Chapter 16. EPOCH
"I HAVE NOTHING TO WEAR!" I MOANED TO MYSELF.
Every item of clothing I owned was strewn across my bed; my drawers and closets were bare. I stared into the empty recesses, willing something suitable to appear.
My khaki skirt lay over the back of the rocking chair, waiting for me to discover something that went with it just exactly right. Something that would make me look beautiful and grown up. Something that said special occasion. I was coming up empty.
It was almost time to go, and I was still wearing my favorite old sweats. Unless I could find something better here - and the odds weren't looking good at this point - I was going to graduate in them.
I scowled at the pile of clothes on my bed.
The kicker was that I knew exactly what I would have worn if it were still available - my kidnapped red blouse. I punched the wall with my good hand.
"Stupid, thieving, annoying vampire!" I growled.
"What did I do?" Alice demanded.
She was leaning casually beside the open window as if she'd been there the whole time.
"Knock, knock," she added with a grin.
"Is it really so hard to wait for me to get the door?"
She threw a flat, white box onto my bed. "I'm just passing through. I thought you might need something to wear."
I looked at the big package lying on top of my unsatisfying wardrobe and grimaced.
"Admit it," Alice said. "I'm a lifesaver."
"You're a lifesaver," I muttered. "Thanks."
"Well, it's nice to get something right for a change. You don't know how irritating it is - missing things the way I have been. I feel so useless. So . . . normal." She cringed in horror of the word.
"I can't imagine how awful that must feel. Being normal? Ugh."
She laughed. "Well, at least this makes up for missing your annoying thief - now I just have to figure out what I'm not seeing in Seattle."
When she said the words that way - putting the two situations together in one sentence - right then it clicked. The elusive something that had been bothering me for days, the important connection that I couldn't quite put together, suddenly became clear. I stared at her, my face frozen with whatever expression was already in place.
"Aren't you going to open it?" she asked. She sighed when I didn't move immediately, and tugged the top of the box off herself. She pulled something out and held it up, but I couldn't concentrate on what it was.
"Pretty, don't you think? I picked blue, because I know it's Edward's favorite on you."
I wasn't listening.
"It's the same," I whispered.
"What is?" she demanded. "You don't have anything like this. For crying out loud, you only own one skirt!"
"No, Alice! Forget the clothes, listen!"
"You don't like it?" Alice's face clouded with disappointment.
"Listen, Alice, don't you see? It's the same! The one who broke in and stole my things, and the new vampires in Seattle. They're together!"
The clothes slipped from her fingers and fell back into the box.
Alice focused now, her voice suddenly sharp. "Why do you think that?"
"Remember what Edward said? About someone using the holes in your vision to keep you from seeing the newborns? And then what you said before, about the timing being too perfect - how careful my thief was to make no contact, as if he knew you would see that. I think you were right, Alice, I think he did know. I think he was using those holes, too. And what are the odds that two different people not only know enough about you to do that, but also decided to do it at exactly the same time? No way. It's one person. The same one. The one who is making the army is the one who stole my scent."
Alice wasn't accustomed to being taking by surprise. She froze, and was still for so long that I started counting in my head as I waited. She didn't move for two minutes straight. Then her eyes refocused on me.
"You're right," she said in a hollow tone. "Of course you're right. And when you put it that way. . . ."
"Edward had it wrong," I whispered. "It was a test . . . to see if it would work. If he could get in and out safely as long as he didn't do anything you would be watching out for. Like trying to kill me. . . . And he didn't take my things to prove he'd found me. He stole my scent . . . so that others could find me."
Her eyes were wide with shock. I was right, and I could see that she knew it, too.
"Oh, no," she mouthed.
I was through expecting my emotions to make sense anymore. As I processed the fact that someone had created an army of vampires - the army that had gruesomely murdered dozens of people in Seattle - for the express purpose of destroying me, I felt a spasm of relief.
Part of it was finally solving that irritating feeling that I was missing something vital.
But the larger part was something else entirely.
"Well," I whispered, "everyone can relax. Nobody's trying to exterminate the Cullens after all."
"If you think that one thing has changed, you're absolutely wrong," Alice said through her teeth. "If someone wants one of us, they're going to have to go through the rest of us to get to her."
"Thanks, Alice. But at least we know what they're really after. That has to help."
"Maybe," she muttered. She started pacing back and forth across my room.
Thud, thud - a fist hammered against my door.
I jumped. Alice didn't seem to notice.
"Aren't you ready yet? We're gonna be late!" Charlie complained, sounding edgy. Charlie hated occasions about as much as I did. In his case, a lot of the problem was having to dress up.
"Almost. Give me a minute," I said hoarsely.
He was quiet for half a second. "Are you crying?"
"No. I'm nervous. Go away."
I heard him clump down the stairs.
"I have to go," Alice whispered.
"Edward is coming. If he hears this . . ."
"Go, go!" I urged immediately. Edward would go berserk when he knew. I couldn't keep it from him for long, but maybe the graduation ceremony wasn't the best time for his reaction.
"Put it on," Alice commanded as she flitted out the window.
I did what she said, dressing in a daze.
I'd been planning to do something more sophisticated with my hair, but time was up, so it hung straight and boring as on any other day. It didn't matter. I didn't bother to look in the mirror, so I had no idea how Alice's sweater and skirt ensemble worked. That didn't matter, either. I threw the ugly yellow polyester graduation robe over my arm and hurried down the stairs.
"You look nice," Charlie said, already gruff with suppressed emotion. "Is that new?"
"Yeah," I mumbled, trying to concentrate. "Alice gave it to me. Thanks."
Edward arrived just a few minutes after his sister left. It wasn't enough time for me to pull together a calm faade. But, since we were riding in the cruiser with Charlie, he never had a chance to ask me what was wrong.
Charlie had gotten stubborn last week when he'd learned that I was intending to ride with Edward to the graduation ceremony. And I could see his point - parents should have some rights come graduation day. I'd conceded with good grace, and Edward had cheerfully suggested that we all go together. Since Carlisle and Esme had no problem with this, Charlie couldn't come up with a compelling objection; he'd agreed with poor grace. And now Edward rode in the backseat of my father's police car, behind the fiberglass divider, with an amused expression - probably due to my father's amused expression, and the grin that widened every time Charlie stole a glance at Edward in his rearview mirror. Which almost certainly meant that Charlie was imagining things that would get him in trouble with me if he said them out loud.
"Are you all right?" Edward whispered when he helped me from the front seat in the school parking lot.
"Nervous," I answered, and it wasn't even a lie.
"You are so beautiful," he said.
He looked like he wanted to say more, but Charlie, in an obvious maneuver that he meant to be subtle, shrugged in between us and put his arm around my shoulders.
"Are you excited?" he asked me.
"Not really," I admitted.
"Bella, this is a big deal. You're graduating from high school. It's the real world for you now. College. Living on your own. . . . You're not my little girl anymore." Charlie choked up a bit at the end.
"Dad," I moaned. "Please don't get all weepy on me."
"Who's weepy?" he growled. "Now, why aren't you excited?"
"I don't know, Dad. I guess it hasn't hit yet or something."
"It's good that Alice is throwing this party. You need something to perk you up."
"Sure. A party's exactly what I need."
Charlie laughed at my tone and squeezed my shoulders. Edward looked at the clouds, his face thoughtful. My father had to leave us at the back door of the gym and go around to the main entrance with the rest of the parents.
It was pandemonium as Ms. Cope from the front office and Mr. Varner the math teacher tried to line everyone up alphabetically.
"Up front, Mr. Cullen," Mr. Varner barked at Edward.
I looked up to see Jessica Stanley waving at me from the back of the line with a smile on her face. Edward kissed me quickly, sighed, and went to go stand with the C's. Alice wasn't there. What was she going to do? Skip graduation? What poor timing on my part. I should have waited to figure things out until after this was over with.
"Down here, Bella!" Jessica called again.
I walked down the line to take my place behind Jessica, mildly curious as to why she was suddenly so friendly. As I got closer, I saw Angela five people back, watching Jessica with the same curiosity. Jess was babbling before I was in earshot.
". . . so amazing. I mean, it seems like we just met, and now we're graduating together," she gushed. "Can you believe it's over? I feel like screaming!"
"So do I," I muttered.
"This is all just so incredible. Do you remember your first day here? We were friends, like, right away. From the first time we saw each other. Amazing. And now I'm off to California and you'll be in Alaska and I'm going to miss you so much! You have to promise that we'll get together sometimes! I'm so glad you're having a party. That's perfect. Because we really haven't spent much time together in a while and now we're all leaving. . . ."
She droned on and on, and I was sure the sudden return of our friendship was due to graduation nostalgia and gratitude for the party invite, not that I'd had anything to do with that. I paid attention as well as I could while I shrugged into my robe. And I found that I was glad that things could end on a good note with Jessica. Because it was an ending, no matter what Eric, the valedictorian, had to say about commencement meaning "beginning" and all the rest of the trite nonsense. Maybe more for me than for the rest, but we were all leaving something behind us today.
It went so quickly. I felt like I'd hit the fast forward button. Were we supposed to march quite that fast? And then Eric was speed talking in his nervousness, the words and phrases running together so they didn't make sense anymore. Principal Greene started calling names, one after the other without a long enough pause between; the front row in the gymnasium was rushing to catch up. Poor Ms. Cope was all thumbs as she tried to give the principal the right diploma to hand to the right student.
I watched as Alice, suddenly appearing, danced across the stage to take hers, a look of deep concentration on her face. Edward followed behind, his expression confused, but not upset. Only the two of them could carry off the hideous yellow and still look the way they did. They stood out from the rest of the crowd, their beauty and grace otherworldly. I wondered how I'd ever fallen for their human farce. A couple of angels, standing there with wings intact, would be less conspicuous.
I heard Mr. Greene call my name and I rose from my chair, waiting for the line in front of me to move. I was conscious of cheering in the back of the gym, and I looked around to see Jacob pulling Charlie to his feet, both of them hooting in encouragement. I could just make out the top of Billy's head beside Jake's elbow. I managed to throw them an approximation of a smile.
Mr. Greene finished with the list of names, and then continued to hand out diplomas with a sheepish grin as we filed past.
"Congratulations, Miss Stanley," he mumbled as Jess took hers.
"Congratulations, Miss Swan," he mumbled to me, pressing the diploma into my good hand.
"Thanks," I murmured.
And that was it.
I went to stand next to Jessica with the assembled graduates. Jess was all red around the eyes, and she kept blotting her face with the sleeve of her robe. It took me a second to understand that she was crying.
Mr. Greene said something I didn't hear, and everyone around me shouted and screamed. Yellow hats rained down. I pulled mine off, too late, and just let it fall to the ground.
"Oh, Bella!" Jess blubbered over the sudden roar of conversation. "I can't believe we're done."
"I can't believe it's all over," I mumbled.
She threw her arms around my neck. "You have to promise we won't lose touch."
I hugged her back, feeling a little awkward as I dodged her request. "I'm so glad I know you, Jessica. It was a good two years."
"It was," she sighed, and sniffed. Then she dropped her arms. "Lauren!" she squealed, waving over her head and pushing through the massed yellow gowns. Families were beginning to converge, pressing us tighter together.
I caught sight of Angela and Ben, but they were surrounded by their families. I would congratulate them later.
I craned my head, looking for Alice.
"Congratulations," Edward whispered in my ear, his arms winding around my waist. His voice was subdued; he'd been in no hurry for me to reach this particular milestone.
"You don't look like you're over the nerves yet," he noted.
"Not quite yet."
"What's left to worry about? The party? It won't be that horrible."
"You're probably right."
"Who are you looking for?"
My searching wasn't quite as subtle as I'd thought. "Alice - where is she?"
"She ran out as soon as she had her diploma."
His voice took on a new tone. I looked up to see his confused expression as he stared toward the back door of the gym, and I made an impulse decision - the kind I really should think twice about, but rarely did.
"Worrying about Alice?" I asked.
"Er . . ." He didn't want to answer that.
"What was she thinking about, anyway? To keep you out, I mean."
His eyes flashed down to my face, and narrowed in suspicion. "She was translating the Battle Hymn of the Republic into Arabic, actually. When she finished that, she moved on to Korean sign language."
I laughed nervously. "I suppose that would keep her head busy enough."
"You know what she's hiding from me," he accused.
"Sure." I smiled a weak smile. "I'm the one who came up with it."
He waited, confused.
I looked around. Charlie would be on his way through the crowd now.
"Knowing Alice," I whispered in a rush, "she'll probably try to keep this from you until after the party. But since I'm all for the party being canceled - well, don't go berserk, regardless, okay? It's always better to know as much as possible. It has to help somehow."
"What are you talking about?"
I saw Charlie's head bob up over the other heads as he searched for me. He spotted me and waved.
"Just stay calm, okay?"
He nodded once, his mouth a grim line.
In hurried whispers I explained my reasoning to him. "I think you're wrong about things coming at us from all sides. I think it's mostly coming at us from one side . . . and I think it's coming at me, really. It's all connected, it has to be. It's just one person who's messing with Alice's visions. The stranger in my room was a test, to see if someone could get around her. It's got to be the same one who keeps changing his mind, and the newborns, and stealing my clothes - all of it goes together. My scent is for them."
His face had turned so white that I had a hard time finishing.
"But no one's coming for you, don't you see? This is good - Esme and Alice and Carlisle, no one wants to hurt them!"
His eyes were huge, wide with panic, dazed and horrified. He could see that I was right, just as Alice had.
I put my hand on his cheek. "Calm," I pleaded.
"Bella!" Charlie crowed, pushing his way past the close-packed families around us.
"Congratulations, baby!" He was stillyelling, even though he was right at my ear now. He wrapped his arms around me, ever so slyly shuffling Edward off to the side as he did so.
"Thanks," I muttered, preoccupied by the expression on Edward's face. He still hadn't gained control. His hands were halfway extended toward me, like he was about to grab me and make a run for it. Only slightly more in control of myself than he was, running didn't seem like such a terrible idea to me.
"Jacob and Billy had to take off - did you see that they were here?" Charlie asked, taking a step back, but keeping his hands on my shoulders. He had his back to Edward - probably an effort to exclude him, but that was fine at the moment. Edward's mouth was hanging open, his eyes still wide with dread.
"Yeah," I assured my father, trying to pay enough attention. "Heard them, too."
"It was nice of them to show up," Charlie said.
Okay, so telling Edward had been a really bad idea. Alice was right to keep her thoughts clouded. I should have waited till we were alone somewhere, maybe with the rest of his family. And nothing breakable close by - like windows . . . cars . . . school buildings. His face brought back all my fear and then some. Though his expression was past the fear now - it was pure fury that was suddenly plain on his features.
"So where do you want to go out for dinner?" Charlie asked. "The sky's the limit."
"I can cook."
"Don't be silly. Do you want to go to the Lodge?" he asked with an eager smile.
I did not particularly enjoy Charlie's favorite restaurant, but, at this point, what was the difference? I wasn't going to be able to eat anyway.
"Sure, the Lodge, cool," I said.
Charlie smiled wider, and then sighed. He turned his head halfway toward Edward, without really looking at him.
"You coming, too, Edward?"
I stared at him, my eyes beseeching. Edward pulled his expression together just before Charlie turned to see why he hadn't gotten an answer.
"No, thank you," Edward said stiffly, his face hard and cold.
"Do you have plans with your parents?" Charlie asked, a frown in his voice. Edward was always more polite than Charlie deserved; the sudden hostility surprised him.
"Yes. If you'll excuse me. . . ." Edward turned abruptly and stalked away through the dwindling crowd. He moved just a little bit too fast, too upset to keep up his usually perfect charade.
"What did I say?" Charlie asked with a guilty expression.
"Don't worry about it, Dad," I reassured him. "I don't think it's you."
"Are you two fighting again?"
"Nobody's fighting. Mind your own business."
"You are my business."
I rolled my eyes. "Let's go eat."
The Lodge was crowded. The place was, in my opinion, overpriced and tacky, but it was the only thing close to a formal restaurant in town, so it was always popular for events. I stared morosely at a depressed- looking stuffed elk head while Charlie ate prime rib and talked over the back of the seat to Tyler Crowley's parents. It was noisy - everyone there had just come from graduation, and most were chatting across the aisles and over the booth-tops like Charlie.
I had my back to the front windows, and I resisted the urge to turn around and search for the eyes I could feel on me now. I knew I wouldn't be able to see anything. Just as I knew there was no chance that he would leave me unguarded, even for a second. Not after this.
Dinner dragged. Charlie, busy socializing, ate too slowly. I picked at my burger, stuffing pieces of it into my napkin when I was sure his attention was somewhere else. It all seemed to take a very long time, but when I looked at the clock - which I did more often than necessary - the hands hadn't moved much.
Finally Charlie got his change back and put a tip on the table. I stood up.
"In a hurry?" he asked me.
"I want to help Alice set things up," I claimed.
"Okay." He turned away from me to say goodnight to everyone. I went out to wait by the cruiser. I leaned against the passenger door, waiting for Charlie to drag himself away from the impromptu party. It was almost dark in the parking lot, the clouds so thick that there was no telling if the sun had set or not. The air felt heavy, like it was about to rain.
Something moved in the shadows.
My gasp turned into a sigh of relief as Edward appeared out of the gloom.
Without a word, he pulled me tightly against his chest. One cool hand found my chin, and pulled my face up so that he could press his hard lips to mine. I could feel the tension in his jaw.
"How are you?" I asked as soon as he let me breathe.
"Not so great," he murmured. "But I've got a handle on myself. I'm sorry that I lost it back there."
"My fault. I should have waited to tell you."
"No," he disagreed. "This is something I needed to know. I can't believe I didn't see it!"
"You've got a lot on your mind."
"And you don't?"
He suddenly kissed me again, not letting me answer. He pulled away after just a second. "Charlie's on his way."
"I'll have him drop me at your house."
"I'll follow you there."
"That's not really necessary," I tried to say, but he was already gone.
"Bella?" Charlie called from the doorway of the restaurant, squinting into the darkness.
"I'm out here."
Charlie sauntered out to the car, muttering about impatience.
"So, how do you feel?" he asked me as we drove north along the highway. "It's been a big day."
"I feel fine," I lied.
He laughed, seeing through me easily. "Worried about the party?" he guessed.
"Yeah," I lied again.
This time he didn't notice. "You were never one for the parties."
"Wonder where I got that from," I murmured.
Charlie chuckled. "Well, you look really nice. I wish I'd thought to get you something. Sorry."
"Don't be silly, Dad."
"It's not silly. I feel like I don't always do everything for you that I should."
"That's ridiculous. You do a fantastic job. World's best dad. And . . ." It wasn't easy to talk about feelings with Charlie, but I persevered after clearing my throat. "And I'm really glad I came to live with you, Dad. It was the best idea I ever had. So don't worry - you're just experiencing post-graduation pessimism."
He snorted. "Maybe. But I'm sure I slipped up in a few places. I mean, look at your hand!"
I stared down blankly at my hands. My left hand rested lightly on the dark brace I rarely thought about.
My broken knuckle didn't hurt much anymore.
"I never thought I needed to teach you how to throw a punch. Guess I was wrong about that."
"I thought you were on Jacob's side?"
"No matter what side I'm on, if someone kisses you without your permission, you should be able to make your feelings clear without hurting yourself. You didn't keep your thumb inside your fist, did you?"
"No, Dad. That's kind of sweet in a weird way, but I don't think lessons would have helped. Jacob's head is really hard."
Charlie laughed. "Hit him in the gut next time."
"Next time?" I asked incredulously.
"Aw, don't be too hard on the kid. He's young."
"He's still your friend."
"I know." I sighed. "I don't really know what the right thing to do here is, Dad."
Charlie nodded slowly. "Yeah. The right thing isn't always real obvious. Sometimes the right thing for one person is the wrong thing for someone else. So . . . good luck figuring that out."
"Thanks," I muttered dryly.
Charlie laughed again, and then frowned. "If this party gets too wild . . . ," he began.
"Don't worry about it, Dad. Carlisle and Esme are going to be there. I'm sure you can come, too, if you want."
Charlie grimaced as he squinted through the windshield into the night. Charlie enjoyed a good party just about as much as I did.
"Where's the turnoff, again?" he asked. "They ought to clear out their drive - it's impossible to find in the dark."
"Just around the next bend, I think." I pursed my lips. "You know, you're right - it is impossible to find. Alice said she put a map in the invitation, but even so, maybe everyone will get lost." I cheered up slightly at the idea.
"Maybe," Charlie said as the road curved to the east. "Or maybe not."
The black velvet darkness was interrupted ahead, just where the Cullens' drive should be. Someone had wrapped the trees on either side in thousands of twinkle lights, impossible to miss.
"Alice," I said sourly.
"Wow," Charlie said as we turned onto the drive. The two trees at the entry weren't the only ones lit. Every twenty feet or so, another shining beacon guided us toward the big white house. All the way - all three miles of the way.
"She doesn't do things halfway, does she?" Charlie mumbled in awe.
"Sure you don't want to come in?"
"Extremely sure. Have fun, kid."
"Thanks so much, Dad."
He was laughing to himself as I got out and shut the door. I watched him drive away, still grinning. With a sigh, I marched up the stairs to endure my party.