Chapter One Hundred and Seven

After We Fell


chapter

one hundred and seven

 

HARDIN

 

Boxes fall from the shelves and tumble onto the floor in a blur. I connect with the metal again, leaving a thick red stain behind. The familiar sting of splitting flesh across my knuckles only heightens the rush of my adrenaline, pushing me further into my rage. It’s almost soothing, the relief of allowing myself to express my anger in the way I’ve always been used to. I don’t have to stop myself. I don’t have to overthink my actions. I can surrender to the anger, let it spill out, allow it to pull me under.

    “What are you doing! Someone come help!” a woman yells.

    When I snap my head her way, she takes a step backward into the wide opening at the aisle’s end, and I notice a little blond-haired girl clinging to her skirt. The woman’s eyes are wide with fear and caution.

    When the little girl’s bright blue eyes meet mine, I can’t look away. The innocence in their depths is being stolen with every angry breath that leaves my body. I break the hold of the girl’s gaze and look toward the mess I’ve made in the aisle. Disappointment replaces rage in an instant, and the realization that I’m destroying shit in the middle of a Target hits me hard. If the cops arrive before I can get out of here, I’m fucked.

    With one last look toward the little girl in her floor-length dress and sparkling shoes, I rush down the aisle and toward the front of the store. Avoiding the chaos that is brewing around me, I cross from aisle to aisle, staying as much out of sight as possible.

    I can’t think clearly. Not a single thought makes sense to me.

    Tessa didn’t fuck Zed.

    She didn’t.

    She couldn’t have.

    I would know if she did. Someone would have told me.

    She would have told me. She’s the only person I know who doesn’t lie to me.

    I burst outside, and the winter air is unforgiving as it bites at my skin. I keep my eyes focused on my car, which is parked toward the back of the lot, thankful to be shielded by the darkness of the night.

    “Fuck!” I scream once I reach my car. My boot collides with my bumper and the grinding noise of metal bending out of place ratchets up my feeling of frustration.

    “She’s only been with me!” I say out loud, then hop inside the car.

    I’m pushing the key into the ignition just as two police cars pull into the parking lot with lights blazing and sirens howling. I pull out of the space slowly to avoid any unwanted attention and watch as they park on the curb and rush inside like a murder has been committed.

    The moment I make it out of the parking lot, relief floods through me. If I’d been arrested at Target, Tessa would have flipped shit on me.

    Tessa . . . and Zed.

    I know better than to believe Steph’s bullshit lies about Tessa fucking him. I know she didn’t. I know that I’m the only man who has ever been inside of her, the only one who has ever made her come. Not him.

    Not fucking anyone. Only me.

    I shake my head to rid myself of the vision of the two of them, her fingers wrapped around his arms as he pushes into her. Fuck, not this again.

    I literally can’t think straight. I can’t see straight. I should have wrapped my hands around Steph’s neck and . . .

    No, I can’t allow myself to finish the thought. She got exactly what she wanted out of me, and that makes me even angrier. She knew exactly what she was doing when she mentioned Zed; she was purposely taunting me, trying to make me snap, and it worked. She knew she was pulling the pin from a grenade and walking away. But I’m not a grenade—I should be able to control myself.

    I immediately call Tessa, but she doesn’t pick up. Her phone rings . . . and rings . . . and rings. She did tell me that she was going to sleep, but I know damn well that her phone is always on vibrate and that woman can’t sleep through shit.

    “Come on, Tess, pick up the phone,” I groan and toss my cell onto the passenger seat. I need to get as far away from Target as possible before the cops check the parking-lot cameras and get my plate number or some shit.

    The freeway is a fucking nightmare, and I keep trying to call Tessa. If she doesn’t get back to me within the hour, I’m calling Christian.

    I should have stayed in Seattle another night. Hell, I should have moved there in the fucking first place. All of my reasons for not wanting to go seem so fucking pointless now. All of the fears I had, and still have, are only being kept alive by the distance between where she lives and where I live.

    “Deep down you know it won’t work.”

    “You’re covered in ink, and it’s only a matter of time before she’s sick of being embarrassed to be seen with you.”

    “Bad-boy fetish.”

    “Marry a banker or some shit.”

    Steph’s voice pierces my ears over and over again. I’m going insane—I’m literally losing my fucking mind on this wide-open road. All the efforts that I made all week mean nothing now. The two days that I spent with Tessa have been ruined by that viper.

    Is all of this worth it? Is all of this constant trying worth it? Will I always have to stop myself from saying or doing the wrong shit? And if I do continue this potential transformation, will she really love me after, or just feel like she finished some kind of project for a psych class?

    After all this, will there be enough of me left for her to love? Will I even be the same man that she fell in love with, or is this her way of transforming me into someone she wishes I could she will tire of?

    Is she trying to make me more like him . . . more like Noah?

    “You can’t compete with that . . .” Steph is right. I can’t compete with Noah and the simple relationship Tessa shared with him. She never had to worry about anything when she was with him. They were good together. Good and simple.

    He isn’t broken the way that I am.

    I remember the days when I used to sit in my room and wait hours for Steph to tell me when Tessa returned after she’d spent some time with him. I interfered as much as I could and, surprisingly enough, it worked out for me. She chose me over him, over the boy she grew up loving.

    The idea of Tessa telling Noah she loves him makes me sick to my stomach.

    “Bad-boy fetish . . .” I’m more than a fetish to Tessa. I have to be. I’ve fucked more than my share of girls who were only looking to frighten their daddies, but Tessa isn’t one of them. She’s put up with enough shit from me to prove that.

    My thoughts are jumbled and frantic, and I can’t keep up with them.

    Why am I letting Steph get inside my head? I shouldn’t have listened to a word that bitch said. Now that I have, though, I can’t get her words out of me. I wipe my bloody and busted knuckles across the legs of my blue jeans and park the car.

    When I look up, I find myself parked in the lot at Blind Bob’s. I’ve driven all the way here without so much as a thought about it. I shouldn’t go inside . . . but I can’t stop myself.

    And behind the bar, I see an old . . . friend. Carly. Carly, wearing minimal clothing and deep red lipstick.

    “Well . . . well . . . well . . .” She grins at me.

    “Save it.” I groan and slide onto a bar stool directly in front of her.

    “Not a chance.” She shakes her head, her blond ponytail whipping back and forth. “The last time I served you, it spiraled into one big drama-fest, and I have neither the time nor the patience for a repeat performance tonight.”

    The last time I was here, I got so shit-faced that Carly forced me to spend the night on her couch, which only led to a huge misunderstanding with Tessa, who got into a car accident that day because of me. Because of the shit I bring into her otherwise clean life.

    “Your job is to get me a drink when I order one.” I point at the bottle of dark whiskey on the shelf behind her.

    “There’s a sign right there that states otherwise.” She leans her elbows onto the bar top, and I sit back on my bar stool, creating as much space between us as possible.

    The small WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE is taped to the wall, and I can’t help but laugh.

    “Easy on the ice, I don’t want it watered down.” I ignore another of her eye rolls as she pushes herself up and grabs an empty glass.

    A thick stream of dark liquor pours into my glass, and Steph’s voice replays again and again in my brain. This is the only way to rid myself of her accusations and lies.

    Carly’s voice breaks me from my daze. “She’s calling.”

    Glancing down, I see the picture that I snapped while Tessa was asleep this morning; it’s flashing on my phone’s screen.

    “Fuck.” I instinctively push the glass away, spilling its freshly poured contents onto the bar top. I ignore Carly’s high-pitched cursing and leave the bar just as quickly as I arrived.

    Outside, I swipe my thumb across the screen. “Tess.”

    “Hardin!” she says, panicked. “Are you okay?”

    “I called you so many times.” I let out a breath of relief at the sound of her voice through the small speaker.

    “I know, I’m sorry. I was asleep. Are you okay? Where are you?”

    “Blind Bob’s,” I admit. There’s no use in lying—she always finds out the truth one way or another.

    “Oh . . .” she barely whispers.

    “I ordered a drink.” I may as well tell her everything.

    “Only one?”

    “Yes, and I didn’t get the chance to even taste it before you called.” I can’t decide how I feel about that. Her voice is my lifeline, but I can feel a thread of something calling me back to the bar as well.

    “That’s good, then,” she says. “Are you leaving there?”

    “Yes, right now.” I pull the handle on my car door and climb into the driver’s seat.

    After a few beats, Tessa asks, “Why’d you go there? It’s okay that you did . . . I’m just wondering why.”

    “I saw Steph.”

    She gasps. “What happened? Did you . . . did anything happen?”

    “I didn’t hurt her, if that’s what you mean.” I turn on my car but keep it in park. I want to talk to Tessa without the distraction of driving. “She said some shit to me that really . . . it really set me off. I lost my temper in Target.”

    “Are you okay? Wait, I thought you hated Target.”

    “Out of all the things . . .” I begin.

    “Sorry. I’m half asleep.” I can hear the smile in her voice, but it’s quickly replaced by worry. “Are you okay? What did she say?”

    “She said that you fucked Zed,” I tell her. I don’t want to repeat the other shit she said about Tessa and me not being good for each other.

    “What? You know that’s not true. Hardin, I swear nothing happened between us that you don’t already—”

    I tap a finger on the windshield, watching my fingerprints accumulate. “She said his roommate heard you.”

    “You don’t believe her, right? You couldn’t possibly believe her, Hardin; you know me—you know I would have told you if anyone else had touched me—” Her voice cracks, and my chest aches.

    “Shhh . . .” I shouldn’t have let her go on about it for so long. I should have told her that I knew it wasn’t true, but being the selfish bastard that I am, I needed to hear her say it.

    “What else did she say?” She’s crying.

    “Just bullshit. About you and Zed. And she played on every fear and insecurity that I have about us.”

    “Is that why you went to the bar?” There’s no judgment in Tessa’s voice, only an understanding that I wasn’t expecting.

    “I guess so.” I sigh. “She knew things. About your body . . . things that only I should know.” A shiver rakes down my spine.

    “She was my roommate. She saw me change any number of times, not to mention she’s the one who undressed me that night,” she says with a sniffle.

    Anger ripples through me again. The thought of Tessa, unable to move while Steph forcefully undressed her . . .

    “Don’t cry, please. I can’t bear it, not when you’re hours away,” I beg her.

    Now that Tessa’s soft voice is on the line, Steph’s words seem to hold no truth, and the madness—the pure fucking madness—that I felt only minutes ago has dissolved.

    “Let’s talk about something else while I drive home.” I shift my car into reverse and put Tessa on speakerphone.

    “Okay, yeah . . .” she says, then hums a little while she thinks. “Um, Kimberly and Christian invited me to join them at their club this weekend.”

    “You aren’t going.”

    “If you would let me finish,” she scolds me. “But since you will hopefully be here, and I knew you wouldn’t come along, we agreed on me going Wednesday night instead.”

    “What kind of club is open on a Wednesday?” I glance into my rearview mirror, answering my own question. “I’m going,” I say.

    “Why? You don’t like clubs, remember?”

    I roll my eyes. “I’ll go with you this weekend. I don’t want you to go Wednesday.”

    “I’m going on Wednesday. We can go again this weekend if you’d like, but I already told Kimberly that I’m coming, and there’s no reason that I shouldn’t.”

    “I would rather you not go,” I say through my teeth. I’m already on edge, and she’s testing me. “Or I can come Wednesday, too,” I offer, trying my best to be reasonable.

    “You don’t have to drive all the way here on Wednesday when you’ll already be coming for the weekend.

    “You don’t want to be seen with me?” The words are out before I can stop them.

    “What?” I hear the click of her lamp turning on in the background. “Why would you say that? You know it’s not true. Don’t let Steph in your head. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

    I pull into the parking lot of the apartment and park the car before I respond. Tessa waits in silence for an explanation. Finally I sigh. “No. I don’t know.”

    “We have to learn to fight together, not against one another. It shouldn’t be Steph versus you versus me. We have to be in this together,” she continues.

    “That’s not what I’m doing . . .”

    She’s right. She’s always fucking right. “I’ll come on Wednesday and stay until Sunday.”

    “I have classes and work.”

    “It sounds like you don’t want me to come.” My paranoia seeps through my already broken confidence.

    “Of course I do. You know I do.”

    I savor the words; fuck, I miss her so much.

    “Are you home yet?” Tessa asks just as I turn off the ignition.

    “Yes, I just got here.”

    “I miss you.”

    The sadness in her voice stops me in my tracks. “I miss you too, baby. I’m sorry—I’m going crazy without you, Tess.”

    “I am, too.” She sighs, and it makes me want to apologize again.

    “I’m a dumb-ass for not coming to Seattle with you in the first place.”

    Coughing sounds through the speaker. “What?”

    “You heard me. I’m not repeating it.”

    “Fine.” She finally stops coughing as I step onto the elevator. “I know I couldn’t have heard you correctly anyway.”

    “Anyway, what do you want me to do about Steph and Dan?” I change the subject.

    “What can you do?” she quietly asks.

    “You don’t want me to answer that.”

    “Nothing, then, just leave them be.”

    “She’s probably going to tell everyone about tonight and continue to spread the rumor about you and Zed.”

    “I don’t live there anymore. It’s okay,” Tessa says, trying to convince me. But I know how much a rumor like this will hurt her feelings, whether she admits it or not.

    “I don’t want to leave it alone,” I confess.

    “I don’t want you getting in any trouble over them.”

    “Fine,” I say, and then we exchange our good nights. She’s not going to agree to my ideas on how to stop Steph, so I’ll just drop it. I unlock the door to my apartment and walk in to find Richard sprawled out asleep on the couch. Jerry Springer’s voice fills the entire apartment. I turn the television off and go straight to my bedroom.