Chapter 2: The Cullens

On my second day of school, I spent most of the morning dreading lunch. Mike sat with me in English and whisked me away to my second class before Eric could step in - Eric's disappointment was concerning - but to the general population I was less the center of attention. The classes were no more or less interesting than they had been the previous day, and that meant there was very little to distract me from the hamster in my head running endlessly over and over What is Edward's DEAL? At lunch, we'd be in the same room again, and he might... Okay, I felt dumb panicking that he might glare at me, when I put it in words. But he might and it was not pleasant.

Jessica and I walked together to the cafeteria, where Mike spotted us and steered us towards his table (to Jessica's obvious delight - that was something to write down later). Jessica's other friends, including Angela, found us there and collected around us. Once I'd settled in and looked around, I found that Edward's four siblings were at their usual table. Edward was not.

He didn't show up for the duration of the lunch period, and I practically had a spring in my step by the time Angela, Mike and I headed to Biology. I gave them my spiel about wanting a lab partner willing to help, augmented by a "and now Edward is absent! What am I supposed to do?" Mike took this opportunity to turn up the useful tidbit that Edward, as well as the other Cullens and the Hales, actually missed a fair amount of school - on nice days the family were outdoorsy enough to skip classes for hikes and camping trips. I got Angela's permission (and Mike's unspoken disappointment) to try to swap lab partners and work instead with her; she guessed that her current one wouldn't mind.

The switch went pretty easily. I didn't even have to recite my entire speech to the biology teacher before he perfunctorily asked Angela's partner if she'd be okay to sit with Edward, got an apathetic shrug, and made the rearrangements. Sitting with Angela was pleasant. She was quiet - a bit like Charlie, speaking if there was cause but not fighting silence like a hated foe. Once, she asked me a question about how the material we were looking at compared to the similar content I'd covered in Phoenix, and we had a murmured exchange that, being topical, went unpunished by the teacher.

I hurried to gym, ironically, and found the coach and recited a litany of excuses: I had the balance of a toddler - a drunk toddler - and the bruising potential of an overripe nectarine and I promised to practice yoga out of a book at home on a soft surface every day if I could please, please, please be excused from volleyball and nearly everything else.

Understandably, the coach wasn't impressed by my yoga promises, but said I could take a mat and put it in the corner of the gym and do the exercises there during classes where I could be officially monitored. I would still most likely fall a lot, but onto something yielding and not into any innocent bystanders. I could live with that. I was less happy about the coach insinuating that maybe we should have official Yoga Fridays and I could lead them if I was so into the practice. I wasn't actually good at yoga. It was just not as likely to send me careening into walls as volleyball. Perhaps she would forget about it; I didn't see a way to discourage the plan at that exact moment without making my promise to pursue the exercise seem less credible.

I had also "forgotten" my gym clothes, as emergency backup volleyball avoidance, and so I sat out for the second day in a row, but with my alternative arrangement in place I planned to be equipped the next day. It would have been embarrassing to flunk gym.

After school, I needed to make a grocery run: when I was at Charlie's, food was my domain, due to his lack of skill at or interest in cooking and tendency to forget that he needed to eat. On my way out of the campus lot, I noticed the two Cullens and Hale twins who'd attended school that day getting into their car: it was the shiny Volvo. Of course. It would be just silly if they had looks and not money too.

Grocery shopping wasn't a very mentally taxing activity, and so I spent most of the trip actively trying not to dwell on Edward. There was no good reason for me to be doing so, especially not after an entire day where he had not even appeared. That meant I was dwelling on him for bad reasons, and those weren't likely to go away and quit bugging me until I ferretted out what they were. What bad reasons would be prompting these thoughts?

Well, first, to get it out of the way, he was attractive. Very. Not in how he acted - just visually and in terms of what I'd heard of his voice. That had to be tweaking something on a subconscious level; I wouldn't necessarily have felt less threatened if an ugly boy had scowled at me the same way, but I wouldn't have been so self-conscious about it. I probably would have figured that it was his problem. Which was a hint that it was his problem, and I shouldn't consider it evidence that I'd done anything wrong. Edward was just a bizarre guy who'd taken an arbitrary dislike to me where no one else had, and he'd chosen to express it in the form of hostile staring. The fact that he was pretty made this no more or less likely.

Second, it was unexplained. That made it nigglingly mysterious. It only helped to care about mysteries if there was a sensible route towards solving them available, though. Now that I thought about it, it might be safe to ask one of his siblings...? None of them had looked at me at all strangely. Of the four I guessed that Alice, the smaller, less runway-model-looking girl, would be most approachable. I didn't have information about any of their personalities, but appearance was to some extent a personal choice, and so in the absence of better ways to tell it wasn't worthless to guess based on how she looked. However, I decided it would be better to put that possibility off until and unless Edward pulled something worse than glaring at me.

Third, it felt risky. I had no strong reason to believe it was actually risky. Driving my truck in the rain to and from the Thriftway for eggs and bread was probably more likely to kill me than Edward, just based on how many people died in car accidents and how many people were slain by inexplicably provoked classmates on an annual basis. But an angry face on another person was more the sort of thing I was wired to fear than a lump of metal under my direct control. The brain was evolved to work out social problems, not to worry about the relative danger of controlling vehicles on wet pavement.

I'd run through all these thoughts by the time I wheeled my cart to the checkout. They helped. Simply observing the thought processes that led to some intrusive notion was so useful; I was confused about the fact that others never seemed to do it. Renée's ability to worry was limited only by her attention span. Charlie, if he had the tendency of dwelling to begin with, was subtler about it. I didn't see signs of the ability to consciously shut down pointless woolgathering in any of my peers. I supposed I should actually ask some - later, after I had closer friends in Forks who wouldn't find the one comment enough to consider me weird, instead of so early in their formations of impressions.

I went home, made egg salad so dinner would already be done whenever Charlie got home, and replied to Renée's e-mail that had arrived while I was at school. Then I occupied myself by writing down as many of the things I'd decided to write down as I could remember. When I'd exhausted them I got started on my math homework. I heard Charlie come home some hours later, and went down the stairs so we could eat together.

"Bella?" he called when he heard my footsteps.

"Welcome home!" I replied, leaning into view at the bottom of the stairwell. "Egg salad's in the fridge."

He served himself a generous helping, looking appreciative, and I scooped out a small plateful for myself. When he went back for a second portion, he asked, "So, how did you like school? Have you made any friends?"

"Sure," I said. "I have a couple classes with a girl named Jessica, and Angela's my lab partner in biology; I sit with them and some of their friends at lunch. And I also met a boy named Eric and one named Mike - they're friendly." I didn't mention Edward. There was nothing worth involving Charlie in, and anyway, he was clearly hoping for positive news, of which there was no shortage.

"That must be Mike Newton. Nice kid - nice family. His dad owns the sporting goods store just outside of town. He makes a good living off all the backpackers who come through here."

I'd never asked Charlie much about the people of Forks, but now that I thought of it, I supposed he must have met many of them. It would be likely less fruitful, but also much cheaper, to ask him rather than Alice - obliquely, of course. "Do you know the Cullen family?" I inquired.

"Dr. Cullen's family? Sure. Dr. Cullen's a great man."

"I meant more the kids - they stick out some at school, I was curious."

Charlie surprised me with a medium-sized speech about how the Cullen kids had surpassed all of his expectations since they'd moved into town, never gave him a speck of trouble, were unfailingly polite, and all went on regular camping trips as a healthy family bonding experience. He seemed to be reacting more to some background hum of gossip, like what I'd heard from Jessica, than to anything I'd said. Apparently he was upset that the locals felt the need to make unkind comments about the Cullens when Forks was so lucky to have such a fine doctor in residence. I nodded along as he talked; the only one of the family I'd "met" had not made such a splendid impression and I couldn't honestly chime in with verbal agreement. But if my father the police chief found the family so clean-cut and worthy of praise, that was some evidence in favor of the danger being imaginary. Most violence came with priors. I felt a bit better.

Edward was not in school for the rest of the week. I settled into the routine of school: English with Mike and Eric sitting on either side of me, competing for my attention during the moments before and after class. Government, Trig, Spanish, lunch, biology, and yoga in the corner of the gym. I discovered to my surprise that I liked yoga; it was easy to think during the languid motions from pose to pose. I wasn't doing anything complicated, mostly just stretches and so on - and I avoided standing postures so I would be less likely to topple over - but the teacher didn't complain, just looked my way periodically to make sure I wasn't goofing off during class. The group I sat with at lunch, led by Mike, made plans to take a trip to La Push Ocean Park in a few weeks - an unfamiliar sort of beach, but a beach, and I decided to go.

By Friday I started to suspect that Edward had dropped out of school or something. The mystery was compounded, not relieved, by his absence, and the small town failed me with its lack of plausible gossip. This was odd, given that asking Jessica could yield information of the most personal sort about everyone else; I encountered more rumors about drinking problems and scandalous pregnancies and business trajectories than I could keep straight. Why shouldn't she be able to report on Edward?

I really didn't think I was horrifying enough to cause anyone to drop out of school altogether. I tentatively concluded that he'd looked at me horribly simply because my timing was bad and I'd arrived the day before some unwelcome event took him away from Forks.

The weekend was tranquil. Charlie worked most of it; he'd gotten into the habit of spending every day on the job when the alternative was puttering around an empty house, and typically took off only when there was urgent fishing to do. I went to the library, found it pitiful, and added a plaintive note about that in my new e-mail to Renée. Later I'd have to go to some larger settlement, Olympia or Seattle, and spend all day in a good bookstore, spending the money I would have blown on a car if not for Charlie's gift - on books, and on gas for the truck, because it got awful mileage and I needed to budget separately for that expense on a trip that big.

On Monday, it was cold. People in the parking lot greeted me by name; in the cases where I knew theirs, I did the same, and otherwise I just smiled and waved and offered a more generic hello. I was comfortable. It was nice. The classes were mind-numbing, but I was pretty pleased with the student body.

After English, it turned out to be snowing, and I stopped to marvel when I walked out of the building, staring up at the descending wisps of cottony precipitation. Mike thought this was amusing. "Haven't you ever seen snow before?"

"On TV," I said. Mike laughed. Then a ball of slush hit him in the back of the head. I tracked its path and noticed Eric hurrying away, in the wrong direction for his next class. Mike bent down and started collecting his own snowball.

"See you at lunch," I told him, moving away briskly. I thought snow was pretty, but I suspected my affection for it would be destroyed if I had to encounter it in the form of crossfire.

The snow - first of its kind for the calendar year - was the talk of the school all morning, which would have made more sense if it had been snowing in Phoenix. Nevertheless, I didn't find it hard to muster enthusiasm, since it was genuinely novel to me. I managed to avoid the hurtling snow missiles between all of the buildings I was obliged to travel to; Jessica, walking with me to lunch, thought my caution was silly, but didn't attack me with a frozen projectile herself. Mike caught up with us near the cafeteria doors, laughing as melting ice destroyed the painstaking spikes in his hair. Jessica drew him into a discussion of snowball fight tactics as we headed for the food and I habitually glanced at the Cullen's table.

There were five people there.

I must have been distracted for longer than it seemed to me, because Jessica pulled on my arm. "Hello? Bella? What do you want?"

For him to go be gone again, I thought. Or for an explanation at least. "Just a soda," I said aloud. "I'm not really hungry."

"Are you okay?" Jessica asked.

"I think so," I said. We waited in line, got our food and beverages, and headed for our table.

Mike was very concerned about my health, and kept asking if I was sure I was all right. I considered faking an illness and skipping Biology in the nurse's office. Bad idea, I decided. I couldn't do that forever, and it wouldn't get me any closer to understanding what was going on. I would just stick close to Angela and ignore Edward as much as I could. But I couldn't resist looking over once, to make sure he wasn't glowering at me.

Edward wasn't looking at me at all, and he was laughing - the entire family was. The boys all had snow in their hair, and Emmett was shaking his head to fling it out towards the sisters. Alice was using her lunch tray as a shield. It was picturesque, and I looked a little more intently, trying to figure out where the fury I so strongly associated with Edward had gone. Without it he didn't look half so predatory.

"Bella, what are you staring at?" Jessica asked.

And just then, Edward looked over and made direct eye contact with me.

I ducked my head immediately, caught, but I was sure he hadn't looked as full of rage has he had before. Just curious again, as he had been the last time this had happened in the cafeteria instead of the biology room. Were his attitudes determined by the room? How bizarre would that be?

"Edward Cullen is staring at you," Jessica giggled.

"He is?" She probably would have mentioned it if he'd started looking murderous again.

"Yep," she teased.

"Please stop looking at him," I said. I turned towards Mike's conversation in progress - elaborate snow-enhanced battle plans - and kept my eyes to my own table for the rest of the lunch period.

When Mike and Angela and I left the cafeteria together to head to Biology, the snow had turned to rain, and all of his weaponry was in the process of melting. He, and most of the other students, groaned. I was relieved not to have to fear snowballs between classes, and although I did miss the decoration, I hadn't fancied trying to drive home in my very first snowfall.

I was glad that I had changed lab partners and that I didn't have to sit right next to Edward after his absence. Especially since he had a brief, bizarrely heated exchange with the teacher about the new seating chart before finally taking his place next to Angela's former neighbor. I couldn't hear most of it, but his tone was incredulous, and the girl he was to share his table with was closer to the front of the room and looked vaguely offended. And then Edward stared at me again. Not angrily. Just frustrated, as the first time.

I turned my attention to the lab when the teacher finished setting up and told us to start identifying the phases of mitosis on our microscope slides. Angela and I worked well together; we alternated checking the slides first and then checked one another's work, with her making one error that I caught and, as far as we could tell, none on my part. While she copied our answers onto the sheet, I glanced around the room. One of the pairs had a book open under the table, trying to hide the forbidden reference from the teacher. Mike and his partner kept swapping between two slides, comparing them. Edward was staring at me again, and his lab partner was gazing into space; either they'd completed the assignment before anyone else, or they had both decided to ignore it completely.

His eyes were dark gold. I was sure they'd been black before. I hadn't written it down and could be misremembering... but I was sure they had been black.

I looked away again. Angela's handwriting was very tidy and so she was doing all of our recording, but she had noted in the margins who identified which slides first and the one mistake that I had caught so the credit was shared appropriately. I smiled and murmured to her that I appreciated it, and she smiled warmly, thanking me in turn for spotting the misidentification.

The teacher came around and noted everyone's scores. I was able to just barely overhear that Edward and his partner had gotten full marks: speed, then, not abandonment. Angela and I, plus one other pair, did equally well; everyone else had something missing.

There was a brief hubbub as equipment was put away and the teacher recorded our scores in his grade book, and then collective focus turned to the transparencies he used to explain the lab. I zoned out a little, mostly just staring at the bright rectangle at the front of the room with pictures of cells in it. Sometimes I checked to see where Edward's attention was. Every time it was on me. I wondered if the teacher noticed. The fact that he consistently turned out to be staring at me only made me more tempted to check repeatedly. Finally I made a face at him - trying to convey something like, "What is your DEAL?" with my eyes - and he turned towards the front of the room for the rest of the class, body language tense but his visual focus off me.

Edward raced nimbly out of the room when the bell rang. I'd half suspected that he'd lurk on the route to gym and accost me when I walked by, demanding whatever secret he found so frustrating. I stuck close to Mike. "That was awful," Mike groaned. "They all looked exactly the same. How'd you do so well?"

"I'd done it before," I said. "With fish, not onion, but it's the same idea."

"Lucky," commented Mike, and then he started griping about the departed snow.

I stuck to a simple set of four poses during my yoga session to leave me more focus for thinking. I decided that unremitting staring was probably a significant enough act of harrassment that, if I thought I needed it, I could get faculty attention about it. I resolved that Edward had two days to cut it out or I'd try to speak to Alice, and if that didn't turn up anything, he had a week and I'd speak to the biology teacher, and if that came to nothing, I'd wait another week and involve Charlie. Charlie's approval of the family would not, I was sure, stand up to my complaint, especially when I could probably get the also-approved-of Mike to back me up. After two more weeks of staring, if it got that bad, Mike would notice something. He was attentive enough. (I still needed to think of something to do about that, but it was a secondary problem.)

After gym, I went to my truck, hopped in the cab, and ran the heater to warm my hands so I could comfortably grip the steering wheel. After a minute I started to poke along out of the lot. On my way out, I spotted Edward and Alice standing near the family Volvo. It looked like they were arguing. They weren't loud enough for me to have heard them, even if I'd cut the engine and rolled down a window, but it was clearly intense.

I'd never even had a bizarre intermittent staring match with Alice, so in all my vanity, I couldn't conceive of the conversation being about me. There was nothing she knew or thought about me to argue for or against. I continued towards home.

The next morning, I drove to school as usual, parked, and got out of my truck. Not at all as usual, when I shut the truck door and turned around, I found that Alice Cullen was standing beside me.

"Hello," she said chirpily. Her eyes were the same gold that Edward's had been the previous day. "My name is Alice Cullen."

"Hello, I'm Bella," I said, automatically, politely, and then I remembered to be confused. "What -"

"Oh, look," said Alice, seizing my arm in a friendly but inescapable grip and pulling me towards the front left wheel of my truck, and then past it. She pointed at the tire. "Snow chains. That was smart! I thought you were from Phoenix and it never ices there."

I hadn't put the chains there, and I was surprised I hadn't noticed them before I got into the truck that morning. I supposed that explained why I hadn't had a terrible time driving to school in all the glittering frozenness. "My dad -" I started to guess, but Alice was still hauling on me and it made it hard to form sentences. It was outrageous, how strong she was in spite of being so tiny. "Hey, um -"

"Look," she said again, dragging me farther and farther away from my truck, "all these people have lived in Forks all their lives and half of them don't chain their tires." Finally she seemed to think that, four parking spaces away from the Chevy, we had moved far enough, but she maintained her hold on my arm. I expected to find my skin painted with bruises later.

"Alice," I said, but before I could ask her to please release my arm, a dark blue van skidded across the parking lot and collided with the back corner of my truck.

The truck was sturdy. It made an awful noise, and I lost some paint, but I didn't doubt it would work later.

I would have been standing in the path of the van if Alice hadn't pulled me away.

Alice no longer seemed to find it necessary to hold my arm in her vice of a hand, but I decided that if she'd found it appropriate in the first place she wouldn't mind my clinging back just a little bit. She was little and bony but didn't sag under my attempt to seek support. I made a small burbling sound.

"Chains on tires in icy weather are such a good idea," said Alice sagely.

I wobbled in place, wrapped around Alice's unprotesting arm and trying not to fall over. Between the ice and the fact that I'd just nearly been trapped between a truck and a van, it was a challenge, but eventually I found enough footing and mental stability to let go of her. "Aaaaaaaugh," I said. My voice was strangely devoid of emotion, considering. It should have been exhibiting relief, or stress, or confusion, or gratitude, or some combination of those things.

I supposed Alice deserved to hear the last one spoken aloud. "Thank you," I added to my ineloquent exhalation.

"For what?" she said. "The compliment about the snow chains and how smart that was? You're welcome!"

It seemed obvious that she was playing dumb, somehow, but I couldn't fathom why. The van hadn't been anywhere in sight when she'd started pulling me away from the truck; there was nothing for her to play dumb about. "For pulling me out of the way," I said. "If you hadn't, the van would have squished me."

"That was lucky!" she said cheerfully. "Hey, I'd better get to my class. I'll see you at lunch, Bella!"

Alice danced away, her grace untroubled by the ice. I blinked at her a couple of times, and then tottered towards the blue van for the ritual exchange of insurance information.

Tyler Crowley was the van's driver; I recognized him from my Government class. He'd gotten a few small cuts, but looked mostly okay; without any humans in the path of his out-of-control car, he'd mostly focused on slowing down and hadn't careened too crazily. By the time I'd written down all the details, Charlie had arrived - apparently the school secretary had called emergency services. He was worried about me at first, but I reassured him that I'd been standing "all the way over there" and that my truck was "just fine, thanks for the chains by the way" and that my witness's remarks were "all written down right here" (I tore a page out of my notebook) and that I was "going to go to class now, I don't want to get any later, love you, Dad".

I was late to English, but after explaining the car accident - with Alice edited out, the implication being that I'd wandered autonomously out of harm's way - I wasn't in trouble. Mike and Eric overheard the story. Mike seemed to decide the best reaction was one of exaggerated compassion, making sure I was okay, did I need help touching up the paint on my truck, etcetera. Eric went with something more along the lines of "wow, Bella had a cool adventure", which would have been the pleasanter of the two if it hadn't made everyone in the class lean in and want me to tell all about my cool adventure.

Tyler was back in school by the time Government started, and he apologized profusely about the minor scratches to my car. His face was covered in bandaids that stood out brightly beige against his brown skin and it was fairly silly-looking. I waved off the apologies; he hadn't caused the ice, and if he'd had any choice about where to aim his van at all, my truck was a good target, sturdy thing it was.

The minor accident - or "cool adventure" - was the talk of the school all morning. Jessica seemed morbidly fascinated by the fact that I could have been killed if I hadn't been some twenty feet away before Tyler had even lost control of his car. She kept talking about it all the way from Spanish to lunch. I was just about to ask her if she could please stop describing my gruesome counterfactual death when, right outside the cafeteria doors, Alice appeared at my elbow.

"Hello, Bella," she said.

"Hi," I said. I blinked. Alice was not quite as aggressively mysterious as Edward, but she was puzzling. At least she didn't scare me. Jessica looked put out by her arrival.

"I'm going to go in and sit down, Bella," said Jessica after enough of a pause to be awkward.

"Okay," I said over my shoulder, still facing Alice. "Later, Jess."

Jessica went inside, and I looked back at the tiny girl who had saved my skin that morning. She was smiling at me like she was dying to tell me what I would get for my birthday but had promised not to. We stared at each other for a bit.

"Uh," I said. "Thanks again for getting me out of the way earlier..."

"You're welcome!" exclaimed Alice. "Do you want to sit with me at lunch today?"

"You - and your, uh, siblings?"

"Hmm," said Alice, furrowing her brow. "No, I don't think that would be a good idea. Just me."

I spent two seconds debating whether to ask her why or not. I decided it would be rude and that I might get clues if I sat with her anyway. "Sure," I said.

My usual tablemates looked puzzled when I walked in with Alice, and I gave them a look intended to convey "I don't know what's going on either, I'm just going with it". They continued to look puzzled. I suspected that most, if not all, of the content of my meaningful looks was lost in translation. I'd catch up with them later and use words instead.

Alice bought a sandwich and a bottle of apple juice. I took a soda, a banana, and, as it was Taco Day, a tortilla full of fixings, and then we found an empty table. I opened my drink and partially peeled my fruit. Alice didn't touch her purchases.

When I'd finished my banana, I said, "Aren't you going to eat?"

"I forgot that this kind of sandwich has mayonnaise on it," she said at once. "I don't like mayonnaise."

It was a tuna sandwich. I wondered if there were any commercially available tuna sandwiches without mayonnaise. "Why don't you get a different one? You never opened it, I bet they'd let you trade it right back," I said.

That one stumped her for a moment. Then she said, "I'm not that hungry anyway. I can just have a snack when I get home in a couple hours."

Uh-huh. "What about your juice?"

"I only like juice with food," she said.

"I'll trade you my soda if you want, I don't care," I offered.

"No, thank you," Alice said firmly.

I turned my head a bit to look at her from another angle, as though that would help. "Don't like soda?"

"I don't. Sorry," she said with an apologetic smile.

"What do you like to eat?"

That threw her a bit. She stared at me blankly for a second before she said, as though at random, "Grapes. Love grapes."

"Is that all?"

She pouted a little, as though disappointed that naming a fruit wasn't enough to turn off my curiosity, and started reciting a paragraph's worth of food items. They were all consistent with her manifest preferences (no mayonnaise, no soda, nothing she could have easily gotten from the school cafeteria), but she sounded like she was reading her grocery list. My past experience with talking extensively about food preferences tended to involve people going on about the little details. If they liked cheese, they'd mention in an aside that Camembert was only worth eating from a particular creamery. Chocolate lovers would have a story about which shop gave out a free sample of which truffle. Fans of quiche would take a moment to dispel the myth that it was difficult to make. Anyone who brought up potato salad would also have a longstanding recipe rivalry with a neighbor. At a minimum they'd specify that the pot roast was to be "the way Grandma makes it". Alice didn't include anything like that; she just listed generic things. "Cauliflower. Pomegranates. Salami. Biscuits. Pistachios. Chickpeas. Licorice. Polenta."

I let her rattle on for a bit, and then held up a hand. "Okay. Very well-rounded diet."

Alice grinned at me.

Lunch with Alice was very awkward. Whenever I made up my mind to say something she spoke first, with some innocuous non-sequitur. Occasionally it was interesting - she had perspectives on the personalities of some of the teachers that I could imagine being useful - but just as often it was entirely apropos of nothing. I was treated to a six-minute description of the mishap-filled shopping expedition that had yielded the boots she was wearing; she told me about the weather in Alaska; she listed the colors and locations of the stains she'd gotten on herself when she learned to tie-dye.

I wondered if she was actually insane.

I decided to ask her if she might know what Edward's deal was, and before I opened my mouth, she said, "Did you know that in Korean -"

"Alice," I said, talking over her, "can I ask you something?"

Her eyes got very wide. She stared at me. She appeared to be desperately wondering if there was a polite way to say "no, you may not" and coming up blank. Finally she nodded once.

"On my first day here, your brother Edward looked at me very angrily, in Biology and again after school, and then he was out of school for a week, and yesterday he wouldn't stop looking at me in class like he was frustrated about something I'd done even though we've never spoken; do you know why either of those things might be?"

Alice gazed, gold-irised, into my eyes. A confusing mix of expressions I couldn't follow crossed her face, and finally she said, "I don't think I should discuss Edward's personal business."

"Because," I said, frowning, "it was kind of concerning to me. I had actually decided that if he didn't stop staring at me, I was going to treat it like a harrassment issue. It doesn't feel very safe. And it's distracting."

Her hands were under the table, but her shoulders moved like she was wringing them. I heard a rocky scraping noise and guessed that she had a pebble stuck in the sole of her boot that was scratching up the linoleum. "I... don't think... that he will hurt you," she said.

There were so many more reassuring ways she could have uttered those exact words.

"I would consider it a personal favor," I said, slowly and carefully, "if you'd tell your brother that I don't appreciate being glared at like I killed his dog, or scrutinized like an unsolved Rubik's cube, while I am trying to do my schoolwork or while I am trying to eat my lunch. I think it would be better for me and him and everybody involved if he cut it out before I involve a teacher, or the principal, or my father, who you probably know is the police chief. I have never done anything to antagonize Edward whatsoever."

"I know you haven't," Alice said quickly.

"Good. I hope he knows it too," I said, trying to sound earnest.

"He does," she assured me. "I'll, um, talk to him about it." And with that she got up and fled, leaving her untouched mayonnaise-tainted sandwich and sealed bottle of juice on the table behind her.

I moved back to my usual lunch group with my taco and soda. My friends wanted to know what the deal had been with Alice, but I honestly had only fragments of likely-misleading clues, and the topic soon fizzled out as they lost interest in exotic speculations. The topic turned to the upcoming beach trip. I sat through this part of the exchange silently except for the necessary noises of assent and enthusiasm, and thought about the Cullen family.

I was trying to avoid excessive notebook use in school, around Jessica in particular - her tendency towards indiscriminate gossip wasn't showing any signs of being a fluke - and so I couldn't organize my wisps of thought visually, as helpful as it would have been. I closed my eyes, adding a feigned tired sigh, and tried to make an imaginary sketch of the mystery.

The Cullens were rich. Dr. Cullen was, well, a doctor, and by Charlie's account a very good one. If he had worked at a better-paying hospital for some years, and saved very much more carefully than most people were capable of, then that might explain it alone. But they were a young couple. Medical school took a long time. It seemed... not impossible, but unlikely, that there would have been not a speck of a murmur about it if Dr. Cullen had been a child prodigy who'd graduated medical school when he was fourteen, or something. As far as I knew, Mrs. Cullen didn't work. They had five children to feed (they had to eat, in spite of how Alice had acted and the fact that I'd never seen one of them do it - were they concealing outrageously restrictive food allergies or a religious dietary requirement that embarrassed them for some reason?) and clothe and keep in trendy school supplies, plus a house.

Were there any really big hospitals in Alaska that could have paid Dr. Cullen a great salary? It wasn't the least populous state, but it was way down there, spread out over the largest area. If there was an expensive research clinic or something in Anchorage, I supposed I wouldn't have known about it, so it was possible that Dr. Cullen had spent several years living cheap and only two years ago suddenly cut his income, moved to a small town, and started providing his children with a shiny car and sizeable clothing budgets.

It was not impossible that the Hales' parents had left the Cullens some money in their wills. Or that when the Cullen children were adopted, they came with monetary bonuses to help with their care (and I didn't know how long those three had been in the family, except that it was longer than two years). Or that they were wealthy independent of the doctor's income for some other reason. But that, too, seemed like something I'd have heard a rumor about. There was little to no way that a resident of Forks was a lottery winner or the heir to a diamond cartel or a trust fund baby or something similarly dramatic and pecuniary without it being branded on their forehead forever by public chat. Jessica had proven able to divulge astonishingly personal things.

They all bore weird visual similarities. The pale skin, the incredible beauty. But they were not, supposedly, genetically related, except Jasper and Rosalie, who had only hair color in common (none of them looked like family - they looked like they took the same dance classes and wore the same full-coverage white makeup and had been handpicked from the same modeling agency). I knew it was hard to adopt children - if the Hales were Mrs. Cullen's niece and nephew, that did some explanatory work, but Edward, Emmett, and Alice were from some other source. Didn't it take years of paperwork and waiting to get a child? I supposed it was faster if one was willing to take an older adoptee - but then, it was slower if you wanted a white kid, one without developmental problems. (This was evidence in favor of the hypothesis that Alice, and possibly Edward, were insane, which would have made them easier to adopt. I didn't know about Emmett. But they all did well in school and largely kept to themselves and Charlie thought they were model citizens...)

And it was known that Mrs. Cullen couldn't have children of her own. Since her husband was a doctor, that might have turned up earlier than it would in most couples, but my impression was that fertility testing didn't customarily enter a conception attempt until considerable trial and failure.

The timeline just didn't shake out naturally. I was placing a lot of faith in Forks's rumor mill, but it was a very good one. I guessed that Dr. Cullen was thirty-five at the very oldest. He was supposed to look a decade younger than that. If he'd finshed high school when he was sixteen, say - he probably could have skipped a grade or two back in elementary school without that making its way to my ears - and gotten through med school in an accelerated seven-year program so he had his doctorate at age 23, and raced through whatever licensing hoops were in his way at age 24, and was such a miraculous boon to medicine that he'd immediately gotten his super high paying job in Alaska -

And by then the Hales would have been living with Mrs. Cullen. I didn't know when Dr. and Mrs Cullen had gotten married, so they might not have been living out of the doctor's pocketbook until later. (But what was Mrs. Cullen doing before they married? If she had job skills, they'd never made it into the town consciousness.) But that left Dr. Cullen eight years racking up the big bucks. Not enough time for really high-yield investments to pay out. Was he living like a graduate student that entire time, surviving on ramen and store samples, only to start living like a king a little later on when he'd have to mostly eat savings to do it? When did the other three kids come in? If he'd been saving like a Scrooge during this period, why did they act so used to their nice things? Alice's story about her boots hadn't held any of the earmarks of being a gleeful once-a-year splurge, and I was sure they'd cost at least two hundred dollars, though she hadn't named a figure.

What about school loans? I guessed if I was factoring into the story that he was a brilliant doctor commanding an immense salary, he could also have been a brilliant student commanding a full-ride scholarship...

The bell rang.

Edward seemed to be following me to Biology. This was a slightly silly impression to have even given everything that had happened: we were both starting from the cafeteria, and were both headed for the same classroom. But he was walking right behind me, and seemed to be matching pace awfully precisely with me, Angela, and Mike. I couldn't speed up with all the ice on the paths - so I slowed down, claiming to my friends that I felt liable to fall. This was entirely credible, as I did fall down a lot even on surfaces not encrusted with slippery substances. They slowed down with me.

Instead of going around, Edward slowed down too. It did not seem likely that this was a coincidence or that he felt a deep and abiding need to keep off the grass.

What had Alice said to him, anyway?

We arrived at Biology after what seemed like a very long trip to have squeezed into only three minutes. Angela and I sat at our table, Mike slid in beside his partner, and Edward walked through the door a half a step behind us. He hesitated, like he wanted to go on following us - me - but instead plopped into his chair. He held himself very stiffly but didn't turn around to look at me.

Biology progressed in perfect ordinariness. Mike and I walked to gym, which ensued with no unusual happenings. It wasn't until I walked out of the gym building that Edward Cullen appeared at my side and said, "Hello, Bella."

I jumped, startled. My feet came down on the ice and immediately sheered off in opposite directions. I went down, scrunching my eyes closed and emitting a squeak. But where I expected my head to crack on the ice, there was silence. I opened one eye.

Edward had caught me neatly, and it must have looked to bystanders like we were in the middle of a very oddly timed ballroom dance. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "Please let go of me."

Edward stood me back up. He didn't seem to have any trouble with moving me around any which way he pleased, nor with avoiding balance challenges himself. "Thank you," I said, but I narrowed my eyes a little bit. I waited for him to talk next. He was the one who had greeted me; presumably he had a reason. I started counting to five in my head; if he hadn't gotten my attention by the time I reached it, I was going to continue towards my car.

"Alice told me you were upset by my... staring... earlier," he said in that smooth voice (if they made voices out of caramel, this would be one of them), looking into my eyes steadily. His were still gold. "I wanted to apologize."

"Oh," I said. It wasn't very helpful of me, but I didn't feel charitable; I wanted to see what he'd say without prompting.

"I'm sorry," he said, after an awkward pause, apparently having realized that saying he wanted to apologize wasn't quite actually apologizing.

"I accept your apology," I said. I'd gotten into the habit of saying that instead of "it's okay" when I was fourteen, having noticed that I often wanted to accept apologies for things that were not really okay.

"Thank you," said Edward.

"You're welcome," I replied.

There was another pause. I began counting to five again.

"Would you like me to walk you to your car?" he offered when I'd reached three. "I noticed you seem to have some trouble with the ice."

"No, thank you," I said.

This seemed to surprise him. "May I ask why?" he inquired after a moment.

I considered the pros and cons of various answers. Eventually I hedged my bets: "Are you sure you want to know?"

"Yes," he said immediately.

"Because I'm liable to ask very intrusive personal questions of you if I spend time with you socially, and I prefer to avoid situations in which I'm especially likely to be rude." And then, because it would have put the lie to my statement if I'd done otherwise, I turned and picked my way across the ice towards the parking lot.

Of course Edward couldn't let me walk away; he loped beside me, one long easy step to six of my careful ones. "Why would you ask intrusive personal questions?" he asked lightly.

"Because there are a number of things about you - your family in general, actually - that don't add up," I said, deciding that if he kept following me after what I'd told him, he wasn't entitled to special rudeness-avoiding care. "You are distractingly mysterious."

"You like solving mysteries?"

"I like the nonexistence of mysteries. Mysteries mean I've missed something," I said shortly.

"Interesting," Edward murmured softly. "What's missing about me?"

He seemed to want to keep me talking. That was potentially useful. I stopped - carefully, on a salted patch of sidewalk - and turned to face him. "If I tell you what's missing, will you fill in the gaps?"

"Probably not," he said, smiling in a manner that he probably thought was roguish.

"Then I have no incentive to answer your question," I said, and I continued to walk to my car.

Edward's face fell, and he kept following me. "What?"

"The only reason I'd mention to you what's confusing about you would be if I thought you'd demystify things for me," I said briskly. "I don't enjoy having my curiosity abused to no end. If I thought it was fun to muse aloud about things that confuse me, I could talk to one of my friends or parents instead. In the reasonably likely event that you're hiding something on purpose, then telling you what's off about you will only help you cover things up better - and I've got no motive to help cover up a secret I'm not in on, since I don't know if there are adequate reasons for it or not."

He kept following me until I got to my truck, although he didn't come up with anything else to say during the brief journey. "I suppose I'll see you tomorrow," I said as I pulled open my cab door.

"Of course," he said. "Tomorrow."

I hopped into the driver's seat and went home.

I pulled into the driveway, let myself in, and started a pot of lentils boiling, because they were impossible to overcook as long as I added water periodically, and so would be hot and ready to eat whenever Charlie got home.

I pulled out my notebook and wrote for a solid forty-five minutes. My hand was cramping up by the time I was done. All the confusing tidbits, all the erratic pieces of behavior, everything I'd heard from Jessica and other sources. I tapped the eraser end of my pencil several times around the bit where I'd written about Alice's lunch behavior. Her timing was strange. She'd interrupted me just before I'd asked any awkward questions, and I was sure I hadn't looked like I was going to say anything. I'd recorded video of myself thinking and writing before, just for kicks - my emotions were readable, but if I closed my eyes and skipped to a random point in the video before re-opening them, I couldn't tell whether I was about to write something or not until my arm actually moved. And I'd been the one in the video.

And then there was the bit with the van, in the morning...

I thought of a crazy idea.

I thought of a very cheap test.

That was the only kind of test worth doing on a crazy idea. If one was wise, one didn't bet one's life savings and firstborn child on something this silly. But it would cost me less to perform this test than it would cost to expend the willpower on avoiding it, now that I'd thought it up.

I shut my notebook. I shut my eyes.

I made up my mind that, when Charlie got home, I was going to tell him all about my suspicions of the Cullens.

Fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang.