“Maybe.” I felt sheepish, but decided to continue anyway. “I was thinking about being a doctor.”
Peter chuckled, and then shook his head. “Of course she is.”
“I was thinking of psychiatry, actually.” I started blushing when Peter laughed. I hurried to explain myself, so they wouldn’t all think I was a total fool.
“I can see that,” Ezra nodded, looking intently at me. “You have insight.”
“How can you even say that with a straight face?” Peter asked Ezra incredulously, who just turned and looked at him sharply.
“She’s only seventeen,” Ezra reasoned. “You don’t think she has insight for being that age? And she must have an incredibly high tolerance since she hasn’t yet killed either you or Jack. That’s patience and wisdom brewing.”
I blushed even more deeply at his compliments and dropped my eyes to the floor. Nobody had ever talked about me like that.
“Don’t.” Peter’s voice had gone hard again, and he gave Ezra a look, which he returned evenly. Then Peter shook his head. “She’s too young! And she’s too…” He decided against finishing his sentence, and then got up suddenly and stormed out.
“Peter!” Jack groaned, then got up and went after him.
“Jack, leave him,” Ezra called after him, but Jack just shook his head and kept going.
“He can’t keep getting away with this,” Jack said and disappeared out of the room after him.
“You just have to ignore him,” Mae purred warmly in my ear. She began braiding my hair, something my own mother had never done, and tried to comfort me. “He’s just that way.”
“I just don’t understand.” Confused, hurt tears were stinging my eyes, and I wished they would go away. I thought about wiping at them, but Ezra was staring at me, and it would only make my crying more obvious.
“What, love?” Mae asked softly, pushing stray strands of hair out of my face.
“Why he hates me so much,” I mumbled.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Ezra said. “He just wishes he did.”
I know that was meant to comfort me, but I don’t really know how that made things better. Wanting to hate me felt almost worse. It was a choice he was trying to make.
“I need to use the restroom,” I announced. I wouldn’t be able to fight the tears much longer, and if I cried, I’d rather do it in the privacy of the bathroom. I stood up, and Mae’s hands reluctantly fell away.
“Do you remember where it’s at?” Mae started rising to show me where it was at, but I nodded first.
“I’ll be right back.” I dashed out of the room as fast as I could without making it obvious that I was running away to cry.
On my way to the bathroom, I had to go past the stairs, but that was as far as I made it. Peter’s smooth voice stopped me sharply. Hidden at the bottom of the steps, I could hear them upstairs in Peter’s room. He was talking to Jack, and he didn’t sound angry like he did in the living room. In fact, he sounded more sad than anything else.
“I’m not trying to be mean to her,” Peter was saying, sounding small and apologetic.
“But you are! You should’ve seen how terrified she was to come over here, because of you!” Jack, on the other hand, definitely was angry.
I winced at the sound of him confessing my embarrassing secrets, but I stayed longer to listen to their argument.
“Maybe she shouldn’t come back then.” Peter was saying it reasonably, as if he was only thinking of what was best for me, not because he didn’t want me around.
“You’re such an ass,” Jack said. “I like her, Ezra likes her, Mae’s practically in love with her. She’s going to be around. I don’t know why you’re fighting everything so much.”
“None of you understand, okay?” Peter’s voice had gotten sharper. “Ezra has Mae, and you’re too young. And this is like a holiday for Mae! She’s always wanted a daughter.”
“Look, it doesn’t matter!” Jack had grown exasperated. “She’s going to be around, and you’re just gonna have to find a way to deal with it. Without hurting her.”
“You know I don’t want to hurt her.” Peter had gotten so quiet, I could barely hear him, but his voice was unmistakably sincere. He truly didn’t want to hurt me, or even hate me. So why did he?
“Yeah, I do!” Jack snapped. “So knock it off!”
“Okay!” Peter relented.
The conversation appeared to be winding to a close and I could hear footsteps getting closer to the stairs. I couldn’t have them catching me eavesdropping, so I ran to the bathroom. At least I felt less like crying now, even though I felt even more confused about what was going on.
When I came out of the bathroom, both Peter and Jack had returned to the living room. Peter remained cordial but distant. Jack played with the dog and tried to get everyone involved in some other video game. Ezra continued to ask me questions about myself, ranging from what my mother did to what television shows I liked the best, and Mae seemed contented to play with my hair for the rest of her life.
It was after eleven o’clock when Jack declared that we should get going. Even with the anxiety, the night had passed amazingly fast.
They all walked us to the garage door, even Matilda, making me once again feel self-conscious. They were constantly putting me in the center of the attention, when they were all far more beautiful and fascinating than I could ever dream of being.
Mae hugged me tightly to her, and she looked almost like she was going to cry because I was leaving.
“You will come back, won’t you?” Her hands were still on my arms, squeezing them a little too tightly, and Ezra put his arm around her waist, gently pulling her back from me.
“We really enjoy having you over,” Ezra said, managing a much less frantic invite than his wife.
“Oh, she’ll be back,” Jack answered for me, grinning broadly.
Peter, who had been standing off to the side, took a step closer to me, and his piercing green eyes met mine. For one irrational, euphoric second, I thought he might kiss me, but he stayed frozen several feet from me.
Then, very softly, but so strong that it was definitely a command, he said, “Come back.”
“Okay,” I nodded. He must’ve established his human interaction quota with that, because then he turned and walked out of the room. I regained some sense of composure and forced a smile at Mae and Ezra. “I’ll be back. I promise.”