Under the Apple Tree
Chapter 59: I Concur
My hearts stops. My ability to breathe. My sanity must have slipped. She sits down and the hairs rising on my arms tell me she is real. The heat flushed in my cheeks. Her makeup is smudged. Her attire tells me why. The lack of oxygen must be making my mouth not function. It can't move. It can't utter a word, though I have thought of so many things to say over this time. I have an entire list. Jasper has a journal filled with my rambles and complaints and weak moments.
And yet, nothing comes to mind.
"I went to see my Dad," She says to her hands. She pauses and then looks up to me. "Thank you."
And through the clear, there is a girl I don't know, yet know. I have searched desperately for her. I have spent my Sundays in church asking for her. I have spent my evenings trying to convince a child that she exists. I have spent month after month trying to convince myself she exists.
I swallow and pray it won't sound weak. "You're welcome."
She looks back down to her hands. She says nothing and our time will soon expire. Alice is only cleaning up Grace and changing her clothes into something she purchased for church. If she sees Bella, game over.
Bella's hands disappear from the table. I watch as she opens her bag. I note the length of her hair. It's a little bit shorter. Her complexion seems brighter. Her skin softer, if that were possible. It shows the care she is taking of herself. 'What goes in must come out' and all of that. Her fingers slide something towards me.
Her voice is soft. "She looks happy."
I don't need to see the photos to know this. "She is."
Bella nods. She looks at me. "Can I keep this one?" And she is talking about the one I left on Charlie's grave, this morning.
"Thank you." I watch her fingers lift the picture. I watch her give it one last look before she puts it back in her bag. I watch those same fingers tuck her hair behind her ear. I watch them fall into her lap and I don't need to see them to know she is fidgeting. "I'd um…I was…do you think that…"
And she stops. She closes her eyes. She takes a cleansing breath and she starts again. She speaks slowly. "Do you think that I could see her?"
Before I can answer or move my head, she starts talking again. Rambles.
"I did what you asked. I mean, I'm seeing someone. I have my own place and like, a real job. Well, it's a shitty job, but like, they take out taxes and stuff. A lot of taxes. It's really quite ridiculous how much money the government makes off of other people working. But, whatever. I'm just saying that I'm doing what you wanted and even though it sucks, I'm doing it." Her face cringes and she balls her fist on the table.
She shakes her head. "That's not how I planned to say that. I should have started by saying 'thank you' . I should have started with that."
And I am trying not to find her amusing. I'm trying not to smile at her ramble and the relief that floods through me when I hear she is on the straight and narrow. I am kicking the shit out of myself for thinking otherwise.
"Tell me more about those things."
Her eyes glance up and search mine. To my surprise - and not really - I don't look away.
"Uh…which one? What do you want to know?"
Everything. Where have you been Bella? What have you done? Who have you become? Why didn't you call me and tell me. Why did you lock me out? Why did you miss Grace's christening and her birthday. That first Christmas and her wobbly legs. Why?
"Where do you work? What do you do there?"
Her fingers pick at themselves. She tries to be brave and look at me, but she fails several times as she replies. "A restaurant. Um, I was hired as a busser, but like…they pretty much make me do whatever they want. Like, sometimes kids like to throw spaghetti on the walls, or men have…bathroom issues…and even though this guy who is also a busser is supposed to take out the trash the nights he works, he never does.
"And I get stuck doing it. But I don't say shit, 'cause like I live there and I don't want to start trouble and lose my job and then have to still live there, you know?"
And her face flushes at her words. And my silence, as I process everything she just relayed.
"You live there?"
She talks to her fingers. "Yeah, well…it kind of makes sense."
"Bella…" I have to stop for a moment. Saying her name. They way it just leaves my mouth. "How do you live in a restaurant?"
Her voice is small. "Not in it. Just above it. There's a small apartment above it."
I nod in understanding and feel a bit foolish. She looks up to me and her eyes wait. For more questions. For the answer to her own. I can't help but to hold my tongue and simply stare. The tip of my finger begs to reach over and wipe the black smudge from the corner of her eye.
I want to dip my napkin in the glass of water on the table and erase the lines where there used to be rosy cheeks. I want to take her hand into mine and see if it still feels the same. Her nails are clean, despite the work she has just described. They are clipped short, which tells me she is being truthful. It is Charlie's birthday, which is why they are painted with a clear coat of polish.
"What the hell are you doing here?" And the scared look in her eyes tell me that is Alice.
I look over my shoulder.
She keeps her eyes on Bella. "Don't Alice me, Edward. You. Get out."
"Stop it," I stand and reach for Grace, but she takes a step back. "Alice, stop it and give me Grace, please. We'll be late for church."
"Is she going?"
I reach for Grace, again, and do not reply until she has handed her over. I rest her on my hip and reach for my jacket with my free hand. Bella is looking towards the window. The reflection shows me her fear and her embarrassment.
"I suppose that is up to Bella."
Her face looks towards mine. I see the clear back in her eyes and a chin that resembles Grace's legs. I extend my free hand to her. She looks at it like that first day. And this where we either go forward or backwards. And I feel like I am watching my own life in slow motion. As she scoots from the booth. As she fixes her clothes. As she grabs her bag. As she places her palm down inside of mine. As my fingers hold on to her hand and nothing and yet everything has changed.
"That's just great. This is just great." And as Alice is pissed off at me. "You choose her after all the shit-"
"Alice." I shake my head. "Not today. Not here." I take a step forward and kiss my sister's cheek. "Thank you for our breakfast."
Bella is at my side. And I am once again fighting for a girl who stopped fighting for us. What am I doing? What the hell am I doing? I keep walking. I feel her feet slow as we exit Alice's bakery. She lets go of my hand. And here it comes. Here it fucking comes. Break my heart Bella. Go on. Here it comes.
But, she doesn't pay attention to me and my thoughts. She doesn't look at me. She doesn't turn and run. She is just looking at the eyes that are looking at her, over my shoulder. And I swear, I hate her and love her and want to slap her and hug her and I want to walk away while yelling at her that she isn't worthy of those eyes. I want to carry Grace to my car and hide her away and tell Bella to go back from where she came from.
But I am not Bella and I keep my word. I keep my promises.
I do what I say and she won't break me and she won't win. She won't turn me into something I am not and so fine. I talk to Grace how we talk. I ask her how I ask her things and she answers me how she answers me. She talks how she talks. We understand each other how we understand each other.
And her answer is arms that want to accept someone she doesn't know beyond pictures and short stories. Through pictures I found in old newspapers of Chief Swan, who is also Grandpa. Or would have been. She had to know whose eyes she had. And they are the same. Bella. Charlie. Grace. She needed an identity and yeah, Bella, Grace, they are the same.
And she must love the way Bella's hair smells because that is where her face is. She must love the warmth of her neck and Bella must have figured out what it is to actually love and give a shit about something and realize what the hell she has missed because she holds that blessing like she should have a fucking year ago. And it is Sunday and church is starting in twenty minutes, but the members will be let down. The preacher won't have much to say and I don't need to sit in a pew to hear how good God is.
God is here.
God is right here.
And words…words seem rather dull. Rather superfluous. Rather pale, in comparison to action. To proof before my eyes. To rhythms in my heart and speedy pulse rates. To underlined happiness and how light my shoulders feel; seeing caramel heads of hair highlighted under the sun. Arms and how simple gestures and affection speak. Mouths and how tiny kisses have never been bigger. Tears and how crocodiles cannot been seen, for they flood in my own and I have to press my tongue to the roof of my mouth to stop it.
She doesn't need to hear.
She closes the front door and I note her clothes. She still has her apron on. It's dirty.
"They made me stay after my shift." She pulls the rubber band from her hair and then gathers her hair again, putting it into a neater ponytail. She looks to the floor, where Grace should be playing.
I answer her unspoken question. "You're late and now she is napping."
Her face sours. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to stay. I told them that Sundays I can't work late, but they just don't give a shit, Cullen."
And I see how my words cut. But my defenses and my history with her produced them. She nods. She doesn't spout off at the mouth. She just nods and looks like a scared little girl who is being scolded.
I push my anger aside. I nod to the space next to me on the couch. "Sit."
Her bag rests down on the floor. She reaches back and unties her apron. She rolls it up and look around for a place to put it. She sees my irritation and she settles for letting it sit in her lap and she takes up residency next to me.
"Oh." She reaches into her bag. She pulls out an envelope. Her hand shakes a little as she extends it to me.
I take it. "What is this?"
She looks nervous. "It's for Grace. And you."
My finger slips under the seal. I see green and I look back up to her.
"It's not a lot, but they moved me up to be a waitress now, so like, I get good tips. Well, better tips. Plus, my boss said if I fix up my place I won't have to pay rent. Just utilities. I'm pretty good at painting and stuff. 'Cause you know…'cause of Charlie." And she is back to talking to her hands. "I'll have more next time."
I toss the envelope to the coffee table.
"Money doesn't make you a good parent, Bella."
She looks up at me and I know she wants to yell. I know I'm pissing her off and maybe I am doing it on purpose. I'm not sure. Maybe I am trying to push her away. Maybe I get some sick joy out of watching her squirm or maybe I have just lost my damn mind. Maybe I'm just still pissed off at her and want it to burn her. Maybe I just can't accept that she is doing what I wanted. Maybe I am just building walls incase she does run, again.
"I know that. I know that."
Maybe I'm just pissed that Grace is sleeping and she missed out on the one day a week she had to be here on time.
"And we don't need your money, Bella."
And watching her crumple isn't as much fun as a Bella who would yell back at me. I rub my hand over my face.
"I'm sorry. I'm just pissed off that you missed your time with her today."
Her eyes widen. "And you think it makes me happy? I didn't do it on purpose."
I nod and I want to just forgive and forget, talk about something else, offer her a drink, watch something on television and just relax…but that is just old hat. That is just what got us into this mess. That is just ignorance and that is just a long time ago.
"Don't do it again. If you're late next time, don't bother coming at all."
I hear her laughing, but I am too busy searching for my phone to look over and see why.
"She's getting good at this."
I turn my head for a second. Maybe two. Three. Grace is holding Bella's hands, trying to keep her balance and Bella lets go. As soon as her legs get shaky, Bella grips her waist and then, that's where the laughing comes from. Bella's.
And I forget what the hell I was looking for. I join them on the floor and play along. After a few exchanges of hands, Bella looks over to me.
"I read something."
I smile at Grace as she smiles at me, but answer Bella. "What did you read?"
"It was about…you know…kids like Grace."
"Deaf children," I say easily.
Not so much. "Yeah."
Grace bounces and I laugh at her silliness. Happiness. "Go on."
"It's about something you can put in their ears. So…you know."
"They can hear," I nod. "I know all about it, Bella."
She doesn't reach out for Grace when I try to pass her over. Her face is a little confused. Maybe even a little angry.
"So why the hell…"
I cut her off. "Because that's not my choice entirely, Bella. They're not my ears."
She thinks and then shakes her head. "You're her doctor. Her…you're her father. You're supposed to do those things. Make those choices."
I sit Grace in my lap. She plays with the colors on the mat in front of us.
"I did make a choice. I made a choice to let her choose." She still doesn't get it. I kiss Grace's head and then scoot her from my lap, sitting her on her own between us. "Put your hands over your ears."
She makes a face, but does it.
I shake my head. "Press harder."
She does. I reach for the remote and turn up the volume as high as it will go. I let Bella get acclimated to the sound of nothing for several minutes, then pull her hands away. Her face cringes and she covers her ears again. I flip off the television.
"Now imagine adding every other noise you hear on top of that. Your own voice. The sound of mine. The heat turning on and off. The way the fireplace sounds. The way her toys sound. Someone randomly laughing." I shake my head. "Could you imagine the confusion, Bella?"
She thinks for a moment and then nods.
"I just think it would be wiser to wait until she was old enough to tell us how she feels. I don't want to just do something to her she won't understand. Something I can't explain because she's too young to comprehend. It's her choice more than anyone elses."
Grace holds a block up to Bella. Her eyes go there and she smiles. She takes the block.
She looks at me. "How do you say thank you?"
And my fingers show her. Bella's fingers show Grace and I don't know if she understands it or not, but she smiles back at Bella and it's good enough.
"Ready to go to the park?" I'm asking Grace, but really Bella.
"Is it okay if I use the bathroom first? I don't think I've peed since this morning."
I laugh and nod. "Hurry. Grace has waited all day for you."
She quickly climbs the steps and I wait for her to return. I hear voices and then arguing. I follow the sound and push my bedroom door open. It's Bella and Angela. They pause once they see me.
"What's going on?"
Bella looks at Angela. "Why don't you ask her."
Angela shakes her head. "I told you, I was just putting away Dr. Cullen's things."
"What things?" I ask. "You don't work today, Angela."
"She was in your desk," Bella answers for her.
I look over and see the drawer open. I lock that drawer. It should not be open.
"I was not," Angela argues. "I don't know why she is saying these things. Why are you saying these things?"
Bella gawks at her. "I saw you."
Angela shakes her head. "You never did like me. I'm sorry Dr. Cullen, but you know that's true. And I mean no disrespect, but she has never been very kind to me. Or fair."
"You fucking bitch. You fucking bitch." And old Bella returns. She shoves Angela and I have to put Grace on the bed and pull her away.
"Stop it. Just knock it off, Bella."
She shrugs out of my grasp. "Me? Why are you pissed at me? I wasn't the one rummaging through your things."
"She's lying, Sir."
And I feel like a ping-pong ball. "How about this; everyone gets out of my room."
Angela seems fine with this idea and starts to walk away, but Bella grabs for her. She looks at me. "You're seriously going to believe her?"
"I have no reason not to, Bella."
My words unintentionally slap her face. "And you have plenty of reasons to not believe me….right, Cullen?"
I reach for her hands and uncurl her fingers from Angela's wrist. "This isn't about us."
"Yes it is. You hired this person to watch Grace. She lives here with her. This has everything to do with us, Edward."
And it's the first time she's said my name since she's come back. The first real sign that Bella wants to protect her child and the first time she has made a reference to her being ours.
Her eyes plead with mine. "Just make her answer your question. If she has a reason that is a good reason, then we'll go the damn park and I'll never bring it up again."
And it's fair enough. I look at Angela and there is only silence. And silence has never been so loud. And all the months of searching for my missing things and swearing that it was me, that it was Bella's absence and that she always found what I lost, comes to a screeching halt. Esme's rings when she washed Grace. I didn't lose anything. Checks. I didn't misplace anything. Phone. I didn't work too late or miss Bella too much or was careless. Alice's purse. It was her. It was her.
"You have ten minutes to pack your things before I call the authorities to escort you out of my home."
"Can you say 'I concur?'"
She shakes her head. "When we are with them, today. Can you say it when they ask for your opinion?"
I can't help my smile. "May I ask, why?"
She shrugs and child Bella makes an appearance. "I saw this movie…um…with the guy from the boat movie-" she chews her finger as she thinks. "The one where it sinks?"
Her finger goes from her mouth, to pointing at me. "Yeah."
She smiles and nods. "Yeah, that guy. Anyhow, he was in this other movie we watched in class - I don't know the name of it either - but anyway…he was pretending to be a doctor and so he watched movies where they always said 'I concur', so when he didn't know what to say, that's what he said."
I am amused, but slightly confused. "How did that make him more of a doctor?"
She shrugs. "I don't know. I guess that's what doctors do. Don't they?"
I snort a little as I laugh. "Apparently, not this one." I wave to myself. "Nor, any of the ones I have worked with."
"Well, maybe you could start a trend."
"I'm not really trendy, Bella."
She laughs a little and it's adorable. Warm. Her eyes. Goddamn. "Then we could think of it as a test. Like, rats. If one does something, will the others follow suit. This is what today is for anyhow."
"Now I'm a rat."
More laughing and I have to shove my hands into pockets so I don't touch her.
"No. We're just doing a test." She faces the glass where the other doctors are. "They're the rats."
The door opens and I turn my head. "Dr. Cullen. Are we ready for lunch, Sir?"
I nod. "Yeah, Dad. We're ready for lunch."
He laughs and we follow him and the group of doctors down the hallway. We end up at a place downtown. There is a warm fire going inside and I am glad.
We are given the best table in the house and it is adjacent to that fire. I go to turn and help Bella with her coat, but a waiter has already offered and I take my seat.
She is only being nice and he compliments her outfit and she smiles. She is only polite as she says thank you for him scooting in her chair. I tell myself this and it does nothing to solve the jealousy in me. The claim I still feel for her. The need my arm has to reach over and allow it to rest on the back of her chair. I am like an animal who wants to mark territory that isn't mine. It's foul and I place my attention to the water the waiter is now serving. The menu he hands me and the other guests at our table.
Until, "This is in French or something," is whispered in my ear, not anyone else's.
And I have to look over. I have to have my face just inches from hers. I have to breathe in order to answer her and when I do, it's the scent of her hair and her skin. The shine of her lips, so close, so pink. That little bit of unsure and scared that lives eternally inside the caramel.
And my napkin is my savior as I hold on to it and do not touch her. Do not move back the piece of hair that blocks her face from fully being shown. Do not brush the back of my fingers to her cheek that is begging for assurance. Do not place my lips on her nose or chin and goddamn.
"Would you like me to order for you?" Her eyes are just looking at my mouth. And she is just nodding until someone calls my name. I look over to see it was Dr. Stanley.
"Don't you think that vacationing in Aspen is much better than Hawaii?" She leans on her hand and waits for my reply. I am about to say something when I feel something on my leg, all of a sudden. It kind of hurts.
"Uhhh…" I look down quickly. It's Bella's fingers curling tightly. Her face is dead locked on Dr. Stanley. I discreetly reach down and slide my finger to relieve the pain, uncurling her fingers. "Not really. We have enough snow and cold weather here. I would prefer somewhere warmer."
Much warmer. My hand slides under Bella's. I feel like I am back in Jr. High. Water is my best friend. I sip and Jessica keeps blabbing on. The waiter stops by us and I order our food. Our hands are still touching and isn't until I feel her hand move, holding tighter to my fingers that I realize I am rubbing circles with my thumb on the soft skin next to her own thumb.
"Sir." The waiter places down our food and I have barely heard any of the conversation at the table, nor made any. I look over as he sets Bella's food in front of her. I wait for approval and she gives a smile. And it is then that I realize I have to let go of her hand if I want to eat. And she has to do the same. And neither of us move. I smile sheepishly and she does the same.
"Is there something wrong, Sir?" The waiter asks me quietly, leaning in.
I shake my head. "No. No, everything is fine." I squeeze Bella's fingers. She squeezes them back and then we let go.
By the time our meal has gotten to the coffee/dessert portion, I am more than ready to leave. I look over to Bella. She is eating her dessert and paying attention to what the others are discussing, intently. I smile to myself and try to see what she is supposed to look for. Their mannerisms. Their tones. Their posture. And I am supposed to play my part. I wait for the opportune moment.
"I don't know. I think that often we over prescribe our patients."
I look to the other doctor. He takes a sip of coffee before he retorts. "Oh, I wouldn't say 'over' prescribe."
Another. "Some patients don't want to use diet and exercise What are you supposed to do?" She shrugs and cares more about her chocolate cake.
Another. "They love the drugs. Please."
My father. "Actually, I believe our kind has become a little bit lazy. Our lack of educating our patients properly prevents many from being able to fully understand what we diagnose them with having. Imagine, we have all been through the proper education courses, have years of experience under our belts, hands-on experience, and then in a fifteen minute visit, you try to relay all that you know to a person.
He shakes his head, stirring his cup of coffee. "No, it's not the patient. It is us. We, as doctors, have gotten to used to handing over a slip of paper and expecting them to understand what all those terms and warnings mean. We have failed. Not the patient."
The table is silent as he sips his coffee. Dr. Stanley looks over to me. "What are your thoughts, Dr. Cullen? Do we over medicate?"
I smile a little. I pick up my own coffee mug. "I concur with my father." I take a sip and then watch as the remaining doctors start to nod.
An older man, picks up his mug and nods towards my father. "I concur with Dr. Cullen as well."
And the table is a round of "I concurs". I glance over to Bella and she glances over to me. Her smile lights up my heart. She leans over.
"That was fucking amazing."
I find her fingers under the table. I lace mine into hers.
She laughs and so do I .
And so do I.
REVIEW THIS CHAPTER