Chapter Twenty-Two

After We Fell

chapter twenty-two




Wisconsin!” Karen says loudly, clapping her hands together, then pointing at a passing truck.

    I can’t help but laugh at Hardin’s horrified expression. “Oh my fucking God,” he huffs, laying his head back on the seat.

    “Would you stop? She’s having fun,” I scold him.

    “Texas!” Landon calls out.

    “Just open the door, and I’ll jump out here,” Hardin adds.

    “So dramatic,” I tease and look over at him. “So she plays the license-plate game? I’d think you could relate—you and your friends seem awful fond of silly games, too, like Truth or Dare.”

    Before Hardin can say something smart back, Karen exclaims, “We’re so excited for you two to see the boat and the cabin!”

    I look over at her. “Cabin?” I ask.

    “Yeah, we have a small cabin on the water there. I think you’ll like it, Tessa,” she says.

    I’m so relieved to find that I won’t have to sleep on the boat, like I’d assumed.

    “I’m hoping the sun stays out—this weather is nice for February. It’s even better in the summer. Maybe we can all come back?” Ken asks, looking in the rearview mirror.

    “Yeah,” Landon and I answer in unison.

    Hardin rolls his eyes. Apparently he’s going to stick to his pouty, childlike persona for the remainder of the drive.

    “Do you have everything ready for Seattle, Tessa?” Ken asks. “I spoke with Christian yesterday, and he’s really looking forward to you coming.”

    I feel Hardin’s eyes on me, but I’m not going to let that stop me. “I plan to start packing when we get back, but I’ve already enrolled in my classes at the new campus,” I tell him.

    “That campus is nothing compared to mine,” Ken teases, and Karen laughs. “No, it really is a nice campus. If you have any trouble, let me know.”

    I smile, happy to have him on my side. “Thank you, I will.”

    “Come to think of it,” he goes on, “we’re getting a new professor from the Seattle campus next week. He’s replacing one of our religion professors.”

    “Oh, which one?” Landon asks, looking at me with a raised brow.

    “Soto, the young one.” Ken looks in the rearview mirror again. “He’s your professor right now, isn’t he?”

    “Yeah, he is,” Landon answers.

    “I don’t remember where he’s going, but I think he’s transferring out,” Ken says.

    “Good thing,” Landon remarks under his breath, but I catch it and smile at him. Neither one of us really likes Professor Soto’s style and lack of academic rigor. Though I did enjoy the journaling he had us do.

    Karen’s voice is soft, and it slides between my thoughts. “Do the two of you have a place already?”

    “No. I had an apartment, or so I thought, but the woman seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. It was perfect, too, right in my budget and close to the office,” I tell her.

    Hardin shifts a little beside me, and I want to add that he isn’t joining me in Seattle, but I’m hoping to use this trip to convince him otherwise, so I stay quiet.

    “You know, Tessa, I have a few friends in Seattle. I can see about getting you a place before Monday, if you’d like,” Ken offers.

    “No,” Hardin says quickly.

    I look over at him. I would like that,” I say and meet Ken’s reflected gaze. “Otherwise I’ll be spending a fortune staying at a hotel until I can find a place.”

    Hardin waves his dad off. “It’s fine. I’m sure Sandra will call her back.”

    That’s I think and look at him. “How’d you know her name?” I ask.

    “What?” He blinks a couple of times. “You’ve only said it one hundred times.”

    “Oh,” I say, and he spreads his hand across my thigh, squeezing gently.

    “Well, just let me know if you want me to call anyone,” Ken offers again.


AFTER ANOTHER TWENTY MINUTES or so, Karen looks back at us, excitement bursting through her expression. “So how about I Spy?”

    Landon’s lips turn up into a vibrant smile. “Yeah, Hardin, how about I Spy?”

    Hardin leans against me, his head on my shoulder, and his arm wraps around me. “I’m good. I mean, it sounds wonderful, but it’s nap time for me. I’m sure Tessa and Landon would love to play.”

    Despite his mocking the game, the public intimacy warms me and makes me smile. I remember a time when Hardin would only hold my hand under the dinner table at his father’s house, and now he doesn’t seem fazed to be holding me in front of his family.

    “Okay! I’ll go first,” Karen says. “I spy with my little eye . . . something . . . blue!” she squeals.

    Hardin chuckles lightly, against me. “Ken’s shirt,” he whispers and nuzzles further into me.

    “The navigation screen?” Landon guesses.


    “Ken’s shirt?” I ask.

    “Yes! Tessa, it’s your turn now.”

    Hardin pinches me a little in acknowledgment, but I’m focused on Karen’s massive smile. She’s having way too much fun with these cheesy games, but she’s too sweet for me to not to play along.

    “Okay, I spy something”—I look down at Hardin—“black.”

    “Hardin’s soul!” Landon shouts, and I laugh.

    Hardin opens one eye and sticks up a middle finger at his stepbrother.

    “You’re right!” I exclaim, giggling.

    “Well then, the lot of you can shut up so me and my black soul can get some sleep,” he says, eyes closed.

    We ignore him and continue, and only a few minutes later Hardin’s breathing turns heavy and he begins to snore lightly into my neck. He mumbles for a moment before sliding down, putting his head on my lap and bringing his other arm around my waist. Landon seems to take that as a cue and lies across the middle seat, joining Hardin in sleep. Even Karen times out and ends up falling asleep.

    I enjoy the silence as I stare out the window, watching the lush scenery shoot past us.

    “We’re getting close, only a few more miles,” Ken says to the car, to nobody in particular.

    I nod in acknowledgment and run my fingers through Hardin’s soft hair. His eyelids flutter lightly under my touch, but he doesn’t wake up. I trail my fingers down his back, slowly, taking in the view of him sleeping so peacefully, his arms wrapped tightly around my body.

    Soon we turn onto a small street, the entirety of it lined with large pine trees. Silently, I watch out the window as we turn onto another street and round a corner, bringing the coast into view with sudden immediacy. It’s beautiful.

    Glittering blue water meets the shoreline, creating a gorgeous contrast. The grass is brown, though, dead from a harsher-than-normal Washington winter. I can’t imagine how beautiful this place must be in the summer.

    “Here we are,” Ken says, pulling into a long driveway.

    I look toward the front of the car and see a large wooden cabin. Clearly, the Scotts’ definition of “small cabin” is very different from mine. The one I’m looking at is two stories tall, made entirely of dark cherrywood, and has a white-trimmed porch wrapping around the ground floor.

    “Hardin, wake up.” I run my index finger over his jawline.

    His eyes open, and he blinks rapidly, confused for a moment, then he sits up and wipes his eyes with his knuckles.

    “Honey, we’re here,” Ken says to his wife, and she lifts up her head, followed by her son.

    Still a little dazed, Hardin carries our bags inside, where Ken shows him to the room we’re staying in. I follow Karen into the kitchen while Landon takes his bags to his room as well.

    The cathedral-style ceiling in the living room is repeated in the kitchen on a smaller scale. It takes me a moment to figure out what’s so peculiar about this room, but then I see that the kitchen here is a smaller, yet equally elegant version of the Scotts’ kitchen at home.

    “This place is beautiful,” I say to Karen. “Thank you for inviting us.”

    “Thank you, dear. It’s nice to finally have company in it.” She smiles and opens the refrigerator. “We love having the two of you here. I’d never have thought that Hardin would come along on a family trip. I know it’s a short one, but this means the world to Ken,” she says, speaking softly to ensure I’m the only one to hear.

    “I’m glad he came along, too, I think he’ll enjoy himself.” I say the words hoping that once they’re out there in the air, they’ll come true.

    Karen turns and grabs my hand warmly. “I sure will miss you when you go to Seattle. I haven’t had much time with Hardin, but I’ll miss him, too.”

    “I’ll still be around. It’s only a couple hours away,” I assure her. And myself, really.

    I’m going to miss her and Ken. And I can’t even allow my mind to wander into thoughts of Landon’s looming departure. Even though I’m leaving for Seattle before he leaves for New York, I’m not ready for him to be so far away. Being in Seattle, I’ll still be in the same state at least. But New York is far, so far.

    “I hope so. With Landon gone, too, I’m afraid I’ll be lost. I’ve been a mother for nearly twenty years . . .” She begins to tear up. “I’m sorry, I’m just so proud of him.” She dabs at her eyes with her fingers, stopping the tears, and looks around the kitchen, like she’ll find a task that will stop this feeling she’s having. “Maybe the three of you can run to the store down the road while Ken gets the boat ready.”

    “Yeah, of course we can,” I say as the three men enter the room.

    Hardin comes up behind me. “I left the bags on the bed for you to unpack. I know I’d do it wrong.”

    “Thank you,” I say, grateful that he didn’t even try. He likes to shove things haphazardly into dresser drawers, and it drives me mad. “I told Karen we’d go to the store for her while your father gets the boat ready.”

    “Okay.” He shrugs.

    “You, too.” I turn to Landon, who nods.

    “Landon knows where it is; it’s just down the road. You can walk or take the car. The keys are hanging by the door,” Ken says as we head out.

    The weather is forgiving today, and the sun makes it feel much warmer than it should be this early in the year. The sky is a clear blue. I can hear the waves crashing and smell the salt in the air each time the wind blows. We decide to walk down to the small store at the end of the street, and I’m comfortable in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt.

    “This place is so nice, it feels like we’re in our own world,” I say to Hardin and Landon.

    “We are in our own world. No one bothers to come to the beach in fucking February,” Hardin comments.

    “Well, I think it’s nice,” I say, ignoring his attitude.

    “Anyway”—Landon looks at Hardin, who is kicking at the rocks as we walk down the gravel road—“Dakota has an audition for a small production this week.”

    “Really?” I say. “That’s so great!”

    “Yeah, she’s really excited. I hope she gets the part.”

    “Didn’t she just start school, though? Why would they give the part to an amateur?” Hardin’s voice is calm, wondering.

    “Hardin . . .”

    “They would give her the part because regardless of her being an amateur or not, she’s an excellent dancer and has been studying ballet her entire life,” Landon fires back.

    Hardin holds up his hands comically. “Don’t get testy, I’m just saying.”

    But Landon defends his love. “Well, don’t, she’s talented, and she’s going to get the part.”

    Hardin rolls his eyes. “Okay . . . damn.”

    “It’s nice that you support her.” I smile at Landon in an attempt to break up the tension brewing between him and Hardin.

    “I’ll always support her, no matter what she does. That’s why I’m moving all the way to New York.” Landon looks at Hardin, and Hardin’s jaw tenses.

    “So this is how this trip is going to be, then? The two of you fucking ganging up on me? Count me fucking out, then. I didn’t even want to come on this shit anyway.” Hardin spits.

    The three of us stop walking, and Landon and I both turn to Hardin. I’m thinking about how to calm him down, when Landon suddenly says, “Well, then you shouldn’t have come. We’d all have a better time without you and your sour attitude anyway.”

    My eyes widen at Landon’s harsh remark, and I feel the urge to defend Hardin, but I stay quiet. Besides, Landon’s right, mostly. Hardin shouldn’t make it his goal to ruin our trip by having an attitude for no good reason.

    “Excuse me? You’re the one with a fucking ‘attitude,’ because I said your girlfriend was an amateur.”

    “No, you started being a jerk in the car,” Landon says.

    “Yeah—because your mum wouldn’t stop singing along to every fucking song on the radio and yelling state names”—Hardin’s voice rises precipitously—“while I was trying to enjoy the

    I step between them as Hardin tries to move toward Landon. Landon takes a deep breath and stares at Hardin, challenging him. “My mom is trying to make sure we all have a nice time!”

    “Well, then maybe she should—”

    “Stop it, you guys. You can’t fight like this the entire time we’re here. No one will be able to stand it, so please just stop,” I beg, not wanting to take sides between my best friend and my boyfriend.

    They look at each other for a few more tense moments. I nearly laugh at the way they behave like brothers despite the fact that they try so hard not to.

    “Okay.” Landon says finally, and sighs.

    “Fine,” Hardin huffs.

    The rest of our walk is silent, aside from Hardin’s boots kicking at the rocks and Landon’s soft humming. The calm after the storm . . . or before it.

    Or just between them, I suppose.


“WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO wear on the boat?” I ask Landon as we walk up the driveway to the cabin.

    “Shorts, I think. It’s warm right now, but I’ll probably bring a sweatsuit.”

    “Oh.” I wish it was warmer so I could wear a swimsuit. I don’t even own one, but the idea of shopping for one with Hardin makes me smile.

    I can picture him, saying crude and perverted things; he’d probably end up in the dressing room with me.

    I don’t think I’d stop him.

    I need to stop thinking these types of things, especially while Landon is talking about the weather, and I should at least appear to be listening.

    “The boat is insane, it’s so big,” Landon says.

    “Oh . . .” I cringe. Now that we’re closer to the boat ride, my nerves are beginning to take over.

    Landon and I go into the kitchen to unpack the groceries, and Hardin heads into the bedroom without a word.

    Landon looks over his shoulder to where his stepbrother disappeared to. “He’s pretty sensitive when it comes to talking about Seattle. He still hasn’t agreed to go, has he?”

    I look around the room to be sure no one can hear us. “No, not exactly,” I say and chew on my bottom lip in embarrassment.

    “I don’t get it,” Landon says, looking through the bags. “What’s so bad about Seattle that he won’t go with you? Does he have some sort of history there?”

    “No . . . well, not that I know of . . .” I start to say, but then Hardin’s letter comes to mind. I don’t remember him mentioning any hardships he’d gone through in Seattle. Could he have left them out?

    I don’t think so. And I hope not. I’m not ready for any more surprises.

    “Well, there has to be a reason, because he can’t even go to the bathroom without you, so I can’t imagine him being okay with you moving away without him. I thought he’d do anything to keep you close to him . . . literally anything,” Landon says with emphasis.

    “Me, too.” I sigh, not knowing why Hardin has to be so stubborn. “And he does go to the bathroom without me. Sometimes,” I joke.

    Landon laughs along. “Barely; he probably installed a hidden camera on your shirt to keep track of you.”

    “Cameras aren’t my thing. I’m more of a tracking-device type of guy.” Hardin’s voice makes me jump, and I look over to find him leaning in the doorway of the kitchen.

    “Thanks for helping prove my point,” Landon says, but Hardin chuckles, shaking his head. He seems to be in a better mood, thank goodness.

    “Where is this boat? I’m bored listening to you two talk shit about me.”

    “We weren’t, we were joking,” I tell him and walk over to hug him where he’s standing.

    “It’s fine, I do the same when you’re not around,” he says in a mocking tone, although I can’t help but detect a hint of seriousness behind the words.