting her face up to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“And mine will be the day I stop enjoying it.”

I grinned and offered her my arm. “Shall we?”

“Lead the way, Mr. Cullen,” she replied, clasping my elbow. “You look ridiculously handsome, by the way,” she added as I escorted her to the dining area.

“I will take that as a compliment, coming from the most beautiful woman here,” I told her as we entered the restaurant.

She tried to act blasé, but her eyes were still wide at the old-school elegance of the place, all dark wood, linen, crystal, tea roses and candlelight. The hostess seated us near the terrace overlooking the water, and Bella sighed at the view of it beyond the lushly manicured gardens.

“This place is amazing,” she said with a shake of her head after we were seated. “This whole day has been amazing. Thank you for the best birthday present ever.”

“Oh, this isn’t your birthday present,” I informed her. “But I’m glad you’re having a good time.”

“Edward,” she admonished. “This is more than enough. You didn’t have to buy me anything else.”

“I didn’t,” I said with a mischievous grin.

Her face was alight with anticipation. “Now you’ve really got me curious. Surprises make me nervous.”

My grin broadened. “Don’t worry. It’s definitely something you’ll like.”

“Hmm. I don’t doubt that,” she said with the quirk of one brow.

We perused the menus; I ordered a bottle of one of their best white wines and some hors d’oeuvres while Bella deliberated over the entrees. She finally chose salmon while I went with rockfish, and we both picked crab bisque for our first course.

When the waiter returned with our wine, I could barely stop staring at Bella long enough to approve the sample he poured me. I was mesmerized by the flicker of the candlelight in her dark eyes. The warm heat of them intoxicated me more than the wine ever could.

The waiter poured us each a glass before taking his leave. I raised mine, beckoning her to do the same.

“What shall we toast to?” I asked, deferring to her.

“To us, of course,” she answered immediately. “And to more days like this.”

“To us,” I echoed, touching my glass to hers. We watched each other sip the wine, enticed by the sensuality of each other’s mouths. I knew that the physical aspect of our relationship would never be lacking. I had never felt so bound to anyone the way I am to her . . . so utterly attuned to her needs and wants. And certainly no one had ever held my own in the palm of her hand the way she does.

I wanted that to be enough; but of course, it wasn’t. The reason our physical connection was so strong was because it was rooted in the emotional and spiritual. And until I could share those as fully with her as I had shared my body, I knew we would never move forward.

Our hors d’oeuvres soon arrived, and we noshed on artichoke-dill crostini as we waited for our soup. Bella’s cheeks grew pinker with every sip of chenin blanc that she took. I grinned and filled her glass again.

“Do you like the wine?” I asked her.

“I do, as a matter of fact,” she said with a small giggle. “Almost as well as I like the company.”

“How you do flatter me, Miss Swan.” I took a sip from my own glass and savored the warmth that spread through my belly after the crisp finish of the wine had dissipated.

“I used to hate that, you know,” she told me, making a face.

“Hate what?”

“When you called me ‘Miss Swan’ or ‘Isabella.’ It sounded so formal and stand-offish.”

“It was. That was entirely the point. I didn’t want to get too close. Be too familiar.”

We both let out a short laugh at the thought. “I would venture to say that we are now about as familiar with one another as two human beings can possibly be,” she said, giving me a look so seductive that I could feel arousal begin to disrupt the contour of the gabardine fabric between my legs.

“I’d say so,” I agreed. My smile faded slightly as I looked at her. “That’s why I fought you so hard. I think I knew from the beginning that you’d get inside me like no one else ever has. That you would irrevocably change my life.”

“Is that such bad thing?” she asked hesitantly. “You did the same to me, you know.”

“Did I?” I mused. Now it was her turn to look incredulous at my lack of confidence in her feelings for me. “Okay, I guess I did,” I relented. “But I think you were more ready for it than I was.”

She looked even more annoyed now. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that. I wasn’t even looking for a relationship when I met you. And even after I met you, I never dreamed that my infatuation with you would be a two-way street.”

“Why not?”

Her expression became exasperated. “Edward, you’re the guy who’s had girls fawning over him since birth. And before you argue with me, remember that I saw the evidence at your family’s house last weekend. I, on the other hand, am the girl who went to her senior prom with a gay guy because neither of us could get a date with the guy we really wanted to go with. And yes, we both wanted to go with the same guy, if you must know.”

I tried not to laugh, but couldn’t stop my mirth from bubbling to the surface. “You already know what I think of the men from your past. They were idiots who didn’t deserve you.”

“Yeah, well, you would have been the equivalent of that unattainable guy who never noticed me, let alone asked me to Prom. So when you did notice me . . . well, you made a pretty big impact,” she finished quietly.

I tried not to snicker at the vast chasm between what she thought of me and what I thought of myself. Instead, I reached over the table and took her hand in mine.

“I wish I could have taken you to Prom,” I told her. That was the truth. The girl I did take gave me a drunken blow job in the back of my car and then promptly threw up out the door. I decided to save that story for another day.

“And I wish I could have taken you to the Black and Red Ball,” I added instead.

“You can take me next year,” she said with a smile.

“It’s a date. I’m entering it in my iPhone, so don’t even think about going with anyone else.”

“Are you kidding? I can’t think of a better way to spend our one-year anniversary,” she said with a smile.

The grin that stole over my face felt like it stretched from ear to ear. Even though I had felt her distancing herself from me, apparently she thought of the rift as temporary. “That’s right, it will be our first anniversary, won’t it?”

She nodded and ran her thumb over mine. “We’ll have some celebrating to do in the garden maze, I think.”

“I like how you think, Miss Swan.” And then, I corrected myself. “Bella.”

“That’s the thing---I kind of like it when you call me ‘Miss Swan’ now. It feels sort of decadent. Like you’re my boss and you’ve just called me into your office to reprimand me for doing something bad.” She lifted one very subtle, yet very provocative, eyebrow at me.

Damn, but she knew how to get my juices flowing. “I highly doubt I’d be reprimanding you for that. Quite the opposite, I would imagine. But you’ve given me an idea for our next role-playing session.”

I detached my hand from hers just enough to run my fingers slowly along her palm. My eyes never left hers; her gaze didn’t waver.

“You and your games,” she whispered at last with the ghost of a grin.

“You know I’m not playing with you,” I murmured.

She swallowed hard and opened her mouth to answer, but was cut off by the arrival of our waiter. I reluctantly let go of her hand, and reached for my silverware instead while he served our bowls of bisque.

I felt the atmosphere turn more serious again as the sun’s light began to wane through the windows. The thought of Bella leaving crept into my mind unbidden. I’d been trying not think about it, but her departure was only a few days away.

“So have you decided when you’re going to leave for your Dad’s?” I asked, trying to sound offhand.

“I don’t know. Monday or Tuesday, I think,” she replied before spooning another mouthful of crab.

“You’re going on your birthday?” I couldn’t keep the disappointment out of my voice this time.

“Well, maybe. I’m kind of superstitious about driving the day after. I know that’s silly,” she said quietly.

“No, it’s not silly. I don’t want you driving if you don’t feel comfortable.”

“Well, Rose gave me the whole week off, so I can play it by ear. She barely blinked an eye about me asking for vacation time. I’m sure that’s her way of trying to make amends,” she said with a shrug.

“Is it working?” I asked. I wondered if my attempt to make amends was being received any better.

“A little. I think what will really help is the time away from her. From the whole situation. I need a some distance. Some clarity.”

I nodded, unable to argue with her, unable to deny her what she needed.

“I’ll miss you,” I told her softly.

“It’s only a week,” she reminded me. “But I’ll miss you too.”

We ate in silence for a moment before she spoke again.

“You can send me dirty texts, you know. We can have phone sex. That’ll be a new one.”

I let out a chuckle. “I like how you see the glass half-full, Miss Swan.” I grabbed the wine bottle and refilled her glass to exactly the half-way mark.

“I’ll drink to that,” she said, raising her goblet.

“So will I.” I touched my glass to hers and hoped that the sentiment would find its way to my pessimistic soul.

Our toast somehow signaled the arrival of the main course, and we concentrated on our meals then. I made an effort to simply live in that perfect moment, enjoying a delicious meal in an elegant atmosphere, with my favorite person in the world.

I should have known better, of course. Every time I let my guard down and simply believe that I’m deserving of such happiness, it comes crashing down around me in vengeful retribution. Forget the glass simply being half empty---it’s usually broken and smashed in my face as well.

We enjoyed a glass of port for dessert, and Bella was beginning to get that drowsy, tipsy, ready-for-love look in her eyes. I was more than ready to take her up on it. We got up from the table, and I took her hand in mine to lead her toward the entrance. I was glancing back to make sure I hadn’t guided her right into anyone’s table when it happened.

I heard his voice.

A voice I hoped I’d never hear for the rest of my life.

I hadn’t heard it in years, but I recognized it instantly.

“Edward Cullen.”

He spoke my name with menace and disgust, the way one would address an enemy. Every muscle in my body stiffened with dread as I slowly turned to face him.

There he stood, all six feet, five inches of him, as big and intimidating as I remembered. He still looked like his suit could barely contain him, and his face was already beginning to turn red with rage at the mere sight of me. I couldn’t say I blamed him. He always swore he would kill me if he ever laid eyes on me again, and the fury in his eyes quickly told me that the desire had not faded.

But my instinctual fear made me oddly brazen in that moment. I stepped in front of Bella slightly to shield her, took a deep breath and braced myself.

Then I calmly greeted your father for the first time since your funeral.

“Hello, Mr. Donnelly.” I was amazed that my voice was so even. It almost sounded as if it had come from someone else. I shifted my gaze quickly to your mother beside him, still small and unassuming, her tiny hand barely able to grasp his arm. “Mrs. Donnelly,” I said to her, more gently this time. She didn’t smile at me, nor did she frown. She merely looked afraid.

“I can’t believe you have the gall to show your face in this club,” he said through gritted teeth. “I told you what would happen if I ever had the misfortune of running into you here. Have you forgotten already?”

I hadn’t, though I had buried it pretty well. It suddenly dawned on me why I always made Katrina leave before the day grew long: because I knew that’s when your family liked to come play a couple sets of tennis before dinner on the weekends. I refused to let your father’s threats keep me from the club where I’d been a member since birth, but I also had no wish to poke the sleeping giant. So I always arrived here with Kate at midday and made sure we left before four o’clock.

Now, as I looked up at him, I realized that maybe that’s why I brought Bella here tonight. Perhaps my subconscious had outwitted me at last, and forced me toward the resolution I’d been so desperately trying to avoid.

“No sir, I haven’t forgotten your threats,” I said evenly. “But the fact is, I have a right to be here as much as you do.”

“The Platt family name got you in here, but trust me, I can get you out.” He added begrudgingly, “Your mother is a good woman. She’s the only reason I haven’t had you removed from here long ago.”

“Go ahead, if I’m that much of an affront to you. There are other places to play tennis in this city.”

“An affront?!” he spat. “An affront doesn’t begin to describe what you are. You’re a goddamned criminal. You should be behind bars for what you did.”

I could feel Bella’s hand on my arm then, gripping me tightly. I couldn’t bear to look at her face. I could already feel the stares, hear the whispers, of everyone else behind us in the dining room. I was surprised that the staff hadn’t interceded already. I was sure that the minute we raised our voices, they would.

“Despite what you think, I did nothing wrong. I know you’re looking for someone to blame, but I am not responsible for your daughter’s actions.”

Even as I said the words, I knew I didn’t entirely believe them. I wanted to, but I never could quite convince myself. And I sure as hell couldn’t convince your father.

His face began to turn purple then, his breath huffing in palpable fumes from his barrel chest. “How can you look me in the eye and say you had nothing to do with what happened to her? She called me the night before, crying her eyes out over your sorry ass once again; and twenty-four hours later, she was dead!”

Bella’s fingers were daggers in my arm. I heard her voice, small and frightened, saying my name. I put my hand protectively over hers, but my eyes never left the enraged countenance of your father glaring at me.

“Your daughter was sick. If you hadn’t ignored the warning signs all those years, maybe she wouldn’t have been as far gone as she was. Every time I thought I had her convinced to get help, you’d talk her out of it and tell her she was fine,” I hissed, my voice growing brittle with resentment at the memories he’d unearthed, like ghouls rising from a haunted crypt.

“She was fine until she took up with you!” he accused, his voice cracking with emotion. “She was an A-student. Smart, beautiful, full of life. By the time you were through with her, she was depressed and struggling just to make grades; calling me every other week, crying over the latest stunt you’d pulled.” He was practically shaking now. “You can try to kid yourself but you’ll never fool me. Her blood is on your hands just as much as if you’d wielded the knife yourself!”

I stared at him, dumbstruck. His version of our history was so skewed that I barely recognized it. I wondered if that’s what you had told him, or if that’s how he really saw you, and us. Maybe he had twisted what he did know into a past that he could live with, to absolve himself of any blame.

Suddenly, I felt empathy for this man who was ready to grind me into a pulp under his heel. I knew what it felt like to want to change the past; to be unable to bear the guilt of the truth. He and I simply had different ways of dealing with the pain. Or not dealing with it, as the case may be.

But I was done pulling the wool over my own eyes. I’d be damned if I’d let him continue to do the same.

“You can make me the scapegoat---that’s fine. In a lot of ways, I deserve it. But you’re the one who’s fooling yourself if you think your daughter was fine before she met me. She was ill, and it started long before I knew her. You turned a blind eye because you didn’t want to see it. You didn’t want to admit that your perfect little princess had a flaw--that she might actually need professional help. She was acting out for years and you just put a fucking band-aid on it and told her she’d be fine. Tanya wasn’t fine. I made my share of mistakes with her, but if you’re looking for someone to blame, you’d better take a long look in the mirror and make sure your hands aren’t bloody, too.”

He stared at me in unmitigated shock for a moment. I was just as shocked myself. I had never put any of those sentiments into words before, not even in all those useless letters I wrote to you. And now I stood there, nearly panting and quivering as much as your father was at the accusation. The tension between us was so strong that I felt like I might snap like a twig if I didn’t calm down.

I didn’t have time to try. Your father’s shock swiftly turned back to its default setting in my presence---rage. I’ll never forget the livid look in his eyes as he shrugged off your mother’s timid grip on him and closed the already narrow space between us.

“Don’t you dare utter my little girl's name ever again, you murdering piece of filth!” he bellowed.

It only took a split second, but I swear I saw his hammy fist coming at me in slow-motion, fingers curling one at a time into a right hook aimed at the square of my jaw. Yet I still had no time to react; to defend myself or duck out of the way. The brutal crack of his upper-cut knocked my head sideways, rattling every bone of my scull. My teeth sliced into the tender flesh of my mouth and filled it with blood as my head whipped toward Bella. I heard her scream my name; saw the blur of her horrified face as I staggered into her. She tried to catch me, but she was no match for my taller, heavier frame.

My head spun; my vision tripled. I felt my knees give way, and I was going down. But somehow, just before everything went black, I managed to look your father in the eyes and choke out a response to his knock-out punch.

“Thank you.”

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