A/N: Twilight and related characters belong to SM, not me.
Sorry for the delay. Crazy summer. Thanks for the reviews and comments and various pimpings. That Bellie nom really flabbergasted me! Thanks for all the nominations and votes. I'm beyond grateful! Congratulations to all the wonderful winners. And super thanks to my beta, who not only makes me sound not stupid, but also made me an awesome banner over at Twilighted. You're the bestest of the restest and a real swell broad. Touchstone, too, of course. Thanks for reading!
Chapter 4: Mars In Anarchy
By the time I got home from the campus dorms, I only had one-and-a-half hours until my first class began, but I didn't want to go. This was the first day ever in which I seriously considered staying home, which was alarming in and of itself. I walked into my condo and darted my wild eyes around the expansive space. There was a Popular Mechanics magazine folded over the arm of the sofa, a day old glass of orange juice sitting beside the sink, and every inch of the floor seemed to be covered in grains of dirt. I'd never seen my apartment so filthy. God, it was repulsive. I could feel my skin crawling just being in the presence of such muck. I tore my jacket off, pushed my sleeves up to my elbows, and set to work.
This emotional meltdown would have to be expedited.
The extent of my cleaning was so unusually thorough that it took me some time to figure out where all of the detergents and cleaning supplies were even located. My mother had hired a local service to clean my apartment once a week, and it was rare that I had to anything beyond that of simple upkeep. But it wouldn't do to push this chore off to paid help. As I meticulously tackled every visibly soiled surface, I began finding dust and ancient grime that had been continuously neglected by the cleaning service. Disgusted, I scowled at the overlooked stains as I scrubbed them viciously.
It wasn't until I'd somehow managed to find myself scrubbing the tile of the kitchen floor that a memory came to me, like a slap against my cheek.
"Edward!" my father called to me from across the crowded room, waving his hand enthusiastically. There were easily fifty people between us, all dressed in formal tuxedos and evening gowns. The Masen Christmas party had always been an enormous production, and I fidgeted with my bowtie as I weaved through the crowd.
I hated bowties.
I regretted making such an early appearance as I sidled up to my father, all of the usual suspects congregated around him.
He slung his arm over my shoulder, gloating, "Edward, here, just returned from Europe. Tell them about your accolades, son."
Shifting awkwardly, I mumbled a brief summation of the graduate award I'd been given. It was in French, a well-known distinction chosen by the academy's headmaster for scholastic excellence. My father's eyes shone as I finished, and I had the feeling that he'd be inviting me to their famed "nightcap"—a privilege usually only bestowed upon Dr. Johnson's sixteen-year-old son, Trevor. Trevor said they let him sip Johnny Walker Blue as they discussed his plans for the coming semester.
"How about that, Charles? And only fourteen, nonetheless. What did you say your boy was up to these days?" My father looked pointedly to Andrew Kohler, who was sitting near the bar with his friends, likely attempting to swindle something alcoholic from the bartender.
Charles frowned briefly, but as was usual with him, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and his expression followed. "It's perfectly healthy for adolescents to have a period of indifference," he began explaining. Drs. Johnson, Chenowith, and Morgan all subtly rolled their eyes.
As he droned, my father nodded along, leaning down to my ear and scoffing, "Psychiatrists. That's all psychobabble for "Andrew's too lazy." I'd bet he'd finally touch his textbooks if they put them down his pants."
My howling laughter could be heard reverberating through the hall as my father chuckled softly beside me, looking innocently confused by my loud amusement. Ever since I'd returned home, he'd been unusually pleasant to me. Well, he wasn't usually unpleasant, but certainly not as outwardly friendly as he'd been.
Recovering, I apologized for my behavior and excused myself, accepting their congratulatory remarks with only a hint of smugness. Just as I turned, my elbow knocked into one of the servers' trays, sending hors d' oeuvres flying thorough the air, landing haphazardly onto the marbled floor.
My eyes widened in horror and embarrassment as everyone turned to me. It had been habit at the boarding school to pick up after myself, so I hastily apologized and bent to do so. I picked them up and sat them on the tray, taking the towel from the server and wiping the mess clean from the floor. He simply stared at me in something akin to shock as I busied myself with the task.
A large hand suddenly grasped my shoulder, gently pulling me up. I turned to see my father standing behind me, his brow quirked quizzically as I held two handfuls of the scattered hors d' oeuvres. For some reason, I felt the need to apologize as his eyes bore into mine, disappointment and remorse palpable in his stare. The disappointment I could comprehend, but the guilt was perplexing to me.
His lips tugged up into a rueful grin. "Don't waste those surgeon's hands, son," he said softly, almost apologetically. "Floor scrubbing is meant for paid help and women, preferably a combination of the two. Are you either?" Taking the food from my hands, he passed them off to the server, his dark eyes shifting to amusement as he turned to the spectators. "Or perhaps I should fetch you an apron and save myself eight years of Ivy League tuition?"
The sound of his friends' laughter was like a stab to my chest, my father patting my back as the server finished his duty.
For the rest of the evening, he still wore that heavy, guilty and sorrowed expression, staring into his drink thoughtfully while sparing me the occasional apologetic glance.
I never got invited to the nightcap.
The sponge made a sickening, slopping sound as I tossed it flatly onto the linoleum. I stood and stared down at the wet floor beneath my feet, partially clean. Now I felt filthy. My forearms itched, my teeth felt fuzzy, and my pores seemed to be begging for the relief of a good cleansing.
I left the cleaning supplies behind.
My skin stung as I scrubbed it under the scalding water of the shower head, my flesh turning a violent red. I lathered my hair three times, as if the shampoo might carry with it the feeling of Jasper's fingers as it washed away. I brought my toothbrush with me into the shower and cleansed my mouth with its rough bristles, distantly mourning my attempt to erase what had likely been one of the most electrifying experiences of my entire life.
I never thought my father to be particularly demeaning to paid service or women by suggesting these things. He was just a traditionalist, old fashioned. He'd taught me to respect women by opening their doors and pulling out their seats. "Treat them as if they were queens," he often said. He always taught me that the first place to properly kiss a woman while courting her was firstly on her hand, and lastly her forehead. As I got older and discussions regarding intimacy became unavoidable, he never used words like "intercourse" or "sex" or "penetration" but opted instead for trite terms like "lovemaking."
I scrubbed my face and neck most thoroughly, only ceasing for fear that my efforts might leave obvious marks—marks that would surely rouse suspicions. I scrubbed everywhere. There was really only one part of my body that didn't get my careful attention, and I left it intentionally untouched as I exited the shower.
I'd been wrong about one thing, however. I found it was painfully possible to look at myself in the mirror. Through the fogged reflection of myself, nothing about me looked any different, save for the color of my heavily scoured skin. That was really the worst part of the entire situation: I could still recognize myself.
The shine of the razor in my hand beckoned to clean my shameful slate and steal with it the memory of plush lips and heady breaths. After my rough stubble was gone, I'd have nothing but my own memories and Jasper himself to remind me of my wrongdoings. I could get through my day in a blissful denial. Every detail that had seared itself into each individual hair on my face—his cheek against mine, his fingernails against my scalp, my lips against his jaw, his thumbs in the hollows of my cheeks—it'd be as if it never existed.
All I had to do was shave it away.
I called the cleaning service before I left the condo, requesting an unscheduled appointment since I refused to scrub my kitchen floor. Then I walked out of the building and made my way toward campus, pretending as though this day was like any other.
To create disorder and entertain the notion that I might ever be able to relive the experience of kissing Jasper would be beyond selfish. I'd be disrupting so much more than my own expectations, toying with the path that I'd chosen. How could I willingly create this strife and still sleep at night? It was such a difficult concept to abandon, this image of a woman and the way in which I was always taught to court her. I wanted to treat a woman like a queen. I liked being a gentleman. I enjoyed opening doors for women and seeing their smiles. I loved the look of adoration on each of my past girlfriends' faces when I ended the night by kissing them on the forehead instead of plunging my tongue down their throats. One of the benefits of becoming a wealthy surgeon was the ability to lavish a woman with fine things. I longed to adorn her in jewels and provide her with a large house. I wanted to see the look on my mother's face when we announced our engagement and had our perfect fucking two-point-five kids. The face of this future wife was a blank to me, but I'd always been so positive she existed.
Unfortunately, the only real tangibility was the course sensation of sinister nostalgia. It rolled along my jaw and below my fingertips as I reached up to stroke the thickness of my sacred stubble.
Ben and Angela both sat in their seats, looking at me as if I had just asked them to debate the nature of infinite regress as it related to the existence of God or some such. I shifted uncomfortably as I chewed my sandwich, diverting my gaze and feeling as though I had some sort of mark carved into my forehead. Walking through the crowd of people and feeling as though they knew was quite bad enough. Add the scrutiny of my two acquaintances on top of that, and I was about three seconds from running back home.
"What?" I eventually asked, swallowing thickly.
Ben blinked a couple times before looking down at the silver ledger I'd given him. "Nothing," he replied, shrugging, though it certainly sounded like something.
Angela interjected then with a smile, "I think what Ben means is that… we're glad to help Jasper. Right, Benny?" As she said this, her leg jerked beneath the table, and then Ben hissed and winced.
"Thank you," I mumbled and got up to leave, gathering my bag and the last remaining recorder and ledger. I fumbled and nearly dropped them in my haste. I felt their eyes following me after I said my goodbye and left.
This task done, I headed to the north side of campus and began mentally preparing myself for my final encounter of the day. I had managed to get everyone on board to help Jasper so far. Eric had been rather easy. He agreed without much question or suspicion. Tyler was only slightly more difficult, appearing a bit anxious to undertake the seemingly mammoth responsibility I'd asked of him. And Angela and Ben were willing, but a little overwhelmed by my… diligence, but I refused to fuck this up or do it halfway. I needed it to be as if Jasper were here, in his every class.
Admittedly having been in a bit of a panic that afternoon, I'd gone to a local electronics store and purchased six top-of-the-line digital audio recorders. I'd quizzed the sales associate on the technology, eventually opting for something name-brand, compatible with both PC and Mac, and appallingly expensive. Price didn't matter to me one bit, and I gladly paid the one thousand dollars at checkout. On the way back to campus, I'd stopped at a local office supplies store and had purchased six ledgers, for the purpose of copying anything that might be shown by way of visual presentation. In fact, if I'd thought they would have allowed it at the time, I would have just bought six digital video recorders. (I wasn't very trusting in Tyler's artistic skills.) As it were, I'd eventually have audio from his every class, notes and problems taken from the boards, and would be able to grant Jasper as seamless a return back as humanly possible.
And this final obstacle wasn't going to get in the way of that, I reminded myself.
Once I reached my destination—the large, empty corridor of closed office doors and polished laminate flooring—I inhaled a nervous breath and searched for office five-oh-six. The sounds of my shoes and shallow breathing echoed through the hall, bouncing off the tall ceiling and dancing around me. One by one, I searched, my eyes scanning the name plates of the doors and finally halting on the one I sought. His name was engraved there, in fine lettering.
Professor Carlisle Cullen, PhD.
I didn't know anyone from this particular course of Jasper's. I'd gone through my very limited list of contacts around campus and had found none that took it. I was resigned to either asking random students—something that I wasn't particularly thrilled about—or just asking his professor outright.
I lifted my fist to the door and knocked quietly, though the sound still amplified loudly through the empty corridor. It only took a moment to hear his muffled and distant, "Come in."
I wrapped my hand around the knob and gently nudged it open, peeking my head in cautiously.
Dr. Cullen was behind a desk—or at least I assumed the desk existed under there somewhere—and appeared to be doing some kind of file organization. There was a row of boxes set across the far wall, labeled against it from A-to-Z with sheets of plain, white copy paper taped to their fronts and fluttering with intermittent shuffles. He was rolling between the boxes in his desk-chair, a pencil between his teeth as he dropped folders and papers into boxes. It looked as though he'd dressed down as soon as he'd entered his office. His jacket was thrown over the desk, and his crisp shirt was untucked from his slacks. He paused as I entered, swiveling the chair and pulling the pencil from his mouth. "If you're here for a transfer, I'm afraid the deadline passed last week," he informed, fingering through the stack of files that rested in his lap.
"No," I began, shifting awkwardly as I gestured to the items I held. "I'm here on behalf of one of your students—Jasper Hale," I hedged, uncertain that any professor could recall the name of his every student.
Slowly, his eyes rose to meet mine, his fingers stilling. "Jasper Hale," he repeated carefully, and I nodded.
"He's out of town for a family emergency, and I'm trying to get his lectures recorded…" I trailed off into more of a questioning tone than a request, holding out the equipment with unsure motions.
Dr. Cullen's lips pulled up into a small grin. "You're Edward," he stated matter of factly, gathering the stack of papers in his lap and setting them aside.
My eyebrows pulled together as I tilted my head.
Seeming to sense my bewilderment, he explained, "Jasper called me this morning. Said you'd be taking care of that."
"Oh," I responded in surprise, shifting to one side. "I didn't know he'd be calling his professors," I worried. I'd chosen to utilize Jasper's classmates as opposed to contacting to his professors. But what if Jasper had contacted all of them? What if they were all expecting me?
Dr. Cullen's stormy blue eyes inspected my face carefully before assuring, "I'm certain I was the only one he contacted."
"I don't want to be any trouble," I lied, knowing well that I didn't care who I troubled so long as I completed my task.
"You're no trouble," he assured, then noticed my eyes scanning the row of boxes along the wall. "You'll have to excuse the state of my office," he smiled wryly, leaning back in his chair with a creak. "Usually, my wife would help me with my annual organization ritual, but she beat me in rock, paper, scissors this year." His eyes fell to the items in my hand, curious.
"Oh, I brought..." I quickly explained my failure of finding anyone in his class to record the lectures and was more pleased than necessary when Dr. Cullen offered to do so himself. Satisfied that my meticulous planning wouldn't be compromised, I gave him the same instruction I'd given everyone else that day.
"The recorder should hold enough for thirty-five hours in MP3 mode," and then I looked to him with a stern face, "It's already set to MP3, and I'd prefer it stay this way." After a minute widening of his eyes, I continued, "Please tag lectures accordingly, by date, time, and subject matter. You can email them to the address I added to the manual." Setting down the recorder, I lift the ledger, "I'd also greatly appreciate it if any visual presentations were copied here. You can label the pages by date and course, and cross reference them with the audio tagged recordings correspondingly—and please, no pencils."
After I set both items on his desk, I released an anxious sigh. It was doubtful that everyone would be able to follow my thorough orders. I resolved to check their work after receiving the recordings, prepared to redo anything myself if necessary.
Dr. Cullen's eyebrows were hiked far up on his forehead when I turned to him, his lips slightly parted as his eyes danced from mine to the recorder. I knew the look he wore rather well, as I'd already seen it from five different people that day… and for the bulk of my scholastic career.
It said, "Oh, he's one of those people…"
And I was. I was that kid who took a briefcase to debates in high school, wore suits, organized my writing utensils by type, color, and brand, and had three of every type of notepad.
"If it's too much work, I'm sure you can assign it to one of your more capable students," I suggested nervously.
His lips, finally closing, twitched for a moment before he replied, "I think I'm up for the task."
Relieved, I could feel the tension draining from my shoulders, though it returned soon after I realized that the entirety of my assignment was left in the hands of others. And then I recalled that Jasper had contacted his professor about this very thing, and I grew worried that he didn't trust me to fulfill my promise suitably. It really gnawed at my confidence.
"Uh…, Dr. Cullen?" I murmured, looking away and raking my nails across my scalp. "Why exactly would Jasper be calling you? I mean… was he concerned about this…" I trailed off, gesturing to the device on his desk and swallowing loudly.
I'd told him I'd handle it. Was he doubting me? Did he not want me to take care of these things?
For some reason, these questions mattered.
He pursed his lips for a moment, scrutinizing my anxious expression and pulling his brows together. Eventually, he replied, "In addition to being Jasper's professor, I'm also his counselor… of sorts."
Well, that was certainly a new development. I could feel a frown forming on my lips, attempting to understand why Jasper would need to be counseled by a professor of Abnormal Psychology, but I was coming up blank. Most disconcerting was that he hadn't said one word to me about any such thing. Had it been related to academics, I was certain he would have told me.
In fact, I couldn't comprehend why he'd need a counselor at all, when I'd always been a willing confidant. What did Dr. Cullen have that I lacked? A PhD? I inwardly scoffed at this, knowing that some crotchety, tweed-wearing professor couldn't ever be as good a friend as me—his peer. Still, it made something in the pit of my chest flare—similar to what I'd felt at the thought of Jasper having a girlfriend. I found my eyes searching his cluttered office, seeking some evidence that he'd grown closer to Jasper than me, and then I turned back to Dr. Cullen. "I wasn't aware he was having problems," I muttered, shoving my fists into my pockets to hide the curling of my fists.
He raised one sandy brow."No? It was only very recent," he explained as if I were missing something painfully obvious.
I could think of many things very recent that Jasper might seek counseling for, yet I convinced myself it was likely in regards to his father's condition. The other issue was simply too personal to discuss with a professor. Jasper wouldn't do that. Confident with my estimation, I nodded, but was surprised to hear him continue with a calculating stare, "In fact, I'm sure if you really considered it, maybe you'd be interested in something similar?" He said this cryptically, yet undeniably… knowingly.
I felt like the air had been forcefully pulled from my lungs in one swift motion. My knees buckled, and I staggered back a half a step, my pulse beginning a sudden and frenzied rhythm that made my chest constrict. In an attempt to recover from this total shock that must have made me shamefully fucking transparent, I raised my chin and asked stiffly, "Why would I need counseling?" and dared him with my narrowed—albeit terrified—eyes to expand on his suggestion.
The door, burning at my back, beckoned me to flee this air of suspicion created by his penetrating gaze. Jasper had told him something, and though I didn't know the specifics, I knew that Dr. Cullen knew quite enough.
How could he do this to me?
Seemingly unaware of my complete inner turmoil, Dr. Cullen pursed his lips, arranging his fingers into one of those arrogant fucking steeples as he regarded me. "Everything said in my office remains here, Mr. Masen," he declared coolly, as if he weren't questioning the rapidly fraying threads of my sanity.
"There's nothing to say," I persisted, already turning toward the door with rigid limbs and a fuzzy head.
His voice chimed as I turned the knob, though I didn't stop. "Well, the offer is always open."
That night, as I paced the floor of my newly scoured condo and considered the day's events, I began finding myself downright fucking furious with Jasper. His confessions to Dr. Cullen changed everything. When it was only him and me, the problem was sufficiently contained and easily rectifiable. Now there was a witness, however third-party he might be.
It wasn't that I thought Dr. Cullen would divulge the sordid details of our business to anyone. It was just the fact that someone outside of him and me knew about it. Another person knowing made it real, tangible, and petrifying. Before Dr. Cullen came into the picture the situation seemed clearer, but now… now it was impossibly more difficult to ignore. And obviously, short of murder and memory-erasing technology that was yet to exist, there was no undoing it.
It felt like one domino had fallen and knocked another down. I wondered if it would snowball, leaving me to watch the inevitable decimation of the structure and foundations of my life.
And then the phone rang.
I froze in the middle of my hallway, the shrill ringing persistent and grating. My fists clenched, jaw locked as I walked to the phone, the stomps of my socks against plush carpet masking my fury. Yanking the phone from its cradle, I pressed it to my ear, my nostrils flaring. "What?" I answered.
There was a hiss of a sigh, and then Jasper's quiet voice. "Hey, it's me."
"How is he?" I cut to the chase, entirely disinterested in discussing anything that wasn't directly related to the emergency at hand.
"Just got out of surgery," he yawned, the breath from his mouth muffling his words. "The surgeons say he did good. Only minor complications," his voice tightened, but he didn't elaborate. "He's in recovery now. We'll get to see him soon, I think."
Uncertain if he'd know what to expect when dealing with a post-op of this sort, I spent a brief moment explaining what he'd be experiencing. His father would be cold to the touch, even a little stiff. It would be alarming, seeing and feeling someone that was alive but seemed so dead. He remained silent as I gave him a walk-through, because even though I was pissed off, I knew I couldn't bear for him to go through something so awful without offering the comfort of my friendship and advice.
"Is Rose with you?" I finally asked, hoping that he wasn't alone with his mother, who was obviously in no condition to be leaned on.
"Yeah, she came down for the week, too," he assured with a sigh, and I could hear the fatigue in his voice.
"You should get some sleep soon. After you see him in recovery, he'll be out for the whole night. Same goes for the others," I suggested.
He hummed, a shifting from the other end of the line, scratchy and course like the stubble I'd refused to shave. "You don't have to worry," he assured in a soft voice.
I ground my teeth together to stop myself from saying that I really didn't. Because that would have been a lie, no matter how gratifying it might have felt to cause him hurt in the wake of his betrayal. Instead, I uttered a quick, "Good night, then," and prepared to hang up.
"Wait!" His voice halted my hand, even though I was in no mood to be polite anymore. At my silence, he questioned in a whisper, "What about… before? I thought maybe we could talk about this morning…"
I could discern the subtle degree of anxiety in his breath and pinched the bridge of my nose. Sliding my back down the wall with the phone clutched to my ear, I pleaded, "I don't want to do this over the phone." Really, I didn't want to do it at all...
After a moment, he muttered, "Right," but added in a quick whisper, "Just… could you answer one question for me? It'll bother me, and I won't be able to sleep… Please?"
Blowing out a breath, I relented through clenched teeth, "Fine."
Jasper's breaths were disrupted by footsteps on the other end and distant voices. Eventually, they subsided, and the phone was so silent that I was afraid—or relieved—that he'd hung up. Until I heard him ask in a breathy, strained voice, "Was it just… pity?"
I dropped the microphone away from my mouth, burying it into the skin of my neck as I thumped my head against the wall and huffed. All of my anger toward him dissolved into a pool of guilt that I'd chosen such an extremely crappy day to reciprocate. In truth, I couldn't even resent him for confiding in Dr. Cullen. Shit, I'd gone to a shady prostitute to work out all my shit. The only difference was, his method actually helped. But now that I couldn't be angry, I realized that I'd never even considered how it must have looked to him—having sworn already that I wasn't interested and then choosing his moment of vulnerability to confuse the shit out of him. I wanted to apologize and explain it as I listened to his shallow, nervous breathing through the receiver still pressed to my ear. But I was incapable. I couldn't even blame the phone for that. If we were face-to-face, I still doubted I could.
Instead I just lifted the microphone to my mouth, licked my traitorously longing lips, and breathed a "No," that resounded so loudly, I had to hang up before his intake of breath deafened me.
"Edward, this is.. um, Jasper. Well I guess you knew that—"
"Not to imply that no one else calls you or anything. I'm sure you get calls, or... whatever. Look, my dad woke up this morning. He was asking some nurse about sponge baths and getting my mom's signature eye roll, so I guess everything's as good as can be expected. Pretty drugged up, though. Not much for conversation or anything. So I hope school's going well."
"I kinda' miss Angel's actually. The shittiness of this hospital's cafeteria food would shock you. But... they have really good bread. Fresh. I think it must come from a local bakery. Can hospitals contract to local bakeries, or do they have use those big conglomerates or something? I don't know. Maybe I'll ask. Hey, remember that experiment freshman year on practical fermentation? God, that's so random. Sorry. Though, I could really use some liquor."
Another nervous chuckle.
"Well... um, I guess that's all I have to say. Well, for right now. Immediate present. There just isn't much news, is what I mean."
"I'll call you tomorrow, okay?"
"Uh, be safe."
I stared dumbly at my phone, the voice mail operator's voice instructing me to press "One to save, two to return to the main menu, or three to delete this message."
My finger lingered over the rubber "1" for a split second before I realized how fucking stupid it'd be to save a message like that. Pressing three, I dropped the phone and grabbed a beer from the fridge, a smile flirting at my lips as I recalled our freshman year Food Sciences project.
"You killed the yeast cell," I accused, narrowing my eyes into the conical flask.
"Did not." His expression was careful and focused, forearms rested on the lab table. The lights were low, it being so late into the evening that the janitor had already cleaned the lab and shut the lights off. We were being covert, even though we had permission to use the equipment at any hour. Our professor seemed to have a bit of a soft spot for us.
"How long has it been?" he groused, resting his cheek on his arm.
I rolled my eyes, reminding, "It takes more than six hours to ferment and distill." Not that I needed to explain the process to Jasper. He knew it as well, if not annoyingly better, than I did.
Sighing, he lifted his head, only to plunge his hand down into his large school bag. "Patience is a virtue, yadda yadda yadda..." He paused, emerging with a tall glass bottle, full of clear liquid. His lips grew into a bright grin. "Let's get drunk now."
My jaw went slack, back tensing as I darted my eyes to the lab door. "You smuggled liquor onto campus? Are you insane?"
His hair bobbed with an enthusiastic nod, eyes shining as he bounced the bottle from hand to hand.
"What if we get caught? Wait, how'd you even get it?" I wondered suspiciously. It wasn't exactly difficult to get a hold of alcohol on campus or anything, but it was far from being easy. Plus, it just seemed out of his character.
"I have connections," he shrugged.
"What kind of connections?"
"Of-age connections," he answered. I merely stared at him skeptically. Huffing, he finally admitted, "Whatever. There's a dude on campus who'll get it for anyone at markup."
This made me feel suddenly quite guilty. Jasper didn't have much spending cash, usually pilfering all kinds of supplies and condiments from the cafeteria and hording ridiculous things, like pennies and toilet paper. I'd always admire his ability to find creative ways in which to be thrifty and conservative. And now he had splurged, and I couldn't possibly refuse, though I would have preferred us being far, far away from campus while engaging in illegal activities.
My father would shit a brick if I got in trouble.
"How much markup?" I eventually asked, resigned.
He scoffed, recognizing my defeat and opening the shiny, silver cap of the bottle with a smile. "It doesn't matter."
"It matters to me," I insisted, reaching for my wallet to at least cover half.
His smile fell as he set the bottle onto the dull black surface of the table and leveled me with his firm stare. "Stop being a fucking killjoy and get drunk with me, okay?"
So I did.
In fact, I probably got a little too drunk. We spent two hours recognizing that a more intellectually stimulating experiment would have been in regards to Clostridium perfringens, but then we tried to pronounce it and spent an entire hour laughing at our attempts.
"Closs-stree-dee-ummm perffff—" I paused, watching Jasper double over in laughter, and laughing myself as consequence. Jasper was always infectious like that. It was impossible to be in a crappy mood if he was in a good mood, and impossible to be in a good mood if he was in a crappy mood. He held his stomach and his hair tumbled over his eyes as his body bounced. After our laughter had settled down enough to do so, I went about recording the temperature into our log, but reaching for the nearby pen proved difficult, given that I was seeing a fuzzy representation of two.
My hand knocked the large container of dry yeast, spilling the granulated substance over the lab table and onto the floor.
"Fuckshitdamnass," I cursed, inspecting the mess that Jasper merely chuckled at.
"Fuck it," he said, taking another drink from the bottle. "Leave it until later." And then he shrugged, waving his hand dismissively.
Grimacing, I followed the specifications of the procedure and tried to ignore the mess as Jasper had requested. Unfortunately, I could feel my eyes wandering to the pile of yeast and narrowing in response. It was bad enough that we were getting drunk in the lab room, and it didn't feel right to make a wreck of it, too.
Jasper watched me through glazed eyes as I sat stiffly in my stool, some of the powder resting on my thighs and making me uncomfortable. The dissolving exuberance made me realize how nauseous I felt and my stomach churned as I shifted awkwardly.
"Oh, fine," Jasper eventually muttered, jumping up from his seat and sweeping the powder into his hand.
"Let me," I happily insisted, immediately lurching up and quickly removing the powder onto a nearby paper. I licked my lips and dutifully righted the equipment, settling into my seat once done and feeling disturbingly better.
Jasper rolled his eyes, but a smile formed at the corner of his lips. "You're the only person I know that'll get ornery over a little spilled yeast," he observed, unmockingly.
And then we laughed at "spilled yeast," even though it wasn't really that funny. And then we laughed at the fact that Jasper had said "ornery" like some eighty-year-old woman. And the next week when we turned in our papers, we both got an "A."
And Jasper never asked me to leave anything untidy again.
Over the next week, Jasper never called when I was home. He knew my schedule well enough to always get my voice mail. I'd been relieved when I first noticed the pattern, unable to bear the inevitable awkwardness that would follow my admission that night. I could neither elaborate, confirm, nor deny my reasons for kissing him under the circumstances. Instead, Jasper left daily updates about his father on my voice mail, the ups and downs of his slow recovery, and obviously nervous rambles regarding hospital cafeteria food. It was almost amusing.
But then he'd end each message with this quiet little "Be safe," right before hanging up. Each time I heard it, it fluttered through the air like a dull moth, banging at my illuminated window pane. I'd stare dumbly at the phone before simply erasing it. The second time it happened, I figured it some weird, Texan thing, like "sweetheart," or "yonder." But the third time, I grew curious, and the fourth time I was convinced that he was setting a new precedent.
"Be safe?" I supposed to anyone else it wouldn't seem like anything but a simple farewell, but it wasn't. Jasper always ended phone calls with "Later," if he even said any farewell at all. So what the fuck did "Be safe" mean? I spent hours upon hours staring off into space and contemplating its meaning during my classes. Once, I'd even caught myself tracing the outlines of the phrase on the yellow margin of a legal pad. I had balled it up in my hand and thrown it away distractedly, trying desperately to pay attention to my priorities. But every evening when I'd come home and check my messages, it was there, as dependable as sunrise and laced with unspoken meaning.
On the sixth night since Jasper's departure, I listened to his latest message and eventually came to a satisfactory, yet alarming conclusion: "Be safe" was more than "Good bye," less than "I miss you," and existed somewhere between the spaces of "See you soon," and "Take care." It was also seemingly innocuous. Therefore, we'd left the bounds of normal, friendly etiquette and ventured into an obscure and experimental territory. I found myself impossibly more grateful that I didn't have to answer his calls and come up with my own stamp of parting. My palms grew clammy with the mere thought of it.
For most of the week, it was easier without him being there. I plunged back into my careful routine, and I could focus on Jasper through something easy and acceptable—school. I was able to obsess over my project in solitude, making calendars and charts to supplement the recordings and ledgers from Jasper's lectures. I nursed the assignment with such care that I had to remember to make time for my school work. It was much like taking on his entire course load in addition to my own. I got six emails per day, for which I organized separate, color-coded folders on my desktop computer for the various MP3 files. I listened to each to ensure quality, double-checked the tags and names, and fixed whatever anyone had fucked up. Sometimes it'd keep me up at night, because I'd lay in bed and wonder if I needed to personally advise Tyler on how to spell his own Professor's name correctly. It was utterly ridiculous how much work I put into a seemingly simple favor. Maybe it was the sudden influx of Psychology lectures I'd listened to over the week, but I wasn't entirely oblivious as to what I was doing. My diligent organization of Jasper's course work was the only acceptable method in which to show him... whatever it was I was felt.
I wanted it to be perfect, to please him when he returned, to gain some kind of rewarding praise. I wanted to see his lips grow into that dimpled smile when he realized that I'd carved out a little piece of my anal-retentiveness just to please him.
The most terrifying moment , however, was my realization that I would have acted this way long before he'd ever kissed me.
I watched as Dr. Cullen rifled through his top desk drawer, my head down while I chewed the inside of my cheek and waited for him to locate the voice recorder I'd given him eight days prior. Jasper had left me a message the previous night indicating that he'd be arriving home late this evening. His father was home and under his mother's capable care. His parents didn't want him to stay away from school for any longer than necessary and risk his scholarship.
"A-ha!" Dr. Cullen exclaimed jubilantly as his hand emerged with the black device grasped between his pale fingers. He looked to me with a goofy grin. "Thought it could hide from me," he kidded, placing it on the desktop and replacing the various items he'd removed from the drawer.
Then the room was uncomfortably silent.
I studied my toes and scratched at my jaw, thick with gruff that I hadn't shaved since—
"Did you need something else?" he asked, straightening his glasses on his nose. He propped his ankle on his knee and his chin on his fist, inspecting me carefully.
Clearing my throat, I let my eyes fall to a random poster on the wall and feigned interest as I wandered to it, stuffing the recorder and my fists into my jeans pockets. "I was pondering selfishness," I finally whispered, not meeting his questioning gaze,
The air in the room grew thick in that stifling way.
"Selfishness?" he asked in a low voice, as if the silence of the room was delicate and easily fractured.
Slowly, I nodded, my gaze piercing the picture—the silhouette of two female faces, appearing to be leaning in for a kiss. "Selfishness, people being selfish, wanting what they shouldn't, causing disorder as a result…" I trailed off just as quietly as he had spoken, peeking at him over my shoulder.
His back straightened infinitesimally. "Selfishness is that detestable vice which no one will forgive in others, and no one is without in himself."
I smiled wryly, palms sweating as I teased, "Henry Ward Beecher? Leave it to a psychologist to quote a hypocritical Congregationalist."
"Allegedly hypocritical," he corrected.
The room was silent once again and I swallowed as I looked back to the picture, commenting absently, "So, you're a big fan of black and white—"
"Edward," Dr. Cullen interrupted. "You didn't come here to ask about my taste in art."
I was thankful my face was hidden from his burning gaze as it melted into the most defeated expression. "You've talked to Jasper recently," I waged in a murmur, sparing him a furtive glance.
He shrugged, nodding. "He called me this morning, but that's not unusual."
My jaw suddenly clenched and my eyes scanned my side, finding a chair that I lowered myself into with a petulant plop. "He doesn't call when I'm home," I informed sourly, my nails digging into my palms.
Dr. Cullen, having leaned forward in interest since I planted my ass in his seat replied, "I may have advised him to that effect."
My eyes snapped to his, wide and incredulous. "Why in the hell would you do that?"
While the one-way communication had been relieving at first, eventually, I'd begun to wonder why he didn't want to talk to me. It had kept me up the night before, tossing beneath my blankets and scowling at the door, wondering if I'd given him the wrong answer or had acted like an asshole—which I probably had.
Cue dramatic over-reaction and a drag-ass day on nothing but two hours of sleep.
"He was nervous about his next conversation with you. It was bothering him a great deal," Dr. Cullen reasoned, unapologetic.
I quickly looked away, opting not to pry into the specifics of these conversations even though I ached to know their static whispers and hidden mumbles about me. I wasn't used to Jasper keeping secrets from me—about me. Dr. Cullen's argument was logical, of course. I was nervous too, and I didn't have a family emergency to consider like Jasper did. My shoulders slumped, and I dragged a palm over my face, rubbing at my eyes. "I don't know what he wants," I finally admitted into my palm. I met Dr. Cullen's gaze imploringly, and I'm certain he could see the plea in my stare. I needed guidance beyond that of an experienced hooker.
His face seemed to soften as he eased back, swiveling in his chair and replying, "I'm sure Jasper will be happy following your wishes." But then he asked the inevitable, "What do you want?"
Selfish, disgusting things.
I wanted his lips on my skin, and my fingers in his hair, and I wanted disgusting. I wanted disgusting to crawl inside of my mouth and nestle against my tongue and make my eyes roll back. I wanted to hear myself make that disgusting moan again, and then I wanted to make it louder, wanted to shove that moan down his fucking throat and pull it back up again so I could analyze and worship its tenor. I wanted to explode into a million effervescent bubbles, finally fizzle and shoot to the surface of that disgustingly divine sensation that I've been stuck living in the bottomless depths of. Most of all, I wanted the capability of describing my desires without the necessity of the word "disgusting." But I couldn't say these things. It was shameful, not only because I felt the desires, but because I thought them disgusting.
I answered Dr. Cullen, "Everything, nothing. I—I want... and yet I don't—or can't." My words, cluttered and stumbling forth clumsily, tainted my face with a deceiving red. My brow furrowed, and I found it physically difficult to verbalize anything regarding what I really wanted. I grew tired of attempting, eventually releasing a hissing sigh through my teeth. "What I want is impossible to reconcile..." I finally concluded.
Watching what must have looked like a bad case of verbal constipation, Dr. Cullen stared at me, puzzled. "Maybe a good start to reconciling is seeing both sides of the picture," he slowly nodded to the picture above my head. I shifted my gaze to the black, feminine blobs. "Rubin's Vase," he said, and when I focused on the center, it really was a vase.
Feeling as though I was still completely unprepared for Jasper's return, but completely annoyed at Dr. Cullen's vague counseling, I lifted myself from the chair with a huff. His eyes followed me across his office as I approached the door and muttered a glum farewell.
All Dr. Cullen could likely offer me were kind words about acceptance and trite quotes and optical illusions. He couldn't tell me how to stop wanting Jasper's mouth on mine. He couldn't explain why my actions would effect the lives of many, not just my own, and how that was even fair. He couldn't take away the fact that my surrender would be greedy and uncalled for and he couldn't help me decide if it was worth it.
He couldn't tell me why I found it so difficult to care anymore.
"Edward," he halted me with a patient voice and my shoulders ached from the tension of our meeting. I turned to him wearily, finding a small, sad grin stretched over his lips. "Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live."
"Oscar Wilde," I noted with a hollow chuckle, shaking my head. "So you're saying," I wondered aloud, "that I'd be more selfish to force Jasper to settle for my friendship than... giving him... more..." I gestured with my hand, unable to voice it aloud.
"That's only one possible view of a very big picture. I'm sure there are many, if you look hard enough," he answered, finally breaking my gaze and shuffling through a nearby stack of papers.
"Oscar Wilde was a self-proclaimed anarchist, you know." Not to mention jailed for sodomy...
He scoffed, citing, "Anarchy is the only slight glimmer of hope."
Growing annoyed with his continued quotations, and even more annoyed that I didn't know the source, I simply blinked at him, a silent question.
His smiled impishly, answering, "Mick Jagger."
After I arrived back home, I was still "me" when I looked in the mirror, albeit a visibly exhausted rendition of my features. I splashed water on my face and pondered selfishness, ignoring the trilling drip of water that penetrated my silent reflection and marred the elegance of soundlessness.
I'd never allowed myself to be selfish. My whole life was spent living up to an impossible ideal, following orders and expectations. I'd never had a problem with doing so because I figured, when the time came, it would be okay for me to indulge in any exorbitance I'd eventually desire. Every "A+" and award and word of praise was a deposit that went toward this concept of extravagance. It would make it alright, acceptable.
I hadn't expected to want to cash in on it so soon.
With a man.
My fingers gripped the curve of porcelain as I considered just... exploring. I was in college, after all, and isn't that what college is for? Part of me wanted to refuse even justifying it because I had earned my dividend of selfishness. Part of me hated that I even had to justify it at all. Part of me just wanted Jasper's fucking tongue in my mouth.
That part of me was rather erect.
And then I found that, when I allowed myself to really consider the possibility of allowing something more with Jasper—nights on my sofa spent making out and feeling his hair beneath my fingers, his lips covering mine, and our moans filling my apartment—it was the most excited I'd ever felt. My pulse raced, and my fingertips twitched to its rhythm, unwittingly counting down the seconds until I'd hear his fist against my door or his breath over the phone. It was the errant promise of something new and thrilling, like the last day of school before summer began. Yet it was also clandestine and intimate and the wrong of it just made it feel all the more appealing.
With one, gusty breath, I faced myself in the mirror and finally lifted the razor to my face, all lathered up in white and secrecy and memories of him. Then I put the blade to my skin and began cleaning the slate, severing the keepsake of our last kiss and watching the course hairs dance at the water's surface as I dipped and cleansed.
What good were memories unless I planned to make more?