Chapter One Hundred and Twenty

After We Fell


one hundred and twenty




How much longer?” Hardin complains from the passenger seat.

    “Less than five minutes; we just passed Conner’s.” I know he’s well aware of how short the distance is from here to the apartment; it’s just that he can’t keep himself from complaining. Hardin drove most of the way until I finally persuaded him to let me finish the trip. His eyes were nearly closing, and I knew he needed a break. My point was proven when he stretched his arm across the center console, holding me as best he could while I was driving, and fell asleep almost instantly.

    “Landon is still there, right? You talked to him?” I ask. I’m beyond excited to see my best friend. It’s been far too long, and I miss his kind words of wisdom and never-faltering smile.

    “Yes, for the tenth time,” Hardin replies, clearly annoyed. He’s been anxious the entire drive, even though he won’t admit it. He shrugs it off like he’s annoyed because of the distance, but I get the feeling there’s something else behind his frustration. I’m not entirely sure that I want to discover what it is.

    When I pull into the parking lot of the apartment building that I used to call home, my stomach turns, and my nervousness begins to creep to the surface.

    “It’ll be fine.” Hardin’s reassuring words surprise me as we enter the front door.

    The small elevator feels so alien as it rises up the building. It feels as if so much more than only three weeks have passed. Hardin keeps his hand over mine until we reach the door, where he slides the key into the lock and pushes it open.

    Landon jumps to his feet from the couch and strides across the room with the brightest smile I’ve seen him wear in the seven months since we became friends. His arms wrap around my back, and he hugs me, welcoming me, and making me aware of just how much I’ve missed him. Before I know it, I’m sobbing and heaving deep breaths into my friend’s chest.

    I’m not sure why I’m crying so much. I’ve just missed Landon terribly, and his warm reaction to my return made me emotional.

    “Can her old man get a turn?” I hear my father say from somewhere a little ways off.

    Landon starts to back away, but Hardin says, “In a moment,” and nods toward Landon, assessing my mental state.

    I launch myself at Landon again, and his familiar arms wrap around my back again. “I missed you so much,” I tell him.

    His shoulders visibly relax, and he unwraps his arms from my body. When I go to hug my father, Landon stays nearby, his smile still bright and loving as ever. Looking at my father, I realize that he must have known that I’d be coming to visit. It looks like he’s wearing Landon’s clothes and they’re tight on his body. I notice that his face is clean-shaven.

    “Look at you!” I exclaim with a smile. “No beard!”

    He whoops a loud laugh and hugs me tighter. “Yeah, no more beard for me,” he says.

    “How was the drive?” Landon asks, shoving his hands into the pockets of his navy-colored slacks.

    “Shit,” Hardin says at the exact moment I say, “Good.”

    Landon and my father both laugh, Hardin looks annoyed, and I’m just happy to be home . . . with my best friend and the closest relative that I’m in contact with. Which only reminds me that I have to call my mother, which I keep putting off.

    “I’m going to put your bag in the bedroom,” Hardin announces, leaving the three of us to continue our welcoming. I watch as he disappears into the room we once shared. His shoulders are set low, and I want to follow after him, but I don’t.

    “I’ve missed you too much, Tessie. How’s Seattle treating you?” my father asks. It’s odd to look at him now, wearing one of Landon’s collared shirts and dress slacks, with no hair on his face. He looks like a completely different man. The bags under his eyes have gotten puffier, though, and I notice the way his hands are slightly shaking at his sides.

    “It’s good, I’m still getting used to it,” I tell him.

    He smiles. “That’s good to hear.”

    Landon steps closer to me as my father takes a seat on the edge of the couch. He turns his back away from my father as if he wants to keep our conversation private. “It feels like you’ve been gone for months,” he says, holding my gaze as he speaks.

    He looks tired, too . . . maybe from staying at the apartment with my father? I don’t know, but I want to find out.

    “It does, I feel like time is strange in Seattle—how is everything? I feel like we’ve barely talked.” It’s true. I haven’t called Landon as often as I should have, and he must’ve been really busy dealing with his last semester at Washington Central. If less than three weeks is this tough, how will I be able to bear him moving all the way to New York?

    “I knew you’d be busy, everything’s okay,” he says. His eyes dart to the wall, and I sigh. Why do I feel like I’m missing something obvious?

    “Are you sure?” I glance back and forth between my best friend and my father, taking in Landon’s drained expression.

    “Yeah, we’ll talk about it later,” he says, waving my concern off. “Now tell me about Seattle!” The dim light that was in his eyes intensifies into a bright burn of happiness, the happiness that I have missed so much.

    “It’s okay . . .” I trail off, and his forehead creases in a frown. “Really, it’s okay. Much better now that Hardin is visiting more.”

    “So much for space, huh?” he playfully teases, nudging my shoulder with the palm of his hand. “You two have the strangest definition of breaking up.”

    I roll my eyes, agreeing, but I say, “It’s been really nice having him there. I’m still as confused as ever, but Seattle feels more like the Seattle of my dreams when Hardin is there with me.”

    “I’m happy to hear it.” Landon smiles, his gaze shifting as Hardin walks up and stands next to me.

    Looking around, I say to the three of them, “This place is in much better condition than I thought it would be.”

    “We’ve been cleaning it while Hardin was in Seattle,” my father says, and I laugh, reminded of Hardin’s grumpy complaint that the two of them were messing with his things.

    I look back at the well-organized foyer, remembering the very first time I stepped through the door with Hardin. I fell in love instantly with the old-fashioned charm of the place: the exposed brick wall was so enchanting, and I was beyond impressed by the expansive book shelving covering the far wall. The concrete flooring added to the personality of the apartment, unique and beautiful. I couldn’t believe that Hardin had chosen the most perfect space, suiting both of us in a way I didn’t think was possible. It wasn’t extravagant, not in the slightest, but it was so beautiful and so thoughtfully laid out. I remember how nervous he was that I wouldn’t like it. I was nervous, too, though. I thought he was insane for wanting me to live with him so soon into our back-and-forth relationship—and I now know that my apprehensiveness was very well justified; Hardin had used this apartment as a trap. He thought that I’d be forced to stay with him after I found out about the wager he’d made with his group of friends. In a way, it worked, and I don’t particularly love that part of our past, but I wouldn’t change it now.

    Despite the memories of our happy first days here, for some reason I still can’t shake the unsettling rustling that I feel in my stomach. I feel like a stranger here now. The once-charming brick wall has been stained by bloody knuckles too many times to count, the books on those shelves have been witness to too many screaming matches, the pages have soaked up too many tears in the aftermath of our endless fighting, and the image of Hardin crumpled on his knees in front of me is so strong it’s practically imprinted into the floor. This place is no longer the treasure to me that it once was, and these walls now hold memories of sadness and betrayal, not only Hardin’s, but Steph’s as well.

    “What’s wrong?” Hardin asks the moment my expression turns melancholy.

    “Nothing, I’m fine,” I tell him. I want to shake off the unpleasant memories lodging in my mind, taking away from these moments of happiness at being reunited with Landon and my father after the lonely weeks I’ve endured in Seattle.

    “I’m not buying it,” Hardin huffs, but drops it and walks into the kitchen. After a second, his voice travels into the living room. “Is there no food in the place?”

    “Ahh, here it goes. It had been so nice and quiet,” my father whispers to Landon, and they share a friendly laugh. I’m so thankful to have Landon in my life and to have what seems to be a budding relationship with my father, though it seems that Hardin and Landon both know him better than I do.

    “I’ll be back in just a minute,” I say.

    I want to change out of this heavy sweatshirt; it’s too warm in the small apartment, and I feel my lungs yearning for a fresh breath as the moments pass. I need to read Hardin’s letter again; it’s my favorite thing in the entire world. It’s much more than a thing to me; it expresses his love and passion in a way that his mouth never could. I’ve read it so many times that I have it memorized, but I need to physically touch it again. Once I hold the tattered and worn pages between my fingers, all the anxiety I’m feeling will be replaced by his thoughtful words, and I’ll be able to breathe again and enjoy my weekend here.

    I search the top of the dresser and each drawer before moving along to the desk. My fingers push through piles of paper clips and pens to no avail. But where else could he have placed it?

    I find my e-reader and the bracelet resting on top of my religion journal, but the letter is nowhere to be found. After placing the bracelet on the desk, I move to the closet and search through the empty shoe box that Hardin uses to store his work files during the week. I lift the lid to find it empty except one single piece of paper, which, I’m sad to see, is not the letter. What is this, though? Hardin’s handwriting is scribbled across it from top to bottom, and if I wasn’t so worried about my letter, I would stop to check it out. It’s really weird that this paper is randomly here. I make a mental note to come back and read the scribbles on that page and put the lid back onto the box and store it back where I found it.

    Worrying that I may have overlooked the letter in the drawer, I march back to the dresser. What if Hardin threw it away?

    No, he wouldn’t; he knows how much that letter means to me. He’d never do that. I pull my old journal out once more, turn it upside down, and shake it, hoping the letter will fall out. I’m beginning to panic, until a flicker of white catches my attention. It’s a shred of paper, twirling through the air between my journal and the floor. I reach down and pick it up just as it lands on the floor.

    I recognize the words immediately—they’re practically etched into my mind. It’s only half a sentence, almost too small to read, but the ink-smeared words are clearly written in Hardin’s handwriting. My stomach drops. I stare at the fragment of paper, and the realization hits me. I just know that he did, in fact, destroy it. I begin to weep and let the shred slip from my shaking fingers and fall back to the floor. My heart is instantly broken, and I begin to wonder just how much one heart can bear.