Chapter One Hundred and Eight

After We Fell


chapter

one hundred and eight

 

HARDIN

 

The entire morning I’m dead on my feet. I don’t remember walking into my first class, and I begin to wonder why I even bother.

    When I walk past the administration building, Nate and Logan are standing at the bottom of the steps. I pull my hood up and pass them by without a word. I have to get the hell away from this place.

    In a split-second decision, I turn back around and take the steep flight of stairs up to the front of the building. My father’s secretary greets me with the fakest smile I’ve seen in a while.

    “Can I help you?”

    “I’m here to see Ken Scott.”

    “Do you have an appointment?” the woman sweetly asks, knowing damn well that I don’t. Knowing damn well who I am.

    “Obviously not. Is my father in there or not?” I gesture to the thick wooden door in front of me. The fogged glass in the center of it makes it hard to tell if he’s inside.

    “He’s in there, but he’s on a conference call at the moment. If you have a seat, I’ll—”

    I walk past her desk and go straight to his door. When I turn the knob and push it open, my father’s head turns my way, and he calmly raises a finger to ask me to give him a moment.

    Being the polite gentleman that I am, I roll my eyes and take a seat in front of his desk.

    After another minute or so, my father returns the phone to its base and rises to his feet to greet me. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

    “I wasn’t expecting to be here,” I admit.

    “Is something wrong?” His eyes move to his closed door behind me and back to my face.

    “I have a question.” I rest my hands on his almost maroon cherrywood desk and look up at him. Dark patches of stubble are visible on his face, making it obvious that he hasn’t shaved in a few days, and his white button-down shirt is slightly wrinkled at the cuffs. I don’t think I’ve seen him wearing a wrinkled shirt since I moved to America. This is a man who comes to breakfast in a sweater vest and pressed khakis.

    “I’m listening,” my father says.

    The tension between us is abundant, but even so, I have to struggle to remember the searing hate that I once felt toward this man. I don’t know how to feel about him now. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive him completely, but holding on to all that anger toward him simply takes too much fucking energy. We’ll never have the relationship that he has with my stepbrother, but it’s sort of nice to know that when I need something from him, he usually tries his best to help. The majority of the time, his help doesn’t get me anywhere, but the effort is appreciated, somewhat.

    “How hard do you think it will be for me to transfer to the Seattle campus?”

    His brow rises dramatically. “Really?”

    “Yes. I don’t want your opinion, I want an answer.” I make it clear that my sudden change of mind isn’t open for discussion.

    He eyes me thoughtfully before answering. “Well, it would set your graduation back. You’re better off staying at my campus for the remainder of this semester. By the time you apply to transfer, register, and move to Seattle, it wouldn’t be worth the hassle and time . . . logistically speaking.”

    I sit back against the leather chair and stare at him. “Couldn’t you help speed the process along?”

    “Yes, but it would still put off your graduation date.”

    “So basically I have to stay here.”

    “You don’t have to”—he rubs the dark stubble on his chin—“but it makes more sense for now. You’re so close.”

    “I’m not attending that ceremony,” I remind him.

    “I had hoped you changed your mind.” My father sighs, and I look away.

    “Well, I haven’t, so . . .”

    “It’s a very important day for you. The last three years of your life—”

    “I don’t give a shit. I don’t want to go. I’m fine with having my diploma mailed to me. I’m not going, end of discussion.” My eyes travel up the wall behind him to focus on the frames hanging heavily on the dark brown walls of his office. The white-framed certificates and diplomas mark his achievements, and I can tell by the way he proudly stares up at them that they mean more to him than they ever would to me.

    “I’m sorry to hear that.” He continues to stare at the frames. “I won’t ask again.” My father frowns.

    “Why is it so important to you for me to go?” I dare to ask.

    The hostility between us has thickened, and the air has grown heavier, but my father’s features soften tremendously as the moments of silence between us go by.

    “Because”—he draws in a long breath—“there was a time, a long time, when I wasn’t sure . . .”—another pause—“how you would turn out.”

    “Meaning?”

    “Are you sure you have time to talk right now?” His eyes move to my busted knuckles and bloodstained jeans. I know he really means: Are you sure you’re mentally stable enough to talk right now?

    I knew I should have changed my jeans. I didn’t feel like doing much of anything this morning. I literally rolled out of bed and drove to campus.

    “I want to know,” I sternly reply.

    He nods. “There was a time when I didn’t think you’d even graduate high school, you know, given the trouble you always got into.”

    Flashes of bar fights, burglarized convenience stores, crying half-naked girls, complaining neighbors, and one very disappointed mother play before my eyes. “I know,” I agree. “Technically, I’m still into trouble.”

    My father gives me a look that says he’s not at all pleased to hear me being a little flippant over what was a substantial headache for him. “Not nearly as much,” he says. “Not since . . . her,” he adds softly.

    “She causes most of my trouble.” I rub the back of my neck with my hand, knowing I’m full of shit.

    “I wouldn’t say that.” His brown eyes narrow, and his fingers play with the top button of his vest. Both of us sit in silence for a beat, unsure what to say. “I have so much guilt, Hardin. If you hadn’t made it through high school and gone to college, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

    “Nothing—you would have been living your perfect life here,” I snap.

    He flinches as if I’ve slapped him. “That’s not true. I only want the best for you. I didn’t always show it, and I know that, but your future is very important to me.”

    “Is that why you had me accepted into WCU in the first place?” We’ve never discussed the fact that I know he used his position to get me into this damn school. I know he did. I didn’t do shit in high school, and my transcripts prove it.

    “That, and the fact that your mother was at her breaking point with you. I wanted you to come here so I could get to know you. You aren’t the same boy you were when I left.”

    “If you wanted to know me, you should have stuck around longer. And drunk less.” Fragments of memories that I’ve tried so hard to forget push their way into my mind. “You left, and I never had the chance to just be a boy.”

    I used to occasionally wonder how it felt to be a happy child with a strong and loving family. While my mum worked from sunup to sundown, I would sit in the living room alone, just staring at the dingy and slanted walls for hours. I would make myself some shitty meal that was barely edible and imagine that I was sitting at a table full of people who loved me. They would laugh and ask how my day went. When I’d get into a fight at school, I’d sometimes wish I had a father around to either pat me on the back or bust my ass for starting trouble.

    Things got much easier for me as I grew up. Once I was a teenager and I realized I could hurt people, everything was easier. I could get back at my mum for leaving me alone while she worked by calling her by her first name and denying her the simple joy of hearing her only child say “I love you.”

    I could get back at my father by not speaking to him. I had one goal: to make everyone around me as miserable as I felt; that way, I would finally fit in. I used sex and lies to hurt girls, and made a game of it. That backfired when my mum’s friend spent too much time around me; her marriage was ruined, along with her dignity, and my mum was heartbroken that her fourteen-year-old son had done such a thing.

    Ken looks like he catches on, as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking. “I know that, and I’m sorry for all the things you were subjected to because of me.”

    “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” I push the chair back and stand up.

    My father stays seated, and I can’t help the thrill of power that I get from standing over him this way. I feel so . . . above him in every way possible. He’s haunted by his guilt and regrets, and I’m finally coming to terms with mine.

    “So much happened that you wouldn’t understand. I wish I could tell you, but it wouldn’t change anything.”

    “I said I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I’ve already had a shitty day, and this is too much. I get it; you regret leaving us and all that shit. I’m over it,” I lie, and he nods. It’s not a full-on lie, really. I’m much closer to being over it than I’ve ever been before.

    When I reach the door, a thought pops into my mind, and I turn around to face him. “My mum’s getting married. Did you know that?” I ask out of curiosity.

    From his blank stare and the way his brows lower, it’s clear that he had no fucking clue.

    “To Mike . . . you know, the neighbor guy?”

    “Oh.” He frowns.

    “In two weeks.”

    “That soon?”

    “Yeah.” I nod. “Is that a problem or something?”

    “No, not at all. I’m just a little surprised, that’s all.”

    “Yeah; me, too.” I lean my shoulder against the doorframe and watch as my father’s expression transforms from sullen to relieved.

    “Will you be attending?”

    “No.”

    Ken Scott rises to his feet and walks around his massive desk to stand in front of me. I have to admit, I’m slightly intimidated. Not by him, of course, but by the raw emotion in his eyes when he says, “You have to go, Hardin. It will break her heart if you don’t. Especially because she knows that you attended my wedding to Karen.”

    “Yeah, well, we both know why I attended yours. I didn’t have a choice, and your wedding wasn’t halfway across the damn planet.”

    “It might as well have been, given how we never really talked. You have to go. Tessa knows about it?”

    Fuck. I hadn’t considered this.

    “No, and you don’t need to tell her either. Or Landon; he won’t keep his mouth shut if he knows.”

    “Is there a reason that you’re hiding it from her?” he asks, judgment filling his voice.

    “It’s not that I’m hiding it. I just don’t want her to worry about going. She doesn’t even have a passport. She’s never even left the state of Washington.”

    “You know she’ll want to go. Tessa loves England.”

    “She’s never even been there!” I raise my voice and take a deep breath in an attempt to calm myself down. It drives me insane the way he acts as if she’s his own daughter, as if he knows her better than I do.

    “I won’t say anything,” he says, raising his hands slightly as if to placate me.

    I’m glad he doesn’t press the topic. I’ve done enough talking already, and I’m fucking exhausted. I got absolutely no sleep last night after I got off of the phone with Tessa. My nightmares came back full fucking force, and I made myself stay awake after I woke up dry-heaving for the third time.

    “You should go by and see Karen soon. She was asking about you last night,” he says just before I walk out of his office.

    “Um, yeah,” I mumble and close the door behind me.