“And who is this?” Mae turned her attention to Milo. Just looking at her made his anxiety disappear, and he returned her open smile.
“I’m Milo, Alice’s brother.” He looked a little embarrassed by the look she was giving him, and I knew the feeling. She reached out and touched his face gently (his chubby cheeks were hard to resist) and grinned warmly.
“I’m Mae, Ezra’s wife. You’re so much cuter than I’d thought you’d be.”
“Thanks?” Milo replied unsurely.
“Have you had a tour of the house yet?” Mae had already started looping her arm through his, and she’d missed her calling as a real estate agent. Milo shook his head no, and she laughed a little. With that, she led him away on a tour.
As soon as they were out of earshot, I turned to Jack and hissed, “What the hell happened?”
“You tell me,” Jack countered evenly, and I might have overestimated how much he knew.
“You have an idea of what happened, don’t you?” I asked. He didn’t answer me, so I continued, “You have suspicions. There was something that you were afraid happened.”
“I wasn’t afraid,” he answered quietly, but the fog of Peter was wearing off and I could feel how unnerved he really was.
“Jack, I trust you,” I whispered fiercely. “Don’t betray that trust.” An amused but pained expression flitted across his face, and he shook his head.
“He’s not gonna hurt you, Alice.” Then he turned to look at me. “None of us are.”
“Then…” I trailed off, trying to understand what was happening. “But Peter told me to go before he did something very bad to me.” Jack let out a long breath through his teeth and stared off at some point above my head.
“Well… I guess we all just have different definitions of what hurting you means.”
“Was that meant to be comforting? Cause it wasn’t,” I snapped, crossing my arms on my chest.
“Let me put it this way: You are a top priority for my family.” Jack said, but he’d finished the conversation.
He still had the plastic guitar hanging over his shoulder, and he unpaused the game and clicked out of the two-player level he’d been playing with Milo. He started playing a song, and when I asked him what that meant, he ignored me.
I flopped back on the couch next to Matilda and stroked her long, white fur. Everything with Peter had exhausted me. My skin flushed with embarrassment at the thought of running into him. I had made a fool of myself, and he was in trouble with Ezra.
But even with that, I still really wanted to see him. My very being wanted to be near him again, and it would be worth anything.
As predicted, Mae completely enchanted Milo. They seemed made for each other. She was all motherly love, and he was all motherless child.
When they made their way into the living room, Milo went back to playing video games with Jack. I curled up on the couch with Mae, resting my head on her lap, and let her play with my hair.
“I know you’re hurting now, but things will make sense, love,” Mae murmured, pushing my hair from my eyes. “Everything happens for a reason.”
The nights of barely sleeping had caught up with me, and the soothing comfort of Mae was too much. I drifted off to a sleep filled with dreams of Peter. They were probably the best dreams I’d ever had.
When I woke up, I felt good, but incredibly disoriented. The living room was dark, and I was alone, except for Matilda, who snored loudly on the floor next to me.
I moved a little on the couch, preparing to start calling for Jack or Milo, but then I heard voices talking softly nearby. And then I heard my name, so I stopped moving and strained to hear.
“Well, we obviously can’t leave Alice alone with him anymore.” That was Jack, trying to protect me from Peter.
“No, I agree.” Ezra’s deep voice sounded like a lullaby when he kept it low. I imagined that it would be tranquil to have him sing me to sleep. “But they’ll have to eventually.”
“But she’s not ready for it,” Jack said. “He’s not ready for it.”
“You’re not ready for it,” Ezra countered.
“Maybe not,” Jack relented. “But he feels too conflicted for anything to work. He’s just making everything harder on her than it needs to be. I mean, you saw her today.”
“It’s incredibly painful, rejecting it,” Ezra calmly said. “Peter’s showing a tremendous will just going against it, but eventually, he’ll give in. It’s impossible. Whatever pain he thinks he’s avoiding, this is far worse.”
“How do you know?” Jack asked him suspiciously. “You never rejected it.”
“I did at first,” Ezra said, then backtracked. “I tried to ignore it, and that was brutal. But I saw Peter after what happened with Alice.”
“And?” Jack pressed Ezra when he didn’t say anything.
“He’s not taking it well,” Ezra said simply.
“How much longer will this go on?” Jack asked, and I couldn’t help but notice a hint of sadness in his voice.
“Not much longer.” Ezra breathed deeply. “We’ll just have to keep an eye on both of them.”
“Ezra!” Mae called from another room, sounding farther away than them. “Come here! Milo’s beat me at chess twice already! You’ve got to try against him! He’s amazing!”
“I’ll be right there!” Ezra shouted back to her, then spoke quieter to Jack. “You understand?”
“Yeah,” Jack said reluctantly.
I didn’t hear Ezra’s footfalls when he walked away, but that didn’t surprise me. Jack’s silhouette appeared in the doorway, and I quickly closed my eyes, pretending I was sleeping.
Matilda whimpered as he walked past her, and he patted her head before sitting on the couch next to me. As soon as I felt the couch moved, I stirred as if I was just waking up.
“Did you sleep okay?”
“Yeah,” I nodded and moved so I was sitting on my knees facing him. My voice sounded thick from tears, but I hoped he would think it was from sleep.
“Hey are you okay?” Jack sounded sad and worried. My eyes adjusted to the dark, and I could map out the concerned expression on his face.
“Yeah, just tired.”
“I gathered that when you passed out.” He tried to keep his tone light, but he struggled.
What Ezra had said had gotten to him too, and when he felt anxious, I felt it even worse. It wouldn’t be much longer before I started to cry.