Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-One

After We Fell


chapter

one hundred and twenty-one

 

HARDIN

 

You’re free to go.” I release Landon from his babysitting duties.

    “I’m not going, she just got here,” he replies, challenging me. I guess he’s one of the biggest reasons, if not the only reason, that she wanted to come to this damned place at all.

    “Fine,” I huff and lower my voice. “How was he while I was gone?” I quietly ask.

    “He was good; he’s less shaky, and he hasn’t thrown up since yesterday morning.”

    “Fucking junkie.” I run my hands over my hair. “Fuck.”

    “Calm down, it’s all going to work out,” my stepbrother assures me.

    I ignore his words of wisdom and leave him in the kitchen to find Tessa. When I reach the bedroom door, I hear a strangled sob coming from inside. I take a quick step forward to find her with both hands cupped over her mouth, her blue eyes bloodshot and full of tears as they stare down at the floor. One more step is all it takes for me to spot what it is that she’s looking at. Fuck.

    Fuck.

    “Tess?” I had planned on coming up with a plan to fix the problem that I created by ripping up that damned letter, but I just haven’t had the chance yet. I was going to find the pieces that were left and try to tape them back together . . . or at least tell Tessa what I did before she found out on her own. Too late now.

    “Tess, I’m sorry!” The apology tumbles out as tears roll down her tearstained cheeks.

    “Why did you—” she sobs, unable to finish the sentence. My heart constricts in my chest. For a brief moment, I’m convinced that I’m hurting worse than she is.

    “I was so mad after you left me,” I begin to explain, walking over to her, but she backs away. I don’t blame her. “I wasn’t thinking properly, and it was there, on the bed, where you left it.”

    She doesn’t speak or look away from me.

    “I am so sorry, I swear it!” I frantically proclaim.

    “I . . .” She chokes, furiously wiping at her cheeks. “I . . . just need a minute, okay?” Her eyes close, and a few more tears escape from under her fluttering eyelids.

    I want to give her a minute like she asked, but I’m selfishly afraid that she’ll grow more and more hurt as time passes and decide she doesn’t want to see me.

    “I’m not going to leave the room,” I say. She has both her hands pressed over her mouth, but even so, I hear her let out a muffled cry. The sound cuts straight through me.

    “Please,” she begs through her pain. I knew she’d be hurt when she found out about me destroying that letter, but what I didn’t expect was for it to hurt me so much.

    “No, I won’t.” I refuse to leave her in here alone to cry over my mistakes, again. How many times has that happened in this apartment?

    She looks away from me and sits down at the foot of the bed, her shaky hands clasped on her lap, her eyes half closed, and her lips quivering as she tries to calm herself down. I ignore the push of her hand against my chest when I drop to my knees in front of her and wrap my arms around her body.

    After a few exhausted efforts to push me away, she finally gives in and allows me to comfort her.

    “I’m so sorry, baby,” I repeat; I don’t know if I’ve ever meant those words so sincerely before.

    “I loved that letter,” she says, crying into my shoulder. “It meant so much to me.”

    “I know it did. I’m so sorry.” I don’t even try to defend myself, because I’m a fucking idiot, and I knew how much that thing meant to her. I gently push her back by her shoulders and take her tearstained cheeks between my hands and lower my voice. “I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry.”

    Finally she opens her mouth to speak. “I won’t say it’s okay, because it’s not . . .” Her eyes are red-rimmed and already swollen from her sobbing.

    “I know.” I bow my head, dropping my hands from her face.

    Moments later I feel her fingers press under my chin, tilting my face up to look at her, the way I usually do to her.

    “I’m upset . . . devastated, really,” she says. “But there’s nothing I can do about it, and I don’t want to sit here and cry all weekend, and I certainly don’t want you backtracking and beating yourself up over it.” She’s trying her hardest to talk herself up, pretending that it doesn’t bother her the way that I know it does.

    I let out a breath that I didn’t realize I was holding. “I’ll make it up to you, somehow.” When she doesn’t answer, I press a little. “Okay?”

    She wipes at her eyes, her makeup smearing under her fingertips. Her silence is making me uneasy. I’d rather be screamed at than have her cry like this.

    “Tess, please talk to me. Do you want me to take you back to Seattle?” Even if she says yes, I sure as hell won’t do it, but the offer is tossed between us before I can think it through.

    “No.” She shakes her head. “I’m fine.”

    With a sigh, she stands, sidestepping my body as she exits the bedroom. I get to my feet and follow her. She closes the bathroom door, and I go back into the bedroom to grab her small bag. I know her—she’ll want to fix that black-smudged mess underneath her eyes.

    I tap on the bathroom door, and she opens it slightly, just enough for me to shove the small bag through. “Thanks,” she says, her voice small, defeated.

    I’ve already ruined her weekend, and it’s barely started.

    “My mom and your dad want you to bring Tessa by the house tomorrow,” Landon calls from the end of the hall.

    “And . . .”

    “I’m just saying. My mom misses Tessa.”

    “So . . . your mum can see her some other time.” Then I realize this might get Tessa’s mind off that damned letter. “You know what? Fine,” I say before he can get his response out. “I’ll take her by tomorrow.”

    My stepbrother tilts his head. “Is she crying?”

    “She’s . . . it’s not really any of your business, is it?” I snap.

    “You’ve been back here for less than twenty minutes, and she’s already locked herself in the bathroom,” he says, crossing his arms.

    “This isn’t the time to start shit with me, Landon,” I growl. “I’m already at the point of explosion; the last thing I need is you butting your damn nose in where it doesn’t belong.”

    But he just rolls his eyes in a very Tessa-like way. “Oh, so I’m only allowed to butt in when it involves doing a favor for you?”

    What the fuck is his problem, and why do I keep referring to him as my stepbrother? “Fuck off.”

    “She’s probably already overwhelmed, so the two of us need to stop this before she lets herself out of that bathroom.” He’s trying to reason with me.

    “Fine, then stop talking shit to me,” I say.

    Before he can respond, the bathroom door clicks open, and Tessa, looking put together but very exhausted, shuffles into the hallway, worry on her face. “What’s going on?”

    “Nothing. Landon is going to order pizza, and we’re all going to spend the remainder of the night as one big happy family.” I glance at him. “Isn’t that right?”

    “Yes,” he agrees—for Tessa’s sake, I know. I miss the days when Landon wouldn’t smart off to me. They were few and far between, but he’s grown ballsier as the months have dragged on. Or maybe I’ve grown weaker . . . I haven’t a damn clue, but I don’t like the shift.

    Tessa lets out a little sigh. I need her to smile, I need to know she can get over this. So I say, “I’m going to take you by my father’s house tomorrow; maybe Karen can share some recipes or some shit with you?”

    Her eyes lighten, and she grins, finally. “Recipes or ‘some shit’?” She chews on the corner of her bottom lip to keep from grinning further. The pressure in my chest dissolves.

    “Yeah, or some shit.” I smile back at her and lead her to the living room, where we are set to enjoy a torturous night of entertaining Richard and Landon.

 

RICHARD IS LYING across the span of the couch. Landon is in the chair. And Tessa and I are sitting on the floor.

    “Can you pass me another supreme?” Richard asks for the third time since we started this hideous movie. I look at Tessa and Landon, who, of course, are completely fascinated by the email love affair that’s going on between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. If this were a modern movie, they would have fucked after the first email, not waited until the last scene to even kiss. Hell, they would have been on one of those hookup apps and maybe only known each other by screen names. How depressing is that?

    “Here,” I groan, sliding the pizza box to Richard. He’s already taking up the entire couch, and now he’s interrupting me every ten minutes for more fucking pizza.

    “This last part used to make your mom cry every time she saw it.” Richard’s hand reaches out and squeezes Tessa’s shoulder. I try my best not to scoot between them or bat his hand away. If she had any idea what her father has been doing the last week, if she had watched the drugs leave his system in a mess of vomit and convulsing withdrawals, she’d push his hand away herself and then sanitize her shoulder.

    “Really?” Tess looks up at her father with glossy eyes.

    “Yes. I still remember you two watching it every time it was on. More around the holidays, of course.”

    “Was that—” I begin but halt my vicious words before I utter them.

    “What?” Tessa asks me.

    “Was that . . . um, dog supposed to be there?” I dumbly ask. It makes no sense, but Tessa, being Tessa, goes into full discussion mode about the last scene of the movie and that the dog, Barkley or Brinkley, I believe she said his name is, is essential to the success of the movie.

    Blah, blah, blah . . .

    A knock at the door stops Tessa’s explanation and Landon gets up to answer.

    “I got it,” I say and push past him. This is my fucking place, after all.

    I don’t bother to look through the peephole, but once I pull the door open, I wish that I had.

    “Where’s he?” the foul-smelling junkie asks.

    I step out into the hallway and close the door behind me. Tessa will not be bothered by this shit. “What the fuck are you doing here?” I hiss.

    “I’m just here to see my buddy, that’s all.” Chad’s teeth are even browner than before, and his facial hair is matted to his skin. He can only be in his thirties, but he possesses the face of a man pushing fifty. The watch my father got me is hanging from his filthy wrist.

    “He’s not coming out here, and no one is giving you anything, so I suggest you take your ass back where you came from before I bash your face against that railing,” I say matter-of-factly and point toward the metal bar in front of the hallway fire extinguisher. “Then, while you’re bleeding out, I’ll call the police and have you arrested for possession and trespassing.” I know he has drugs on him, the fucking asshole.

    His eyes focus in on me, and I take a step toward him. “I wouldn’t test my patience, not tonight,” I warn.

    His mouth opens just as the door to the apartment opens behind me. Fucking hell.

    “What’s going on?” Tessa asks, moving in front of me.

    I instinctively jerk her back, and she asks again. “Nothing, Chad here was just leaving.” I stare at Chad, so help him God, if he fucking—

    Tessa’s eyes narrow in on the shiny object dangling from his thin wrist. “Is that your watch?”

    “What? No—” I begin to lie, but she already knows. She isn’t stupid enough to think it’s coincidence that this drug-addict fuck has the same exact expensive-ass watch as I do.

    “Hardin . . .” She glares at me. “So what, you’ve been hanging out with this guy or something?” She crosses her arms and puts more distance between us.

    “No!” I half shout. Why would that be the conclusion she draws from this little scene?

    I’m conflicted between calling her father out and defending myself or making up yet another lie. “I’m not friends with him, he’s leaving.” I shoot Chad one more warning.

    This time he takes it and backs away down the hall. I suppose it’s only Landon who isn’t intimidated by me anymore. Maybe I haven’t lost my edge after all.

    “Who’s there?” Richard joins us in the hallway.

    “That man . . . Chad,” Tessa answers, inquisition clear in her tone.

    “Oh . . .” Richard pales and looks helplessly at me.

    “I need to know what’s going on.” Tessa is getting upset. I shouldn’t have let her come back here. I saw it on her face the moment she stepped into this damned place.

    “Landon!” Tessa calls for her best friend, and I look at her father. Landon will tell her everything; he won’t lie to her face the way I have so many times.

    “Your dad owed him money, and I gave him that watch for payment,” I admit. She gasps and turns to Richard.

    “You owed him money for what? Hardin’s father gave him that watch as a gift!” she shouts.

    Okay . . . this isn’t exactly the reaction I was expecting. She’s more focused on the stupid watch than the whole your-father-owed-this-creep-money aspect.

    “I’m sorry, Tessie. I didn’t have any money, and Hardin—”

    Before I realize what she’s doing, she’s halfway to the elevator. What the fuck!

    I panic, running after her, but she slides into the steel cage just before I reach her. Those doors move with torturous slowness any other time, yet when she’s escaping from me, they close instantly.

    “Goddammit, Tessa!” I pound my fist once against the metal. Does this place even have a staircase? When I look back down the hall, Landon and Richard are both staring blankly, unmoving. Thanks for the fucking help, assholes.

    I move quickly and find the staircase, taking two stairs at a time to get to the bottom. I reach the lobby and glance around for Tessa. When I don’t see her, I begin to panic again. Chad could have friends with him . . . they could approach Tessa or hurt her . . .

    The elevator opens with a ding, and Tessa steps out of it; the most determined face imaginable covers her features, until she spots me.

    “Are you out of your fucking mind?” I shout at her, my voice filling the lobby.

    “He’s giving that damn watch back, Hardin!” she shouts back. She stalks toward the glass doors, and I wrap my arm around her waist, yanking her back against my chest.

    “Get off of me!” She claws at my arms, but I don’t relent.

    “You can’t just chase after him. What’re you thinking?”

    She keeps fighting me.

    “If you don’t stop moving, I will literally carry your ass back up to the apartment. Now listen to me,” I say.

    “He can’t have that watch, Hardin! Your father gave it to you, and it meant a lot to him and to you—”

    “That watch didn’t mean shit to me,” I say.

    “Yes, it did. You’ll never admit it, but it did. I know it.” Her eyes are watering again. Fuck, this weekend is going to be hell.

    “No, it didn’t . . .”

    Did it?

    Her hands stop moving, and she settles down slightly. I gently coax her back toward the elevator, her drug-dealer-chasing mission aborted, much to her chagrin.

    “It’s not fair to you that he took that watch because of some stupid bar tab my father ran up! How much freaking alcohol does one consume that they actually owe people money?” Her temper is flaring, and I’m torn between thinking it’s amusing and feeling terrible for what I have to tell her.

    “It wasn’t alcohol, Tess.” I watch as she tilts her head to the side, looking anywhere and everywhere but at my eyes.

    “Hardin, I know my father and his drinking—don’t make excuses for him.” Her chest is moving up and down at an unhealthy pace.

    “Tessa, Tessa, you have to calm down.”

    “Then tell me what’s going on, Hardin!”

    I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry—sorry that I couldn’t shield her from her fuckup of a father, just like I couldn’t shield my mother from the devastation of mine. So I do something rather alien for me. I say something brutally honest. “It’s not alcohol. It’s drugs.”

    Tessa’s reaction seems at first like no reaction at all. But after a second, she shakes her head and says, “No, he’s not . . . He’s not doing drugs.”

    Quickly she steps into the elevator and punches the button for our floor. I jump on right after her, but she just stares into space as the doors close us in.