The day after Emmett came home—for the second time—I worked later than usual and missed dinner. It happened once in a while, though I tried my best to avoid it. Even after I knew everyone would have already finished eating and retreated to the living room, I still watched the clock and fretted over each passing minute, anxious to get home and make up for lost time.
As I pulled into the garage, I caught a glimpse of Jasper huddled on the stone steps which led up the hill to the front walkway. I wondered what could be keeping him outside when everyone else must be in the warm house together. Was he waiting for me? Instead of closing the garage door once I was parked inside, I left it open and ventured outside to see what was up.
The night was frigid cold, and the sky was so clear that the stars shone like diamonds on black velvet. My breath froze in the air in front of me, and I could see Jasper's as well. Quite a lot of it, in fact, surrounding his head like a cloud of wispy white . . .
My heart sank as I drew closer and realized the truth. Like smoke.
"I thought you quit," I said, nodding toward the cigarette in his hand as I settled onto the step next to my foster son. I wasn't being accusatory; it was more that I realized he must be very agitated to have wanted a cigarette, and hoped he would confide in me. I had been so proud of Jasper when he decided he had to quit, and had been more than happy to supply him with nicotine patches, gradually cutting down the size of the patch a sliver at a time until his body caught up with his determination.
Jasper didn't look up. "It's one of Rose's," he said. Rosalie, following her brother's example as well as his constant nagging, had cut down on her smoking, but she still had one or two cigarettes a day. I felt that Jasper had quit largely to appease Esme and Alice, whereas Rose didn't lend the same weight to their feelings. "I tried to breathe and meditate a little, but it didn't help this time. So I took one out of her desk."
I made my voice light. "I guess if there's any time that called for a smoke, this would be it." I reached out slowly, intending to put my arm around his shoulders, but Jasper flinched away as violently as if I'd swung my fist at his face. The cigarette dropped from his hand and fizzled out in the leftover dusting of snow at his feet. Jasper stared at it wistfully, then reached down with a sigh to pick up the butt and place it in the glass ashtray perched on the stone ledge. Even though the twins were only allowed to smoke outside, we still insisted on ashtrays to contain the mess.
I tried again, and this time Jasper let me put my arm around him and pull him close. He even rested his forehead against my shoulder after a moment.
"What's on your mind, son?" I asked him gently.
He shrugged. "Lots of things."
"Does your hand hurt?"
"Not much. I took a pill a couple hours ago when Esme changed my bandage. It helped when I was doing the finger exercises. It mostly just . . . throbs. And itches." He scratched at the edge of the bandage, which was already starting to look ragged. Esme and I had been helping him change the dressing every morning and right before dinner, bathing the skin in saline and gently massaging it with antibiotic ointment as well as—at my wife's insistence—a blend of essential oils she'd put together. "How long before it's better?" Jasper asked.
"Not very long," I assured him. "We're taking good care of it, and a second-degree burn usually takes only about two to three weeks to heal. We'll get you in for some occupational therapy in a couple of days. Thank God it wasn't a really bad burn." I squeezed him closer to my side. "Though I'm sure it feels bad enough."
Jasper's fingertips protruded from the ends of his bandage, and I covered them with my own hand. It was so cold, and he had no gloves. I was surprised he'd even bothered to put on a jacket; sometimes Jasper forgot to take care of himself properly. I was never sure if he was just absentminded, or if he wanted everyone to think he was too tough to bother dressing warmly. Probably the latter, since he always made sure that Rose and Alice were dressed for the weather and harped on his sister about her eating habits. Maybe Jasper was so busy taking care of everyone else that he didn't have the energy left to look after his own needs.
"Are we ever going back to get the camping stuff?" Jasper asked me, sounding drowsy. We'd have to get inside soon, before he froze. Who knew how long he'd been sitting out here by himself?
I sighed. "I don't know. It's a long trip just to get it and come back. But we can't just leave it there littering the woods. I . . . We'll see how quickly Emmett starts to improve. Maybe we can have a family campout in the spring, when Bella and Emmett are better."
Jasper pulled away and looked at me in surprise. "You mean we're going camping again? After what happened?"
I tried to think how what I was about to say would sound to Jasper. I didn't want him to think I was dismissing what we'd been through like it was nothing. "I don't see why not. We can't let something that was a one-in-a-million chance anyway keep us from an activity we enjoy. And I will be buying a gun for when we camp," I said decisively. "I hate the idea of firearms, and I don't want one in the house, so it'll be in the safe deposit box until we need it. But I think having it along will give us all peace of mind."
Jasper looked away. I squeezed his arm. "Accidents happen, son. What matters is how we handle it when they do. Emmett probably would have died if not for your quick thinking." Jasper tilted his head as though he thought I was exaggerating, but his face flushed a bit at my words, and I think he was pleased.
"We'd better go in. You know Alice doesn't like it when you're outside without a leash."
Jasper had to laugh at that. He picked up his ashtray and stood, and together we went inside and submitted to a pat-down from the warden, who'd been perched impatiently on the stairs all the while. I picked up my girl and squeezed her so hard that she squeaked. Upstairs, I could smell my dinner waiting for me and hear Emmett shouting that 'quirm' was too a word and not to forget his double letter points.
I was home.
Esme and I had agreed that it was best to wait until the house was empty, or as empty as possible, before we sat down with Bella and told her about the phone call from Detective Yorkie. Whether her reaction was anger or tears, the fewer people in the house, the better. Emmett would be there, of course, and while Jasper technically should have been back at school already, he'd been so keyed up since the accident that it seemed cruel to make him sit still seven hours a day. By next Monday, we hoped to have everyone but Emmett back to a regular school schedule. But even if it meant we couldn't really be alone with her, we couldn't put off telling Bella our news any longer.
Even when I first went to wake her up in the morning, Bella looked like she hadn't slept in about a week. So after Alice, Rose, and Edward had left for school and we'd gotten the kitchen cleaned up, I asked Bella if she'd like to go back upstairs for a little nap. She nodded, looking very relieved, and I carried her upstairs and settled her into bed. I smiled at my girl as I tucked Alice's quilt around her and received a tentative smile in return.
But then she looked past me and saw Esme hovering in the doorway, and everything changed. Bella's body went completely rigid, and she stared down at her legs as my wife closed the door and walked over to stand beside the bed. Bella looked for all the world like an animal which had just spotted its most dangerous predator, and was hoping that if it stayed very, very still, the predator would forget it was there and pass on by. Both hands rested on the bed beside her as though she were bracing herself against the mattress.
Kids are smart, no question about it. Bella knew that Esme and I wouldn't both be in here with her unless it was something serious.
I sat down on the very edge of the bed and ran my fingers through Bella's hair, realizing with a pang of guilt that it had been a long time since I'd sat and talked to her or played with her hair. I talked to all the kids as I tucked them in at night, but only for a couple of minutes; with six of them, bedtime could easily turn into midnight if we let it. I'd meant to sit down alone with Bella and ask her how she was settling in, or if she had any questions for me, but somehow there just hadn't been any time lately. It would be no wonder if poor Bella assumed my coming in here automatically meant bad news, if I couldn't even show her some attention when everything was normal. I did manage to notice that Bella's hair was much sleeker and softer than it had been before the camping trip. Alice must have treated it for her over the weekend. But I'd barely touched her before Bella jerked her head away from my hand and turned her face towards the wall.
I frowned, but her behavior wasn't surprising. She obviously knew something was wrong, so I wasn't about to drag it out and let her worry herself sick. "Bella, sweetie, I'm afraid we have some bad news, and it's not going to be easy for you to hear," I began.
"What do you care if it's easy?" she said, stunning me with the raw hate in her voice.
I moved so I was sitting solidly on the bed and tried to pull Bella onto my lap. Esme, meanwhile, sat down cross-legged facing us. But Bella didn't want to be held.
"No!" she shouted, pushing back against me. "Don't you touch me! Don't you dare touch me ever again!"
"Sweetie, what's wrong?" I asked. "I just want to talk to you."
"I HATE YOU!" she screeched, and my ears rang from the force of it. "I fucking hate your fucking guts!" With each word, Bella pounded her little fists against my chest with surprising force. I tried to stop her, to hold her arms still, but she was flailing too wildly for me to get a grip on them. Finally I just reached out and pulled her whole body against mine, crushing her in a hug which left her little wiggle room.
Over Bella's shoulder I saw the door open a crack and Jasper's face peering around the doorframe, his eyes wide and panicked. I mimed drinking from a glass and hoped he would understand. I didn't want Bella to know she had an audience. I wished I had thought to warn the boys before we went upstairs, but who could have seen this coming? We hadn't even told Bella our news yet, and already she was acting as though the world was ending. Jasper disappeared even as Bella let out another shriek into the front of my shirt and tried once again to wriggle free.
"Stop it, Bella. Stop it right this minute," I said, trying not to let my voice tremble. My heart was pounding in my chest, and one look at Esme's horrified expression told me she was as bewildered as I was. "What in the world is the matter with you?"
"You c-came in here to tell me I have to leave, and I fucking hate you! Why did you bring me here? Why did you let me see your beautiful house and eat your food and tell me about how we'd go camping and fishing and work in the garden together? Why didn't you just leave me alone?" Bella sobbed into my chest.
"Bella!" Esme cried, but I cut her off.
"We didn't come in here because you're in any trouble, Bella. We came to talk to you about James," I said quickly. Here I had been thinking that our news would be the hardest thing we would have to tell Bella, ever, and all the while she'd been imagining something far worse.
I wasn't hopeful at this point that anything I said was actually going to get through to Bella in her hysteria, but she stilled in my arms, and her muffled wails cut off abruptly, although she continued to gasp and sniffle and literally wrack with nervous energy. For a moment I thought she wasn't going to say anything, but then the reply came: "I don't believe you."
"It's true, sweetie," Esme said softly, a definite tremor in her voice.
"What about James, then?" she asked suspiciously. "Did they find him? Is he in jail?"
I hugged Bella tighter and glanced at Esme, who was still white as a sheet, nervously twisting the edge of Bella's blanket in her hands.
"He passed away, Bella," she whispered. "He's gone."
Bella shook her head furiously. "No. You're lying."
"It's true," I murmured into her hair. "Detective Yorkie called the other day, but Esme and I wanted to tell you together, so we waited until Emmett came back home and the others went back to school. It's why I haven't left for work yet. I'm sorry, sweetie."
"How? He's only eighteen. People don't die that young."
"There was a fire at a ballet studio in Seattle, and he was trapped inside. They're still investigating, but since his stepmother is part owner of the studio, and since they found traces of accelerant, it looks an awful lot like she was trying to destroy it in order to collect the insurance, and bribed or threatened James into setting the actual fire. Either that or he burned it down for revenge. Detective Yorkie spoke with the Seattle detective in charge of the investigation, and those are the theories at this point."
Meanwhile the door inched open and Jasper crept into the room holding a big plastic tumbler of water. I tapped the bedside table and he came over and set down the cup, then stood playing with the edge of his sleeve, staring at the back of Bella's head. Bella herself seemed unaware of his presence. I mouthed "It's okay" even though I wasn't sure it would be okay—all I knew was that Jasper had done all he could bringing in some water. The rest was up to us.
"I didn't want him to die. I really didn't," Bella choked out as Jasper reluctantly retreated to the hallway.
"Of course you didn't," I said, in what I hoped was a soothing voice.
"But if you're feeling some relief, that's normal too," Esme put in. "He hurt you very badly, and now you never have to see him again. I don't think any reasonable person wouldn't feel at least a little relieved at that."
"I feel safer knowing he's gone," Bella whispered, sounding as though she thought she was admitting something scandalous. "Does that make me a bad person?"
"No, baby girl," Esme assured her. "It doesn't. If he were still alive, you'd spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder or wondering if he was out there hurting someone else. And that's a burden that doesn't belong on your shoulders. Only someone who's never been afraid of another person in their life would blame you for feeling relief."
If there was one person who could be counted on to understand how Bella was feeling right now, and what she needed to hear, it was my sensitive wife. She couldn't have missed the parallel between this discussion and the one she and I had had after the death of her first husband. I'd said the same things to her then that she was saying to Bella now. And it seemed to be exactly what Bella needed to hear. Already she was sitting up straighter and wiping away her tears with her hands.
"Here, sweetie. Drink this," I said, handing her the cup of water Jasper had left on the nightstand. "You'll feel much better." Bella didn't seem to care where the cup had come from; she took it from me and drank it down in about five seconds.
"Now . . ." I said, once the contents of the cup had been drained, "would you mind elaborating on the . . . complete and utter meltdown that just occurred?"
Bella's pale face flushed scarlet and she ducked her head so it was almost parallel to the bed. I tried to be gentle when I lifted her chin back up, but Bella pulled away from me.
"You both came in together. What was I supposed to think?" she snapped, the hostility from before returning in full force. "You came and stood over me when you know I can't run away. I know you don't want me anymore. You waited until you got me alone with almost everyone else out of the house so they couldn't hear me cry when you told me I had to leave."
I sighed. "Bella, I thought we'd been over this. You are not leaving this house. I told you — "
Bella cut me off. "That was before the camping trip," she said miserably, scrubbing at her face with her sleeve. "Before you had Emmett and Jasper to take care of, and before my check was late, and before I took the food. She said she was sending me back to Seattle." Bella jerked her head to the side slightly, not really aiming very well at Esme though it was obvious that was her intention.
"Bella!" Esme gasped, horrified. "I never said such a thing! What in the world are you talking about?"
"You were on the phone with Charlotte, and you said you couldn't handle it all, and you'd drive me back to Seattle if you had to but they should have been on top of it."
Though I had not been privy to that exact discussion, I had a fairly good idea what it had been regarding and how my wife was about to respond to Bella's accusation. Still, I couldn't help but cringe at the thought that Bella had overheard those exact words, provided she was remembering them accurately. I could completely understand how easily it could all be misinterpreted.
"Isabella Swan, I did not say I was bringing you back to Seattle to live," Esme said sternly. "What I was talking about was finding you a counselor. The state only has two approved counselors on their list for Forks other than the ones the rest of the kids see, and neither of them are taking new patients. There are a few in Port Angeles, but one of them has scaled back her practice and mostly does phone sessions. Another is my counselor and I feel like that would be unfair to you. The third one is a male, and I was going to ask you if you felt comfortable with a male therapist. If I have to drive you to Seattle, I will, but I felt like they could have given us more options. That's what you heard. And jumped to entirely the wrong conclusion."
"But you screamed at me and called me a thief."
Esme opened her mouth to answer, but I frowned at her and shook my head. "When did this happen, Bella?"
"Saturday. Alice found some food under my bed. I did not steal it!" she insisted. "It was left over from dinner and it was going in the garbage! But Alice tattled and she said she fed me plenty and I didn't need to steal. It's exactly the same thing. You said I could have any food I wanted in this house, and she said I was stealing."
Now, if there's one thing parents learn very quickly, it's that children can and will lie with dexterity in order to play one parent, or teacher, or even babysitter against the other. I suppose it's largely a defense mechanism, since children are often not believed even when they're telling the truth. It can sometimes be next to impossible to tell the truth from the lies. But one look at Esme's expression and I knew Bella's story was at least based in truth. And I felt furious.
Esme and I disagreed sometimes when it came to how best to raise our ever-growing family, but never to the point where we couldn't see each other's point of view on something. Esme knew damn well how I was about food, and what had happened to make me that way—that I even, at thirty-three, still sometimes counted the jars in the pantry or compulsively checked the fridge just to reassure myself that we had plenty. She knew how strongly I felt that no one in this home should ever be denied food provided it wasn't junk food, or made to feel guilty for wanting it.
"Am I missing something? Was that all that happened?" I asked carefully. I would never want to be unfair to either Bella or my wife, but there were few things I could say that wouldn't sound like I was automatically siding with one or the other.
Esme spoke up. "Bella, I did not say that you were a thief. I said . . . I think what I said was that there's always plenty at mealtimes and you can have anything you want from the fridge, so why would you need to steal? And why would you, Bella? Have I ever said you couldn't have anything you wanted to eat? You're not supposed to have candy or junk, but it's not even like I've had to stop you from having any since you got here. What on earth were you doing hiding leftovers from dinner under the bed?" Esme's voice was rising, and I reached up to put my finger to my lips. Her getting upset would only make Bella more upset as a result.
"You were going to throw it away!" Bella cried, her voice breaking. "All that good food wasted. Do you know what I would have given for that food when I was sharing peanut-butter sandwiches with James, or when Janice Nylund labeled everything in the house with their name except the Cheerios and bread? And your kids just throw away, like, half their meals like it's nothing!"
Now, I felt, we were getting to the heart of the matter. "Baby, when you've been hungry, it's hard to see other people waste food," I said soothingly, resting my chin on her head. "But we don't throw it away wholesale here. There are always going to be bits left over from dinner. If you really feel that strongly about it, we can put the little bits in a container for you from now on, and you can have it for a snack the next day. In the fridge, not under the bed where it'll rot and attract bugs. But there's nothing to be done about it when someone doesn't finish their chicken leg and the rest goes in the garbage. That's just life. It's not healthy to keep eating once you're full."
"I just didn't want all that food wasted. I wasn't stealing. How is that stealing?" Bella moaned.
"'Steal' wasn't the right word, sweetie. I can see that now," Esme said, stroking Bella's cast foot. "I'm sorry I said that. If I'd had time to think, I wouldn't have. But . . . try to see where I'm coming from. I try very hard to make sure we all have plenty of healthy food, and then I see food being hoarded under the bed like I've been making you live on bread and water. It may not be stealing, but when you're allowed to eat mostly what you want and then you sneak some upstairs and hide it anyway, that's not normal behavior. You don't need to sneak. Not in this house."
"But Friday you were yelling about my check being late. So why would I feel safe taking food? You already complained I was costing too much."
"When did I ever say that? I don't remember anything like that happening on Friday. Or any other day, for that matter."
"You didn't say it. Carlisle did, but you didn't contradict him," Bella said, causing my stomach to clench. What could I have said? Her check had been late, and still was late, but that was to be expected. She'd only been with us for a month. The first check always took until quarter of never.
"Sweetie, what did I say, exactly? I don't remember, either, so that makes two of us," I said.
"You . . . I was going by your study to get to the bathroom. You said . . . I think it went, 'Bella will be twenty-five before we ever see a check from them, but when they say jump, we're supposed to ask how high.'"
I sighed. "Bella, I was very overwhelmed just then. Things were happening so fast, and there was so much to handle and so little cooperation from Douches . . . er, the state. I was sharing that with Esme so she could talk me through it. Something it wouldn't hurt you to learn how to do, I might add." I admit that I was feeling rather irritated with Bella right then. Was there nothing we could say or do that was not subject to misinterpretation and suspicion from her? Yet I knew I was being unfair even as I tried valiantly to squelch the annoyance.
"It's not my fault the check is late," Bella said in a small voice.
"Of course it isn't your fault!" I said quickly, giving her an extra-hard squeeze. "It's never your fault when these things happen. I would never think that. Sweetie, we'd take care of you for free if the system wasn't set up to provide us with a stipend. It's never about the money; we have plenty, thank goodness. But I'm sure you understand that when they're so cavalier about their own obligations but expect us to scramble to meet their ridiculous deadlines, we would get a little angry, no?"
"It's not about you. It could have been anyone's check, or something else that doesn't have to do with money. We've had them send us time-sensitive material that wasn't even posted until after the date it had to be back to them. Remember last winter with the ice storm?" I said to Esme over Bella's head.
Esme rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "They sent us a letter saying we needed to submit an expense report by a certain date," she said to Bella. "There'd just been a major ice storm and all government offices were closed for three days. Not only was the date at the top of the letter during that three-day period, but the due date was two days later, and we didn't even get it for another week. Presorted, no postmark, God only knows when it really was mailed. So not only did they lie about the date it was written, but even if they'd sent it on that date it still would have been too late."
"The system's a mess, Bella," I said. "It's a giant clusterf—well, it's a mess, we'll leave it at that. There's no way to fix it, and most of the time we just bite our tongues and deal. Sometimes we snap. I'm sorry, baby. It's not your fault."
Bella, who was unquestionably a mess of nerves by now, dissolved into tears again, crying and coughing so hard that I could barely make out what she was saying. All I managed to decipher was "wanted the curtains" and "sofa" and "soaking."
"What, love?" I murmured softly, rubbing Bella's back in a gentle circular motion. "What are you saying? Just settle down a bit and tell me."
It took a few moments before Bella was able to talk coherently, but she seemed to be responding to my voice, so I kept murmuring to her how much I loved her, over and over again. Esme, meanwhile, moved up the bed until we were each holding Bella from one side. When Alice came into our room sometimes after she'd had a nightmare, she said it made her feel safe when we held her between us, and she usually dropped right off to sleep soon afterward, confident in our ability to protect her. I could only hope that Bella would find that same comfort. And even though it took almost another ten minutes for her to settle, it seemed she had.
"I love the house," Bella finally said, sniffling. "I love the couches everywhere and the pretty curtains. It's always clean and warm. I didn't want to leeeeeeeeeeave." Her voice went up in pitch at the end until I was afraid we were going to end up right back where we'd started, and I moved quickly to calm her down.
"Shhhhh, of course you didn't," I murmured, holding her close. "Of course. It's a good home. A warm, safe—" I felt a pang of guilt as I thought of my bandaged sons. "Safe, happy home, and you're not leaving it, Bella, do you understand that?"
She only keened louder. I felt discouraged at first, wondering what I could say that might make her feel better, but then I started to think how long Bella must have been holding in these fears of abandonment. Coming to live with us hadn't magically erased years of uncertainty about her place in the world, and she'd spent a tortured week thinking she was going to be shipped back to Seattle any second, collecting more and more 'evidence' along the way to support that theory. She wasn't going to feel better until every last bit of that worked its way out of her somehow, either through tears or some kind of physical activity. And given her casted leg and still-tender ribs, tears it was.
"You know what I think?" I murmured to Bella. "I think someone needs a frozen drink and a long soak in the Jacuzzi." The idea came out of nowhere, but it made perfect sense. Bella needed something to soothe her shattered nerves, and what better way? Some candles, Esme's special bath oils, and a cold fruit drink would be just the ticket. And, of course, the nap she'd originally been promised.
"What about my leg?" Bella asked.
"You can prop it up on the edge of the Jacuzzi. The seat is high enough that you can do that." Never mind how Esme and I found that out. "You can relax in there for a while, and then you can take your nap before lunch."
By that time, I could have used a nap myself.
When I came downstairs a little later, Emmett and Jasper were sitting as still as statutes on one of the sofas. The TV was off, and Jasper's history book lay closed on the coffee table. Both boys looked at me warily as I walked into the room.
"Your sister's had a very rough morning," I said without preamble. "She's taking a bath, and then she might take a nap. When she does come downstairs, I need you to act like nothing's out of the ordinary. Just make sure you talk to her and let her feel safe."
"What happened, Dad?" Emmett asked.
I sighed. There really wasn't any point in keeping the news a secret, and it would help if they understood what led up to this. "The boy she was seeing before she came to live with us—the one who put her in the hospital—is dead. But," I added, seeing that Emmett was about to interrupt, "the real problem was that Bella thought we were about to throw her out. She misread a lot of signs this past week, and that's why the big explosion. So if you want to help her, and I know you will, you'll talk to her like normal and make her feel included. If you act weird, she's just going to go back to thinking it's almost over."
Jasper was staring down at his hands and picking at his bandage. I felt for him, knowing how scared he got whenever there was an argument in the house. Bella's meltdown had to have shattered his nerves to pieces. I gave his hair a tousle as I went by.
"It's okay, son. It was good of you to come and make sure Bella was safe." Scared as he must have been, Jasper's first thought had been to protect his foster sister, and that made me very proud. I think some of that must have been evident in my voice, because Jasper's shoulders, which had been hunched up around his ears, visibly relaxed, and he sat up a little straighter. "You're both good at being big brothers when you're not teasing the life out of the girls. So, do that today. Okay?"
Emmett nodded. "Sure, Dad. I hope she feels better after she wakes up."
I hoped so, too.
Bella stayed in the Jacuzzi for about forty-five minutes, and Esme reported that she was out like a light soon afterward. When I walked into the girls' bedroom an hour later to wake her up, Jasper was sitting on the edge of the bed and Bella was propped up against the pillows. I felt such a warm rush of pride and affection for my son as I saw that he had The Box open on the bed next to Bella.
The Box was a decorative storage container that Jasper had filled with small gifts — novelty pens, interesting stones he'd picked up when we went hiking together, a couple of Beanie Babies, and various trinkets of the Zen-Garden-in-a-Box variety. He added to it periodically and brought out The Box whenever Rosalie or Alice had a particularly bad day, letting them select one item from among the contents to cheer them up. He'd even offered it to Esme once, after he found her crying on the anniversary of the day we lost our baby son. As far as I knew, he'd only ever offered it to the girls, although that could simply have been because Edward and Emmett rarely have bad days. Now Jasper was including his newest sister in the tradition.
It was exactly this type of behavior from Jasper which made dealing with his occasional outbursts possible. I had said before that he wasn't a vicious boy, only scared and temperamental. He was far more sensitive to emotion than anyone I'd ever known, and I had come to understand that left unchecked, it tended to build up inside him until the tiniest incident could trigger an emotional flash flood. That was why I'd started him and Rose on tennis, and advised him to use the strenuous activity to vent his anger and fear. And it worked . . . when he was able to play regularly, which wasn't always the case. In fact, the incident with Kevin Meehan several weeks prior had followed a long string of days when something was always preventing Jasper from hitting the courts at the rec center.
I knew Jasper heard me coming up behind him because he turned his head slightly, so I didn't bother saying anything right away. I just came up so my hip was about level with his shoulder as he sat on the edge of the bed and reached out to pull him gently against my side.
Bella wasn't looking at me. Her attention seemed to be fixed on the tiny patterned box she held in her hand, but on closer inspection, I could see that her movements were unfocused and she was having trouble keeping the box steady.
"What you got there, sweetie?" I asked.
Bella turned the box around and flipped open the lid. Inside were two cloisonné balls with a white-flowered pattern. Baoding balls, good for stress relief and exercising the hands. "Good choice. I was actually going to get Jasper a set when his bandage comes off."
Bella picked up one of the balls and began rolling it against her palm. It chimed softly with each slight movement. "How come you're not at work?" she asked me.
I leaned over and tucked some stray bangs behind Bella's ear. "You're more important," I told her.
Far from being reassured, Bella seemed to grow more agitated by my response. "You can't miss work because of me! What if they fire you?" she said anxiously.
Jasper spoke up. "I'll take care of Bella. We'll be fine."
"They're not going to fire me, sweetie. Don't you worry one bit," I said soothingly. "If you're comfortable having Jasper look after you, I'll go in for the rest of the day, but if you need me, I'll stay." What I didn't say, and never would say out loud, was that I thought Bella might be afraid to stay here with Esme.
Bella looked at Jasper. I couldn't see his expression, but she must have found it reassuring, because Bella looked up at me and nodded. "I'm fine. I'm . . . I'm sorry I made such a fuss today," she added shyly. "I thought some pretty stupid things."
"Now you're being ridiculous," I chided her. "Your feelings aren't stupid. There's been a lot of . . . of miscommunication this week, and a lot of it could have been avoided if we'd just had time to talk more. You and I are going to sit down and catch up tomorrow, okay? So why don't you start thinking of things you need to ask me, and write them down if you're afraid you'll forget."
Bella nodded. "Okay."
I smiled at her and ruffled Jasper's hair. "Okay, then. I'll be back for dinner, I hope. I know you'll take care of my girl." That last part I directed at Jasper, and his expression was serious as he nodded at me. I wasn't exactly leaving on a quest fraught with danger and entrusting him with my firstborn, but Jasper would take his job as Bella's 'babysitter' as seriously as if that were truly the case. One more reason that I trusted him more than common sense indicated I probably should.
Thus reassured, I headed down the hall to change into my work clothes. In our bedroom, I found Esme curled up on the chaise lounge, sobbing into a throw pillow. My first instinct, of course, was to comfort my distraught wife, but then I remembered how badly she'd scared Bella and stubbornly refused to give in.
"I'm leaving for work now," I said evenly. "I should be home for dinner. Do you suppose you can make it that long without crippling anyone else's self-esteem?"
"Don't," Esme whispered.
I felt a twinge of guilt for harping like this when God knew I'd done my share of speaking before I thought. But I also resented having to feel guilty when Esme knew, then and now, that this was the one issue guaranteed to trigger me. I went far out of my way to avoid bringing memories of her first husband to the surface. Was it really so much to ask that she respect my stance on food?
I crossed the room to the closet and chose a suit from the clothes bar. "You honestly feel you handled that appropriately, then?" I said as I began to take off my sweats.
"You weren't there, Carlisle. You didn't see all those containers. After all we've tried to give her, she still had to sneak around and hide food from us. You can't imagine how that felt. It's like she was mocking how hard we try to give the kids a good home."
"Is that how you think of me?" I asked. "When I keep granola bars in the nightstand, or buy extra groceries when there's a sale, you feel like I'm insulting your cooking and saying you're a terrible wife?"
"God, Carlisle, I don't think that. I just . . . it would be different if it had been a few packaged snacks in her dresser." I watched Esme in the mirror as I put on my tie, saw her twisting her hands in the lace throw she'd knitted. "But she was hoarding leftover perishables like we were making her live on scraps. Like we count the food and the only way she can get enough is to steal."
"Well, you certainly showed her how silly that was, now didn't you?" I said caustically. "Jesus Christ, Esme. She's only a little girl. You could have been a little more patient."
"Aren't you just the perfect parent. The kids can always count on you to swoop in and save them from Stepmonster." Esme was obviously trying for the same level of sarcasm, but her voice trembled and it only came out sounding pathetic.
I sighed. "I never claimed to be perfect. I've made my share of mistakes, too. But when I found out how bad Bella felt about the Gameboy, I knew I'd have to work harder with her for a while. And she obviously has some serious fears around food that we're going to need to work on. Just realize that it's going to take a long time to earn her trust back."
"Thank you, Dr. Phil."
Disgusted, I grabbed my wallet and keys from the nightstand and strode out into the hallway, intending to say goodbye to the kids and then leave for work. But before I even reached the stairs, I turned back. I was still upset with my wife, but I couldn't leave it like this. Even if she was partly responsible for this argument, I loved her too much to let something like this strain our relationship.
The chaise was empty now, and the bathroom door was shut, light spilling out from the crack under the door. I stood undecided for a moment, hearing nothing but silence from inside the bathroom. I tapped lightly on the door, but there was no response.
"Esme, you know I'm more sensitive about food issues than anything else. I probably wouldn't have reacted like this if it were something else." I waited, then tried again. "I guess I can see why you felt Bella was saying you weren't taking care of her. It's hard for me to see it, but I can if I try. I think you can cut me some slack, too."
For a long moment, there was no reply, and I almost gave up and left. But then, very faintly, I heard Esme say, "Potato wedges tonight?"
I smiled. Esme's oven-baked potato wedges were one of my favorite recipes. It was her way of extending an olive branch, and I gladly took it. We would work through this. We always did.
"I love you," I said, half under my breath, wondering if she'd heard.
"I know. I love you, too."
"I love you more." And I did. I always would.