Chapter Sixty-One

After We Fell


chapter sixty-one

 

HARDIN

 

They couldn’t have been here long—I went twenty miles over the speed limit the whole way. The moment I spot Zed’s truck in the driveway of the small brick house, I nearly vomit. When he steps out onto the porch, my vision goes red.

    Zed walks slowly to his truck as I park on the street, not wanting to block him in, so he can just get the fuck out of here. What will I say to him? What will I say to her? Will she even be able to hear me?

    “I knew you’d show up here,” he says quietly when I appear in front of him.

    “Why wouldn’t I?” I growl, biting back my rising anger.

    “Maybe because this is all your fault.”

    “Are you fucking serious? It’s my fault that Steph is a goddamned psycho?” Yes; yes, it is.

    “No, it’s your fault that you didn’t come with Tessa to that party in the first place. You should have seen her face when I busted that door in.” He shakes his head as if to rid himself of the memory. My chest tightens. Tessa must not have told him that we aren’t together. Does that mean she’s still holding on, the way that I am?

    “I . . . I didn’t even know she was going there, so fuck off. Where is she?”

    “Inside.” He states the obvious with a murderous glare.

    “Don’t fucking look at me like that—you shouldn’t even be here in the first place,” I remind him.

    “If it wasn’t for me, she would have been raped and God knows what else—”

    My hands find the collar of his leather jacket, and I push him up against the side of his truck. “No matter how many times you try, no matter how many times you ‘save’ her, she will never want you. Don’t forget that.”

    I give him one last push and step away. I want to hit him, bust his fucking nose for being such a smug asshole, but Tessa is just inside that house, and seeing her is much more important right now. As I walk past his truck windows I see on his seat Tessa’s purse and . . . dress.

    She doesn’t have clothes on?

    “Why is her dress off?” I dare to ask. I yank on the door handle and gather her things into my arms. When he doesn’t answer immediately, I glare at him, waiting for his response.

    “They took it off of her,” he simply remarks, his expression grim.

    “Fuck,” I murmur and turn to walk up the path to Tessa’s mother’s house.

    As I reach the porch, Carol comes out to block the front door. “What the hell are you doing here?”

    Her daughter’s wounded, and her first thought is to scream at me. Fucking lovely.

    “I need to see her.” I grab the handle to the screen door. She shakes her head, but moves out of my way. I get the feeling that she knows I’ll push right past her.

    “You aren’t coming into this house!” she shouts.

    I ignore her and step around her. “Did you not hear me! Don’t walk past me like you didn’t hear me!” The screen door slams somewhere behind me as I scan the small living room to find my girl.

    And then I freeze momentarily when I see her. She’s lying on the couch with her knees bent slightly, her hair like a blond halo around her head, and her eyes closed. Carol continues to harass me, threatening to call the cops, but I don’t give a shit. I step over to Tessa, then kneel down so that I’m level with her face. Without thought, I brush a thumb over her cheekbone and cup her flushed cheek in my palm.

    “Christ,” I curse and watch closely as her chest moves up and down slowly.

    “Fuck, Tess, I’m so sorry. This is all my fault,” I whisper to her, hoping that she can hear me. She’s so beautiful, still and calm, her lips parted slightly, innocence clear on her breathtaking face.

    Carol of course jumps into the moment, spewing her anger at me. “You’ve got that right! This is your fault. Now get out of my house before I have you dragged out by the police!”

    Without turning to her, I say, “Would you just give it a rest? I’m not going anywhere. Go ahead and call the police. Have them show up here this late at night—you’ll be the talk of the town, and we all know you don’t want that.” I know she’s glaring at me, throwing daggers in her mind, but I can’t look away from the girl in front of me.

    “Fine,” Carol finally snorts. “You have five minutes.”

    Her shoes drag against the carpet in the most hideous way. Why is she so dressed up this late anyway?

    “I hope you can hear me, Tessa,” I begin. My words are rushed but my touch is gentle as I caress the soft skin of her cheek. Tears well up in my eyes and fall onto her clear skin. “I’m so sorry. God, I’m so sorry for all of this. I shouldn’t have let you walk away in the first place. What was I thinking?

    “You would be proud of me, a little, I think. I didn’t kill Dan when I found him; I only kicked him in the face . . . oh, and I choked him a little, but he’s still breathing.” I pause before admitting, “And I almost drank tonight, but I didn’t. I couldn’t make things even worse between us. I know you think I don’t care, but I do, I just don’t know how to show you.” I stop to examine the way her eyelids flutter at my voice.

    “Tessa, can you hear me?” I ask, hopeful.

    “Zed?” she barely whispers, and for a moment I swear the devil is messing with my mind.

    “No, baby, it’s Hardin. I’m Hardin, not Zed.” I can’t help the irritation that flares in me from hearing his name come so softly from her lips.

    “No Hardin.” Her eyebrows pull together in confusion, but her eyes stay closed. “Zed?” she repeats, and I drop my hand from her cheek.

    When I rise to my feet, her mum is nowhere in sight. I’m surprised she wasn’t hovering over my shoulder while I tried to make amends with her daughter.

    And then, as if my thoughts conjured her, she bursts back into the room. “Are you finished?” she demands.

    I hold one palm up toward her back. “No, I’m not.” I want to be—Tessa’s calling out for Zed, after all.

    Then, meekly, as if admitting that she’s not in control of the entire world, her mum asks, “Can you put her in her room for me before you go? She can’t just lie on the couch.”

    “So I’m not allowed here, but . . .” I stop myself, knowing it won’t do any good to get into it with this woman for the tenth time since I met her. So I just nod. “Sure, where’s the room?”

    “Last door on the left,” she replies curtly and disappears again. I don’t know where Tessa’s kindness came from, but it sure as hell wasn’t from this woman.

    Sighing, I push one arm under Tessa’s knees and one under her neck, lifting her gently. A soft groan falls from her lips as I bring her close to my chest. I keep my head down slightly as I carry her down the hall. This house is small, much smaller than I had imagined.

    The last door on the left is nearly closed, and when I push it open with my foot, I’m surprised at the nostalgic feelings that well up deep inside me at the sight of a room that I’ve never been in before. A small bed rests against the far wall, filling nearly half of the tiny bedroom. The desk in the corner is almost the same size as the bed. A teenage Tessa flows through my imagination, the way she must have spent hours and hours sitting at the large desk working on countless homework assignments. Her eyebrows pushed together, her mouth set in a straight overconcentrated line, her hair falling over her eyes, and her hand pushing it back swiftly before pushing the pencil back behind her ear.

    Knowing her now, I wouldn’t have guessed these pink sheets and this purple duvet would belong to her. They must have been holdovers from back when a younger Tessa went through her Barbie doll phase that she once described as “the best and worst time in her life.” I remember her describing how she constantly felt the need to ask her mum things like where Barbie worked, what university she attended, if she would have children one day.

    I look down at the adult Tessa in my arms and stifle a laugh as I think about her constant curiosity—one of my most and least favorite things about her now. I yank back the blanket and gently lay her across the bed, making sure that there’s only one pillow underneath her head, just the way she sleeps at home.

    this is not her home anymore. Just like this small house, our apartment was a short stop for her on the way to her dream: Seattle.

    The small wooden dresser creaks as I open the top drawer, searching for clothes to place on her half-naked body. The thought of Dan undressing her makes my fists clench around the thin fabric of an old T-shirt from her dresser. I lift Tessa up as gently as I can and drag the shirt over her head. Her hair is messy, and when I attempt to smooth it, it only gets worse. She groans again, and her fingers twitch. She’s trying to move, and she can’t. I hate this. I swallow the bile in my throat and blink away the thoughts of that shit bag’s hands on her.

    To be respectful, I look away from her while my hands pull her arms through the small holes and finally she’s dressed. Carol is standing in the doorway; a thoughtful yet uptight expression covers her face, and I wonder how long she’s been standing there.