Chapter One

After We Fell

chapter one




Dad?” This man in front of me couldn’t possibly be my father, despite the familiar brown eyes staring back at me.

    “Tessie?” His voice is thicker sounding than I recall from my distant memories.

    Hardin turns to me, eyes blazing, and then back to my father.

    My father. Here, in this bad neighborhood, with filthy clothes on his back.

    “Tessie? Is that really you?” he asks.

    I’m frozen. I have no words to say to this drunken man wearing my father’s face.

    Hardin puts a hand on my shoulder in an attempt to elicit a reaction from me. “Tessa . . .”

    I take a step toward the strange man, and he smiles. His brown beard is peppered with gray; his smile isn’t white and clean like I remember . . . how did he end up this way? All the hope I once held that my father would’ve changed his life around the way Ken did has vanished, and the realization that this man is actually my father hurts worse than it should.

    “It’s me,” someone says, and after a moment I realize the words came from me.

    He closes the space between us and wraps his arms around me. “I can’t believe it! Here you are! I’ve been trying to—”

    He’s cut short by Hardin pulling him away from me. I step back, unsure how to behave.

    The stranger—my father—looks between Hardin and me, alert and in disbelief. But shortly he eases back into a nonchalant posture and keeps his distance, for which I’m glad.

    “I’ve been trying to find you for months,” he says, wiping his hand across his forehead, leaving a smudge of dirt on his skin.

    Hardin stands in front of me, ready to pounce. “I’ve been here,” I say quietly, peering around his shoulder. I’m thankful for his protection, and it dawns on me that he must be completely confused.

    My father turns to him, looks him up and down for a while. “Wow. Noah sure has changed a lot.”

    “No, that’s Hardin,” I tell him.

    My father shuffles around him a little and inches closer to me, and I can see that Hardin tenses when he moves. This close, I can smell him.

    It’s either the liquor on his breath, or the by-product of abusing liquor, that has him confusing the two; Hardin and Noah are polar opposites, and could never be compared to each other. My father swings an arm around me, and Hardin gives me a look, but I shake my head slightly to keep him at bay.

    “Who’s he?” My father keeps his arm around me for an uncomfortably long time while Hardin just stands there, looking like he’s going to explode—not necessarily out of anger, I realize; he just seems to have no clue what to say or do.

    That makes two of us. “He’s my . . . Hardin’s my . . .”

    “Boyfriend. I’m her boyfriend,” he finishes for me.

    The man’s brown irises go wide as he finally takes in Hardin’s appearance.

    “Nice to meet you, Hardin. I’m Richard.” He reaches his dirty hand out to shake Hardin’s.

    “Ehm . . . yeah, nice to meet you.” Hardin is clearly very . . . unsettled.

    “What are the two of you doing out around here?”

    I take this opportunity to move away from my father and stand next to Hardin, who snaps back to himself and pulls me to his side.

    “Hardin was getting a tattoo,” I answer robotically. My mind is unable to comprehend all that’s happening right now.

    “Ah . . . Nice. I’ve used this place before myself.”

    Images of my father having coffee before leaving the house every morning to go to work fill my mind. He looked nothing like this, he spoke nothing like this, and he sure as hell didn’t tattoo himself back when I knew him. When I was his little girl.

    “Yeah, my friend Tom does them.” He pushes up the sleeve of his sweatshirt to reveal what resembles a skull on his forearm.

    It doesn’t look like it belongs on him, but as I continue to examine him I begin to see that maybe it does. “Oh . . .” is all I can manage.

    This is so awkward. This man is my father, the man who left my mother and me alone. And he’s here in front of me . . . drunk. And I don’t know what to think.

    Part of me is excited—a small part that I don’t want to acknowledge at the moment. I had secretly been hoping to see him again since the day my mother mentioned he was back in the area. I know it’s silly—stupid, really—but in a way he seems better than before. He’s drunk and possibly homeless, but I have missed him more than I realized, and maybe he’s just had a rough time lately. Who am I to judge this man when I don’t know anything about him?

    When I look at him, and at the street surrounding us, it’s bizarre to see that everything is moving along as it normally should. I could have sworn time stopped when my father stumbled in front of us.

    “Where are you living?” I ask.

    Hardin’s defensive gaze is set on my father, watching him like he’s a dangerous predator.

    “I’m in between places right now.” He wipes his forehead with his sleeve.


    “I was working down at Raymark, but I got laid off,” he tells me.

    I vaguely recall hearing the name Raymark before. I think it’s some manufacturer. He’s been doing factory work?

    “What have you been up to? It’s been, what . . . five years?”

    I can feel Hardin stiffen next to me as I say, “No, it’s been nine.”

    “Nine years? I’m sorry, Tessie.” His words are slightly slurred.

    His nickname for me makes my heart sink; that name was used in the best of times. In the time when he would lift me up onto his shoulders and run through our small yard, the time before he left. I don’t know what to make of this. I want to cry because I haven’t seen him in so long, I want to laugh at the irony of seeing him here, and I want to yell at him for leaving me. It’s confusing to see him this way. I remember him as a drunk, but he was an angry drunk then, not a smiling, showing-off-tattoos-and-shaking-hands-with-my-boyfriend drunk. Maybe he’s changed into a nicer man . . .

    “I think it’s time to go,” Hardin states, looking at my father.

    “I really am sorry; it wasn’t all my fault. Your mother . . . you know how she is.” He defends himself, his hands waving in front of him. “Please, Theresa, give me a chance,” the man begs.

    “Tessa . . .” Hardin warns beside me.

    “Give us a second,” I say to my father. I grab Hardin by the arm and lead him a few feet away.

    “What the hell are you doing? You aren’t actually going to—” he begins.

    “He’s my Hardin.”

    “He’s a fucking homeless drunk,” he spits with annoyance.

    Tears prick my eyes from Hardin’s truthful but harsh words. “I haven’t seen him in nine years.”

    “Exactly—because he left you. It’s a waste of time, Tessa.” He glances behind me at my father.

    “I don’t care. I want to hear him out.”

    “I mean, I guess so. It’s not like you’re inviting him to the apartment or anything.” He shakes his head.

    “If I want to, I will. And if he wants to come, he’s coming over. It’s my place, too,” I snap. I look over at my father. He’s standing there, wearing dirty clothes, staring down at the concrete in front of him. When was the last time he slept in a bed? Had a meal? The thought makes my heart ache.

    “You aren’t seriously considering having him come home with us?” Hardin’s fingers slide through his hair in a familiar gesture of frustration.

    “Not to live or anything—just for tonight. We could make dinner,” I offer. My father looks up and makes eye contact with me. I look away as he starts to smile.

    Tessa, he’s a goddamn drunk who hasn’t seen you in almost ten years . . . and you’re talking about making dinner for him?”

    Embarrassed at his outburst, I pull him by the collar closer to me and speak low. “He’s my Hardin, and I don’t have a relationship with my mother anymore.”

    “That doesn’t mean you need to have one with this guy. This isn’t going to end well, Tess. You’re too damn nice to everyone when they don’t deserve it.”

    “This is important to me,” I tell him, and his eyes soften before I can point out the irony of his objections.

    He sighs and tugs at his messy hair in frustration.“Dammit, Tessa, this isn’t going to end well.”

    “You don’t know how it will end, Hardin,” I whisper and look over at my father, who’s running his fingers over his beard. I know Hardin may be right, but I owe it to myself to attempt to get to know this man, or at least to hear what he has to say.

    I go back over to my father, instinctive apprehension making my voice waver a little. “Do you want to come to our place for dinner?”

    “Really?” he exclaims, hope threading through his face.


    “Okay! Yeah, okay!” He smiles, and for a brief moment the man I remember flashes through—the man before the liquor, that is.

    Hardin doesn’t say a word as we all walk to the car. I know he’s angry, and I understand why. But I also know that his father has changed for the better—he runs our college, for goodness’ sakes. Am I so foolish for hoping to witness a similar change in my father?

    When we approach the car, my father asks, “Whoa—this is yours? It’s a Capri, right? Late-seventies model?”

    “Yep.” Hardin climbs into the driver’s seat.

    My father doesn’t question Hardin’s terse response, and I’m glad for it. The radio is set low, and as soon as Hardin revs the engine, we both reach for the knob at the same time, in hopes that music will drown out the uncomfortable silence.

    The whole drive to the apartment, I wonder how my mother would take this. The thought gives me chills, and I try thinking about my upcoming move to Seattle.

    Nope, that’s almost worse; I don’t know how to talk about it with Hardin. I close my eyes and lean my head against the window. Hardin’s warm hand covers mine, and my nerves begin to calm.

    “Whoa, this is where you live?” My father gapes from the backseat when we pull up to our apartment complex.

    Hardin gives me a subtle here-it-comes look, and I respond, “Yeah, we moved in a few months ago.”

    In the elevator, Hardin’s protective gaze heats my cheeks, and I give him a small smile, hoping to soften him. It seems to work, but being in our home area with this virtual stranger is just so awkward that I begin to regret inviting him over. It’s too late now, though.

    Hardin unlocks our door and walks inside without turning around, immediately heading to the bedroom without a word.

    “I’ll be right back,” I tell my father and turn to leave him standing alone in the foyer area.

    “Do you mind if I use your bathroom?” he calls after me.

    “Of course not. It’s just down the hall,” I say, pointing to the bathroom door without looking.

    In the other room, Hardin’s on the bed, removing his boots. Looking over to the door, he gestures for me to close it.

    “I know you’re upset with me,” I quietly remark as I walk over to him.

    “I am.”

    I take his face between my hands, my thumbs running over both his cheeks. “Don’t be.”

    His eyes close in appreciation of my gentle touch, and I feel his arms wrap around my waist. “He’s going to hurt you. I’m only trying to prevent that from happening.”

    “He can’t hurt me—what could he possibly do? I haven’t seen him in how long?”

    “He’s probably out there shoving our shit in his bloody pockets now,” Hardin huffs, and I can’t help but giggle. “It’s not funny, Tessa.”

    I sigh and tilt his chin up to make him look at me. “Can you please try to lighten up and be positive about this? It’s confusing enough without you sulking around and adding to the pressure.”

    “I’m not sulking. I’m trying to protect you.”

    “I don’t need you to—he’s my dad.”

    “He’s not your dad . . .”

    “Please?” I run my thumb along his lip, and his expression softens.

    Sighing again, he finally answers, “Fine, let’s go have dinner with this guy, then. God knows he hasn’t eaten anything that didn’t come from a fucking Dumpster in a while.”

    My smile fades and my lip quivers against my will. He notices.

    “I’m sorry; don’t cry.” He sighs. He hasn’t stopped sighing since we ran into my father outside the tattoo shop. Seeing Hardin’s if, like everything else he does, it’s tinged with anger—only adds to the surrealness of the situation.

    “I meant everything I said, but I’ll try not to be a dick about it.” He rises to his feet and presses his lips to the corner of my mouth. As we exit our bedroom, he mumbles, “Let’s go feed the beggar,” which doesn’t help my mood much.

    The man in the living room looks so out of place, gazing around the space, noticing the books on our shelves.

    “I’m going to make dinner. You can watch television?” I suggest.

    “I can help?” he offers.

    “Um, okay.” I half smile, and he follows me into the kitchen. Hardin stays in the living room, keeping his distance, as I suspected he would.

    “I can’t believe you’re all grown up and living on your own,” my father says.

    I reach into the refrigerator to grab a tomato while I try to collect my scattered thoughts. “I’m in college, at WCU. So is Hardin,” I reply, leaving out his looming expulsion for obvious reasons.

    “Really? WCU? Wow.” He sits down at the table, and I notice that the dirt has been scrubbed from his hands. The spot on his forehead is gone, too, and a wet spot on the shoulder of his shirt makes me think he was trying to clean a stain from it. He’s nervous, too. Knowing that makes me feel a little better.

    I almost tell him about Seattle and the exciting new direction my life is going in, but I have yet to tell Hardin. My father’s resurfacing has added another detour to my road map. I don’t know how many problems I can deal with before everything ends up collapsing at my feet.

    “I wish I’d been around to see all this happen. I always knew you’d make something of yourself.”

    “You weren’t around, though,” I say tersely. Guilt plagues me as soon as I say the words, but I don’t wish to take them back.

    “I know, but I’m here now, and I’m hoping I can make up for that.”

    Those simple words are actually a bit cruel, giving me hope that he might not be so bad after all, that maybe he just needs help to stop drinking.

    “Are you . . . Are you still drinking?”

    “I am.” He looks at his feet. “Not as much. I know it looks other­wise right now, but it’s been a hard few months . . . that’s all.”

    Hardin appears in the doorway of the kitchen, and I know he’s battling with himself to stay quiet. I hope he can.

    “I’ve seen your mom a few times.”

    “You have?”

    “Yeah. She wouldn’t tell me where you were. She looks really good,” he says.

    This is so awkward, him commenting on my mother. Her voice plays in my head, reminding me that this man abandoned us. That this man was the reason she is the way she is today.

    “What happened . . . with the two of you?” I place chicken breasts in a pan, the oil crackling and popping as I wait for an answer. I don’t want to turn and face him after asking such a direct and abrupt question, but I just couldn’t stop myself from inquiring.

    “We just weren’t compatible; she always wanted more than I could give her, and you know how she can be.”

    That I do know, but the way he’s casually talking about her in such a dismissive tone doesn’t sit well with me.

    Shifting the blame from my mother back to him, I turn quickly and ask, “Why didn’t you call?”

    “I always called. I sent you gifts every birthday. She didn’t tell you that, did she?”


    “Well, it’s true—I did. I missed you so much all this time. I can’t believe you’re here, in front of me now.” His eyes are luminous and his voice shaky as he stands and walks toward me. I don’t know how to react; I don’t even know the man anymore, if I ever did.

    Hardin steps into the kitchen to create a barrier between us, and once again I’m glad for his intrusion. I don’t know what to think of all of this; I need to keep physical space between this man and me.

    “I know you can’t forgive me.” He nearly sobs, and my stomach drops.

    “It’s not that. I just need time before I jump into having you in my life again. I don’t even know you,” I tell him, and he nods.

    “I know, I know.” He sits back down at the table, leaving me to finish preparing dinner.