I know this took a while, but my life has been so busy that I'm struggling to find enough time for writing and such. I've read and loved all your reviews. I endeavour to reply to as many as I can, but sometimes RL stuff just gets in the way. Anyway, I hope you like this chapter and feel free to leave me feedback if you wish. I adore you all who still keep up with this story.
** Thanks to tiffannyanne3 for betaing this chapter **.
Song: Mercy Me - Alkaline Trio
Chapter 22: The Tell
I liked Monday mornings. On that particular Monday, I woke up early, went for a long run that left the sweat pouring off me and then came back to clean my already perfectly neat apartment. Maybe it was dull, humdrum – but I always liked my routines. They gave purpose to my sometimes chaotic life. Of course, nothing was quite the same anymore, because there was Bella.
I muttered her name out loud, musing how sweet those two syllables sounded to me. The name meant beautiful – I didn't think there was a name that would suit her more. She'd taken my breath away that first night she walked into Phoenix, but as I'd gradually learned more about her, I'd grown to care for her in so many other ways.
Her presence had apparently been so soothing that I'd managed to have two nights of the best sleep I'd ever had. After a shower, I headed through to my bedroom to tidy up a bit. As I fluffed my pillows and straightened my comforter, I thought about Bella. I missed her. I'd only seen her yesterday, but there was already an ache in my chest from her absence. That was pretty pathetic, but it was true. I'd expected her to run away screaming or tell me she couldn't handle it right now. Well, actually - that was kind of a lie. From what I'd already experienced of Bella's personality, I knew her to be kind and compassionate. Still, that was a hell of a lot for anyone to process, especially in the early stages of the relationship.
I had to tell her, though. I knew if I didn't, I'd end up doing what I always did. Out of fear of the reaction when she eventually did find out, I'd become emotionally closed-off and distant around her until she or I eventually ended things. That was what had happened in the few attempts I'd made to form any meaningful relationships after I arrived in the UK all those years ago. Because I couldn't tell them, there was no chance of anything getting off the ground.
Telling Bella that I'd killed my little girl had been one of the hardest things I had ever done. I normally avoided directly thinking of Ava and what happened. It would usually result in hot, angry tears, drinking too much whiskey and occasionally breaking my possessions or punching the wall until my knuckles were lacerated to the point of agony. A sick form of punishing myself, I supposed. It made me wonder if I had any cause to judge Bella for what she did to herself. I'd been punishing myself for too long, but I didn't know how to stop it. I hoped that being with her was a step in the right direction – actually allowing myself to open up and be vulnerable with another human being. I'd laid all my ugliness out bare for her to see, and she hadn't run away. She just held me – and not in that half-hearted way that people sometimes do if you drop a bomb like that on them.
She really held me.
When I remembered her silently wrapping her arms round me, not saying a word or interrupting, just letting me know that she accepted me, I was deeply touched. She cared for me probably more than deserved, and I would put all my energy into not fucking this up. Bella was fragile enough as it was without me adding to her misery. In some ways I was, too – I just hid it better.
I abandoned the excessive tidying of my bedroom after a minute or two and headed out into the hall. As I passed the doors of the big closet, I suddenly stopped.
Was I ready?
As ready as I'd ever be, really. With a deep breath, I opened the doors and rummaged to the back of the closet for that little blue box I hadn't opened in at least three years. I took it through to the living room, sat down on the sofa and started to peel off the scotch tape wrapped round it with shaking hands. When I'd removed it all, my hand paused on the lid as I again wondered if it was the right time to open it. My heart was pounding, and not in the good way – the way that makes your blood feel like lead creeping through your veins, with every beat crashing loudly in your ears.
Prising the lid open, I wasn't at all surprised by what I found. I knew every item in that box like the back of my hand. There was a stack of photos of me, Alice, and Ava. My former family. I flicked through them, tracing the faces absent-mindedly. Strange how a camera can capture a moment in all its perfection, and even when that perfection has long passed, the evidence still remains. There were images of Alice in the hospital, looking exhausted but happy, my arms round her and our new baby girl. Then there were ones of trips to the park, me holding Ava while she splashed in the sea, tiny chubby legs kicking happily. And so many of Alice and I – beautiful, laughing Alice with her flowing hair and her kind brown eyes. I'd almost forgotten how she used to look at me, as if I was the only person in the world for her. It gave me a pang that I could barely remember these moments, and could only clearly recall their transformation into bitterness and hatred. Dropping the photos to the sofa, I delved further into the box, next finding a cast of tiny hand and footprints. I traced the outlines, remembering how I used to tickle Ava's tiny toes when I bathed her. She'd laugh and laugh, a sound I never got tired of. There used to be so much laughter and love in that house, and it hurt. I felt a real physical pain clenching in my chest, and my eyes were wet. I missed her so much, and wondered what she'd look like now. She'd be almost six, going to kindergarten and bringing home pictures she'd drawn and little projects for us to display around the house.
A quiet sob burst forth from me as I pulled the last item from the box: a miniscule pair of blue t-bar shoes. They were the first ones we'd bought for her, and she'd been so excited to have a pair of real shoes at last. She'd danced around the house in them way past her bedtime, resisting attempts from an amused Alice and I to get her to go to sleep. I held one tiny shoe in my palm, feeling how it barely weighed anything.
My eyes flickered around this room, with its sparse glass and chrome, its white furniture and walls. I normally liked the minimalist nature of my place, but right then it felt as if it had no warmth. The full-length mirror in the corner with its sharp, silvery edges seemed to be mocking me. I walked over and stared into its depths, and I hated facing the image that stared back at me. I was shaking like a fucking leaf, and I'd never felt less of a man than I did right then. I was a wreck. I don't know what possessed me to do it, but before I knew what was happening I'd hurled the shoe at the glass. The mirror cracked down the middle with a satisfying crunch, some small shards dropping to the carpet. I felt like punching it with my hand to shatter it even further, but I wasn't sure how I'd explain my cut hands to Bella, or Esme who I was supposed to be going round to see that afternoon. Bending down, I fished the shoe from the wreckage, brushing the mirror glass off it reverently as I placed it back in the box.
I opened the window as wide as it could go and lit a cigarette, leaning on the sill while I smoked it as if my life depended on it. Why had I thought I was ready for that? But then, as painful as it was, it had been momentarily pleasant to remind myself of the short time I had with my perfect little daughter, and the wife I'd once loved so much.
I'm so sorry, baby girl, I thought desperately, tears running down my face. Minutes later, I came to my senses and realised I was supposed to be at Esme's in a few minutes. Leaving the mess of broken mirror for later, I grabbed a jacket and banged out of the flat, wanting to get as far away from my wretched life as possible.
On my short walk to the bus stop, I managed to consume five cigarettes in quick succession. Given my mental state, it wasn't surprising, and I was strangely glad I wasn't seeing Bella later that day. I didn't want to make her worry for me on top of everything else she had to deal with. When I jumped off the bus in Hampstead just a few minutes later, I stopped and took a deep lungful of clear, fresh air. It was probably an illusion, as we were still very much in the city, and the air was just as full of crap and pollutants as elsewhere, but it felt cleaner here. High on the hills above the rest of London, the quiet streets and trees everywhere made Hampstead an incredibly peaceful place. Esme had stopped by my place for a quick coffee last week on her way to some wedding shop in Camden, but we hadn't properly hung out in a while.
With anyone else, I wouldn't have wanted them to see me in my current state, but with Esme I strangely didn't mind. I suppose that was because she already knew everything about me anyway, and nothing would really surprise her. Her calm, motherly presence was exactly what I needed right then. Walking the route I knew so well in a daze, I soon found myself outside the white house with its neatly kept window boxes. Esme must have glanced out the window and seen me, because the buzzer sounded instantly before I'd even reached for the intercom.
As soon as I opened the door, a small woman leapt on me and wrapped her arms round me – Esme, of course.
"Hey, hey," I laughed, drawing back to kiss her on the cheek. "Don't knock the wind out of me. Happy to see you too."
"I missed you, Jasper," she said with a cheerful smile, but it instantly slipped from her face when we stepped out of the darkness of the hall and she saw how I looked. "God, are you okay? What's happened?"
"I don't know if I can talk about it," I muttered in a strained tone, sinking into one of the chairs as I felt like I was about to collapse. Grief and anger were incredibly exhausting, and even though it was early afternoon, I was ready to drop.
Esme was remarkably businesslike, but it was what I needed just then. If she'd been gentle and affectionate would have probably made me break into a million pieces and had me sobbing into her neck.
"Right," she nodded, obvious concern showing on her face as she simultaneously tried to hide the extent of it. "You look like you could do with a drink. There's some vodka in the freezer."
"Absolutely," I said weakly, raising my head briefly from where I'd been resting it on the edge of the dining table. I closed my eyes for a second, trying to stop my head spinning and my heart beating like a bass drum.
"And how about something to eat?" she coaxed as she brought the drink over. I shook my head and took a large sip, grimacing as the clear liquid burned my throat. However, it had the desired effect – within a minute, I felt as if the edges of the shock and grief caused by that box of memories had softened. The pain dulled, leaving only the familiar ache within my chest that I was pretty used to. Esme just sat beside me, a soothing hand on my shoulder. She said nothing, just patiently waited for me to calm down. I drained the last of my vodka and sat up, blinking.
"Are you sure you won't have something to eat, Jazz?" she pressed gently, and at that exact moment, my stomach rumbled extremely loudly. I smiled weakly, remembering I hadn't eaten since breakfast, and that wasn't exactly helping my faint state.
"Something small would be great."
"I was just going to make some chicken quesadillas. How does that sound?"
"That sounds great, Esme," I told her, nodding. As she got up to make them, I caught hold of her wrist, causing her to turn around. "Hey," I added. "Thanks. Really. For being here."
She reached over and tucked a stray curl behind my ear. "Always."
She busily started chopping ingredients, and soon the air was thick with the smells of garlic, jalapeňos, and peppers. Despite the state I was in, I was starting to feel extremely hungry. Esme's cooking was always great and could tempt me even in the worst of moments.
"So how's everything with you?" I asked her, wanting to deflect attention away from myself.
"Busy!" she said with a laugh as she grated some cheese. "I'm doing extra hours at the library. One of my colleagues is sick, and we're really short staffed at the minute. I can always use the extra money, though."
"Well, you've got always got your rich doctor," I teased, and she tutted, amused though she was.
"Our mortgage payments are quite high, you know," she said, still laughing lightly to herself.
I watched her throw the ingredients together seamlessly, and after what seemed like only seconds, Esme placed a steaming plate in front of me. Taking a triangle, I bit into it. It was delicious – spicy and tangy with the peppers, onions and chicken, and the cheese was melted and gooey in the middle. Swallowing, I took another tentative bite, still not trusting my stomach to deal with food right then. Unexpectedly, though, it settled my stomach, soothing the churning that had built up within me all that morning. Before I knew it, I'd finished the entire plate and Esme was sitting beside me serenely, looking approving.
"I'm glad you ate something for once, Jasper. I worry about you sometimes." She put her hand on my arm, and all at once I knew that she was aware of why I was upset.
"Look, Esme, I-" I began, but she held up a hand to stop me.
"You don't have to talk about it, Jazz," she said softly, and I could see tears glistening beneath her eyelids. She took a large sip of her vodka, not even flinching as she swallowed back the acrid liquid.
"No," I replied firmly. "I do. I never fucking talk about it, which is probably part of the reason I'm in the state that I am now. The state I've existed in for years. Something about seeing Bella, I don't know – it's like she woke me up when I was dead and numb. Now I can feel everything again, and even though it hurts like hell, I know that it's right. That it's how I would have felt at the time if I hadn't suppressed it."
Esme leaned forward and buried her face in my hair, wrapping her arms round me. She knew me well enough not to say a thing just then. The woman was far smaller than me, yet her hugs were so enveloping and comforting. I was reminded of what a good mother I was sure she'd make, and how sad it was that she and Carlisle were unable to conceive.
When she drew back, she studied me curiously for a moment before she spoke.
"I think it's probably the healthiest thing you've ever done for yourself in a long time. Bella is wonderful, and she seems to understand you."
"She has her reasons," I said cryptically, wanting to explain how but not wanting to betray Bella's confidence at the same time.
"I know something terrible happened to her." Esme nodded. "But it's her story to tell, and if you can help each other, then I think that could be the best thing of all."
A low, constricted sigh escaped me as I was struck with the thought that Bella was really out of my league. What on earth does she want with someone like me, anyway? A divorced guy who killed his baby daughter in an accident? I had far too much baggage for the average woman. But then, Bella was far from the average woman. She understood the pain of loss so well, and not for the first time, I felt hope.
"Don't think that," Esme broke in sternly, tipping my chin up with her hand.
That damn woman. I could swear that Esme was a witch, given her uncanny ability to know just what I was thinking at any given time.
"I'm trying not to," I said, tugging at a lock of my messy hair just for something to do. She smoothed it fondly.
"I told Bella about Ava last night, you know." The words were a thick monotone as I wrenched them from my throat.
"I figured as much." A warm hand found mine in a sympathetic squeeze. "How did she take it?"
"Better than I deserved," I said shortly, swallowing back a sob. "It's me that hasn't taken it so well."
My heart pounding, I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out the same little shoe that had smashed the mirror glass only a short while earlier. I held it out to Esme and she took it from me gently, her expression softening. I watched the interplay of emotions across her face – the shadow of pity she immediately tried to hide, followed by sadness and a wistful expression.
"I think I need another drink, too," she said after a moment, and I saw her face had drained of colour. She poured us another couple of glasses of vodka with visibly shaking hands. I watched her knock hers back in a distinctly un-Esme way, and then it was my turn to be worried about her.
"I'm sorry," she said after a minute or two, her voice stronger. "Seeing that just brought it home for me how much has happened to you. And I know this sounds selfish, but it reminded me of the way things are for me. Do you know how many pairs of these little things I keep hidden in a little case under the bed?" She smiled sadly, her fingertips tracing the buckle of the tiny shoe reverently.
Poor, poor Esme. I really felt for her, and strangely enough, the fact that a person who was normally so together was letting their guard down around me comforted me. Made me feel less
pathetic, if that was even possible.
"Carlisle doesn't know I kept them from back when we were trying. Before I knew that the surgery I had years ago had affected my fertility," she went on. "It's not that he doesn't know I get upset from time to time, but we both try and stay positive. There's no hope of us ever having a child naturally, though. I'm...barren."
I shook my head. "Don't use that word. You were just unlucky. But whether it's your baby biologically or not, I know that someday you will be a great mom."
Though her face was tear-stained, she smiled that smile of hers that exuded warmth and contentment to anyone who saw it. "Thank you, Jasper. That means a lot, especially coming from you. On a more positive note, I've actually got something to tell you."
"What?" I asked, intrigued. Esme and I usually shared any important changes in our life, so it was a surprise to me if I hadn't know about whatever that was.
"We've decided to adopt. Carlisle and I started the application process a few weeks ago. We had a preliminary interview last week, and I think it went well, although you can't tell."
I squeezed her arm. "Of course it went well. I bet you impressed the hell out of them."
Esme tried to remain stony-faced, but there was a hint of a smile on her face.
"This is just the beginning, of course. Social workers will need to visit our home and observe us and check everything, and we'll have to provide more paperwork and references. I was actually going to ask...Jasper, would you-?"
"I'd be more than happy to," I cut in. "I just hope I can do you justice."
"You don't know how much I appreciate it. Thank you."
"We're a state, aren't we?" I said, and she giggled.
I clinked my glass against hers. "Cheers." We spent the next hour or so chatting and finishing the last of the quesadillas.
"Goodness, is that the time?" Esme remarked suddenly, hiccuping. She'd probably had a little more vodka than I had even. "I should probably make dinner or something."
"You're such a housewife," I teased, and she painfully flicked one of my knuckles.
"With that attitude, I might have to ask you to get out of my house," she said, raising an eyebrow.
"I think I actually will, if you don't mind. I should probably..."
"Call Bella and invite her over?" Esme smiled knowingly. "Go. Do it. She's what you need right now."
"She is," I agreed. And I knew Esme was right. There was nothing I needed more right then than Bella, the person who always made my demons slumber. "I have to work tonight, though," I added, making a face. "If I don't go in Pete will think I've gone AWOL."
"I guess you'll see her tomorrow or something."
"You're an amazing friend, you know," I said slowly. I wasn't prone to these kind of emotional statements with Esme. The close bond we shared was normally an unspoken thing, but I just wanted to tell her what she meant to me. "I sometimes don't know how I'd survive without you. There's nobody else who I can be a pathetic wreck with who won't judge me even a little."
"Sometimes I do judge just a little," she admitted. "But only when you do things like, oh, making a girl sleep on the couch."
I groaned. "I'm never going to live that down, am I?"
"Nope." She grinned. Esme Platt was a damn saint, that was certain. Sometimes, a good friend is all you need to put things in perspective. I cared for Bella, and she cared for me. Somehow, we'd work this out, even though I felt sick and hollow still from the emotional fallout of what I'd confessed. There was no way around it anymore. I was going to have to go through it, but Bella would be there beside me every step of the way.
Thanks for reading! xxx