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Altered Reality

Summary:
Edward Masen has led a charmed life. As the son of a prominent Chicago attorney he has grown up in the highest circles of society. The Spanish Influenza of 1918 cared nothing for social standing, however, and treated everyone equally. Now Edward must adjust to a world he never imagined after becoming a victim of the epidemic. This is the story of Edward's first six months as a vampire, as told by Edward himself. This story is 100% in canon. Come get reacquainted with Edward and Carlisle. small banner


Notes:
Altered Reality is a companion to my first fan-fic, New Beginnings, which is available on Ramblings and Thoughts. I would have never had the courage to tackle this story if Alphie had not challenged me to write it when she reviewed NB.


12. Chapter 12 ~ Reflection ~ An Epilogue

Rating 5/5   Word Count 7778   Review this Chapter

Only the brightest stars still sparkled as the sky began to lighten in the east. Through the window I could glimpse the scattered clouds that would soon blush pink and then orange in the early dawn. Today promised to be unusually clear and sunny. If only I could go out and enjoy the sun’s splendor as other people did, open and unhindered, but I was bound by the awful truth of what I had become. Any pleasure from the sun I might want to savor must be done in secret.

The harsh electronic drone of Charlie’s alarm clock jarred me out of my night’s ruminations. Why anyone would want to start his day with an obnoxious buzz was beyond my comprehension. I’d yet to read the mind of a single person who really liked waking to the sound of a swarm of angry hornets. Music was more soothing to wake to but apparently it was also much too easy to repeatedly hit the snooze bar when the individual was not yet ready to start the day. Maybe hearing this blaring tone was the only way some people could jar themselves into starting their day.

Without fully awakening, Bella rolled over, disturbed by the sound in the next room then settled back to sleep a little longer. I gave her about two additional hours of slumber if she followed her usual routine. Charlie’s day started much too early to suit her. He would look in before he left, Bella would give a limp wave - if she were at least vaguely aware of him - and he would head out to the station. The ritual had become predictable.

Charlie began rummaging around in his closet for a fresh shirt before heading for the shower. I realized in that moment that I had never gone home during the night to shower and change myself; I had been too engrossed in my memories. Maybe Bella wouldn’t notice. No, she would notice; she noticed everything. Ah well, I wasn’t going to concern myself with that now. Alice was planning to take Bella shopping this morning. I could don some fresh clothes then. I could have gone now, but she might wake up early. She was always disappointed if I wasn’t there when she opened her lovely eyes. Besides, the best way for me to start a new day was to see the fathomless pools of Bella’s eyes.

In all honesty, that wasn’t precisely it at all this morning. My nerves felt frayed. Thinking about my early days as a vampire always did that to me. It was almost as if I were a newborn all over again. Having a flawless memory was sometimes more curse than blessing. The nagging guilt of my first human kill never left, never eased. The lack of any real identity or purpose for most of the last eighty years had left me feeling hollow and void. Somehow, the void seemed worse this morning. I knew I had to tell Bella the full story of my early months as a vampire. That period of time explained so much about who I was - how beyond wonder, she had filled my existence with meaning.

Charlie’s razor hummed to life in the bathroom as he began that distinctly male ritual of shaving. I was drawn back to the last time I had enjoyed the sensation of blade scraping over skin. It was on the twelfth of March 1919, six months after my change.

Carlisle and I had built our one room cabin in the Wisconsin wilderness, fifteen miles from Ashland, the nearest settlement, just as we had planned. Far enough away from humans for me not to pose a danger, but close enough for Carlisle to get supplies and offer his medical services should the local physician need assistance.

The cabin was more comfortable than I had thought possible. I had loved the luxury of my Chicago home, but there was a restful quality to the simplicity in which we now resided. The two south-facing windows and the door allowed sunlight to pour into the room during the day. The oak table and two chairs that we had brought from Chicago occupied a central place on the northern wall. The two beds we had made lined the western wall. Separating them was a cedar chest. Of course, we never slept on the beds but they did provide a small area of personal space to relax upon. On the opposite wall stood a dresser and washstand. There was a wood-burning stove adjacent to the table, but it was never lit. The cold was irrelevant to us. The stove was there for appearances only, if by some slim chance a human should happen by. Carlisle was a stickler for details like that. In time I would learn to appreciate this necessity. While we waited for spring we discussed the addition of a loft and a second room.

The sole occupant of the barn we built to the north of the house was our truck. We had no need for animals, nor would they have survived my insatiable newborn appetite. The barn also served as an effective windbreak. Even vampires don’t like drafty houses.

Carlisle had just returned from a trip into town to consult with Dr. Miller about a patient with a stubborn infection. He had taken advantage of the opportunity to do some shopping while there and had brought back a few luxuries for us to enjoy as well as some needed supplies. I was eager to learn what he had purchased. Curiously, Carlisle was guarding his thoughts much more that usual. As he unpacked, books, nails and a new hammer were revealed. We had had two hammers until six weeks before, when one had shattered while we were finishing the cabin; I had still been learning to control my strength at the time. New blades for the planer were also revealed when the packages were unwrapped, but there was one flat rectangular item carefully bundled in brown paper that Carlisle was making an intentional effort not to think about.

“What’s in that?” My voice had sounded more accusatory than I had intended, but I’d had enough surprises in the last six months to last more than the span of the average human lifetime.

“It’s for later,” was Carlisle’s evasive reply, but his thoughts betrayed him. The package contained a mirror. It wasn’t a large mirror: you’d only be able to see your face in it, but that was big enough.

To say that I was outraged did not begin to describe my initial reaction. I had not looked into a mirror since the day I’d awoken to my life as a vampire. The memory of the myriad of red eyes staring back from the shattered fragments of a broken mirror was a horror I wanted to forget. My perfect memory made me confront once again the face of the monster I had become, the one I sought to deny, and the one I would destroy were it within my power to do so. If Carlisle wanted me to look at the monster in the mirror, then he was going to have to deal with the monster in the room.

Quickly, Carlisle placed the mirror in the chest in an effort to protect it, and braced himself for the assault he knew would come with my anger. He didn’t even take the fraction of a second it normally did for him to hum an anger-soothing melody. But then, much to his surprise and even more to my own, I stopped. I had listened to Carlisle’s thoughts instead of acting reflexively. I did not want to attack him. My newborn temper did not have to rule my actions. I had no desire to continually assault Carlisle.

Carlisle had not done anything to provoke me. Not really. He had not shown me the mirror, nor had he even actively thought about it. Nonetheless, he knew bringing the mirror home would be risky given my history. He had forgone the use of a mirror himself these last several months in order to accommodate my aversion, but he also felt that the time was at hand for me to deal with my reflection. The mirror was a tool to help me adjust to the human world. If I were ever going to be able to move among humans again, I would need to be able look at myself. At that moment, I would not have even been able to walk past most storefronts without reacting inappropriately. The ghost of a reflection in any window would have been unbearable. This was an issue that I needed to address or live my life; such as it was, in complete isolation.

Not knowing what to do, I bolted from the cabin and sprinted through the woods and deeper into the wilderness. The trees were a blur as I sought to escape the range of Carlisle’s thoughts. I yearned for the solace that only isolation could provide.

How long or how far I ran were of no consequence. Distance was what I craved: distance from Carlisle, distance from humans, and, most of all, distance from myself. Oh, if only I could be granted the last of those desires.

I didn’t stop until I came to the edge of a clearing with a brook babbling through it carrying early spring melt. Snow still blanketed the ground. Spring’s warm kiss had not yet reached this frozen place. It was beautiful. The sunlight sparkled and danced across the crystalline surface of the snow. Most of the trees had shed their winter blanket, but icy crystals still encrusted their naked branches, sparkling and dancing in the sunlight. The icy water of the brook sang with the promise of warmer days to come.

Spring was not far off. The meadow hidden beneath the snow’s crusted surface was breathing with anticipation; new life was anxious to break forth. The ground verily trembled with longing for its awakening from winter’s slumber.

I trembled too. Could there possibly be a spring for me? This meadow would experience as dramatic a transformation in the coming weeks as it had undergone in weeks past. I had been through a change as well; could I possibly have another? No, the probability of that seemed nonexistent. Carlisle had not been able to change, he had merely come to terms with what he had become. He had explained to me that once someone became a vampire they were essentially frozen in time. Their personality, maturity, hopes and regrets remained where they had been in the human life. Only a monumental event could prompt a change to the personality, and never had a vampire’s human life been restored. I would forever pine to be a soldier in a war that had officially been declared over on the eleventh of November 1918, mere weeks after Carlisle had changed me. Fate, you are a cruel master.

The sky darkened and was soon lit with a generous dusting of stars. I did not move; my feet were buried knee deep in the snow. But what was the cold to me? Nothing. Everything was nothing.

The sky brightened from indigo to golden pink before clothing herself in the brilliant blue of day and still I did not move. There was no reason to. I had nothing to go back to except a future that held no meaning, no promise, and no hope.

A shiver ran down my spine when a cold breeze whispered through the trees carrying the hint of an approaching storm. It was not the cold that made me tremble, but the thought of looking into the mirror. Only terror was waiting for me there. Countless glowing red eyes danced across the canvas of my memory, paralyzing me.

My surroundings grew dark and then light again without my even being aware of the passage of time. Staring at a frozen meadow for decades, perhaps even centuries was preferable to looking at myself in a mirror.

Steps crunched through the crusty snow behind me, bringing my focus back to the present. Carlisle’s thoughts were gentle and unassuming as he approached. The elements posed no danger to me; I could stand in the middle of the harshest blizzard and be unaffected. It was my emotional well-being that was of greatest concern to him.

“Edward?” Rich amber eyes met my own gaze when I turned in response. “I should have discussed getting a mirror with you first.”

I just stared at Carlisle. It was hard to remain angry with him. His compassionate thoughts vanquished any animosity I may still have harbored toward him.

Carlisle had not intended for me to find out about the mirror the day he had brought it home nor even that week. He had not gone into town with the slightest notion of shopping for a mirror. It had been an impulse buy made with no forethought as to any possible consequences when he spotted it in the mercantile. Carlisle simply thought to have it on hand so that when the right moment presented itself, he could then bring it out. This incident had made it abundantly clear that for Carlisle to attempt to keep a secret from me for very long was nothing more than an exercise in futility.

Four days had passed since I had fled from the cabin. Carlisle’s concern for me had grown exponentially to the number of days of my absence. Had I gone off in an attempt to destroy myself? Had I succumbed to my nature and fed from a human? Would there ever be a time when I would be ready to confront my reflection? If we had no mirror in the cabin, then there would have been no way for me to face this inevitable challenge.

I pinched the bridge of my nose in contemplation. I knew that Carlisle had tried to destroy himself when he was a newborn . . . and had failed. There was only one sure way to destroy a vampire, so awful the specifics of how this was accomplished were carefully guarded in his thoughts from my ever-prying mind. All I had been able to discern was that fire was involved. He did not like to think about the times he had been witness to the punishment carried out during his time in Italy. It disturbed him greatly. I had, however, seen a hint of what he desperately tried to conceal during our time together.

Carlisle did not know about the promise I had made to Mama; that I would try to live the best life I could. That promise alone proved to be enough to stay my hand from any suicide attempt for many decades. In spite of my present state of moroseness, I did have a vague hope that the future might hold something good for me; the when was the unanswerable question.

“Carlisle . . . I . . .” Words escaped me as I stumbled through yet another apology for my irrational behavior.

“You are doing so well Edward.” Carlisle reassured me from several yards away. He was still approaching me warily. “Most newborns your age would have torn me to pieces. I don’t know what stopped you.”

It wasn’t often that I intentionally looked at myself in Carlisle’s thoughts, but I did now. Although it was not as bad as looking in a mirror, or at least what my memory of that event had been, it presented its own brand of horror. Carlisle’s concern, love, and apprehensions colored those images.

Maybe the mirror would be better after all. The only one assessing that reflection would be me. There would be no one else’s thoughts to influence my own evaluation of myself. This time I would know what to expect, unlike the first time. Those red eyes would gaze back at me with the full verdict of what I was . . . a vampire. The reality was not something I could deny. I accepted that now. It was time to move forward. Standing in a frozen meadow wearing clothes stiff with frost would not accomplish anything. “Mama, I will move on with my life,” I silently promised. “I will look in the mirror. Maybe, just maybe, I can find something of worth still there.”

You stopped me, Carlisle.” Shame flooded my emotions as I continued. “I heard you brace yourself for my attack in your thoughts.” It was difficult to look at him. “You hadn’t done anything to provoke me. I . . . I didn’t know what else to do . . . I was angry . . . so I left.”

Still uncertain as to how I would respond to his presence, Carlisle waded cautiously through the drifts until he reached my side, the powdery snow clung relentlessly to his trousers. The fatherly love he extended to me in his actions and thoughts swaddled itself around me in a cocoon of comfort and reassurance. I fell trembling into his arms: a broken man, a stricken child.

Time moves differently when you have eternity before you. The urgency to arrive at the next “whatever” is removed. You have the luxury of time to process your thoughts and concerns in your leisure, but that is not always the healthiest thing to do. Too much time can send you spiraling to the bottom of a whirlpool. Carlisle understood this. He had given me four days of solitude to contemplate my situation, now it was time to move on or risk languishing in the past.

We stood there together in the meadow for hours as I sobbed tearlessly in my grief and came to grips with what I must do. He held me as a father would hold his child when confronted with an unimaginable burden, but then he did what a father also does; he pushed me away from his embrace and made me face what he knew I alone must do.

It was late afternoon before we turned back toward the cabin. Heavy grey clouds approaching from the north, laden with the promise and weight of another snowfall, shrouded the sun. Neither of us had spoken; we just turned and started walking the seven miles back to where my - our future would meet us.

The mirror beckoned to me, as if summoning me to an unknown destiny. Could I now look into the mirror and see the same hope that Carlisle held for me? Maybe, if I could look beyond the eyes that I was sure would greet me.

Exactly when we started running through the woods escaped my notice. I only realized that we were when the flakes of snow began to fall in earnest. While the bitter cold was of no concern, being caught in whiteout conditions could be almost as disorienting for us as for a human. The chief difference was that we did not need to worry about hypothermia. We could simply wait the storm out standing in one place and find our way out when conditions were better. Not comfortable by any means, but far from life threatening if you were a vampire.

There was no need for us to weather the storm, however. Our destination was within reach. Slowing as we approached the cabin, I found myself hesitant to face what I had silently resolved to do.

Nothing had been said in regards to the mirror. In fact, Carlisle was anticipating reading the new Zane Grey novel he had purchased while in town. My request for the mirror was the last thing he was expecting; my heading to the barn to tinker with the truck would have been much more typical. But request the mirror I did.

“Are you sure you want to do this right now?” Carlisle was stunned by my steely resolve.

“I’m sure,” was my firm reply. I didn’t want to give myself any means of escape from my conviction. This was something that I felt I needed to do if there was any chance of having a meaningful future. Spring was right around the corner. Carlisle’s longing to be with other people was settling on me as well. This was my next step in preparing for the day I could reenter the world of men. The biggest hurdle would be to curb my thirst for human blood, but one thing at a time.

Carlisle continued to look at me with questioning eyes. This was not what he had been expecting from me, at least not yet. But he turned and walked to the corner where the cedar chest resided. The hinges creaked in quiet protest as the lid was lifted. Silently, I protested with them, but I was not going to turn away. I had to face the monster in the mirror.

The package that was offered to me appeared so innocent. Flat and wrapped in brown paper, it seemed impossible that this small, rectangular parcel should be the cause of so much anguish during the preceding days. The paper crinkled in greeting as I gingerly took it in my hands.

“If you like, I’ll step outside,” Carlisle generously offered as the wind howled and rattled at the door.

Maybe this wasn’t the best time to be doing this. It seemed prudent that I should be doing this alone, maybe even in the middle of a clearing, so if I did lose control nothing of value would be damaged. But I had pledged to myself to do this now. I needed to resolve, just as firmly, that regardless of what I saw I would not react badly. I had to take my reflection in stride and accept what I found. Regardless of what, no, who I saw, it would be myself as I was now.

“Ah, no. You don’t need to leave.” I murmured as I stared at the package in my hands. “I will not attack Carlisle. I will not attack Carlisle. I will not attack Carlisle”. I repeated my silent mantra in an effort to embrace its intent.

Carlisle nodded and turned to retrieve his book from the table before retreating to his bed to give me as much privacy as the room allowed. He didn’t wait for me to move and was well into the text before I could persuade myself to proceed with my intentions.

The storm continued to howl outside when at long last I gingerly unwrapped the parcel. Carlisle looked over the top of his book to surreptitiously watch as I smoothed the paper away from its dreaded contents.

The mirror looked quite benign lying face down on the paper. The charcoal grey backing was non-threatening and the oak frame was testimony to its hope for long service. I fervently hoped to give it that. Taking my recent history into consideration, I doubted that that would happen. Of course, it would be easier to just turn the mirror back over if I did not like what I saw than to clean up thousands of broken shards that reflected the horror that I was.

The mirror beckoned me, taunted me, and then cajoled me.

“You will not dictate my existence,” I blurted out in frustration at the inanimate object. If I could strive to master my thirst, that ever-present inferno in my throat, I could certainly gaze into a mirror. I needed to do this. It was just a mirror. It would not harm me. It would only show me . . . myself; if I would only turn it over.

By now Carlisle had stopped pretending to be engrossed in his book. He doubted that my rushing to see my reflection right then was such a good idea. The spring thaw was still weeks away. There was ample time for me to come to grips with my reflection. This endeavor could easily wait until summer.

You don’t have to do this now, Edward.” Carlisle’s thoughts were gentle and quiet. I wasn’t even sure if he meant for me to hear them or if it was meant to be a silent lament.

“Yes, I do,” I snarled through gritted teeth. That having been said, I snatched up the mirror, turned it over and saw . . .

The image that was reflected back to me was not what I had been expecting. There was no monster with glowing red eyes. Oh the eyes were still red to be sure, but they were dull and even lifeless, not because I was dead, but because of my hopelessness. They weren’t even precisely red either, but had an eerie orange cast to them. This was because of the amber flecks that were sprinkled throughout the irises: evidence of my “vegetarian” diet over the last five months. My bronze hair was tousled and unkempt, so much for proper grooming. The features were those I had expected: straight nose, squared jaw and crooked smile when I tested it. I suppose the best way to sum up the differences was to describe my features as perfected. Even my complexion was clear. Not a hint of acne was to be found. I knew that while human I had been considered attractive but what I saw now went far beyond that. Handsome is an adequate word to describe a good looking man, but this was so much more. Even in the disheveled state I was in, I was . . . beautiful. Somehow that just didn’t seem to be analogous with the monster that I knew I was.

What captured my attention next was what appeared to be four to five days worth of growth to my beard. How could that possibly be? Carlisle had told me that we did not age, did not change from the moment we became vampires, that my hair would never grow again. I had assumed that this would include my beard, but here it was . . . showing evidence of growth!

“Carlisle?” His name came out in an almost panicked whisper.

Carlisle had been watching me expectantly from across the room. Even before I turned the mirror over he had been reasonably sure that I would not have the violent outburst I had had on my first day. He could see that I had resigned myself to my fate, more or less, so the edge of panic now in my voice concerned him.

Are you all right?” Carlisle was by my side in a moment, studying my reflection over my shoulder, desperately wondering how I was seeing myself.

I turned and briefly studied Carlisle’s clean-shaven face. It was smooth and flawless, as I knew it would be. I returned to my own bristly image.

“You told me that once a person becomes a vampire, they don’t change. That their hair doesn’t even grow,” I accused Carlisle. “Why . . . why do I have so much growth to my beard? I’m sure I never even considered growing one, at least not yet.”

Carlisle couldn’t help but smile in amusement. “You have the growth you had when I changed you.”

My expression must have betrayed my disbelief.

Sighing, Carlisle thought back to the days he had tended me during my illness. I had not shaved nor had anyone offered to shave for me during those four days. Of course my beard, as sparse as a young man’s is, had continued to grow.

“Oh . . .” The realization that I had looked this scraggly for the last six months was not something I cared to think about. Moving about in the social circles of Chicago had required that I always look my best. I looked far from that now. “When you introduced me to Sarah did I look like . . .?” I couldn’t finish the thought, but Carlisle understood.

“You did,” Carlisle confirmed. “I wouldn’t worry too much about what Sarah may have thought.” He was smiling now. “I’m sure you looked much better than most of the newborn vampires she has encountered. The fact that you had not shaved since being changed was the last thing she would have been assessing. She was much more interested in how you were adjusting to your new life.” There was a hint of a laugh to his voice now. He was relieved that my facial hair had become my biggest concern and not the color of my eyes.

“You must have shaved just before you were changed,” I accused.

This made Carlisle snicker. “Oh no, I shaved after I was changed. In fact, I had a fairly well developed beard. I shaved it off in, oh, sometime in the last fifty years or so. It had become . . . inconvenient.” Carlisle’s memory showed me a particularly difficult procedure when he was a surgeon during the Civil War. Blood had gotten into his beard and clotted it into a sticky mass. It could have been washed out, but he decided in that moment that the beard would continue to be a hindrance to his ability to treat his patients, and off it came.

Carlisle continued his explanation. “Just from my observations I’ve noticed that hair and the beard don’t stop growing during the change, only when it’s completed. You have about a week’s growth.”

I nodded to show that I understood, and wondered how I had lost so many days during my illness. “So . . . how does a vampire shave?” The question seemed a bit ludicrous, but given that six months ago the existence of vampires was just as far fetched, I didn’t want to leave it to chance.

Now Carlisle was not just snickering but was in a full out laugh. He wasn’t laughing at me; I understood this from his thoughts. He was just so relieved that I was not in a rage, that my concerns were so simple and mundane. I really had put him through the wringer in the last six months. He was now filled with hope that the coming months would find me able to integrate into human society once more.

Carlisle crossed the room to the dresser and brought out a small, elongated package and a jar of shaving soap. Once again he had anticipated my needs. I had not known about the straight razor and brush concealed in the package because I had left before Carlisle brought it out from among his other purchases. “Vampires shave the same as men,” he began. “Don’t be hasty in the decision to shave, however. You won’t be able to do it ever again,” he thought as he extended the razor and soap to me.

Without hesitating, I unwrapped the razor and flipped it open. It glittered bright and sharp as I turned it over in my hand to examined the delicate scrolls etched on the mirror-like surface. The blade possessed an elegant curve and a handle shaped from mother-of-pearl. Remarkably, my reflection on its polished face didn’t disturb me. “What happens if I nick myself?”

That can’t happen.” Carlisle’s amusement was contagious now. “Your flesh is much too hard to suffer any injury from the likes of a razor. If anything, the razor will be honed sharper from having been drawn across your skin.”

“Ah yes, I see.” I felt silly for not having realized that for myself. Carlisle had told me months ago that vampires were nearly indestructible. All I could do was stand there gazing at the silvery blade in my hand and ponder its expressed purpose and any other potential use it may have once had. A few months ago I might have been desperate enough to attempt ending my life by a blade such as this despite my promises to Mama, but now . . . now I had seen some hope in my own face, and not just terror. The monster was still there, but he did not have to reign supreme. The subtle change in my eye color was proof of that. I smiled at my small triumph and joined Carlisle in his mirth.

Carelessly, I quickly drew the blade across my hand just to prove to myself how indestructible I was. A shower of sparks fell from my open palm causing me to leap back in a reflexive panic.

“Edward, stop!” Carlisle was not laughing any more.

The razor clattered to the floor and bounced across the wooden slats with a thud. I stared at my hand in startled wonder. My palm was not cut. It didn’t even tingle where the blade had passed. As sharp as the razor was, it had left no mark on my flesh, but a distinct metallic odor did fill the air.

Pressing my fingers to my temples, I gazed in awe at the razor where it had fallen. What had just happened?

Carlisle bent and picked up the razor. Upon inspection he determined that the blade was still sound. It was made of quality steel.

“I need to warn you about the one peril vampires can suffer from when shaving.” Carlisle lamented.

“You mean fire?” The sarcasm was thick in my voice.

“Potential fire,” Carlisle clarified. “The best way to describe the reaction of steel against our skin would be flint to steel except that we are the steel. If you draw steel rapidly across our flesh you will get sparks, but unless there is some kind of fuel - dried twigs, grass, a scrap of clothing, you won’t establish a fire.” Carlisle finished his thought, silently trying to hide the next truth from me. “Which is a good thing or we’d both be burning to death about now.”

“Stunned” did not go far enough to describe what I felt when I heard that. The words came out in a stutter. “Burned??? To death??? Is that how a vampire is ultimately destroyed?”

Carlisle blew out his breath before inhaling again. “Yes, that is how we are destroyed,” he affirmed.

“You never told me.”

No, I didn’t. I couldn’t bear the thought of you going out and trying to destroy yourself, so I showed you all of my failed attempts.” He met my gaze in earnest. “I hoped that my example would discourage you from trying to take your own life. I feared that if you knew about fire you might just build the biggest bonfire you could and walk into it. Frankly, I’m surprised I was able to hide this from you for so long.”

Painful memories of executions Carlisle had been compelled to observe during his time with the Volturi came flooding back to his mind. It was little wonder that he didn’t like to think about them. Some executions were quickly dispensed with by the use of a devise that incinerated the individual almost instantly, but most of the condemned were not so fortunate. They were bound to an iron stake with chains and manacles, and then burned to set an example to any who might stand in opposition to the law. The anguished screams of the dying vampires confirmed for me that the pain was at least as bad for them as it would be for a human.

“Stop, stop! I get it, Carlisle.” By now I was trying to catch my breath, the images were so appalling. “We burn and it’s an agonizing death. That is not any way I would ever want to die,” I assured him. I never dreamed in that moment that a time would come in which I would seek death in the only way I could achieve it. But I had, nearly eighty years after my change. Thankfully, Bella had arrived in time to thwart my misguided effort. “Carlisle, I’m not sure that I’ve ever wanted to die in the last six months, I just didn’t want to be what you made me.” I turned my back to him before adding under my breath, “I still don’t want to be a vampire.”

Carlisle knew that. Even so, he wasn’t sorry that he had changed me, and I never saw anything in his thoughts that would indicate that he was, but he did regret the pain I felt. He hoped that time would ease my suffering as it had his.

My thoughts turned back to shaving - such a mundane, human thing to do. I desperately wanted something that was typical to human experience; there were so few memories for me to draw upon. Could I possibly have this? I wanted to, but the threat of being burned now clouded my desire. Confusion suddenly replaced my fear. Carlisle had not expressed any fear of my burning from shaving. He had shaved himself after he was changed and had bought me the razor he now held in his hand. But if running a razor’s blade across our flesh was like steel to flint, then how could shaving possibly be safe?

Turning, I stared at the blade in Carlisle’s hand.

He smiled. “You’re wondering how shaving can possibly be safe.

“Are you reading minds now?” I growled from deep in my chest.

I didn’t and don’t get yourself worked up,” Carlisle admonished. “It wasn’t hard to guess from your expression.”

“Oh, right.” Carlisle had become quite adept at cutting off my flashes of anger before they could erupt into a destructive rage.

“Shaving is really very simple,” Carlisle continued. He was speaking aloud now, forgetting that he didn’t have to. “Draw the razor s-lo-w-l-y across your face. Actually, it’s not that slow, just at human speed. The steel only sparks when struck quickly. The shaving cream helps keep the sparks to a minimum as well.” He offered me the razor. “I’m going out to the barn to work on the truck. Don’t burn the cabin down while I’m gone.”

Carlisle’s last remark was said in jest. He was fully confident that I would have no difficulty being safe. He also understood, better than I did, that this last shave was a deeply personal moment.

I was grateful for the solitude, but a bit concerned for the truck. Carlisle was an outstanding physician but a hopeless mechanic. I’d probably have to repair whatever damage he did.

The mirror was waiting patiently on the table where I had left it. Setting the razor down on the washstand, I went to retrieve my former nemesis and hung it above the porcelain basin. It was strange to freely gaze at myself after all those long months of fearing what I would see.

The bristly growth on my face was not yet the coarseness of a man full grown. It was soft, even silky, but looked unrefined nonetheless. My human memories may have been scant, but I had no doubt that I had always shaved since my beard had started to come in. The way I looked now may have been perfectly acceptable for the backwoods environment we were living in, but that was not how I wanted to be. I wanted to return to human society as much as possible. A clean-shaved face was always acceptable, and a few days growth was not in the circles I hoped to return to.

After pouring some water into the porcelain bowl on the washstand, I worked up some lather and applied the shaving cream to my face. This would be the last time I would ever shave; the only time I would remember performing this distinctly male ritual. A niggling voice in my head reminded me that I didn’t have to go through with this as I cautiously made the first slow but decisive stroke. Yes, I did need to do this. I needed to feel human in this one small way. My now perfect memory would allow me to always hold fast to this.

A soft, warm stroke brushed down my cheek in the long remembered motion. I looked down into the warm depths of Bella’s eyes as she continued to trace the line of my jaw. I had been so lost in thought that I had completely missed her awakening.

Gently, I took Bella’s hand and kissed her wrist. The intoxicating aroma that was hers alone filled my senses with the promise of life. “Good morning,” I murmured as I brushed a lock of hair from her eyes. It was good to be back in the present. Wallowing in the past had never been good for me.

“Hi,” she sighed. Pushing herself up, she assumed a cross-legged position on the bed opposite from where I was propped against the headboard.

“You have a curious expression,” I accused.

She tried to give me a blank look. I shook my head. “What are you thinking?”

“No, you don’t want to know,” she replied while studying the pattern on the quilt.

In an effort to change the subject, Bella reached up and cupped my cheek with her hand. Its warmth radiated over my face as she leaned in to give me a gentle kiss. The guilty look that met my eyes concerned me.

Bella was going to make me resort to dazzling her if I was ever going to find out what was making her look so wistful. Why did the silly girl do that? She should have known by now that the only way I could be truly sad was if she were not part of my life. Nothing could be more painful than her absence.

Gently, I placed my hands on either side of Bella’s delicate face and drew her closer. I could feel her pulse quicken as she inhaled deeply. My scent still seemed to have an intoxicating effect on her. I caressed the back of her neck.

“Please, tell me what you’re thinking,” I murmured in her ear. “Sometimes, it hurts more not knowing. It makes me worry.”

“I was just wondering,” Bella began slowly, her resolve weakening, “I was imagining what you would look like with a scruffy beard. You know, just a few day’s growth.”

My smile must have shown some trace of regret. I would have liked for Bella to see me that way.

“I told you it would make you sad and you had a long night.” Her observation was not a question but a statement. “So, what were you thinking about?”

“Shaving,” I chuckled. “I had a scruffy beard when I was changed, but I shaved it off,” I answered truthfully. Her eyes were filled with curiosity now. “It was . . . inconvenient,”

Bella started to giggle. “You do know that I love how your skin feels like polished marble, right?”

Smiling, I reached for her hand and tenderly pressed my lips to her fingers. “Yes, I do.”

“Is that really all that you were thinking about? There seemed to be more to it than that,” Bella observed. She was clearly concerned.

I didn’t want to relive the rest of my night’s musings so soon. What I needed was to feel Bella in my arms. Gathering her into my embrace, I drew her onto my lap as I leaned back into the pillows that rested against the headboard. She came willingly with racing heart and staggered breath. How wonderfully typical. “Yes, I really was thinking about my beard.”

Bella sighed contentedly as I ran my nose up her exquisite neck. If only I could immerse myself in her essence forever. I reminded myself that regardless of if she lived her life out as a mortal or if she were changed, there would come a day when the memory of her scent would have to sate me. I savored the genuine fragrance now, as always, while it was real and present.

Gentle fingers wound themselves through my hair and tenderly persuaded me to turn my face up. Warm lips pressed themselves to mine, conforming to their shape. Yes, this was where I wanted to be, giving her everything I could allow. Her fragile life was ever my responsibility.

“You still haven’t answered my second question,” Bella prompted when she pulled back to catch her breath. “What you were thinking about last night must have been important. You didn’t even go home to change. And don’t tell me you were thinking about your beard all night.” She tantalized me by walking her fingers up the front of my shirt. The sensation made my chest heave with longing.

She had me there. “Yes, I suppose I was thinking about more than my beard,” I whispered.

Now she nuzzled my neck, first brushing me with her nose, and then kissing where my skin still tingled. “Are you going to tell me or do I have to torture you?”

The girl knew how to dazzle me. I was putty in her able hands. “How about this,” I bargained, “you get dressed and have some breakfast. We’ll go to the meadow instead of you going out with Alice, and we can enjoy the sun together.” I paused before I committed myself fully. I knew I needed to share with Bella everything that I had been pondering while she slept. “We can talk over what I was thinking about during the night when we get there.” Now, I was committed to telling her.

“Really?” Her voice was hopeful. “Oh, but Alice will be disappointed.” The last thought instantly darkened Bella’s mood.

“She’ll get over it,” I assured Bella. I was certain that Alice already knew what I had just obligated myself to. She would understand.

I could taste Bella’s excitement. She believed that she had won this promise so easily. It only seemed that way to her, though. This had not been an easy promise to make. Not as difficult as my promise to change her, not by a long shot. I still wasn’t sure if I would be able to follow through with that one when the time came, or if I would have to ask Carlisle to step in, but this promise was not to be taken lightly either. Decades of secrecy were about to be exposed, leaving me emotionally vulnerable. How could she not hate me for my first kill? The criminals I had taken were one thing, but that man had been an innocent. Bella was sure to despise me now. No, I knew better than that. Bella wouldn’t like it, but she would understand and not condemn. I did not deserve such compassion.

In her enthusiasm, Bella bounced off the bed and skipped into the bathroom to shower and dress. Today she would learn the secrets of my life as a newborn. The truths of my life needed to be revealed to my future wife. There was no compelling reason for me to deny her. Perhaps, revealing the truth really could set me free.