Chapter Twenty-Three

After We Fell


chapter twenty-three

 

TESSA

 

Dock’s a little shaky, but sturdy enough. I need to get someone out here to remodel it . . .” Ken muses as we follow him out to where the boat’s moored.

    With their backyard leading directly to the water, the view is incredible. The waves crash along the rocks lining the shore, and instinctively I step behind Hardin.

    “What’s wrong?” he asks quietly.

    “Nothing. I’m just a little nervous.”

    He turns around to face me, sliding both of his hands into the back pockets of my jeans. “It’s only water, baby, it’ll be okay.”

    He smiles, but I can’t tell if he’s mocking me or being sincere. It’s only when his lips brush my cheek that my doubt disappears.

    “I forgot you don’t like water.” He pulls me closer.

    “I like water . . . in swimming pools.”

    “And streams?” His eyes glitter with humor.

    I smile at the memory. “Only one stream in particular.”

    I was nervous that day, too. Hardin only convinced me to get into the water by bribing me. He had promised to answer one of my endless questions about him in exchange for me getting into the water with him. Those days seem so distant—so ancient, really—but the ongoing theme of secrecy still litters our present.

    Hardin takes my hand in his as we follow his family down the dock to the incredibly intimidating vessel waiting at the end. I don’t know much about boats, but I think this one may be a giant-sized pontoon boat. I know it’s not a yacht, but it’s bigger than any fishing boat I’ve ever seen.

    “It’s so big,” I whisper to Hardin.

    “Shh, don’t talk about my dick in front of my family,” he teases.

    I love this playful yet grumpy mood he’s in; his smile is contagious. Then the dock creaks beneath my feet, and I squeeze tight against Hardin in panic.

    “Watch the step,” Ken calls back to us as he climbs onto the ladder connecting the boat and the dock.

    Hardin’s hand moves to my back as he helps me up the ladder. I try to force myself to imagine that it’s just a small ladder at a playground, not something attached to an enormous boat. The reassurance that comes with Hardin’s touch is the only thing keeping me from running back up the shaky dock, into the cabin, and hiding under the bed.

    Ken helps us each onto the deck, and once there, I can see how nice the boat is, decorated in white wood and caramel leather. The seating area is large, big enough for all of us and then some to sit comfortably.

    When he tries to help Hardin aboard, his son waves him off. When he’s fully on the deck, he looks around and says plainly, “It’s nice to see that your boat is nicer than Mum’s house.”

    Ken’s proud smile fades.

    “Hardin,” I whisper, tugging at his hand.

    “Sorry,” he huffs.

    Ken sighs but seems to accept his son’s apology before walking over to the other side of the boat.

    “You okay?” Hardin leans into me.

    “Yeah, just be nice, please. I’m already nauseous.”

    “I’ll be nice. I already apologized.” He takes a seat on one of the lounges, and I join him.

    Landon takes the grocery bag and leans down to unpack cans of soda and bags of snacks. I gaze across the expanse of the boat and out onto the water. It’s beautiful, and the sun is dancing across the surface.

    “I love you,” Hardin says softly into my ear.

    The boat’s engine comes to life with a light hum, and I scoot closer to Hardin. “I love you,” I say back, still looking out onto the water.

    “If we get out far enough we may see a few dolphins, or if we’re lucky, a whale!” Ken says loudly.

    “A whale would surely knock this boat over in no time flat,” Hardin remarks, and I gulp at the thought. “Shit, sorry,” he apologizes.

    The farther and farther we get from the shore, the calmer I become. It’s odd: I thought it would be the opposite, but there’s a certain serenity that comes with being so disconnected from the land.

    “Do you see dolphins a lot out here?” I ask Karen as she sips on her soda.

    She smiles. “No, only once. But we still try!”

    “I can’t believe the weather today, it feels like June,” Landon remarks, pulling his T-shirt over his head.

    “Are you working on your tan?” I ask him, taking in his pale torso.

    “Or your ghost impression?” Hardin adds.

    Landon rolls his eyes but otherwise ignores the remark. “Yep, even though I won’t need a tan in the city.”

    “If the water wasn’t ice cold, we could all go for a swim closer to shore,” Karen says.

    “Maybe in the summer,” I remind her, and she nods happily.

    “At least we still have the Jacuzzi back at the cabin,” Ken says.

    Enjoying the moment, I look up at Hardin, but he stays quiet, staring off into the distance.

    “Look! There!” Ken points behind us.

    Hardin and I both turn quickly, and it takes me a moment to see what he’s spotted. It’s a pod of dolphins leaping through the water. They aren’t close to the boat, but they’re close enough that we can see the way they move in sync through the waves.

    “It’s our lucky day!” Karen laughs.

    The wind blows my hair across my face, blocking my view for a moment, and Hardin’s hand reaches up to tuck it back behind my ear. It’s always the simple things he does, the small ways he finds to touch me without thought, that make my stomach flutter.

    “That was so neat,” I say to him once the dolphins have fully passed by.

    “Yeah, it was, actually,” he says, sounding surprised.

 

AFTER TWO HOURS of conversation about boating, the beautiful summers along this spot of coastline, sports, and an awkward mention of Seattle that Hardin halted almost as soon as it began, Ken leads us back to the shore.

    “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Hardin and I ask each other at the same time.

    “Guess not.” He laughs, helping me down the ladder to the dock.

    The sun has marked his cheeks and the bridge of his nose, and his hair is unruly and blown out from the wind. He’s so lovely, it hurts.

    We all walk across the backyard, and all I can think about is how much I want to hold on to that peaceful sensation of being out on the water.

    As we enter the cabin, Karen announces, “I’ll make us all lunch—I’m sure everyone is hungry,” and disappears into the kitchen.

    The rest of us stand there silent and content as she walks off.

    Finally, Hardin asks his father, “What else is there to do here?”

    “Well, there’s a nice restaurant further in town—we were planning for all of us to have dinner there tomorrow. There’s an old-fashioned movie theater, a library—”

    “So, a bunch of lame shit, then?” Hardin says, his words harsh but his tone playful.

    “It’s a nice place, you should give it a chance,” Ken says, not in the least bit offended.

    The four of us head into the kitchen and stand around while Karen puts together a platter of sandwiches and fruit. Hardin, who is being overly affectionate today, rests his hand on my hip.

    Maybe this place is good for him.

 

AFTER LUNCH, I help Karen clean the kitchen and make lemonade while Landon and Hardin discuss how terrible modern literature is. I can’t help but laugh when Landon mentions Harry Potter. This sends Hardin into a five-minute-long speech on why he never has read and never will read the books, and Landon tries desperately to get him to change his mind.

    After the lemonade is finished and greedily drunk down, Ken says to us all, “Karen and I are going to head down to our friend’s cabin a few doors down for an hour or two, if you all want to come.”

    Hardin looks over at me from across the room, and I wait for him to answer. “I’ll pass,” he finally says, still looking at me.

    Landon looks back and forth between Hardin and me. “I’ll come,” he says plainly, but I swear I catch him smirk at Hardin before he stands up to join Ken and his mom.