A/N: I know it's been awhile, so here's a quick recap of what's happened last chapter: Charlotte called Jasper to tell him that Alice "fainted" after accidentally stumbling upon the scene of her bus accident. Jasper and Emmett drove to Peter and Charlotte's apartment to pick Alice up and bring her back to Jasper's apartment. The next morning, Emmett left and Alice admitted to Jasper that she was no longer interested in finding her family, and that she just wanted to move on with her life. Outwardly Jasper agreed with her, but inwardly he decided that he would begin looking for her family on his own.
Thanks to Twila Reaux, as always, for being a fantastic beta. And thanks also to cinnamonscars for bribing me to write this and putting up with my whining when I couldn't get things right.
Speaking of cinnamonscars, I wrote her a o/s for her birthday called Epitaph for an Empty Grave. It's canon Em/R, and I had a fun time writing it, so if you have time, check it out.
A note on formatting:Yes, this is another weirdly formatted chapter, but fortunately, this should be the last one of these. This chapter covers the twenty days in between the day Emmett leaves and the day before Jasper's family arrives in Philadelphia. The POV switches throughout and is never explicitly stated, though hopefully you should be able to tell who is narrating based on the events being described. I'm sorry if it's a little confusing--if you have any questions, feel free to PM me.
Like always, Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight and all its characters.
Chapter 22: Grotesques
"It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood."
~Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
It's the same dream as always: the salty air, the cloudless sky, the sand disappearing into the unfathomable expanse of the sea; soft, golden light melting over the shoulders of the four figures waving at me from the shore. And, as always, as soon as I take one hesitant step forward, the mirage undulates briefly in the imagined breeze, and then dissolves completely into darkness.
I open my eyes and Jasper is already holding me, whispering comfort against my skin even though I'm sure I haven't cried. This is real, this is real, I tell myself as I clutch his arms to my chest and let my fingers brush over his scars, my scars.
this is real, this is real, this is real
My therapist watches me with narrowed eyes as my legs struggle to lift the padded bar that's lying across my ankles. I only manage to raise the fifteen-pound weights an inch or so off the rest of the stack before she stops me, throwing her chart and pen to the floor.
"What happened?" she asks, dropping down to one knee and taking the hem of my sweatpants between her fingers. "This was your easy weight last week. Now you can barely lift it. What did y—"
Her eyes widen and her mouth hangs open mid-word as she pushes the fabric up over my knee. I've already seen what's eliciting this reaction of course, but I follow her stare anyway, morbidly fascinated with the degeneration of my own body. It's only been two hours since I got dressed, but already my skin seems tighter, the red tears in my calf seem darker, and the bruises peppering my skin seem to have multiplied so that my leg is now more blue than white. My therapist prods my swollen kneecap gently, and the skin dips and swells away from her finger as though it were a balloon that has been filled with water.
"Jasper Whitlock… what on earth did you do to yourself?"
"Today was the first time I heard you."
Jasper looks up from his meal, his eyes widened in surprise, confusion.
"I didn't say anything, Alice."
I shake my head a spear a piece of meat with my fork, raising it to my lips. "Not today. I mean a year ago—in the hospital. You woke me up. You… you were screaming."
His face colors slightly at my words, and his lips twitch into a frown. "I'm sorry," he mumbles, not meeting my eyes.
"I'm not," I counter without stopping to think how inappropriate that sounds. Mentally I kick myself, and then do my best to try to recover without sounding like a complete heartless idiot. "I mean… what I mean is that I wanted to scream too. Or yell, or curse, or cry, but I didn't know it was okay. You screamed, and I knew it was okay to be angry. You… woke me up."
Jasper shifts uncomfortably in his seat and then lays his fork down on the table. "It's still okay, you know," he says, glancing up at me again. "It's still okay to be angry."
Now it's my turn to blush and look away. Didn't we just have this conversation a few days ago? I'm not angry—not anymore. I'm just tired: tired of wanting and tired of needing when everything I want and need is already right here.
"I'm not," I say dismissively, standing to carry my empty dishes into the kitchen. Slowly, methodically I wash my plate and my silverware, giving Jasper time to understand that this particular conversation is closed. When I shut off the water and look over at him, he's eating again, and so I move to stand behind him, running my fingers through his hair. He leans back into me, and I wrap my arms around his shoulders, clasping my hands together over his chest.
"A year ago, where did you think you'd be… in a year?" I ask ineloquently. "Right now, I mean. A year ago, what did you think you'd be doing right now?"
Jasper laughs dryly. "I dunno," he shrugs, "probably still screaming. How about you?"
"Alone," I answer without hesitation. I feel Jasper tense beneath me, but then he brings his arms up to cross them over mine, holding me as hard and as close as he can in this strange position.
I thought I'd be alone.
"So wait, you're telling me you didn't do anything?"
I close my eyes, already so bored with this conversation that I'm considering hanging up the phone.
"No, Emmett. Nothing. I just… didn't even think about it."
"But it's April Fool's Day," he insists, genuine shock in his voice. "It's like, the best holiday ever. How could you not do something?"
I bite my tongue to keep from pointing out that today is not, in fact, a holiday. It's true, though that Emmett usually treats it as such—spending weeks planning elaborate pranks. The year we shared a dorm room, he'd super glued all my shoes to the floor and reset my alarm to go off at 4:00 in the morning. He'd also bought three ducks that year from god-knows-where and painted them with the numbers 1, 3, and 4 before setting them loose in the dorm hallways. Needless to say he got a JR from our RA after the campus police spent all day searching for duck number 2.
Emmett thought it was hilarious. He was still laughing about it the next day, even while he was scraping every single one of my shoes up off the floor.
"It's just not a good time right now," I say, sighing as I lean back in my desk chair.
Emmett suddenly grows quiet, his breathing harsher, tense. "I thought you said she was getting better."
"She is," I answer quickly—too quickly. I take a deep breath in an attempt to eradicate the defensiveness from my voice. "She is. I just don't think switching the locks on our apartment door while she's at work will go over too well right now, you know?"
The reminder of yet another prank Emmett has pulled on me in this past (this one not even corresponding to April Fool's Day) works: he laughs easily, giving me a perfect opportunity to divert the conversation away from Alice. I wasn't lying when I told him that she's doing much better than the last time he saw her—she's talking, eating, going to work, sleeping. But something is still… off.
It seems like she's just going through the motions now—doing things just for the sake of doing them.
I haven't seen her draw or sketch or paint in days.
"Did you do anything to Rose?" I ask, trying to distract myself from this train of thought.
"Nothing yet. Your mom's taking her out to lunch in a bit though, and as soon as they leave, I'm gonna come home from work and move her car to a neighbor's garage down the street. Your mom's in on it, too—she's even gonna take a picture of Rose's face when she thinks her car's been stolen."
I laugh, fully aware that no one tampers with my sister's car without suffering severe consequences. "She's gonna kill you, Em. You know this, right?"
"Yeah, but it'll be worth it," he says, his grin audible. "She'll be pissed at first, but ten bucks says she thinks it's hilarious once she's had time to cool down."
I snort and shake my head. "You're on."
We talk for a few more minutes before Emmett announces that it's time to put his prank into action, and ends the call. I pocket my phone and head back into my bedroom, intending to grab my laptop and a few books and head to the library to complete yet another make-up assignment. But just as it has for the past four days, seeing the room turns my stomach to knots, and I have to pause in the doorway for a few seconds before I've regained my composure enough to enter.
On Sunday, Alice went on a massive cleaning spree: scrubbing and disinfecting every available surface of our apartment, cleaning and folding all the bed-sheets, organizing the closets and rearranging the furniture. Since then, everything has felt foreign, sterile. The smell of bleach and disinfectant still hangs in the air so heavily that I have to keep a window open so that I can breathe.
And as I look at the neatly-made, hospital-cornered bed, I can't help but envy my sister. In a few hours, two little words will magically reveal that the terrible thing she thinks has happened to her is just an innocent joke.
I wish someone were playing a joke on me.
Sometimes, when business is slow, I'll leaf through the maps and brochures we keep at the front desk of the hotel. That's how I used to find places I thought might be interesting to draw. It's also the how I get ideas for things that Jasper and I can do on my days off. Actually, I've developed kind of a reputation among hotel employees because of this little habit, and so now, whenever a customer asks for recommendations of things to do in the area, my co-workers will refer them to me for advice. It's kind of fun, really—being an amateur tour guide of sorts.
But today, as I browse our one and only map of greater Pennsylvania, I have a different purpose in mind. One by one, I run my fingers over the names of every city in the state. Some, of course, I've heard of before: Pittsburgh, Allentown, Harrisburg. But others are more obscure. Who knew that there was a Bethlehem right here in Pennsylvania? And how exactly does one pronounce the name Monogahela?
So many places I didn't even know existed, and yet nowhere, in the entire state, is anything called Penn Station.
Not a memory; just a guess.
Jasper knocks on the bathroom door to let me know that our Chinese food delivery has arrived, and I tell him that I'll be out in a minute. I wait until I hear his footsteps retreating down the hall before I turn to face the full-length mirror hanging on the bathroom door. Before I can change my mind, I un-tuck my towel and let it drop to the floor.
I blink a few times, assessing the naked girl in the mirror, trying to force myself to think in possessive pronouns.
My eyes are brown. My shoulders are bony. My breasts are small. My thighs… could use a little work, if we're being honest. My knees are bowed.
I raise one hand to my chest and deliberately trace the white scar that runs from my sternum down to the bottom of my ribcage. I do the same with the scars on my hip and my wrist, and then turn around and look over my shoulder so that I can see the jagged white lines cutting across my back. I touch everything I can reach, including the heart-shaped design tattooed into my skin.
And then I face the mirror again. I cross my arms over my chest and dig my nails into my ribs until it hurts.
Alice Brandon, I mouth, watching my lips form the silent words; wanting to cry, but somehow forgetting how to summon tears.
Alice Brandon. Alice Brandon.
Me. My. Mine.
I flip open my journal for what's probably the hundredth time in three months. The leather binding is already creased from overuse, and so the journal lies flat on the carrel desk, Alice's drawings staring up at me from the inside front cover. Just as they always have, the pictures mock me—daring me to find something in my stupid brain that's worthy enough to share this space with them. Somehow, schoolwork and shitty fiction have never quite seemed to fit the bill.
But today, finally, I have something to contribute.
Somewhere, someone must have realized that Alice is missing. If not her family, then a friend, a co-worker, a classmate, a neighbor, someone. And so my plan, insofar as it can be called such, is pretty simple: scour ever single missing persons database—both those available on the internet and in print—and hope that one of the entries matches Alice's description. If that doesn't work, my other options include posting Alice's profile on "people finder" websites and/or hiring a private investigator to find out what he can about Alice's apparently nonexistent past. It might take time, but fortunately, time is one thing I have going for me. My make-up schoolwork is almost complete, and so whenever Alice is at the hotel, I can be here, in the library, trying to piece together her life.
Deciding the best way to start is by making a list of all the things I know about Alice that I can compare to what I find in my research, I flip to the first page of the journal. Hesitantly, in an almost embarrassing and illegible script, I write down the first thing that comes to mind.
Name: Alice Brandon.
I pull back from the desk and look at the words, and am strangely relieved that I've finally started this process that should've begun months ago. I'm just about to continue with her other details—hair color, eye color, height, weight—when I stop short, my breath catching audibly as I realize the error of what I've just written.
Name: Alice Brandon.
Dropping my pen back down to the page, I cross it out.
I suck at stuff like this, so sorry in advance. But the other night, despite running my mouth like a jackass, I managed to not say the one thing that needed saying most. And, since I don't think I'll get to see you again before I leave, this will have to do.
I can't even begin to understand the things that you and Jasper have been through together. Thanking you for everything that you've done for him almost seems inappropriate, since, given the choice, I'm sure that neither of you would've chosen to go through any of it. But I have to thank you, because there were times when I honestly didn't think I'd ever see him again, and, well… Rosalie isn't the only one who's spent the past year thinking she might've lost a brother.
I hope you know that I would've been there for him, if he'd let me. That goes for Rosalie and his parents as well. If he'd just let us see him, or picked up the phone once when we called, or answered one stupid e-mail, we all would've been there. And even though I can kind of understand what you said the other night about him needing distance to heal, the fact that we couldn't be what he needed is always going to hurt.
But, Alice, I'm glad he had you. I'm glad he has you. And even though it's inadequate and most likely inappropriate of me to say, thank you for being whatever it was he needed.
One more thing, and then I swear I'll shut up.
I'm writing my phone number on the back of this page. Use it if you ever need anything. Anything. And before you get the wrong idea, I'm not giving it to you so that I can somehow 'pay you back' for helping Jasper. I'm giving it to you because you're Jasper's family now, Pix, and by extension, that makes you mine, too. So I'll be expecting to hear from you sometime.
I mean it.
P.S. Sorry about ripping a page out of your sketchbook. I couldn't find any paper.
P.P.S. Oh, and I used one of your fancy pencils because I couldn't find a pen, either.
P.P.P.S I also knocked over one of your bottles of paint. I cleaned it up before it dried, but if you're wondering why you're short half a bottle of Forest Green (or why you're missing a washcloth)… yeah, that's why. Sorry.
I'm sitting in a chair in the hotel lobby, reading a magazine while I wait for Alice to get off work, when I feel someone lightly kick my shoe. I look up expecting to hear an apology. Instead, I have to do a double take when I see the small girl standing there, looking at me expectantly.
"So, are you ready to go?" she asks, her voice slightly amused. "Or is—" she reaches down to flip the front of my magazine over to read the cover, "—Car and Driver really that interesting?"
I blink twice, my mouth hanging open dumbly. "Did you… Did you get a haircut?" I finally manage to blurt out.
Alice smiles, reaching up to pinch one tiny, spiked lock of hair between her fingers. "Yup, I went during my lunch break. Like it?"
Her smile quickly fades into a frown—an angry one at that. "You don't like it."
"No, that's not it, it's just…" I grimace, knowing that I'm digging a massive hole for myself, but not quite knowing how to get out of it. It's not that she looks bad—hell, to be honest, it's kind of cute. But I know from the picture I saw of her just after her accident that her hair had once been long—very long—and I thought that she'd been growing it out purposefully so that she could look more like her old self again.
"Well, I like it better like this," Alice huffs, crossing her arms over her chest. I almost want to laugh at how petulant and childlike she sounds, until I remember that this isn't fucking funny at all. I know what she's trying to do; I know what she's trying to separate herself from. And it scares the hell outta me.
I toss the magazine on the table and stand up, encircling her with my arms. Closing my eyes, I force myself to bring my hand up and run my fingers through her choppy hair. Somehow I manage not to shudder.
"It's nice," I say, whispering so she can't pick up on the deceitful inflection in my voice. "I like it, too."
I don't tell Alice where I'm going.
In fact, it's worse than that. I deliberately lie to her and tell her that I'll be in the library all day, just like always. And then, fifteen minutes after her shift starts, I get in my car and start driving—taking the long way out of town to avoid going past the hotel. Even so, I keep my cell out on the seat next to me the whole time, convinced that she'll somehow figure out I'm lying and call to make explain what I'm up to.
The phone never rings.
Twenty minutes later, I'm standing over a pile of rain-soaked ashes, watching a frayed piece of faded yellow caution tape slap against the tree to which it's been tied.
I'm not really sure what I thought coming back here would accomplish. I suppose some part of me hoped that it would help me understand—understand why, even after two weeks, Alice still moves around the apartment like she's only half aware of where she is. Understand why she's stopped painting; understand why she's stopped reading or listening to music or even wanting to leave the house if she doesn't have work. Understand why, despite everything that's happened to her, I have yet to see her cry.
But looking at this picnic table, these rocks, this lake, I know that there's no understanding here. There's anger—that's for damn sure. There's resentment and guilt and even fear, too. And, to add fucking insult to injury, there are also memories: many of which I've had before, but also some—like the name of the man who pulled me from the water, or the way the mud felt when I dug into it with my fingers to keep from screaming in pain—that I'd forgotten until now.
And then there's more anger. Enough to make me kick at the pile of ashes at my feet, scattering dirt and half-burnt chips of wood across the water.
I'm losing her.
The harder I try to find her, the faster she slips away.
I lie in the dark, listening to the sound of the water running from the sink in the bathroom. Alice has already been in there for fifteen minutes, and if the pattern of the past two mornings is any indication, she won't be done in there for another half hour. And when she does finally step out into the hallway, she won't be Alice anymore.
She will be a sentient mannequin, a marionette without the strings. Flawlessly dressed, hair styled to plastic perfection, face painted smooth with layer after layer of heavy makeup. Her eyes will appear to shine thanks to the bright eye shadow she's brushed onto her eyelids; her ivory skin will seem less pale because of the blush she's applied carefully, artfully across her cheeks.
The painter and the canvas in one. A fraying rag-doll, concealed by a porcelain mask.
It takes me two days to get up the courage to thank Emmett for his letter, and even then, I feel so awkward about the whole thing that I can't bring myself to do it by phone. Instead, I send him a text message in which I both thank him and apologize again for ruining his visit.
ur welcome and u didnt, he texts back. it was a shitty game anyway. howd u know they were gonna lose?
Relieved both that he doesn't seem angry and that he seems willing to overlook the little freak-out he'd witnessed, I jokingly respond that I'm a part-time psychic. Playing along, he writes back, gr8. i have a performance eval w/ j's dad in 10. hows it gonna go? Knowing from Jasper that his father considers Emmett to be very good at his job, I tell him that he'll do fine. Not surprisingly, an hour later he writes back saying that I was right. And that's how this whole ridiculous thing starts.
Every day now—usually more than once—I'll get a text from Emmett asking me to "predict the future." His requests range from entertaining (hey pix—whats the weather gonna b like in russia on tues?) to semi-serious (hows rose gonna take it when i tell her i dont wanna have a huge bday party 4 chip?), and my responses are probably wrong more often than right. But just as it does tonight, the sound of my phone buzzing makes me smile. The routine, the easy banter, the feeling of being wanted and appreciated—it's all a welcome distraction from everything that I'm trying to remember to forget.
76ers vs chicago 2night. plz tell me theyre gonna win.
Sometimes I forget how good it feels to laugh.
Catherine Grace Rawls
DOB: Mar 23, 1991 Age: 17
Missing: May 2, 2008 Race: White
Location: POTTSVILLE, PA, US
Pauline Elizabeth Woodward
DOB: June 13, 1989 Age: 19
Missing: Jul 20, 2008 Race: White
Location: ESSINGTON, PA, US
Morgan Jean Littleton
DOB: Dec 23, 1991 Age: 17
Missing: Jan 14, 2008 Race: White
Location: ROBINSON TOWNSHIP, PA, US
I think what surprises me most about working in a hotel are the secrets people use this place to keep.
For instance: Ronald Scott checks in every Tuesday afternoon without fail, his only luggage a garment bag he has slung over one shoulder. Exactly thirty minutes after his arrival, a blonde woman who must be half his age arrives at the front desk and asks to know which room her husband is staying in. She doesn't wear a wedding ring. At 6:45 the next morning, Ronald Scott leaves the hotel wearing a new suit. "Mrs. Scott" leaves the hotel fifteen minutes later, dressed in the same clothes she wore the night before.
And then there's the girl who works in the hotel bar in exchange for lodging in one of our less desirable rooms, since she's too scared to tell her parents that she failed out of college months ago.
And of course there's the suite on the fifth floor that we keep on standby, just in case a certain prominent Philadelphia businessman happens to need a place to… entertain his entourage of fresh-faced "interns" on short notice.
The list goes on.
We even have a semi-official (though unspoken) policy for situations like these: smile, be polite, shake hands, and—as long as nothing illegal is going on—look the other way. The formula is simple, and it works. At the Sheraton Hotel, our staff is fully trained in the lucrative side-business of secret-keeping. Don't ask questions; don't learn things you didn't know you didn't want to know.
Jasper has a secret. He's had one ever since the morning Emmett left. I don't know what it is, but I can tell by the way he looks at me now—or rather, by the way he looks away every time our eyes meet. I feel it every time he puts his arm around me and I can barely feel the weight of it on my shoulders, like he's trying not to touch me at all. I hear it in the silences between us that used to be comfortable, but are now filled with white noise, like television static. There's something he's trying to say, but the picture just won't focus.
When he enters the hotel lobby today I notice that he's walking slower than usual—limping more than he used to—and I find that I don't know whether this started this morning, or a day ago, or a week ago. And suddenly I'm tired of all the secrets. I grab my stuff and walk around the desk to meet him, determined to ask him what's going on. But before I can open my mouth, he puts his arm around my shoulders and lightly pulls me against his side, his fingers as light as air as they brush against my face.
I smile halfheartedly up at him and take his hand.
We both look away.
Easter is the last of the holidays I don't remember.
Technically, I guess, I should remember Easter. The media sure had a field day with it last year. I was the Easter Miracle—resurrected, brought back from the dead on Easter Day. But I remember none of it. Drugs and pain make things like dates and holidays and miracles irrelevant.
So this is my first Easter.
I spend the day at work, and almost every single person who checks in makes some comment about how tragic it is that I have to work on a holiday. I want to tell them that I think it's tragic they're spending the holiday in a hotel, but instead I smile and hand them their room key and the key to their mini bar. During my down time I put in an order with our vendor for a double shipment of alcohol, knowing that we'll probably be a little short come tomorrow morning.
Jasper picks me up at 5:00. We have ham sandwiches for dinner because I don't feel like cooking a real meal. After dinner, I watch Easter Parade on TV while Jasper watches some basketball game through picture-in-picture. At 10:00, we both go to bed.
I wonder if I'll remember this Easter a year from now.
Rosalie sighs impatiently through the phone. "So what's the occasion?"
"No occasion," I answer, frowning as I look at dish sitting on the counter in front of me. "Are you sure this is right, Rose? It doesn't look right."
"C'mon, J—you're making dinner for the girl. There has to be some occasion. Anniversary? Or did you piss her off? I bet you pissed her off."
In fact, I did not piss Alice off—at least, not intentionally. But Rose is right: there is a reason I've suddenly decided to try my hand at cooking after twenty-one plus years of never making a single meal that didn't come packaged in a box. It was Alice's idea, really, though she doesn't know it yet. Her comment a few weeks ago about the first time she'd heard me through our shared hospital wall got me thinking about the first time we'd actually talked. Exact dates from my first few weeks in the hospital are difficult for me to remember, but after a lot of thought, I'd finally reached the conclusion that Alice had first talked to me a year ago today. Of course I'd been an ass to her—that was pretty much standard operating procedure back then. Still, I guess this is an anniversary of sorts, as well as my attempt at a terribly belated apology.
Damn Rosalie for being such a know-it-all.
"Honestly, Rose," I grumble, determined not to let her know that she's (at least partially) right, "there's no occasion. I just wanted to do something nice. Now can you help me or not?"
"I'm pretty sure I've been helping you for the past twenty minutes, Jasper."
"I know, but I'm telling you, something is missing. This really doesn't look right."
Rosalie must hear the hint of panic in my voice, because instead of pestering me further about the non-occasion, she laughs. "Relax, stupid, you probably just forgot the barbeque sauce."
Sure enough, I've forgotten the fucking barbeque sauce. Setting the phone down on the counter, I grab the bottle from the fridge and spread the contents out evenly over the meat. Mentally, I kick myself—again—for being so incompetent in the kitchen that the only meal I'm capable of preparing for my girlfriend is fucking meatloaf—and even then, I have to have my sister on the phone the whole time, guiding me through the process from beginning to end.
"Looks better now, doesn't it?" Rosalie says when I pick the phone back up.
I roll my eyes, but manage to keep most of the sarcasm out of my voice when I concede that she was right.
"Okay, so… it's ready to go now, right? That's it?"
"Well, you have to bake it," Rose answers, not even attempting to hide the sarcasm in her voice. "350 for an hour and fifteen minutes. Start checking it at about an hour though, to make sure it doesn't burn. You did preheat the oven, right?"
On instinct, I turn toward the oven, my eyes automatically landing on the dial—which is still securely set to 'off.' Admitting my less-than-stellar grasp of culinary knowledge to my sister is one thing; having a full-blown panic attack with her on the other line is another thing entirely. 350 for an hour and fifteen minutes. That's something I'll have to deal with on my own.
"Got it. Thanks for your help, Rosalie."
Again, she laughs. "No worries, J. Call me later and let me know if she forgives you."
If my heart weren't already racing in anticipation of what I'm about to do, I'd respond to her comment with an equal dose of snark. As it is, I simply fold the phone shut and toss it toward the kitchen table, hardly even registering the noise it makes when it misses its destination by a foot and clatters to the floor.
It takes me twenty minutes to work up the nerve to turn the dial to 350. Forty minutes later—shaking and sweating so hard that I can barely hold the pan in my hands—I finally get the thing in the oven. I swear to god, I'm damn near tears as I stand out on the balcony to escape the phantom smell of smoke, checking my watch compulsively every few seconds, not knowing whether I want time to speed up—so that all this can be over with—or slow down—so that I have more time before I have to go back inside. Of course, time passes as it always does—methodically, relentlessly—and at 4:05pm, summoning the very last bit of my will, I make my way into the kitchen and turn the oven off.
I wait until I'm absolutely sure that the oven has cooled before opening it and removing the food. I sniff at it tentatively, and, deciding that it smells edible, set to work wrapping it in tinfoil to keep it somewhat warm. I'm just putting the foil back in the drawer when I hear the front door open. Turning around, I see Alice closing the door behind her.
"What're you doing home?" I ask, nervously looking at the clock to make sure I haven't somehow missed the time I was meant to pick her up from work. 4:30—she's early.
"I didn't take lunch today, so I got off an hour early. I tried calling but…" she glances down at the kitchen floor. "What happened to your phone?"
I follow her gaze and see my cell lying in two distinct pieces: the battery completely separated from the rest of the phone. I shrug sheepishly. "I… guess it must've fallen."
Alice rolls her eyes and bends down to pick up the pieces of my phone, and for the first time, I notice the bags she's carrying in her hands. My heart sinks when I see the take-out Chinese food logo emblazoned onto the plastic.
"What's all that?" I ask warily.
"This is what I was calling about," Alice answers, placing the bags on the kitchen counter next to my food and then snapping the battery back into my phone. "I don't know why, but I really wanted some Orange Chicken, so I stopped by on the way home. But, I mean, if you've already gotten something else…"
She eyes the foil-wrapped meatloaf, her lips twitching into a poorly-disguised frown. I know I should just tell her that I've cooked for her. I want nothing more than to explain the whole elaborate story about how I called my sister, and how I freaked out, and how it was all so damn worth it because I was doing it for her. But I can't. Because, as ridiculously stupid as it sounds, this is the first time that Alice has expressed an interest in anything—even something as lame as orange chicken—in weeks. So… fuck it. Orange fucking Chicken it is.
"This'll keep," I say, picking up my dish and putting it in the refrigerator. She smiles—actually smiles—up at me, and then hands me my phone and walks the takeout bags over to the table.
"C'mon, let's eat. I'm starving."
"Hello, you have reached the Whitlock residence. We are unable to take your call at the moment, but please leave your name and number, and we will get back to you as soon as possible."
I wait for the compulsory beep, and then begin speaking. "Hey, mom, dad, Rose, Em—it's Jasper. I know it's Chip's birthday, and I was just calling to—"
A click on the other end of the line stops me mid-sentence. And then Rosalie's mocking, almost accusatory voice filters through the earpiece.
"So you did remember."
"Yes, Rose," I respond with an equal degree of sarcasm, realizing that she probably intentionally let my call go to voicemail just so she could gauge whether or not I knew what day it was. "I remembered. I even have some presents for him. I'll give 'em to you guys when you get out here."
"You hear that, kiddo?" Rosalie croons, clearly no longer speaking to me. "Your uncle Jasper got you some birthday presents."
Through the phone I hear the unmistakable sound of a child laughing, and it amazes me that I'm still shocked every time I receive a fresh reminder that my sister, my twin has a child. Idly I wonder if that will ever seem real.
"Evidently he thinks your name is funny," Rosalie explains. Mercifully, I manage to resist pointing out the obvious similarity between his name an mine—or the fact that Emmett has somehow convinced the entire family that 'Chip' is an appropriate nickname for anything other than a Rescue Ranger.
"So how did things go last night?" she continues. "You out of the doghouse yet? Did Alice like the food?
I grimace and shut my eyes. "I told you I didn't do anything wrong, Rosalie. And actually, we didn't end up eating what I made after all."
"Ah," she says, the mocking edge to her voice letting me know that I've chosen my words poorly, "so I guess things did go well, huh?"
I groan into the phone, my sex life (or current lack thereof) not being something I'm particularly thrilled to be discussing with my sister. Rosalie laughs.
"Sorry, J, couldn't resist. Anyway, listen—I gotta go. People are going to be arriving for the party soon, and I still have some setting up to do. So I guess I'll see you in a few days?"
"Mmhmm," I mutter, deciding that answering with my mouth shut is preferable to questioning the logic behind throwing a birthday party for a one-year-old.
"Thanks for calling, Jasper," she adds. In the background, I hear Chip laugh.
I smile despite myself, infected by my nephew's laughter at my expense. "No worries Rose. Tell everyone I said hi, and… I guess I'll see you guys soon."
The smile remains on my face even after I click my phone shut and slip it into my pocket. Of course I'm nervous about seeing my family again, but I'm also excited, relieved—glad to see this year of voluntary isolation finally coming to an end.
Of course, my good mood effectively ends when I look up and remember calling Rosalie had been a distraction from something I didn't especially want to do. But now that the call is over…
Crossing over to the kitchen counter, I pull a foil-wrapped container out of a grocery bag. I open the refrigerator and am pleased to find that this store-bought meal is roughly the same size and shape as the pan that holds the food I made last night. Without hesitating, I replace the meatloaf with the chicken enchiladas, and then unceremoniously drop my first homemade meal into the trashcan, Pyrex pan and all.
I take the elevator downstairs and throw everything in the dumpster outside, and then begin walking toward the Sheraton to pick Alice up from work.
He walks in the door and I kiss him because I can't remember the last time I heard him say, 'I love you.'
"Alice, what are you doing?" he says against my lips, only it sounds like, awace whtru don and I kiss him harder because all I can think about is how Emmett told me that Jasper thinks I'm made of glass, and maybe if I can just prove to him that he's wrong, everything will be okay again.
This time he kisses me back but his lips are angry and rough and I don't know whether it hurts or it feels good and honestly I don't care because at least it's something, and even anger can mean I love you. So I kiss him hard and he's bending down and I'm standing on my toes and still our mouths knock together clumsily, teeth clicking against teeth and lips and tongues because we're both fed up and there's too much space between us.
I grip the base of my shirt and yank it over my head and I feel more than hear him mouth the word 'wait' against my lips and every time he speaks it makes me want to scream. I grab his hands and put them on me and he tries to pull away and in my head I hear Emmett saying, made of glass, made of glass and so I press Jasper's hands into my skin until they finally begin to move on their own. Again it's angry, and against it hurts, but I feel, I feel, I feel and so I kiss him harder.
My mouth is sore and my body aches in all the places where he isn't touching me, and when I run my hand up the front of his jeans he groans. Without releasing his lips I hook my fingers through his belt loops and begin walking backward, pulling him with me.
"Alice, please, wait for a second," he mumbles just as my calves come in contact with the couch. But I don't listen, or I don't understand, or I don't care because I keep pulling him forward and it's only when we're both falling that I remember that there's a reason for Jasper's caution. But by then it's too late because my hand is already stinging from where it smacked something hard, my shoulder is already aching from hitting the armrest at full force, and Jasper is already doubled up at the other end of the couch clutching his arm and his knee alternately, like he doesn't know which one hurts more.
He doesn't look at me, and now I want to scream because he won't speak, and I can't speak because I'm too afraid of what I've done. Everything hurts and not in a good way and the room feels like it's spinning and I can't be here anymore. I leave my shirt on the floor and run half-naked into the bathroom where I shut and lock the door. I wrap a towel around my chest, and then sit down on the floor.
My reflection stares back at me from the mirror.
I turn off the light.
At first, I don't know what's woken me. But then I hear it again: two taps against the bathroom door. And then, Jasper's voice.
I lie there quietly, my face pressed against the tile, not sure whether or not I'm ready to speak. Jasper knocks again, his voice growing deeper, sterner.
"Alice, are you okay?"
And that breaks me. I scoff loudly, the sound ringing out as it ricochets around the bathroom. "Shouldn't I be asking you that question?"
Jasper snorts, and then I hear him sit down on the ground, the door rattling as he leans against it. Without thinking, I scramble up and mimic his position. We sit in silence for a long time. The door vibrates against my back whenever he breathes, and I feel closer to him in this moment than I have in weeks.
"You've been hiding things," I finally whisper.
There's a scratching noise against the door, and I imagine him shrugging. "So have you."
I drop my head. "I'm so tired," I admit, my voice echoing off the tile again and again, the word tired hanging lazily in the air. "And I don't want to do this right now—not with your parents and your sister and Emmett coming soon, I just… I need more time, Jasper. Please. I need more time."
He sighs, and the sound is frustration and relief together. "I know. It's okay."
And now that I'm listening, really listening to him, I hear the exhaustion in his voice. Because of me. He's hurt, he's worried, he's tired, all because of me.
I scoot forward and unlock the door, opening it inward. Jasper pushes himself back against the doorjamb, and then holds my shirt out to me. I quickly pull it over my head and discard the towel, and then tentatively move over to sit against Jasper's side.
"Let me see your finger," he says, already holding my right hand up to the light. He presses his thumb to the knuckle of my pointer finger, and I hiss at the unexpected pain. When he drops his hand, I'm surprised to see a small cut in my skin, a dark purple bruise already beginning to form around it.
"I don't think it's broken," he says calmly, relieved. "But you should probably ice it."
"How'd you know?" I ask, examining the wound I hadn't even realized I had until this moment. Jasper doesn't say anything, but when I look up into his face, I have my answer: his bottom lip is swollen, split down the center from where my hand smacked him when we fell. My heart clenches and my mouth hangs open; I can't even speak.
Jasper smirks and—unbelievably—bends down to kiss my head. "Trust me, Alice, I've had worse."
His "joke" is appalling, tasteless, stupid—and yet I laugh dryly anyway because it's all I can think to do. Jasper wraps both of his arms around me and rests his head on mine. I curl into him and hug my knees to my chest.
"Are you okay?" he asks again, his voice betraying that he already knows the answer.
"No. Are you?"
His arms hold me tighter, and I feel his head move against mine.
"I'm sorry, Edward, I…"
I lie awake, listening to the same somnolent monologue I've heard for the past twenty nights, waiting for my cue to enter.
"Tell mom I…"
"Tomorrow… I'm coming…"
I roll over and drape my arm around Alice's waist, pulling her against me, tucking her into my side. She clings to me tightly, her trembling finally starting to ease as she matches her breathing to mine.
"It's okay," I murmur, kissing the top of her head. "I'm here, it's okay. You're okay, Alice. I'm here."
And this is where the scene always ends: she falling back asleep in my arms, and I lying awake for the rest of the night, praying that tomorrow will be the day when I finally find something—the day when I can finally tell her something that's true.
Something that's real.