Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. Title song and lyrics used for chapter titles belong to Taylor Dayne. I hate that song. But it seemed to fit.
Love Will Lead You Back
"Dad." Something was horribly wrong; Edward had never called me at work before. My hand instinctively tightened on the telephone receiver, pressing it harder against my ear to block out the chatter from the nearby nurses' station. "Dad, you need to come home. Now. There's been an . . . an accident."
My son was not even attempting to conceal his panic, and I had to fight against letting my own voice mirror it. "I'm on my way," I promised, and the line abruptly went dead. I closed my eyes for a moment, still gripping the phone, praying that it would not turn out to be what I feared most of all.
An 'accident' in our family tended to have far more sinister implications than in most. While there was always the possibility, however slight, that I was mistaken, I was fairly certain no one had driven their car into a tree or fallen down a flight of stairs — if they had, I certainly would not have gotten a call at the hospital about it. None of them would need a hospital. Or me, for that matter, though I would be expected to listen to — and laugh over — the story later.
No, an 'accident' meant that one of us . . . slipped up. The only question on my mind was which one? In my heart I believed I already knew the answer, but would gladly have been proven wrong. And I was still holding out hope for some household tragedy rather than . . . that.
"Everything all right, Dr. Cullen?" One of the nurses, middle-aged yet still pretty in a matronly sort of way, had paused in her paperwork to stare at me curiously. Fortyish, with a teenage son, she always asked after my own children . . . and she remained the only female at the hospital under fifty who had not shown any romantic interest in me. It caused me no small amount of sorrow that she was often treated coldly by the other nurses; after her erstwhile husband broke her jaw and left arm, that audacious woman had the unmitigated temerity to file for divorce. Even yet, months after the need for campaign loyalties had ceased, she still wore her 'I Like Ike' button as if to prove to them — and the rest of the world — that she could choose a good man when necessary, and stand firm on the decision.
"I hope so, Nurse Saslow," I replied, giving her a winning smile that I hoped would reassure her as I hung up the telephone. This woman has always been one of my favorite co-workers — she has such a kind disposition, and like many who have been nurses for years, her intuitive skills have been honed until they almost cross over into the superhuman. Despite our mutual respect for each other, and despite the fact that I have been alive — or, rather, existed — just under three centuries, this nurse has twenty years on my physical age, and I cannot bring myself to call her 'Betty' no matter how many times she asks me to. "My son is not feeling very well, but I doubt it to be serious."
"Oh, poor little lamb," she clucked, just like the proverbial mother hen, and I had to hide a smile at the idea of any of my sons being described as 'lambs.' "My Benjy grumbles plenty about having to get up for school every day, but I'll wager your boy would trade places with him in two shakes of a duck's whiskers."
"He would indeed, ma'am. My wife tutors him, of course, and I personally would prefer to learn under those circumstances . . . but I imagine the grass is always greener elsewhere." I sighed as I slipped the chart I had been reading back into its slot on the wall. "Would you kindly inform Dr. Halstead that I have stepped out?"
"Of course, Doctor. Tell Jasper I hope he feels better soon."
"Thank you, and I will." As quickly as possible without inviting undue attention, I retrieved my car from the hospital parking garage and raced towards our house, ostensibly to care for my epileptic son, Jasper.
In our many discussions on the topic before moving here, we considered — and rejected — all manner of conditions that might explain why our middle boy could not be confined to the schoolroom, nor make more than a few token appearances outside our home. Edward, fresh out of medical school and eager to have something to show for those incalculable hours spent memorizing the ICD, was ready with any number of creative, multisyllabic, impossible suggestions like xeroderma pigmentosum and osteogenesis imperfecta. Perfect, even brilliant, in theory – particularly the former, which is really too close to the truth for comfort.
I, however, having seen more in one week of working at the hospital than Edward would in ten years of studying, understood that route to carry its own risk: curiosity. Those unfortunate enough to actually suffer from such maladies are not allowed to do so in private. Better than sixty years have passed since Joseph Merrick left this earth, but the public's thirst for sideshow freaks has not been satisfied in the least. The point is to avoid attention, not court it like those Queen for a Day radio contestants, who share their most intimate heartaches with complete strangers for a chance at earning the audience's vote of sympathy.
Finally, just before closing the sale on our little bungalow, it was decided that Jasper would, in addition to taking the surname 'Hale' and posing as Rosalie's twin brother, claim epilepsy as the reason for his rarely leaving the house. It worked like a charm — common enough not to label him some kind of freak, yet a reasonable explanation for why he could not sit under the fluorescent lights at school or visit too frequently the shopping centers or diners in the area.
As I wended my way impatiently home through the mid-town traffic, I reminded myself that we had been in this situation before, and would undoubtedly face it again . . . and again. There were contingency plans in place, and all that mattered was that the family stayed together. All true, and all somewhat comforting . . . yet still I cursed the imposed speed limits and the sluggish pace of the other drivers, in a huge hurry to reach the home that might not even be ours for more than a few hours. Twenty long, tedious minutes passed before I pulled into our garage, when I could have run the same distance in three.
It only required one quick look at their faces to know that neither Edward nor Esme had been the reason behind the frantic phone call. Yet the identical expressions of fear they wore destroyed any hope I had left that I had misunderstood Edward's message. Alice was seated on the davenport, cradling Jasper's head in her lap and gently, rhythmically stroking his hair. Jasper only stared blankly across the room at the fireplace, and did not stir even when I had taken several steps toward him.
"Jasper?" I asked uncertainly. "Look at me, son."
Jasper glanced up at my face, his crimson eyes pleading with me for only a moment before he slowly closed them. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
I shook my head, both to negate his apology and to clear my head. "It will be all right, son. Tell me what happened."
Jasper sat up reluctantly, and I noticed he kept his eyes averted. I could not help but feel grateful for this; it was truly disconcerting to see one of my family look that way. Jasper's hands — and I saw with a sickening start that they, too, were stained with blood — nervously played with the frayed edge of his trouser pocket. "I went out to hunt," my son began haltingly. "I went to those hills outside Glastonbury, the ones where we played baseball two months ago. I found — "
"You went hunting . . . by yourself?" I interrupted, incredulous. Surely he knows better than that?
"Yes, sir," he admitted.
I blew out a frustrated breath and waved my hand impatiently. "Go on."
"Um . . . so, I'd just found a deer and was ready to spring, but . . . then I smelled her. And, well . . ." Jasper shrugged helplessly. "I didn't really know what was happening until I'd already bitten her. And then it was too late."
Too late . . . "What did you do when you . . . became aware again?" I asked him, pinching the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. Our next steps were crucial if we wished to avoid suspicion, and for that I required every detail of the incident.
"I just — I panicked. I ran." Jasper's voice was thick with emotion. "I'm sor — I just didn't know what to do."
"I heard him once he got close to here," Edward picked up the story. I nodded; the high school was only about two miles from our house, and Edward, bored as he was with the soporific sophomore experience, frequently monitored his mother and brother at the home he longed for seven hours a day. "I waited until the end of that class, and Alice was already in the Buick by the time I got to the parking lot."
"The others are still at school?" I asked, and Edward answered in the affirmative. "All right. I — let me have a moment to think." He nodded, hearing my unspoken request for him to abstain from reading my thoughts as I tried to find a way out of our current crisis. I began to pace slowly in front of the fireplace, weighing the options.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jasper lie back down against Alice, and she resumed her gentle stroking of his hair. Edward wandered over to his piano, absently fingering the keys without letting any notes sound. I imagined that he was trying to brace himself for the impending separation — in the past, we had always left town immediately following a slip-up like this one, and the piano would hardly fit in any of the cars, even if Emmett got out and ran the whole way.
We were certainly able to do so — leave, that is — and on very short notice. It would only require a hurried phone call to the hospital, resigning my position due to one of several specific 'family emergencies' that I had practiced so often I could recite them without even a catch in my voice. Rosalie and Emmett would come home to find our cars packed with the barest necessities; they would quickly be apprised of the situation and given half an hour to fill their own suitcases. I checked my wristwatch; we could be on the road in less than three hours.
Yet as I paced, the rug beneath my shoes starting to blur as my thoughts took me elsewhere, I found that I was hesitant to start the process of cutting us off from this town, this home. Even as part of my mind screamed at me to leap into action, to pick up the telephone, at least, the calmer, more rational side of my brain protested that there might just be another option available.
Finally, I gave voice to my thoughts. "There have been times in the past when other vampires crossed our territory," I began, "and none of them were particularly careful about their . . . feeding habits. Always, however, the authorities determined the causes of the humans' deaths to be animal attacks. We could not help what others did, yet never did it endanger our positions. I see no reason why, provided the same conclusion is reached in regard to the woman, we cannot stay here the same way we would if others of our kind had been hunting on their way through."
Edward was not convinced. "But how can we know, until they come knocking? And for that matter, how can we be sure anyone will find the body? If I'm thinking of the right place, that field is absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It could be months before they find her!"
"There will undoubtedly be search parties, and one of them is bound to come . . . Jasper," I said, switching gears rapidly, "was there not a stream nearby? I seem to remember Alice losing the baseball there."
"Yes, sir." Jasper barely moved his lips while answering me, and his eyes remained closed.
"We will go there right now and move her body into the water," I said decidedly. "Hopefully, that will give the police a reasonable explanation as to why her blood is drained. Edward?"
Edward was already halfway to the door. Jasper made as if to disentangle himself from Alice's hold once again, but I stopped him. "Jasper, you had better stay here at home. It would — "
"I'm not going to sit here while you two clean up my mess," Jasper interrupted woodenly. "It's my mistake, and I'll help fix it."
"You've done enough already," Edward spat. "God knows we don't need you jumping some other — "
"Edward!" I rarely raised my voice to any of them, but tormenting Jasper over an accident was crossing one of my few lines. "That was absolutely not necessary. We all make mistakes, and Jasper only wants to help us rectify this one. Jasper," I said, returning my attention to him as Edward sulked over his scolding, "I appreciate your sense of responsibility, but it really is something of a further risk. Having just tasted human blood, you are more susceptible than ever, and three of us together are more likely to be seen." Jasper was staring at his hands again, which caused me to notice afresh the dried blood. "Go and clean up, son, and . . . best burn the clothing. We will likely be back well within an hour."
"Do you think you can stay out of trouble until then?" Edward snidely asked his brother, seemingly unable to control his mouth even after being warned. A low growl rumbled in my throat even as Alice let out a hiss from her place on the couch, but it was to me only that Edward muttered an apology before slamming out of the house. Jasper, who hadn't said so much as a word in his own defense, was slowly making his way upstairs, most likely towards the bathroom. I sighed, filled with dread at the thought of compounding the situation with a family row. But there was nothing to do except follow Edward outside. One consistency of life — vampire or human — is that one's problems can always be shelved for a later time. I have certainly never seen any of them disappear for lack of prompt attention.
It was not hard, once we reached the general area, to track Jasper's scent and follow, as well, the residual odor of human blood. The woman — really, not much more than a girl, I noticed with intense regret — was lying crumpled next to a flat rock on which I spotted a battered Gothic romance novel and a paper bakery sack with dark grease stains around the bottom. Every few seconds, the breeze would blow back the cover and several pages of the book, making them rustle like birds' wings before gently falling back into place.
"We should get rid of those," Edward whispered, and I saw that he was avoiding looking at the body.
I shook my head. "No, son. Leave them lay — there is nothing suspicious about the items, and everything right now points to her being surprised by a predatory animal." I carefully hefted the frail woman-child and brought her body to the nearby stream, gently easing her into the churning water. As Edward surveyed the scene, looking for anything out of place, I closed the eyes of the girl who was uncomfortably near in age to my own daughters. They were green — close to the same color Edward's had been — and they held no accusation, only surprise and terror. Still, I felt better when they weren't staring at me, asking me why, and as I always do at the hospital when a patient is lost despite our best efforts, I pushed the grief and anguish to the back of my mind where it would not distract me from the task at hand.
By the time we reached home, Rosalie and Emmett had already returned from school, albeit slightly earlier than usual. "I didn't see Edward in shop," Emmett told me — shop classes at the small school were not separated by grade — "and Rose was supposed to talk to Alice after fifth period. We thought something must be up." He gave Jasper a sidelong glance. "Mom told us what happened."
"Edward and I have taken care of it," I assured Emmett, briefly summarizing our actions in the woods. Jasper, dressed in fresh clothes and with the traces of blood gone from his hands, stood mutely in the corner as he listened to me. Alice and Esme were not in the room, though I could hear them speaking in low tones upstairs. "And now," I finished tiredly, "we wait."
"Why can't we just bring it — her — somewhere else? Somewhere she won't ever be found?" Emmett asked. "Or cremate her, or something? That way we wouldn't have to worry about any of this."
"And what of her family?" I asked my 'eldest' son. "Do they not deserve closure? Are they to spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened, holding onto false hope that one day she will return? Were it Rosalie, would you be able to forgive the cowards who allowed you to suffer in order that their lives would be free of worry?"
Emmett hung his head, and I imagine he would have blushed, were he still human. "No, I wouldn't," he muttered, wrapping his arm around his mate and giving her a squeeze. "Sorry, Dad. I just don't . . . I just want it over."
I sighed. "I know that, Emmett. I wish it were over, as well. But we have done what we can, and all we can do now is pray that it ends the way it is supposed to."
"So we just have to sit here and wait for everything to come crashing down on us?" Edward asked, frustrated.
"Edward," I warned my son, who was glaring at Jasper and clenching his fists at his sides, "that is enough. A modicum of patience may save us having to move. I understand it is hard to sit still when you wish to run, but our whole life here is at stake."
Edward snarled and stormed out of the house; I watched as he crossed the backyard in two strides and disappeared into the forest beyond. As nervous as his absence made me at a time like this, it was probably for the best. Edward always went for a run when he was under any kind of stress, and I hoped that the exercise and solitude would serve to calm him down, as well as giving Jasper a much-needed break from his brother's calumny.
Time means something different when one is locked eternally in an ageless continuum of existence. Our routines, which can be tedious at the best of times, grated even more on the nerves for the weeks that followed as we focused on playing our roles to perfection. The children were suddenly more conscientious about their school attendance than was their wont, except for the two days when the sun decided to make an appearance. My hospital schedule remained the same, and other than reassuring Nurse Saslow that Jasper had simply suffered a worse-than-usual headache, I encountered no difficulties there.
Aileen Ricker's disappearance did rate the front page, even in our small-town paper fifty miles from where she lived, but only as a two-column spot story and photo below the fold. As no one had seen or heard from the missing woman since the night before her actual disappearance, most of the spot was devoted to a brief biography and a plea by her mother for her safe return. I was torn between wanting Jasper to read the story — in the hopes that it might drive the lesson home that she was a real person with a family and career who had paid for his overconfidence — and not wishing to torture my son with what was past fixing. My inner struggle became moot, however, when someone found it necessary to cut out the article and pin it to Jasper's bedroom door. Someone who quickly found himself grounded, I might add.
"That's not fair!" Edward protested hotly. "A whole week, just for being honest? Emmett got a spanking back in the winter for roughing up that idiot Markowicz at school. Jasper killed someone, and didn't even get a lecture!"
"What consequences Jasper faces are at my discretion, not yours, son," I replied evenly, keeping my temper in check. "And he will face them, once this is over. For now, perhaps a week without your music will serve to remind you that I will not tolerate deliberate cruelty merely because it is in response to what you see as a greater crime." The look Edward gave me could have frozen Hell over in a heartbeat, but he knew better than to argue, and settled his feelings by slamming just about every door in the house.
I did, in fact, have every intention of carrying out Jasper's punishment. Not for his accidental killing of Miss Ricker — it was an accident, and as far as I was concerned, he was already forgiven — but for hunting alone, and in an unfamiliar area. I kept putting off the dreaded task, however — I suppose I believed that it was premature to do so before the situation had been fully resolved. The point of the punishment would be to bring closure; with everything hinging on the finding of the body and the determination of the medical examiner, doing so now would prove a fruitless exercise.
When, about five weeks later, Aileen's body was finally found, that was only second-page news, overshadowed as it was by the signing of the armistice. Due to the heat, even the paltry New England version of it, and the fact that the body was partially submerged in running water, she had decomposed almost beyond immediate recognition. Had there been anything suspicious about her injuries, the evidence had long since been carried away by the stream and the rain that had fallen intermittently ever since.
We did not, of course, take delivery of the newspaper, feeling that the fewer people who approached our home, the better. While a sudden request for a subscription might not have raised any eyebrows, I preferred not to test that theory. There was always a paper or two lying around the hospital, however, and I had taken to arriving ten minutes early so as to peruse it quickly before starting work for the day. Each evening, my arrival home was heralded by six apprehensive faces, all waiting for me to say the word that would end their torturous anticipation once and for all.
As it turned out, I did not have to resort to subterfuge in obtaining a paper when that day finally came. Everyone was lining up for that Monday's front-page story about the long-anticipated end to the fighting in Korea. In fact, I was even able to leave work early that day, citing my need to share the happy news with my family. Which was not a lie, of course — I never did specify which happy news I would be sharing.
And, naturally, no one thought to ask.