Flash 16: Esme

Esme didn't even like climbing trees, which was why it was so absurd. Well, as absurd as a broken leg could be. It would have made more sense to have hurt herself falling down the stairs or being kicked by a horse, but out of a tree?

She'd been fetching down Mrs. Chester's cat, or trying. Mrs. Chester had a bad knee and couldn't even get up the ladder, so she'd held it for Esme and Esme had gone up - and then the blasted cat had hopped up another branch too high to reach from the ladder, and Esme had climbed into the tree, and then it had collapsed under her. An absurd way for a sixteen-year-old girl to injure her leg.

She would have been more upset about it if the doctor hadn't been so handsome.

Esme hadn't met Dr. Cullen before; she was only at his office instead of Dr. Brown's because Dr. Brown was away visiting his mother. So Esme's parents had taken her all the way to Columbus, and -

Dr. Cullen looked like a god. Not like the God, who she couldn't help but imagine as old and bearded and not particularly attractive, but a god like Jove (who her father occasionally swore by, to avoid taking the Lord's name in vain) or Apollo. Shining and perfect and unreal.

Esme knew it was ridiculous to read anything into the kind look in his eyes or the gentle way he touched her when he set her broken bone. He was a doctor; doctors helped people and had to be good at soothing patients and hurting them as little as possible; he was just a good doctor, that was all. But her heart fluttered under her ribs, and she did stare, hoping he wouldn't notice.

"Your leg will be all better in just a few weeks," Dr. Cullen said. "Trust stronger trees with your weight in the future, all right?" She nodded, and he smiled at her and lit up the room with it, and said, "There's a girl."

Esme's father helped her out of the hospital, but she turned back to look at Dr. Cullen. He was watching her too, and there was something odd about how he held his face, like he was in pain but trying to hide it. She heard the first half of a word from his mouth, but he stopped himself, and then her father told her to look where they were going and she faced forward again.

Esme made her way back to Columbus one more time, two months later, half-baked excuses for seeking Dr. Cullen again bubbling in her mind to be stammered through were she challenged. She wasn't sure herself why she was looking for him, only that she wanted to. But she couldn't find him.

"He's moved away," said the hospital's recceptionist when she asked.

Esme went home, disquieted, and didn't seek him out again.

Charles Evenson was her father's best friend's son, but Esme didn't know him well. Her parents talked him up at every opportunity, and he was all right to look at, and supposedly he had good connections and was going to go far in his career.

Her father hadn't suggested outright that she marry Charles, but she thought he was going to. And the doctor who still visited her dreams sometimes had been gone for six years, so she supposed she might as well, if that was what they wanted of her.

"I'm thinking of moving West," she said over dinner one night, picking at the cornbread on her plate. "And teaching."

"Not respectable," said her father, shaking his head. "It's still wilderness out there. Not a good place for you to be living alone. No, you'd best stay hereabouts."

"And not alone, either," her mother put in. "Your friends have all married by now. Susan and what's-her-name even have little ones on the way, haven't they?"

Esme nodded, because they did. And she envied them a little. She liked babies, liked children - that was why being a schoolteacher appealed.

"I've invited Charles over for dinner tomorrow," her father went on, peering at her from under bushy eyebrows and waiting for arguments. She never did argue with him; why would he expect it?

"That will be lovely," Esme said. "We can serve pie."

Charles did come over, and they did serve pie, and he insisted on taking her for a walk after that, and held her hand. She didn't see any reason not to let him; everyone approved of him and it would be easier to go along. Her parents wanted what was best for her.

Charles proposed to her a week later, and she accepted.

It took him almost a month before he started hitting her.

Esme was horrified at herself for becoming used to the pain: she became practiced at nursing splits in her lips, bringing down the swelling in a black eye, sorting through her wardrobe for the right dresses to hide the bruises. He was too easily distracted to carry on attacking her until she became seriously injured; it was never too much worse than a dark spot of tenderness on her arm or a stinging flush on her cheek.

She told her friends that they were saving up to fix the floorboards in the kitchen, so full of snags and warps that she couldn't help but trip. All the time. However carefully she walked.

She didn't get used to the shouting, though. No matter how many times her husband called her a worthless whore, or cursed his father for not having the discernment to steer him away from such an inadequate wife, or wished her dead so he could replace her with someone younger, someone prettier, someone quicker to obey when he snapped orders - that never got easier to hear. Charles had a snarling, rough voice that demanded fresh attention every time, impossible to tune out.

She went to her parents, once, and started to hint. She wasn't sure what she expected them to do, but she thought they'd be more likely to be able to do something than one of her friends.

"Sometimes I think no matter what I do, Charles will never be happy with me," she said.

"Nonsense," said her mother. "If he's not happy with you, there's something more to do. Your only responsibility right now - until you have children, anyway - is to be a good wife to him."

Children. Children in that house? With that man? Esme touched her belly without meaning to, willed it to stay empty. No one she would love as much as her baby, if she was ever unlucky enough to have one under these circumstances, ought to be under that man's roof.

"Don't go around complaining about your husband behind his back, whatever you do," said Esme's father. "He's got his career to look after; last thing he needs is his wife starting gossip."

Esme didn't talk much for the rest of the visit. She went home. She listened to Charles tell her that she was a waste of space and he wished he could keep her in a kennel outside and out of his way. She received a new welt on her shoulder. She did not start gossip.

He was drafted.

He was overseas, in the army.

He was finally, finally away.

Esme bought a thick rug and put it in the kitchen as her explanation to her friends about why she no longer "tripped" on the still-unremodeled floor. She put new wallpaper up and fixed the molding in the bedroom and re-shingled the front side of the house. She started going to church regularly again. Joined a sewing circle, got to know her neighbors, tended a garden, pretended when she had to that she was the lonely Mrs. Everson who missed him.

She had a year and a half of welcome solitude.

And then he was back.

Esme deliberately spilled caramel sauce on her fluffy kitchen rug, and tossed it out.

No, she thought, staring at her clean, bloodless hands, a week past when they should have come up red. No. No, no, no, no, not here. Not here.

He didn't know yet. That was the only sliver of hope, that he didn't know.

If she could only think of somewhere to go, he might never know he'd fathered a baby.

Concetta was Esme's second cousin on her mother's side. Esme had met her once, when she was eleven and Concetta ten, and they'd gotten along. Concetta had two very important qualities: she lived all the way in Milwaukee, and she was not married.

Esme turned up on her doorstep without notice and begged a place to stay.

Concetta took her in without asking too many questions, but then Esme's aunt and uncle came by, recognized Esme's clothes in the spare closet, and were sure to report their missing niece's whereabouts to her parents.

Esme fled further north, and didn't tell Concetta where she was going. If she was lucky, Concetta wouldn't have noticed her pregnancy and couldn't betray that information either.

Esme didn't like to wear the rings, but any war widow would. (She wished she was a war widow, and then hated herself for wishing something that implied any death, even his.) So she left them where they were on her finger, and learned to conjure a few tears on demand when someone asked about him, but she gave a false forename for her fictional dead husband (the same she intended for her baby, if it was a boy: Thomas) with a variant on her married last name ("Everett") and pretended to have no information about where he'd been serving or in what capacity.

She taught school. Sixteen little faces watched her while she described sums and spellings and states.

And then, right on time, she delivered a baby boy, called him Thomas "Everett" "Junior", and fell heedlessly in love.

He didn't look anything like his father. Thomas was all Esme: in the eyes and the shape of his mouth and the pertness of his nose, in the way he smiled when she tickled his belly, in the way he scrunched up into a ball when he slept. He was hers. And Charles had been out of her life for nearly a year, an awful memory and nothing else - and maybe he'd never find her after all.

Thomas coughed, and coughed, and he couldn't stop, no matter how many teaspoons of the druggist's syrup she coaxed down his throat, no matter how many hours she spent rubbing poultices into his shaking chest. He couldn't stop.

He was only four days old when he did stop, and Esme felt like she'd died along with him.

Cradling the lifeless little body in her hands, she walked to the cliff outside of town.

She didn't hesitate at the edge; she wasn't looking at her feet anyway, to know when it was near.

She just walked.

And then she fell.

Pain, oh so impossibly much pain, so absurdly much, so much, so -

Esme opened her eyes, and saw the face of a god, and felt his arms around her.

"I remember you," she breathed. That face, and her baby's, were the only ones she could fix clearly in her mind.

"And I you," he murmured, crushing her tighter to his chest. "Esme."

A vampire. It was an odd sort of thing to be; she didn't suppose it was too awful, but it was strange, and took so much getting used to. She listened to Carlisle, and his companion (pretending to be a brother-in-law) Edward, as they explained what it meant to be what they were. They taught her to hunt, safely away from people (was she not a person anymore? she wondered; Edward heard her and said that she was most certainly a person. She didn't think to wonder until much later why he emphasized the pronoun.) It was strange the way Edward could hear her thinking, but he was benign about it, and she grew not to mind within a few weeks.

Carlisle made arrangements behind the scenes for her to be pronounced officially dead, and then leaked the information back to her second cousin through some appropriately subtle channel. She didn't dare be present when her parents came to visit the empty grave beside her son's in the Ashland graveyard, but Carlisle watched them do it and came back to tell her that they did grieve for her.

Charles came to have a look at the supposed resting place of his wife and child, later. Esme did dare to be present, hiding in the long evening shadows.

Later, wiping blood off her mouth and sobbing tearlessly into Carlisle's chest, she wished she hadn't, because one instant of wanting a man dead was enough to kill him, as she was now.

"I, Esme Anne Platt Evenson, take you, Carlisle Cullen, to be my husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward. For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; to love and cherish until the end of time. Today I give to you me; with all my heart I make this pledge to you..."

"Leaving? But Edward, where will you go? We'll come with you," said Esme. "There's no need to -"

Edward shook his head, and she stopped, looking searchingly at him and wishing she could read his mind, understand why he wanted to leave. She masqueraded as his sister to others, but thought of herself as more his mother, for all that she was really only six years his senior. "Geographically maybe you could. I'm leaving in more ways than that. I'm not content with this... diet Carlisle has us on. I want to try something else."

Esme's face might or might not have betrayed how stricken that made her, because the thoughts alone would have explained how Edward turned away from her and hunched his shoulders, and ran too fast to follow into night. He did pause, just within her hearing, and said, "Not at random. I can sort out the people like Charles from everyone else." And then he took off again.

But Esme didn't let a day go by without wishing she'd been strong enough to resist even that thirst, and so this was scarce comfort.

Her keenest worry was not for the strangers, the evil people Edward proposed to consume - but for her son, whom she wanted to shield from guilt lest it consume him.

Six years in one place was pushing it, but Esme didn't want to move a moment before they had to, didn't want to make it all difficult for Edward to find them again if he ever wanted to return home. He'd departed after two years in the city, and so she and Carlisle carefully orchestrated their lives to minimize the number of people who'd notice their ageless faces over the subsequent years: he changed jobs at year three, they avoided meeting the neighbors, they switched churches twice, he started bleaching his hair to be more white than blond at the temples at year five.

And after four years away, Edward did come home.

He was full of guilt, so remorseful that it came pouring out of his face whenever he turned it to Esme like she could read his mind after all, but she gathered him up in a hug anyway, because he was her son, and home. He needed to heal, but there was scarcely anywhere better to do it.

They moved again as soon as they found a new place to go, and set up in Rochester.

Two years after they arrived in Rochester, Carlisle brought home Rosalie.

"What were you thinking, Carlisle?" Edward asked incredulously, between the poor girl's screams and pleas for death. "Rosalie Hale?" They knew everyone in the town, more or less, or at least Edward did. Maybe Rosalie wouldn't have been first on Esme's list either, if things had been different - but didn't Edward have a sense of smell - couldn't he tell what kind of death Carlisle had saved her from?

"I couldn't just let her die," murmured Carlisle. Esme went to his side; Carlisle wasn't speaking for Edward's benefit and it was doubtful that Rosalie could manage to pay attention even if she heard, so he must want Esme there, want her to be part of the conversation. "It was too much - too horrible, too much waste."

"I know," said Edward, looking away from all of them.

"It was too much waste. I couldn't leave her," Carlisle said. Too young, too much of her future lost, and she hadn't even chosen it like Esme had -

"Of course you couldn't," Esme said, stroking Carlisle's arm.

"People die all the time," Edward pointed out. "Don't you think she's just a little recognizeable, though? The Kings will have to put up a huge search - not that anyone suspects the fiend. What are we going to do with her?"

"That's up to her, of course," Carlisle said with a sigh, and Esme knew a flare of pride in her husband, that he would adhere to his principles whatever choices others made. "She may want to go her own way."

Rosalie's heart was beating faster and her intermittent screams were dying down to choked whimpers. Esme wondered idly if Edward might get over his dislike for her and come to love her; he seemed so lonely sometimes, though he professed contentment with singlehood. (Carlisle had indicated that it didn't work that way - that if Edward were going to fall in love with Rosalie he'd have done it already - but he'd also said that it wasn't well-understood. She could wonder.)

Esme touched the girl's hair - such pretty yellow hair, even all tangled - and then backed away, to let her have some space in which to finish. A daughter. A daughter a little like me, even if we look nothing alike...

Emmett took so well to being a vampire that Esme had hopes for him to make it indefinitely without ever slipping, without having to carry her guilt or Edward's. (Rosalie might have felt guilty about the lives she'd taken, but didn't seem it.) But it was through Emmett that Carlisle was prompted to explain about singers. Esme didn't know what it could be like for a person's blood to smell doubly, triply as appetizing as others', but if it did, there was certainly little room to blame Emmett. She comforted him after, both times. Rosalie was good for him, but not in a motherly sense at all, and Esme thought Emmett liked to have a mother too.

Alice and Jasper arrived abruptly, and if Esme had been asked the day before whether she'd welcome strangers who invited themselves into their home, she'd have said no. But Alice was so cute - and so willing that Esme be the mother she'd never had or couldn't remember - and Jasper so calming to be around, and the both of them so mannerly. They were folded inextricably into the family within a week and Esme couldn't imagine them leaving.

Esme could not have been more thrilled in the first moment it was suggested that Edward might have fallen in love with the Swan girl. Said Swan girl could have been anyone at all and Esme wouldn't have been less pleased; she was just glad that her first (first remaining) child no longer had to be the odd one out. Bella's personal qualities were not necessary to endear her to Esme. The fact that she was a charming and clever girl was only a bonus. And then a grandchild, miracle of miracles, an honest-to-goodness baby.

The only moment at which it became relevant that Edward had bestowed his heart on Bella and not someone else - someone else more contented, someone else more stable - was the moment Esme's family splintered before her eyes.

She grieved for Bella anyway (in spite of the last Cullen addition's lack of seniority, she counted her as part of the family) but wished - in odd moments, tucked into the corners of her sadness - that Edward had followed someone who wouldn't have led him into the flames of the Volturi's wrath. She never quite wished that Elspeth had never been born that she could not have been taken, but once she came close, and berated herself silently for an hour.

She wept (insofar as she could weep) aloud, to let Carlisle prop her up while she mourned. He was strong even alone, but more marvelously so when relied on. The reserves of inner fortitude he could call on to protect Esme were immeasurable. Carlisle himself did better for having Esme depend on him, and she wanted the comfort for herself as well.

Privately, though, she wondered if they could all be living together as happily as before if only someone not Bella had caught Edward's eye.

But all was forgiven when she learned that her children were all (almost all) alive.