Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Two

After We Fell


chapter

one hundred and twenty-two

 

TESSA

 

As Hardin and I walk back into the apartment, it feels like the air has become stale and awkward.

    “Are you okay?” Landon asks when Hardin closes the door behind him.

    “Yeah,” I state simply, lying.

    I’m confused, hurt, angry, and exhausted. It’s only been a few hours since we arrived, and already I’m ready to go back to Seattle. Any thought I had of wanting to live here again vanished somewhere during the silent walk from the elevator to the apartment door.

    “Tessie . . . I didn’t mean for any of this to happen,” my father says as he follows me into the kitchen. I need a glass of water; my head is throbbing.

    “I don’t want to talk about it.” The sink creaks when I pull at the faucet, and I wait patiently for the glass to fill.

    “I think we should at least talk—”

    “Please . . .” I turn to face him. I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to hear the hideous truth, or some well-intentioned lie. I only want to go back to when I was cautiously excited about trying out a relationship with my father that I never had as a child. I know that Hardin has no reason to lie about my father’s addictions, but perhaps he’s somehow mistaken.

    “Tessie . . .” my father pleads.

    “She said she doesn’t want to talk about it,” Hardin insists, suddenly appearing in the room. He walks farther into the kitchen and stands between my father and me. I’m thankful for his intrusion this time, but I’m slightly worried over the quick movements of his chest as his breaths become more shallow and labored. I’m grateful when my father sighs in defeat and leaves me alone with Hardin in the kitchen.

    “Thank you.” I sag against the counter and take another drink of the lukewarm tap water.

    A worried line forms along Hardin’s forehead, and he doesn’t attempt to hide his deep scowl. His fingers press against his temples, and he leans against the opposite counter. “I shouldn’t have let you come here; I knew this would happen.”

    “I’m fine.”

    “You always say that.”

    “Because I always have to be. Otherwise, when the next disaster occurs, I won’t be prepared.” The adrenaline coursing through me only minutes ago has disappeared, evaporated along with the hope that for once, something could go right for an entire weekend. I don’t regret coming here, because I’ve missed Landon so much and I wanted to pick up my letter, e-reader, and bracelet. My heart still aches over the letter; it doesn’t seem rational for an object to hold such significance to me, but it does. It was the first time Hardin had ever been so open with me—no more hiding, no more secrets about his past, all of his cards were on the table—and I didn’t have to force the confessions from him. The thought that he put into writing it and the way his hands shook as he held it out to me will always remain in my mind. I’m not upset with him, really; I wish he hadn’t destroyed it, but I know his temper, and I’m the one who left it here, somehow sensing that he probably would destroy it. I won’t allow myself to dwell on it anymore, though it still hurts to think about the shred of paper that was left; that small piece could never hold all of the emotion packed into the words he had scribbled across the page.

    “I hate that it’s like that for you,” Hardin quietly says.

    “Me, too.” I sigh in agreement. The pained look on his face makes me add, “It’s not your fault.”

    “Like hell it isn’t.” Exasperated fingers push through the wave of his hair. “I’m the one who ripped up that damn letter, I drove you here, and I thought I could keep your father’s habits from you. I thought that asshole Chad was gone for good when I gave him my watch for the money your dad owed.”

    I stare at Hardin, who’s always so wound up, and I want to hug him. He gave away something of his; regardless of his claims to have no attachment to the object, he gave it up in an attempt to dig my father out of the hole he created for himself. God, I love him.

    “I’m very grateful to have you,” I tell him. His shoulders straighten, and his head quickly lifts to look at me.

    “I don’t know why. I create nearly every disaster in your life.”

    “No, I’m equally to blame,” I assure him. I wish he thought more of himself; if only he could see himself the way that I do. “The indifference of the universe does a lot, too.”

    “You’re lying”—he stares at me with expectant eyes—“but I’ll take it.”

    I stare at the wall in silence, my brain running over a thousand thoughts per minute.

    “I’m still angry that you ran after him like a fucking madman, though,” Hardin scolds me. I don’t blame him; it wasn’t smart. But I also somehow knew he’d run after me in my ridiculous attempt to chase Chad down and take the watch back from him. What the heck was I thinking?

    I was thinking that the watch represented the beginning of a new relationship between Hardin and his father. Hardin said he hated that watch, and he refused to wear it, claiming it was outrageous. He’s unaware of the times I passed the bedroom to see him staring at it in its box. Once he even had the watch resting in his open palm, examining it closely, as if it might burn or heal him. His expression was ambivalent when he tossed it carelessly back into the oversize black box.

    “My adrenaline got the best of me.” I shrug, trying to hide the gentle tremor shaking through me at the thought of actually catching up to the hideous man.

    I had a bad feeling about him the first time he came to pick my father up from the apartment, but I was unaware of the possibility that he’d return. Out of all the suspicions I held relating to what exactly was happening here, slimy men selling drugs and being paid in watches was never a thought. This obviously was what Hardin referred to as “taking care of it without me having to worry about it.” If I had just kept my behind in the apartment, I could still be blissfully ignorant of the entire situation. I could still see my father in a decent light.

    “Well, I don’t care much for your adrenaline, then. It obviously cuts off the oxygen to your damn brain,” Hardin huffs, glaring at the refrigerator beside me.

    “Should we start the next movie?” My father’s voice sounds from the living room. I shoot a sudden panicked look toward Hardin, and he opens his mouth to answer for me.

    “In a minute,” he replies, his tone harsh.

    Hardin looks down at me, his height and irritated expression overpowering me. “You don’t have to go out there and fake some bullshit conversation with them if you don’t want to. I’d dare either of them to say shit to you about it.”

    The idea of watching a movie with my father does not sound the least bit appealing, but I don’t want things to be awkward, and I don’t want Landon to go just yet.

    “I know.” I sigh.

    “You’re in denial, and I get that, but you’re going to need to face the music sooner or later.” His words are harsh, but his eyes are sympathetic as he gazes down at me. I feel the heat of his fingers trail down the back of both of my arms.

    “I’ll take later—for now,” I plead with him, and he nods, not approving but accepting my denial. For now.

    “Go on and go in there, then. I’ll be in in a minute.” He tilts his head toward the living room.

    “Okay; can you make some popcorn?” I smile up at him, trying my best to convince him that my heart isn’t hammering against my rib cage and my palms aren’t sweating.

    “You’re pushing it . . .” A playful smile tugs at the corners of his mouth while he pushes me out of the kitchen. “Go on.”

    When I enter the dimly lit living room, my father is sitting in his usual spot on the couch and Landon is standing, leaning against the dark brick wall. My father’s hands are on his lap; he’s picking at the skin on his fingertips, a habit I had as a child until my mother forced me to give it up. Now I know where it came from.

    My father lifts dark eyes from his lap to peer up at me, and a chill runs over me. I can’t decipher whether it’s the lighting or my mind playing tricks on me, but his eyes are nearly black, and it’s making me nauseous. Is he really taking drugs? If so, how much and what kind? My knowledge of drugs consists of having watched a few episodes of Intervention with Hardin. I cringed and covered my eyes when the addicts would push the needles into their skin or smoke the frothy liquid off of a spoon. I could barely stand to watch them destroy themselves and everyone around them, while Hardin went on about not feeling an ounce of pity for the “fucking junkies.”

    Is my father really one of them?

    “I’ll understand if you want me to go . . .” My father’s voice doesn’t match the look in his haunted eyes. It’s small, weak, and broken. My chest aches.

    “No, it’s okay.” I swallow and sit down on the floor to wait for Hardin to join us. I hear the quiet popping of the kernels, and the aroma of popping corn has already filled the apartment.

    “I’ll tell you anything you want to—”

    “It’s okay, really,” I assure my father with a smile. Where is Hardin?

    My silent question is answered only moments later when he strides into the living room, a bag of popcorn in one hand and my glass of water in the other. He sits down next to me on the floor without a word and places the bag on my lap.

    “It’s a little burned, but still edible,” he quietly remarks. His eyes move straight to the television screen, and I know he’s holding back many thoughts. I squeeze his hand to thank him for keeping them that way. I don’t think I’d be able to handle anything else tonight.

    The popcorn is delicious and buttery. Hardin gripes when I offer Landon and my father some. I suspect that’s why they refuse it.

    “What bullshit are we watching now?” Hardin asks.

    “Sleepless in Seattle,” I answer with a grin.

    His eyes roll. “Really? Isn’t that like an older version of what we just watched!”

    I can’t help but be amused. “It’s a lovely movie.”

    “Sure.” He looks at me, but his eyes don’t stay on mine as long as usual. He uses his sweatshirt to wipe the greasy butter off his fingers. I cringe and make a mental note to soak the shirt longer than usual tomorrow before I wash it.

    “Is something wrong? This movie isn’t that bad,” I whisper to him. My father is finishing off the remainder of the pizza, and Landon has taken his seat back on the recliner.

    “No.” He still doesn’t look at me. I don’t want to comment on his odd behavior; everyone’s already on edge from tonight’s events.

    The movie distracts me from myself and my vicious mind long enough to laugh with Landon and my father. Hardin stares at the screen, his shoulders stiff again and his mind miles away. I desperately want to ask him what’s wrong so that I can fix it, but I know that it’s best to leave him be for now. Instead, I snuggle against his chest with my knees bent beneath me and one arm wrapped around his lean torso. He surprises me by pulling me closer and planting a soft kiss on my hair.

    “I love you,” he whispers. I’m nearly convinced that I’m hearing voices until I look up into his expectant green eyes.

    “I love you,” I reply softly. I take a few moments to stare at him, just to take in how beautiful he is. He drives me insane, as I do him, but he loves me, and his calm behavior tonight is just another indication of that. No matter how forced the behavior is, he is trying, and in that I find solace, a steady certainty that even in the middle of the brewing storm, he will be my anchor. I once feared that he would take me under; now I don’t even mind if he does.

    A heavy knock at the door jolts me from Hardin’s lap. I’ve somehow migrated there in my near slumber, and he unwraps his arms from around me and gently places me on the floor so he can stand up. I study his face, looking for anger, or shock, but instead he looks . . . worried?

    “You’re not moving,” he says to me. I nod in agreement. I don’t want to face Chad again.

    “We should just call the police, otherwise he’ll never stop coming here.” I groan, wondering how this apartment could have changed so drastically in the last few weeks. The panic rises into my chest again, and when I look up to gauge my father and Landon’s reactions to the intruder, I see that they’re both asleep. The television is set on the menu screen for the pay-per-view; we must have all actually drifted off to sleep without realizing it.

    “No,” I hear Hardin say. I rise onto my knees when he reaches the door. What If Chad isn’t alone? Will he try to hurt Hardin? I stand up and head toward the couch to wake my father.

    I barely register the heavy click of high heels across the hard flooring, so when I turn my head and see my mother, in all her tight-red-dress, curled-hair, and red-lipsticked glory, I’m shocked. Her beautiful face is set in a deep scowl as her darkening eyes meet mine.

    “What are you—” I begin. I glance at Hardin; and he’s calm . . . expectant almost . . .

    He allows her to storm past him and stalk toward me.

    “You called her?” My voice squeaks as the puzzle pieces click into place. He looks away from me. How could he call her? He knows firsthand how my mother is; why on earth would he bring her into this?

    “You have been avoiding my calls, Theresa,” she snaps. “And now I find out that your father is here! At this apartment, and he’s on drugs!” She storms past me, too, and goes straight for the kill. Her fire-engine-red manicured fingers grip my father’s arm, and she yanks his sleeping body off of the couch. He topples to the floor.

    “Get up, Richard!” she booms, and I flinch at the harshness in her voice.

    My father scrambles up to a sitting position quickly, using his palms to support his body weight, and shakes his head. His eyes nearly pop out of his skull as he takes in the woman in front of him. I watch as he blinks rapidly and stumbles to his feet.

    “Carol?” His voice is even smaller than mine.

    “How dare you!” She waves a finger in his face, and he backs away from her only to have his legs hit the couch, causing him to fall back. He looks terrified, and I don’t blame him.

    Landon stirs in the chair and opens his eyes; his expression mimics my father’s, confused and terrified.

    “Theresa, go to your bedroom,” my mother demands.

    What? “No, I will not,” I counter. Why did Hardin have to call her? Everything would have been okay. I’d have a way to move on from my father, probably.

    “She’s not a child anymore, Carol,” my father says.

    My mother’s cheeks puff, and her chest rises, and I know what’s coming next. “Don’t you dare speak of her as if you know her at all! As if you have any claim on her!”

    “I’m trying to make up for lost time—” My father is holding his ground pretty decently for a man who has just been awoken by his angry ex-wife screaming in his face. I don’t know what to make of the scene unfolding in front of me. There’s something in my father’s voice, something in his tone as he steps closer to my mother, gaining confidence that almost looks familiar. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

    “Lost time! You don’t get to make up for lost time! Now I hear you’re taking drugs?”

    “I’m not anymore!” he yells back at her. I want to cower behind Hardin, but right now I don’t know whose side he’s actually on. Landon’s eyes are focused on me, Hardin’s on my father and mother.

    “Wanna go?” Landon mouths silently from across the room. I shake my head, silently declining, but hoping that my eyes can convey how thankful I am for his offer.

    “Anymore? Anymore!” My mother must have worn her heaviest heels. I’m beginning to wonder if they’ll leave dents in the floor as she stomps across it.

    “Yes, anymore! Look, I’m not perfect, okay?” His hands move over his short hair, and I freeze. The gesture is so familiar, it’s uncanny.

    “Not perfect! Ha!” She laughs, her white teeth shining through the dim room. I want to turn a light on but can’t bring myself to move. I don’t know how to feel or what to think as I watch my parents scream at each other in the middle of the living room. I’m convinced this apartment is cursed; it has to be. “Not perfect is fine; doing drugs and dragging your daughter down the same path is deplorable!”

    “I’m not dragging her down any path! I’m trying my hardest to make up for what I did to her . . . and to you!”

    “No! You’re not! Your coming back around will only confuse her more! She’s already messed her life up enough!”

    “She hasn’t messed up her life,” Hardin interrupts. My mother shoots him a fiery glare before turning her attention back to my father.

    “This is your fault, Richard Young! All of this! If it weren’t for you, Theresa wouldn’t be in this toxic relationship with this boy!” She waves her hand toward Hardin. I knew it would only be a matter of time before she started in on him. “She never had a male example to show her how a woman should be treated; that’s why she’s shacked up here with him! Unmarried, living in sin, and Lord only knows what he’s doing! He’s probably taking the drugs with you!”

    I recoil, my blood instantly boils, and the raging need to defend Hardin surfaces. “Don’t you dare bring Hardin into this! He’s been taking care of my father and providing him with somewhere to live to keep him off of the streets!” I hate the way my choice of words resembles my mother’s.

    Hardin crosses the room and stands beside me. I know he’s going to warn me to stay out of it.

    “It’s true, Carol. He’s a good man, and he loves her more than I’ve ever seen a man love a woman,” my father chimes in. My mother’s fists ball at her sides, and her perfectly blushed cheeks flare a deep red.

    “Don’t you dare defend him! All of this—she waves one clenched fist through the thick air—“is because of him! She should be in Seattle, creating a life for herself, finding herself a suitable man . . .”

    I can barely hear anything over the blood rushing and pumping through my head. In the midst of all of this, I feel terrible for Landon, who has kindly retreated to the bedroom to leave us alone, and for Hardin, who is, yet again, being used as my mother’s scapegoat.

    “She is living in Seattle, she’s here visiting her father. I told you that on the phone.” Hardin’s voice breaks through the chaos; it’s barely controlled, and it sends a shiver over my body, raising the small hairs on my arms.

    “Don’t think that just because you called me we’re suddenly friends,” she snaps. Hardin jerks me back by my arm, and I glare up at him, puzzled. I hadn’t even realized that I started toward her until he stopped me.

    “Judgmental as always. You’ll never change, you’re still the same woman you were all those years ago.” My father shakes his head in disapproval. I’m thankful that he’s on Hardin’s side.

    “Judgmental? Are you aware that this boy, the one you’re defending, weaseled his way between your daughter’s legs to win money in a bet he made with his friends?” My mother’s voice is cold—smug, even.

    All of the air leaves the room, and I’m choking, gasping for a simple breath.

    “That’s right! He was bragging around campus about his conquest. So don’t you defend him to me,” she hisses. My father’s eyes are wide. I can see the stormy currents gathering behind them as he looks at Hardin.

    “What? Is this true?” My father is choking for breath, too.

    “It’s not important! We’ve already passed it,” I tell him.

    “See, she went and found herself someone exactly like you. Let us pray that he doesn’t get her pregnant and leave when times get tough.”

    I can’t listen anymore. I can’t let Hardin be dragged through the mud by both of my parents. This is a disaster.

    “And not to mention just three weekends ago, a man dropped her at my house unconscious because of his”—she points to Hardin—“friends! They nearly had their way with her!”

    The reminder of that night pains me, but it’s the way my mother is blaming Hardin that bothers me the most. What happened that night was in no way his fault, and she knows it.

    “You son of a bitch!” my father says through his teeth.

    “Don’t,” Hardin calmly warns him. I pray that he listens.

    “You had me fooled! Here I was thinking you just had a bad rep, some tattoos, and an attitude! I could deal with that. I’m the same way. But you used my daughter!” My father dashes toward Hardin, and I stand in front of him.

    My brain hasn’t had a chance to catch up with my mouth. “Stop it! Both of you!” I scream. “If you want to go to war over your past, that’s your choice, but you won’t bring Hardin into it! He called you for a reason, Mother, and yet here you are throwing him under the bus out of anger. This is his place, not either of yours. Both of you can get the hell out!” My eyes burn, as if they’re begging me to shed the warm tears, but I refuse.

    My mother and father both halt; they look at me, then at each other. “Sort your crap out or leave; we’ll be in the bedroom.” I wrap my fingers around Hardin’s, and I try to pull him behind me.

    He hesitates for a moment before using his long legs to step in front of me and lead me down the hallway, still grasping my hand. His grip is tight, nearly unbearably so, but I stay quiet. I’m still in shock from my mother’s arrival and blowup; too much pressure on my hand is the least of my concerns.

    I push the door closed behind me just in time to muffle the shouting voices of my parents down the hall. Suddenly I’m nine again, running through the backyard of my mother’s house to my haven, the small greenhouse. I could always hear the shouting, no matter how loud Noah attempted to be in order to mute the unpleasant noise.

    “I wish you hadn’t called her.” I break from my memories and look up at Hardin. Landon is sitting at the desk, making a point not to stare at us.

    “You needed her. You were in denial.” His voice is gravelly.

    “She made things worse; she told him about what you did.”

    “It made sense at the time to call her. I was trying to help you.”

    The look in his eyes tells me he really thought it might work. “I know,” I say with a sigh. I wish he’d run the idea past me first, but I know he was doing what he thought was right.

    “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” He shakes his head and plops down on the bed. Looking up at me with real anguish, he says, “We’ll always be reminded of that shit—you know that, don’t you?”

    He’s shutting down; I can feel it just as surely as I can see it happening in front of me.

    “No, that’s not true.” There’s at least some truth to my words in that once everyone we know finds out about the bet, it’ll become old news to them all. I shudder at the thought of Kimberly and Christian finding out, but everyone else around us now knows the humiliating truth.

    “Yes, it is! You know it is!” Hardin raises his voice and paces across the floor. “It’s never going to go away, every time we fucking turn around, someone is throwing it in your face, reminding you of what a fuckup I am!” His fist collides with the top of the desk before I can stop him. The wood splinters, and Landon jumps to his feet.

    “Don’t do this! Don’t let her get to you, please!” I grab a fistful of his black sweatshirt, stopping him from beginning another assault on the already broken wood. He jerks away, but I don’t let up. I grab both sleeves this time, and he turns around, fuming.

    “Aren’t you tired of this shit? Aren’t you tired of the constant fight? If you would just let me go, your life would be much easier!” Hardin’s words come out clipped and loud, and each syllable cuts deep. He always does this; he always goes for self-destruction. I won’t allow it this time.

    “Stop that! You know that I don’t want easy and loveless.” I gather his face between my hands and force him to look at me.

    “Both of you, listen to me,” Landon interrupts. Hardin doesn’t look at him; he keeps his furious gaze on me. My best friend, Hardin’s stepbrother, walks across the room to stand only feet away from us.

    “You guys can’t do this again. Hardin, you can’t let people get into your head like that; Tessa’s is the only opinion that matters. Let hers be the only voice in your head,” he tells us.

    It’s as if the black rings around Hardin’s eyes visibly shrink as he takes in the words. “And Tess . . .” Landon sighs. “You don’t need to feel guilty and try to convince Hardin that you want to be with him; you staying around through everything should be proof enough.”

    Landon has a point, but I’m not sure if Hardin will see it through his anger and pain.

    “Tessa needs you to comfort her right now. Her parents are screaming at each other in there, so be here for her—don’t make this about you,” Landon tells his stepbrother. Something in his words seems to click in Hardin’s mind, and he nods, tilting his head down to press his forehead against mine, his harsh breathing slowing with each breath.

    “I’m sorry . . .” he whispers.

    “I’m going to go home now.” Landon looks away from us, seemingly uncomfortable with witnessing the intimacy between Hardin and me. “I’ll let my mom know you’ll be by.”

    I move away from Hardin to wrap my arms around Landon’s neck. “Thank you for everything. I’m so glad you were here,” I say into his chest. His arms tightly hug me, and this time Hardin doesn’t pull me away. When I step out of the embrace, Landon leaves the room, and I look back at Hardin. He’s examining his bloody knuckles, a sight that was beginning to turn into a distant memory; now I’m seeing it again as the thick blood drips onto the floor.

    “About what Landon said,” Hardin says, wiping his bloodied hand on the bottom of his sweatshirt. “When he said yours should be the only voice in my head. I want that.” When he looks up at me again, his expression is haunted. “I want that so fucking bad. I can’t seem to shake them . . . Steph, Zed, now your mum and dad.”

    “We’ll figure it out, we will,” I promise him.

    “Theresa!” My mother’s voice resounds from outside the door. I had been too wrapped up in Hardin to notice that the noise in the living room had dissipated. “Theresa, I’m coming in.”

    The door opens on the last word, and I stand behind Hardin. This seems to be a pattern.

    “We need to talk about this, all of this.” She eyes Hardin and me with equal intensity. Hardin’s head turns, and he looks down at me, raising an eyebrow for approval.

    “I don’t think there’s much to discuss,” I say from behind my shield.

    “There’s plenty to discuss. I’m sorry for my behavior tonight. I lost my mind when I saw your father here, after all these years. Please give me a little time to explain. Please.” The word “please” sounds foreign coming from my mother’s lips.

    Hardin steps away, exposing me to her. “I’m going to go clean this up.” He lifts his battered hand in the air and exits the room before I can stop him.

    “Sit down, we have a lot to discuss.” My mother runs her palms down the front of her dress and pushes her thick blond waves to one side before she sits down on the edge of the bed.