7. House or Home

Graduation had come and gone, as had most of summer. While I'd certainly appreciated the standing ovation I got from what seemed like the entire civil servant population of Forks as I walked across the stage for my diploma, the one person I wanted to see in the bleachers was long gone. Having all the rest of the cops there did ease a little of that pain, though. Jasper couldn't make it, of course. The school he worked at was holding their graduation the same day, and Wes said he'd tried hard to arrange something, but apparently Jasper couldn't get out of it. That didn't matter so much to me anyway, though. It's not like I'd ever expected him to be around for anything, so his absence was just part of the plan.

Leaving Forks was harder than I expected. At first, I was actually kind of happy about it. Well, as happy as I could be under the circumstances. But I was certainly glad to be leaving the place where every look I got was filled with pity - or worse, uncertainty. I was tired of being treated like some freak, liable to break if someone laughed or said the wrong thing around me. And as much as I loved Wes, it was difficult living in a town where every sight was saddened with the memory of Dad. I certainly didn't want to forget him. I just wanted to forget how much it hurt to be without him. Of course, that all changed when I started packing.

I couldn't imagine living anywhere else. I'd never done it, and the idea of another house, another city was a bit terrifying. Forks was the only place I knew, the only place that truly knew me, and leaving it and everything familiar behind was suddenly the last thing I wanted to do. I tried to reason with myself, telling myself it was no different than what the rest of my now graduated class was doing, no different than what I would have been doing if Dad was still here and I was simply leaving for college. Just about everyone I knew from school was leaving for supposedly bigger and better things, only to visit again during holidays and such. Only it was different. They would all be coming home with stories about wild parties and crazy professors, maybe begging their parents for more spending money or a new car. Me? I was going home. To a home I'd never seen, filled with people I knew nothing about. There was no real coming back for me. Sure, I could visit, maybe, but it wasn't the same. Nothing was the same anymore.

"Bells, hon? You ready?" Wes asked, knocking on my partially open door.

"Um…yeah," I muttered, taking a last look around and trying to keep it together.

"Come on," he urged, smiling sadly. "If you forgot anything, I'll bring it to you myself. Besides, we have a going away present for you, so you gotta come outside."

I was tempted to start shoving things under the bed, important things like my driver's license and every pair of shoes I owned, just so that Wes would have to come see me soon. But that wouldn't be fair. He'd already done so much, and while I knew he wouldn't have it any other way, I also knew better than to burden him with any more than I already had. Besides, he'd promised to visit, and I knew he wouldn't let me down.

Jasper pulled up in a taxi…well, our little town's version of one anyway, as I stepped outside to get my present. Had I been able to, I would have laughed at him. I was pretty sure he never expected his taxi to be old Mr. Keppel's 1982 Ford station wagon. That thing was older than me, and it had definitely seen better years.

"Surprise!" a chorus of familiar voices yelled, and I looked away from my brother to see every last officer, the secretaries, and even a couple of the guys from the fire station standing around an old red pick-up truck.

"Couldn't send our girl off in the world without a way to get back," Wes said, squeezing my shoulder tightly.

"It's not much, but it's real safe," Miller added.

"And look here, sweetheart. It's got a brand new CD player. One of the good ones that you can plug an iPod into if you want."

It was all more than I could handle, and after hopping into the driver's seat and pumping the gas a couple of time to get the engine steady, I just fell apart. These people. They were my family, this was my home. And even though I was thrilled beyond words that I now had my own vehicle, I was crushed that I had to leave them.

"Oh, honey," Ms. Morgan said, pulling me into a hug through the open door, "this isn't the end. It's the beginning," she told me. "You're all grown up now, and we're so proud of you. So proud. You go out there and do great things."

"Hell, do some not so great things, Bells. We'll still be proud," Wes joked.

"Just nothing we gotta bail you outta jail for, okay?" Miller laughed.

"I don't know," Ramirez said, shaking his head. "I'd be pretty damned proud of her for that, too."

"And you don't worry about nothing, sweet girl," Wes said quietly, leaning in so only I could hear him. "You always got a place here."

When I was done hugging and sobbing and basically being a complete mess, I looked over to see Jasper standing awkwardly on the curb. He looked almost apologetic, and as mad as I was at him for taking me away, I couldn't be mad at him just then. It wasn't his fault the world had permanently changed for me.

The second we pulled into Jasper's driveway, we were surrounded. Some little kid came running out of Jasper's house, and three more people, adults this time, poured out of the house next door. It looked like I had a very unwelcome welcoming party.

I exited the truck cautiously, not liking the curious, pitying looks I was getting, and I grabbed my duffle bag from the back as I kept my head down. The boxes could wait, or these people could take care of them; I really didn't care. Between stopping for gas and snacks and taking two wrong exits thanks to Jasper's shitty job as co-navigator - not to mention a stop at the most crowded McDonald's on the planet - we'd been on the road for over five hours, and I was wiped out. I was, however, pretty impressed with my truck. It didn't look like it could survive a drive across town, but it had handled partway across the state without so much as a shudder.

"Bella, this is Alice," Jasper said, wrapping his arm around the waist of the tiny little thing that had come flying from his house. Oh, God, he's a pedophile. That was my first thought. She was freakishly small and didn't look to be a day past twelve years old. Well, unless you counted her boobs. They were definitely older than twelve. But what was up with her hair? It was…well, clearly she'd had a nasty run in with a weed whacker. But the worst part was that she was irritating. She talked non-stop, chattering about curtains and shelves and other ridiculous stuff until Jasper somehow managed to shut her up. Everyone else just kind of stood by and stared at me until we went inside. Yeah, that's not uncomfortable at all.

"So this is your room," Jasper said nervously after leading me into a bedroom at the back of the house. "Alice decorated," he added, "but if there's something you need or don't like or whatever, we can change it."

"No, no," I said, a little surprised at how much I actually liked it. "It's fine."

The room wasn't huge, but it was bigger than what I had at Wes's, and this one was actually designed to be a bedroom, not a study, meaning it had a real closet. It was surprisingly understated, considering Alice's hand in it, with warm browns, deep reds, and soft creams. The bed looked comfortable enough, and there were nice big windows, a desk, and a dresser with one of those little padded stools in front of it. Normally, I'd say that crap was too frilly for me, but there wasn't a flower, paisley pattern, or bit of lace anywhere. And there were some really roomy bookshelves all along one wall, which was definitely a plus, not to mention a fairly new TV.

"I…um…I remember how you like to read," he said, nodding toward the shelves.

Wow, so he remembered my name and my hobby. Yay for him. I walked over to the desk and set down my backpack.

"I wasn't sure if you had a computer. I have an old one you can use," he offered, "or we can get you a new one if you want."

"I have one," I replied, feeling my heart constrict a little. It was a refurb and a bit slow, but Dad had been so proud when he got it for me.

"Oh..." Jasper mumbled, sounding really unsure of himself. "Okay, well...oh!" He dug in his pocket for a second and came back out with a phone and keys. "Here's your house keys and cell phone."

"I don't need a phone," I said.

"You have one?"

"No, but...I just don't really need it." I was uncomfortable enough already. I knew he was my brother, and in most families this was the way things were done. People looked out for and took care of each other. But not ours. I felt like a charity case.

"Well, it's got free long distance," he explained. "You can call your friends back home all you want. And it'll come in handy if you need something."

"Sure," I conceded, reluctantly taking it from him.

"Alice programmed all our numbers in for you."

"All?" I asked. Two people hardly counted as "all."

"Mine, hers, Rose's, Emmett's, and Edward's," he clarified.

"Why would I need to call your neighbors?" I asked.

"They're not exactly neighbors. I mean, not just neighbors," he said, a weird inflection in his voice.

Not just neighbors? What the hell? "Dude, if you're all swingers together, I'm outta here," I said, staring him down.

His eyes just about popped right out of his head, and it was all I could do not to crack up laughing at him. "What? Fu- I mean, God, no! They're more like family."

And there went my mood. Nice of him to go off and make his own little family. I think I would have preferred the swingers.

He cleared his throat. "So, the bathroom is right next door," Jasper said. "It's the guest one, but hardly anyone uses it, so you can just fill it with all your stuff…or…well, I guess just make yourself at home."

"Yeah, sure," I replied. Considering this was my home now.

"So I guess that's it. Alice is going to grocery store later, list is on fridge, so you can add anything you need."

He practically ran out of the room then, much to my relief. He'd been nice so far, but I couldn't pretend like we were comfortable around each other. Unfortunately, my solitude was short-lived.

"Bella!" Alice exclaimed all too happily as she burst in. I'd have to see if the door had a lock on it.

"Um, thanks for decorating, Alice," I said, trying to be polite. "It's really nice."

"You think so?" she asked, beaming at me. "I was so worried! I didn't want you to come home to some stripped down room, but I didn't know what you like and, well, Jasper said you needed a lot of room for your books, and then I saw this spread in a magazine, and I thought it was perfect. I mean, red's such a great color as a highlight, and…"

She continued talking as I looked around a bit. The men from next door came in with boxes, setting a couple of the smaller ones on the bed and stacking others along the wall. I began mentally cataloguing my belongings, imagining where I'd put them all. The windows let in what little light Seattle was willing to give me, and the closet, though not large by any stretch of the imagination, was more than big enough to hold all my clothes. Speaking of which, Alice was tearing through a couple of the boxes, wrinkling her nose up as she looked over my clothes.

"We should go shopping!" she exclaimed excitedly.

"No," I snapped, insulted at her obvious attitude toward my fashion choices.

"But…" she started sadly. "Well, yes…I suppose you want to settle in first.

I studiously ignored her as I began hanging up the outfits she'd so quickly dismissed as she chirped on and on.

"…and then Emmett - oh! You haven't met everyone, have you?" she asked. "Well come on! They're dying to meet you!"

Not given the chance to answer, much less refuse, I followed her down the hallway into the living room. Actually, followed is an understatement. She grabbed my hand and dragged me, freakishly strong for the stunted thing that she was, until I found myself standing in the living room with everyone who'd met us outside. It seemed that in addition to my brother and his crazy girlfriend, I was inheriting the neighbors as well.

fyi: this chapter comes to you courtesy of free wi-fi at the hospital, where i've been camping out in the waiting room for a few days and am now spending Christmas. depending on how things go, my posting schedule might be a bit off over the next few weeks. we'll see.