XIII. Agnus Dei
Like most other nights this season, tonight the air is frigid, somewhere well below zero, and the dark wind whipping down from the lake carries with it swirling walls of white confetti that glimmer beneath the silver moon. High above, far past the reach of false human light, the stars twinkle and shine, pinpoints of brightness against the navy sky.
Frozen in place, still in a way that only the marble statues can achieve, Edward stares down at a slab of weathered granite. It's old, its face pitted from years of wind and rain, and the once sharp, square-faced letters it bears are now rounded and smooth to the touch.
Edward Anthony Masen
His name, it reads, yet his eyes see another's.
Etched deep into the stone where it will never wear.
Always hers, Edward thinks, as his eyes flutter shut. Everything, until he's finally dust, will always be her.
Even though it's been hours since he left her apartment, when he breathes in the frosty air, Edward can still smell Bella on his skin. Seared down into his very bones, flawlessly preserved for all time and all place, the perfume they made together last night will never fade or wash away. It's a part of him now, he knows, as tangible and real as the hands that gripped her hips and as the lips that kissed away her secrets.
Here in this lonely graveyard, over and over in an endless loop, as though watching a movie play behind his closed lids, Edward relives both heaven and hell.
His fingers curl with the arch of her spine and the flush of her porcelain cheeks, and his lips wet at the silent echo of her thundering pulse pounding through his empty chest, recalling the way it hammered him into something new. In time to the invisible, warm and humid pants against the hollow of his neck, his breath quickens.
So many hours afterward, for Edward, the grounding and peace and rightness – that foreign sense of being surrounded, of being loved, and of being made whole – is overwhelming. It's just as strong and just as shattering as the desolation and utter despair that now consumes him, too – that consumed him the very moment Bella's eyes opened to the morning light.
"I'm sorry," was the first thing she'd said, even as her fingers sought out the valleys between his ribs. "I shouldn't have. I shouldn't have pushed… shouldn't have made you. I just wanted… something of you. You probably hate me."
"Shh, you made me do nothing," he'd answered, dragging his lips across her so-warm skin, for theirs was a sin he was willing to bear. "You gave me… everything. I cannot… I will never, ever hate you."
"I love you," Edward had whispered, tucking her head beneath his chin, unwilling to let her go just yet.
"I wish… I want to be so mad at you," Bella had breathed, pressing his palm between her breasts. "But it hurts. It hurts here."
Kissing her softly, all he'd been able to say was, "I know," because he did. He does. So much, and the pain of separation is nearly crippling.
You're choosing wrong, Alice silently calls out.
He should be surprised by the other vampire's unexpected appearance but he's not, and when Edward looks up in acknowledgment, she slips inside the old wrought iron gate and slowly picks her way between the rows of snow-capped stones. In her mind, he sees the same haunting circuit of Bella from before – now, old, dead, and immortal – spinning so fast that he's unsure how, even with their expanded faculties, Alice can focus on anything else.
"Is there a right?" he hears himself ask.
Because right now, Edward truly doesn't know. Instead of the certainty he'd expected once he finally walked out through Bella's apartment, he's a mournful mass of confusion and loss, as his mind and heart still struggle, both trying to reconcile guilt with guilt, need with want.
He's talked to his God – talked to him all day long – but only silence answers him when he calls.
"Why did you tell her, Alice?"
"Because it's her future, too."
Arms folded across her chest, Alice leans against the nearest stone, and abruptly, the images in her mind still and condense into a single, hazy scene. Like her visions of Carlisle, it's a vague one, but even so, there is no mistaking the stacks of clothes, the folded boxes, or the pictures taken from the walls. None of those things register, however, because as though he's there, through the shadow of the future, Edward sees Bella, doubled over on her unmade bed, fisting the sheets to keep from falling over.
Something inside of him – the corresponding part – cracks in two, and as if beaten, he lists from side to side.
"She's going to leave," Alice finally says. Her voice is quiet, but the surety of it – of that future – is indisputable, and it's another brutal strike to his midsection. "I don't know when exactly, but she won't be able to stay here if you really do take Father Carlisle's place. She won't be able to bear it. Neither will you."
"You don't understand." Edward's fists clench into tight balls. "I'd be stealing her immortal soul just like I stole Jasper's. There is no greater act of selfishness, no greater sin than that."
"I don't believe that," she softly answers, shaking her head. "You're stealing from her only by not choosing your rightful mate, by not honoring her choice."
A sharp stab makes him wince.
"Forget everything else I've told you. Forget Jasper!" Alice suddenly yells. Louder in her anger, her words bounce off the walls of marble and granite. "She wants it, Edward. She wants a life – eternity – with you. Don't you know that? Are you blind? Do you think we're all paired off by chance? Can't you see what you're being given?"
"I don't deserve it," he whispers into the wind. A second later, he adds, his voice flat and lifeless, repeating by rote the words he's told himself a thousand times, "I don't know how to be anything other than this." Speeding down the long litany of names and faces, Edward fingers the hem of his lapel and moves to clutch the thin chain that circles his neck. "And I owe it for all the evil I've done. For what I am."
"I don't believe that either. That," she says, as she waves her hand at the black uniform he wears, "was what you needed. Not now." Alice huffs and shakes her head harder before her voice drops back down to a tired whisper. "You should know that in watching Bella all these years, I've watched you, too. Trust me. I've seen. You've paid your dues."
Three more nights have passed, and with each one, Edward realizes that Alice is more right than she knows. For each night – each hour – it grows harder and harder to stay away, no matter how much he prays, no matter how much he begs for mercy. Twice now, he's found himself out on the street, staring up at the bright-lit square of Bella's bedroom window, thinking and wanting, as though waiting for some sign to fall from the heavens.
"How can you even think you that you have no soul? Or that you're damned?" Bella had asked before he finally turned to walk away. "You're not. I don't know about being Catholic or exactly what or who God is… But I know this. If you didn't still have a soul you wouldn't do what you do. You wouldn't try so hard… You wouldn't love me. Or love God as much as I know you do. You do have one, Edward, and it's so… good."
Her soft, whispered words are now all he can hear, strange and haunting, so similar to those shouted at him in the graveyard. It's what he most wants to hear, so tempting to believe, and despite his own mind battling against him, at least one phrase Bella said still holds purchase and gives him pause. It rankles and disrupts the years of thought and etched belief.
It's what drove his desolate, wandering feet here, downtown, away from both the call of the empty church and that of the woman who'd take its place.
"You're looking well, Father," Edward lies, smiling as he closes the heavy oak door behind him. The heels of his polished oxfords snap too loudly against the tile.
Glancing up from the worn, leather bound book in his lap, the elderly man cocks one pale white brow and grins, shifting the clear tube that rests above his upper lip. "Son, you are a terrible liar."
Lips twitching as he assumes his normal post in the chair beside the bed, Edward reaches for one of the other books on the table and with feigned interest, thumbs through the yellowed pages. They're almost as old as him. "I suppose that's not a bad thing. Would you prefer the alternative?"
"You need to work on your bedside manner," Carlisle laughs.
"Perhaps. Or maybe you need to be a less difficult patient." Edward smiles again, this time sincerely, because it's astounding how despite the cancer gradually spreading through his aging body, right now, Father Carlisle is… happy. His mind is a peaceful, soothing place – a smooth glassy lake, transparent to the very bottom.
"You're here late tonight."
Crossing one leg over the other and steepling his fingers, Edward slowly nods. He's unsure how to explain that he's late because he's spent the last twelve hours alone in the church, stationed on his usual pew, arguing, begging, and contemplating the existence of souls and God and hell and heaven – all to no avail.
Instead, he merely shrugs, and they then spend the next half hour speaking of normal mundane things like the kitchen's stock, their weekly funds, and the pale gray dust that always seems to gather in the sanctuary. They're all safe topics, nowhere close to the elderly priest's impending death or the wounds tearing Edward apart inside. But Edward knows that it gives the other man some measure of comfort to know what's going on in his home – to know that it's being looked after well in his absence.
Eventually, as the minutes wear on, the two men grow quiet, however, each alone with their thoughts, both turning inward in reflection. For what feels like hours, the only sound in the room is the soft, ragged rasp of Carlisle's lungs and the slow, regular ping of his heart monitor.
Carlisle is almost asleep when he abruptly clears his throat. Hands loosely clasped in his lap, his eyes close and he turns his face toward the ceiling. "Did I ever tell you that I was once in love?"
For a split-second, Edward can't believe what he's just heard and his head automatically swivels to the right. Inside of Carlisle's mind, in the middle of that glassy lake, a face suddenly appears, rising through the water. No more than twenty-five, with long, carefully curled caramel tresses and a pair gleaming, mischievous eyes, her features are soft and round, the picture of a bygone era. It's a face that Edward has never seen before, and he doesn't know why or how he's missed it. Because she's as clear and as bold as a living, breathing photograph.
"No," Edward quietly replies. "You never told me that."
"I was supposed to marry her."
Edward blinks in confusion.
"Esme Platt was her name. Beautiful girl." Carlisle's voice is soft and distant, wistful almost, and in unconscious movement, he dry-washes his hands, rubbing away the hurt in his swollen joints. "We were in high school together. I won't tell you the year or you'll call me ancient."
Edward knows it anyway, and it certainly doesn't make him ancient – at least not in comparison – so all he asks is, "Why didn't you?"
"I went away to college." The old man chuckles and shakes his head. "A doctor. That's what I was going to be. Big dreams."
For the first time since he's met him, Carlisle the priest falls away, replaced by someone else entirely, and Edward knows better than to push or prod. Instead, with rapt attention, he merely listens and watches the foggy, all-too-human memories come and go.
"Her father was a miserable man. A drunkard, and I fear was sometimes abusive, though I never had any proof. But he didn't like me much and didn't believe me when I said I intended on marrying his daughter. We did that back then, by the way – talk to the father first. Or at least I did."
Edward almost laughs, and Father Carlisle almost catches him when his bright, crinkly eyes land on Edward's honey-colored ones. He does catch something, however. For a brief moment a silent, mutual understanding passes between them, one that shouldn't be possible between the elderly man and someone so young. Edward looks away first.
Tapping his chin, blue eyes glinting in the low light, the priest pauses for a too-long second, but says nothing to acknowledge Edward's slip. As though it never happened at all, he goes on. "When I came home for Christmas, though… he'd convinced her of it – that I wasn't serious about her. To this day, I don't know why she ever believed that old man. I was so angry with her for it, too. But for whatever reason, she did and she let him marry her off to a man far too much like her father for my liking."
Quieter, sadder, he says, "I saw her some time later. Maybe a year. My Esme was going to have this other man's baby." Carlisle's chin drops to his chest and his brows slant sharply. "It could have been mine if not for... well, you know. Almost killed me."
A younger man could never understand this kind of sorrow, Edward knows. But he does. He knows what it means to lose a future, to have it all stolen away, so they're quiet for a long while again, and this time the silence in the room is heavy and forlorn – thick with regret and age and a hint of bitterness.
The clock on the wall ticks past ten when Edward softly asks, "You chose the Church then?" It's less a question, more a statement.
"Not right away. I did that after Esme passed." Carlisle swallows and his eyes darken and wet, seeing that same lovely face, pale and gone. "Her baby died before he turned two. And she was… she was inconsolable. And she followed shortly afterward, by her own hand." As if drawn, his fingers find and lightly trace the gold script on the face of the book in his lap. "I found God because I was inconsolable."
"Why do you tell me this?" Edward whispers, as his own fingers dig into yellow pages.
Carlisle eyes him, taking him in from head to toe, lingering on the same white square he's worn for years. "Do you wear that collar and cross because you want to or because you think you have to?"
The air freezes, flashing Edward's already cold skin to ice. It takes him a moment to answer, because the question came out of nowhere, and it hits far, far too close to home. When he does finally find the wherewithal to speak, his voice is thin and hoarse. "Both, I think. I'm not sure anymore."
Their eyes lock once more. "How old are you, Edward?"
Years of training and hiding force a tight, plastered on smile, and the automatic, engrained, self-protective response kicks in. "You know the answer to that."
"Yes, I know what you've told me and what the transcript says." Head tilted in study, mind clear, with no hint of judgment or verdict, Carlisle asks again, "But I want you to tell me now. How old are you?"
Inside, Edward is reeling. The world has suddenly inverted, down now up, inside now out, and he's left adrift, grasping for any kind of certainty or grounding. Just how this man knows, Edward can't begin to guess. Unsure exactly why, however, if it's sorrow, or guilt, or the long years of solitude, he finds the truth suddenly spilling out of his mouth as if his body willfully purges it.
"Older than you," he breathes.
Carlisle's eyes close and a smile plays at the corners of his mouth. "And how long have you worn that collar?"
This time, Edward's eyes shut, too, as years upon years flash through the vast cavern of his vampire mind – countless broken individuals, countless beseeching confessions, endless nights praying for the lost.
"Longer than you."
Whatever Edward expected – disbelief, abhorrence, some kind of rightful condemnation – Carlisle's reaction is not it. Instead, the elderly man coughs a loud, wheezy, triumphant laugh that shakes his bony shoulders. "I knew it."
Shock speeds through Edward's frame, turning him into a statue. Incredulous, he can only manage a sharp inhale and a roughly spoken, "How?"
Louder, Carlisle laughs again and slaps his palm against his thigh. To Edward, his amusement is incomprehensible. "Son, no one coming out of seminary knows that much scripture by heart. You gave yourself away the very first study session when you quoted half of Isaiah without looking down."
Swallowing, Edward grips the armrests of his chair, as again the earth as he knows it falls away. He doesn't understand – he can't. He should have seen it, he thinks, should have heard something in the man's thoughts, but as he peels back the memories, searching through each and every interaction, all he can come up with is the profound kindness and compassion that set apart Carlisle's thoughts from all others.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Why haven't you asked me how? Or what I am? he wants to say.
The laughter abruptly silences, and with a conviction that Edward can't fathom, Carlisle answers, "Because it doesn't matter. Doesn't matter who you were before. I just know who you are now."
They are words that dig deep beneath the skin, ones that seek out all the dark parts of him, as though casting a bright, white spotlight.
"Do you remember what you asked me when you flew off to Canada that night?"
He replies without thinking, still so lost, so stunned. "I asked you if He listened. You said He did."
"Yes, I did." Carlisle opens the book in his lap and flips toward the back, skimming through the thick rows of black and red text. Staring down at the fragile page, he says, "You also asked me if God answered." His forefinger lands on a familiar block of red, one he's offered himself to so many.
"Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it… I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live."
"What did I say to you?"
"Never in the way I expect." His voice sounds hollow to his ears, echoing and resounding through his empty shell of a body.
Time halts when Carlisle looks up. "Son, this life isn't for you anymore."
Edward isn't sure how or why, but a weight suddenly falls into the pit of his stomach. The room lurches forward, and the chair he's sitting in vanishes. "But I can't… " Edward hears himself whisper. "I don't know how… It's the only way."
"Only way what?" Carlisle gently asks, as he closes the book again and presses his palm against the leather cover.
Edward's eyes screw shut and his hand automatically targets the rosary in his coat pocket. "That I can be forgiven."
"Have you asked?"
With a quiet sigh, Carlisle says a single word. "Forgiveness."
Nodding, furiously so, incapable of hiding the decades of desperation, Edward answers, "Countless times. So many times. Every day."
"It only takes once. You know that."
Shoulders falling in defeat, Edward buries his face in his palms. The weight in his stomach seems to grow heavier with each passing second. It's a wonder he's still upright. "Not for me. You don't understand all that I've done. What I am."
"You are a child of God. Just like I am. You may live longer – maybe much longer, I don't know – but don't you think that He has a place planned for you, too?"
"I-" Edward starts and then stops. Between his fingers, he sees a withered hand with a trailing IV reach across the space between them to pull his hands away from his face. The elderly man's skin is a fever to his ice, and the warmth probes through and through, shooting down into his very bones, leaving him almost gasping. "That girl is for you," Carlisle quietly says. "She's your Heaven on earth and your eternal life until He calls us all."
When Edward opens his eyes again, the violet glow from the overhead light frames the dying priest's head like a halo, and that same warmth surges inside Edward's chest, filling it, expanding it.
"Go on," Carlisle whispers, shaking his head, breaking that momentary image. "You've served a lifetime and have helped so many. Accept what God's giving you now. Happiness. Fulfillment. Love… It's a reward, Edward. You must see that. Turning in your collar doesn't mean that you're turning your back on Him. You can have both."
For the first time since he climbed out of that dark, Chicago gutter so many decades ago, changed, abandoned, and alone, Edward suddenly sees… clearly, as though a shadowy veil has lifted, and the path before him is lit and true. Never has he felt more alive – never closer to the One he's served than he is right now.
Squeezing Edward's trembling hand, Carlisle says, "I only ask that you do one thing for me, as my friend, before you leave today for good."
Edward's head shoots up, hearing the unfathomable in Carlisle's mind. "I don't need to lea–"
"Yes, you do. Stop wasting time."
"You have nothing to Confess." Edward's throat bobs, yet still he clasps the man's hand between both of his. His heartbeat thrums, a slow, steady, sure cadence that he'll remember for all time.
"Of course, I do. We all sin. " Carlisle laughs again, but this time, it's a tired laugh, weary from all the years. "It's what makes us human. That we seek redemption is what saves our souls."
The verses quoted above are from John 14.