Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Four

After We Fell


one hundred and twenty-four




My mother and I sit in silence. My mind is reeling, and my heart is pounding as I watch her tuck a lock of thick blond hair behind her ear. She’s calm and collected—not overwhelmed the way I am.

    “Why would you let your father come here? After all this time. I can understand you wanting to see him more after running into him on the street, but not allowing him to move in,” she finally says.

    “I didn’t allow him to move in; I don’t live here anymore. Hardin let him stay out of kindness, kindness that you misinterpreted and threw in his face.” I don’t hide my disgust about the way she treated him.

    My mother—everyone—will always misunderstand Hardin, and why I love him. It doesn’t matter, though, because I don’t need them to.

    “He called you because he thought you would be there for me.” I sigh, mentally deciding which way I want to steer the conversation before she bulldozes me into acquiescence in her typical Carol Young fashion.

    My mother’s blue eyes are somber, cast to the ground. “Why do you turn against everyone to defend that boy, after all he has done to you? He’s put you through so much, Theresa.”

    “He’s worth the defending, Mother. That’s why.”


    “He is. I won’t keep having this discussion with you. I told you before, if you can’t accept him, then I can’t have a relationship with you. Hardin and I are a package deal, whether you like it or not.”

    “I once thought that about your father.” I do my best not to flinch when she lifts her hand to smooth the front of my hair.

    “Hardin is nothing like my father.”

    A light laugh sounds from her painted lips. “Yes, oh yes, he is. He is like him in so many ways.”

    “You can leave if you’re going to say those things.”

    “Calm down.” She repeats the smoothing action on my hair. I’m torn between being irritated by the patronizing gesture and being comforted by the decent memories it brings. “I want to tell you a story.”

    I’ll admit I’m intrigued by her words, though I’m skeptical of her motives. She never told me stories about my father while I was growing up, so this ought to be interesting. “Nothing you say will change my mind about Hardin,” I tell her.

    The corners of her mouth turn up slightly as she declares, “Your father and I never married.”

    “What?” I sit up straight on the bed, crossing my legs beneath me. What does she mean, they never married? Yes, they did, I’ve seen the pictures. My mother’s lace gown was exquisite, despite the fact that her belly was slightly swollen, and my father’s suit wasn’t tailored properly, it hung off him like a potato sack. I used to love to look through those albums and admire the way my mother’s cheeks glowed as my father looked down at her as if she were the only person in his world. I remember the awful scene that ensued one day when my mother found me looking through them; after that, she hid them away, and I never saw them again.

    “It’s true.” She sighs. I can tell that this disclosure is humiliating for her. Her hands are shaking when she says, “We had a wedding, but your father never wanted to be married. I knew that, I knew that if I hadn’t gotten pregnant with you, he’d have left me much sooner. Your grandparents pushed the marriage on him. You see, your father and I could never get along, not even for a day. It was exciting in the beginning, thrilling even”—the blue of her eyes is lost in the memory—“but as you will come to see, there’s only so much that one person can take. As the nights came and went and the years passed, I prayed to God every night that he would change for me, for you. I prayed that one night, he’d walk through that front door with a bouquet of roses in his hand instead of liquor on his breath.” She leans back and crosses her arms in front of her chest. Bracelets that she can’t afford hang from her wrists, a tribute to her excessive need to look stylish.

    My mother’s confession has left me silent. She’s never been one for open discussion, especially when the topic is my father. The sympathy that I suddenly find myself feeling for this cold woman brings me to tears.

    “Stop that,” she scolds me before continuing: “Every woman hopes to be the one to reform her man, but that’s all it is: false hope. I don’t want you going down the same path that I did. I want more for you.” I feel nauseous. “That is why I raised you to be able to get out of that small town and make a life for yourself.”

    “I’m not—” I begin to defend myself, but she raises her hand to silence me.

    “We had our good days, too, Theresa. Your father was funny and charming—she smiles—“and he was trying his best to be what I needed him to be, but his true self overpowered that, and he became frustrated with me and with the life we shared for all those years. He turned to liquor, and it was never the same. I know you remember.” Her voice is haunted, and I can hear the vulnerability in her tone and see it shining in her eyes, but she recovers quickly. My mother has never been fond of weakness.

    I’m once again taken back to the screaming, the breaking of dishes, even the occasional “these bruises on my arms are from gardening,” and feel my stomach get tied up in knots.

    “Can you honestly look me in the eyes and tell me that you have a future with this boy?” she asks as the silence ticks on.

    I can’t respond. I know the future that I want with Hardin. Whether he’ll be willing to give it to me is the question.

    “I wasn’t always like this, Theresa.” She gently dabs both index fingers under her eyes. “I used to love life, I was always excited about the future . . . and look at me now. You may think I’m a horrible person for wanting to protect you from my fate, but I’m only doing what’s necessary to keep you from repeating my history. I don’t want this for you . . .” I struggle to picture a young Carol, happy and excited about each new day. I can count the times that I’ve heard the woman laugh in the last five years on one hand.

    “It’s not the same, Mother.” I force myself to say the words.

    “Theresa, you cannot deny the similarities.”

    “There are some, yes,” I admit, more to myself than to her, “but I refuse to believe that history is repeating itself. Hardin has already changed so much.”

    “If you have to change him, why even bother?” Her voice is calm now as she looks around the bedroom that once was mine.

    “I haven’t changed him, he’s changed himself. He’s still the same man; all the things that I love about him are there, only he has learned to handle things differently and has become a better version of himself.”

    “I saw his bloody hand,” she points out.

    I shrug. “He has a temper.” A massive one, but I won’t go along with her putting him down. She needs to understand that I’m on his side, and that from now on, to get to him she has to go through me.

    “So did your father.”

    I stand. “Hardin would never purposely hurt me. He isn’t perfect, Mother, but neither are you. Neither am I.” I’m amazed at my own confidence as I cross my arms and match her glare.

    “It’s more than his temper . . . Think of what he’s done to you. He humiliated you; you had to find another campus.”

    I don’t have the energy to argue with her statement, mostly because it holds a lot of truth. I’d always wanted to move to Seattle, but my bad experience this first year at school gave me the extra push that I needed.

    “He’s covered in tattoos . . . though at least he removed those hideous piercings.” Her face twists in disgust.

    “You’re not perfect either, Mother,” I repeat. “The pearls around your neck hide your scars, just as Hardin’s tattoos hide his.”

    My mother’s eyes quickly flick over to me, and I can clearly see the words repeating in her mind. It’s finally happened; I’ve finally made a breakthrough in dealing with her.

    “I’m sorry for what my father did to you, I really am, but Hardin isn’t my father.” I sit back down next to her, and dare to place my hand over hers. Her skin is cold under my palm, but to my surprise, she doesn’t pull away. “And I’m not you,” I add as gently as possible.

    “You will be if you don’t get as far away from him as you can.”

    I remove my hand from hers and take a deep breath to stay calm. “You don’t have to approve of my relationship, but you have to respect it. If you can’t,” I say, struggling to stay confident, “then you and I will never be able to have a relationship.”

    She slowly shakes her head from side to side. I know she was expecting me to give in to her, to agree that Hardin and I could never work. She was wrong.

    “You cannot give me that type of ultimatum.”

    “Yes, I can. I need as much support as possible, and I am beyond exhausted with battling against the world.”

    “If you feel as if you’re battling alone, perhaps it’s time to change sides.” She raises an accusatory brow at me. I stand again.

    “I’m not battling alone, stop doing that. Stop it,” I hiss. I’m trying my best to be patient with her, but my resolve is wearing as thin, as this night is long.

    “I’m never going to like him,” my mother says, and I know she means every word.

    “You don’t have to like him, but you won’t be spreading our business to anyone else, including my father. That was incredibly wrong of you to tell him about the bet, and not in the least justified.”

    “Your father had the right to know what he has caused.”

    She doesn’t get it! She still doesn’t understand. My head is going to explode any moment; I can feel the pressure building in my neck. “Hardin is trying his hardest for me, but until now he’s never known any better,” I tell her.

    She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t even look at me.

    “That’s it, then? You’re going to take the second option?” I ask.

    She stares at me, silent, the wheels of her mind turning and turning behind her heavily shaded eyes. She has no color left in her cheeks, despite the rosy blush she clearly swept across her cheekbones before she arrived. At last she mutters, “I’ll try to respect your relationship. I will try.”

    “Thank you,” I say, but really I don’t know what to make of this . . . truce with my mother. I’m not naive enough to believe what she’s promised until she proves it, but it still feels pretty good to have one of the heavy stones lifted from my back.

    “What will you do about your father?” We both stand; she towers over me in her four-inch heels.

    “I don’t know.” I’ve been too distracted by the topic of Hardin to focus on my father.

    “You should make him leave; he has no business being here clouding your mind and filling it with lies.”

    “He’s done no such thing,” I fire back. Every time I believe we’ve made any type of progress, she uses her sharp heel to kick me back down.

    “He has! He has strangers showing up here, shaking him down for money! Hardin told me all of it.”

    Why would he do that? I understand his concern, but my mother hasn’t helped the situation one bit. “I’m not going to kick him out. This isn’t my place, and he has nowhere else to go.”

    My mother’s eyes close, and she shakes her head at me for the tenth time in the last twenty minutes. “You have to stop trying to fix people, Theresa. You will spend your entire life doing it, but then you’ll have nothing left of yourself, even if you succeed in changing them.”

    “Tessa?” Hardin’s voice calls from outside the bedroom. He opens the door before I respond, and his eyes immediately scan my face for signs of distress.

    “You okay?” he asks, ignoring my mother’s presence completely.

    “Yeah.” I gravitate toward him but avoid throwing my arms around him, for my mother’s sake. The poor woman has already been dragged through twenty years of memories.

    “I was just leaving.” My mother runs her palms down her dress, stopping at the hem and then repeating the action, a frown settling on her face.

    “Good,” Hardin rudely remarks, quick to protect me.

    I look up at him, my eyes pleading with him for silence. He rolls his eyes but doesn’t say another word as my mother strides by us and marches down the hall. The obnoxious clicking of her heels sends me into a full migraine.

    I take his hand and follow in silence. My father attempts to speak to my mother, but she brushes him off.

    “You didn’t wear a coat?” he unexpectedly asks her.

    Just as puzzled as I am, she mumbles “no” and turns to me. “I’ll call you tomorrow . . . Answer this time?” It’s a question instead of a demand, which is some sort of progress.

    “Yes.” I nod.

    She doesn’t say goodbye. I knew she wouldn’t.

    “That woman drives me flippin’ crazy!” my father shouts when the door closes, his hands flying into the air in exasperation.

    “We’re going to bed. If anyone else knocks at the damn door, don’t answer it,” Hardin grumbles and leads me back to the bedroom.

    I’m beyond exhausted. I can barely stand on my feet.

    “What did she say?” Hardin lifts his sweatshirt over his head and tosses it at me. I detect a flicker of uncertainty as he waits for me to collect it from the floor.

    Despite the greasy butter and blood smeared on the black fabric, I gladly remove my own shirt, along with my bra, and pull it over my head. I breathe in the familiar scent of him, which aides in calming my nerves. “More than she’s said in my entire life,” I admit. My mind is still reeling.

    “Did any of it change your mind?” He looks at me, panic and fear filling his eyes. I get the feeling my father must have had a similar talk with him, and wonder if my father holds the same grudge against my mother as she holds against him or if he admits that he’s to blame for the turmoil in both of their lives.

    “No.” I pull my loose pants down my legs and place them on the chair.

    “You’re sure? Aren’t you worried that we’re repeating their—” Hardin begins.

    “No, we are not. We’re nothing like them.” I stop him. I don’t want anyone else getting into his head, not tonight.

    Hardin doesn’t look convinced, but I force myself not to focus on that right now.

    “What do you want me to do about your dad? Kick him out?” he asks. He moves to sit on the bed with his back against the headboard while I grab his dirty jeans and socks from the floor. Hardin’s arms lift to rest behind his head, fully displaying his toned, inked body.

    “No, don’t kick him out. Please.” I crawl into bed, and he pulls me onto his lap.

    “I won’t,” he assures me. “Not tonight, at least.” I look up for a smile, but there isn’t one.

    “I’m so confused,” I groan into his chest.

    “I can help with that.” He lifts his pelvis, and I’m forced forward, using my palms to steady myself against his exposed chest.

    I roll my eyes. “Of course you can. Every problem looks like a nail when your first tool of choice is a hammer.”

    He smiles wickedly. “Are you saying you need to get nailed?”

    Before I can bemoan his bad joke, he takes my chin between his long, busted fingers, and I find myself shifting my hips, rubbing against him. I’m vaguely aware of my period; I know Hardin certainly doesn’t mind it.

    “You need sleep, baby; it would be wrong to fuck you right now,” he says softly.

    I shamelessly pout. “No, it wouldn’t,” I say and slide my palms down his stomach.

    “Oh no, you don’t.” He stops me.

    I need a distraction, and Hardin is the perfect fix. “You started it,” I whine. I sound desperate, because I am.

    “I know, and I’m sorry for that. I’ll take you in the car tomorrow.” His fingers slip under the sweatshirt and begin to draw unknown shapes across my bare back. “And if you’re a good girl, I’ll even bend you over the desk at my father’s house, just the way you like,” he says into my ear.

    My breathing hitches, and I playfully swat at him, and he laughs. His laugh is almost as distracting as sex would be. Almost.

    “Besides, we don’t want to make a mess in here tonight, do we? With your father out there? He’ll probably see the blood on the sheets and assume I’ve killed you.” He bites the inside of his cheek.

    “Do not start that,” I warn him. His cheesy menstrual jokes are not welcome right now.

    “Ahh, baby, don’t be like that.” He pinches my behind, and I yelp, sliding further into his lap, “Go with the flow.” He grins.

    “You’ve used that one before.” I smile back.

    “Well, excuse me for not being original. I like to recycle my jokes about once a month.”

    I groan and try to roll off him, but he stops me and nuzzles my neck.

    “You’re disgusting,” I say.

    “Yeah, I’m just an old bloody rag, I suppose.” He laughs and presses his lips to mine.

    I roll my eyes. “Speaking of bloody rags, let me see your hand.” I reach behind my back and gently grab him by the wrist. His middle finger is the worst, a thick gash spreads from knuckle to knuckle. “You should get this looked at, if it doesn’t begin to heal tomorrow.”

    “I’m fine.”

    “This one, too.” I run the pad of my index finger over the mangled skin on his ring finger.

    “Stop fussing, woman, go to sleep,” he grumbles.

    I nod in agreement and drift off to the sound of him complaining about my father eating his Frosted Flakes again.