Chapter Sixty-Four

After We Fell

chapter sixty-four




My head is heavy, so heavy, and the light shining through the yellow curtains is bright, too bright.

    Yellow curtains? I reopen my eyes to find the familiar yellow curtains of my old bedroom covering the windows. Those curtains always drove us both crazy, but my mother couldn’t afford to buy a matching set, so we learned to live with them. And the last twelve hours come flooding back in pieces, broken and jumbled memories that make little sense to me.

    Nothing makes sense. It takes seconds, minutes maybe, for my mind to even attempt to comprehend what happened.

    Steph’s betrayal is my strongest memory from the night, one of the most painful memories I have ever had to experience. How could she do that to me? To anyone? The whole situation is just so wrong, so twisted, and I never saw it coming. I remember the strong sense of relief I felt when she walked into the room, only to slip back into a panic when she admitted she had never been a friend to me after all. Her voice was so clear, despite the state I was in. She put something in my drink to slow me down, or worse, to make me pass out—all so she could get some sort of unwarranted revenge on me and Hardin. I was so afraid last night, and she went from being my safety to being a predator so quickly that I could barely comprehend the shift.

    I was drugged, at a party by someone who I thought was my friend. The reality of this hits me hard, and I swipe angrily at the tears soaking my cheeks.

    Humiliation replaces the sting of betrayal when I remember Dan and his camera. They took off my dress . . . the small red camera light in the dim room is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. They wanted to violate me, tape it, and show it to an audience. I hold my stomach, hoping to not get sick, again.

    Every single time I think I may get a break from the constant battle that has become my life, something worse happens. And I keep putting myself in these situations. Steph, of all people? I still can’t grasp it. If her reasoning was true, if she did it only because she doesn’t like me and she has a thing for Hardin, why didn’t she just tell me in the first place? Why did she pretend to be my friend all this time only to set me up? How could she smile in my face and go shopping with me, listen to my secrets and share my worries, only to be planning something like this behind my back?

    I sit up slowly, and it’s still too fast. My pulse is pounding behind my ears, and I want to rush to the bathroom and force myself to throw up, in case any of the drug remains in my stomach. I don’t, though, and instead close my eyes again.

    When I wake up again, my head is a little lighter, and I manage to get out of my childhood bed. I don’t have any pants on, only a small T-shirt that I don’t remember putting on in the first place. My mother must have dressed me . . . but that doesn’t seem likely.

    The only pajama pants left in my old dresser are uncomfortably tight and too short. I have gained weight since I left for college, but I feel more comfortable and confident in my body . . . more now than I ever felt before.

    I wobble out of the bedroom, down the hallway, and to the kitchen, where I find my mother leaning against the counter, reading a magazine. Her black dress is smooth and lint-free, her matching heels are high, and her hair is curled into perfect, classic waves. When I glance at the clock on the stove, I see that it’s a bit past four in the afternoon.

    “How are you feeling?” my mother asks timidly as she turns to face me.

    “Terrible,” I groan, unable to put on a friendly, much less a brave face.

    “I’d imagine, after the night you had.”

    Here we go . . .

    “Have some coffee and some Advil; you’ll feel better.”

    I nod slowly and walk over to the cabinet to grab a coffee mug.

    “I have church this evening; I assume you won’t be coming along? You missed the morning service,” she says in a flat voice.

    “No, I’m in no shape to be in church right now.” Only my mother would ask me to go to church with her when I just woke up after sleeping off a date-rape drug.

    She grabs her handbag from the kitchen table, then turns back to me. “Okay, I’ll tell Noah and Mr. and Mrs. Porter you said hello. I’ll be home around eight, maybe shortly after.”

    A pang of guilt hits me at the mention of Noah’s name. I still haven’t called him since I learned of his grandmother’s passing. I know I should have, and I need to. I’ll do it after church ends—if I can find my phone, that is.

    “How did I get here last night?” I ask, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I remember Zed storming into Hardin’s old room and breaking the camera.

    “The young man who brought you was named Zed, I believe.” She looks back down at her magazine and quietly clears her throat.


    I hate this. I hate not knowing. I like to be in control of everything, and last night I wasn’t in control of my thoughts or of my body.

    My mother puts down the magazine with what sounds like a slap. She looks at me blankly, says, “Call me if you need anything,” and walks toward the front door.

    “Okay . . .”

    Turning, my mother gives one last disapproving glance toward my tight pajamas and leaves the house. “Oh, and go through my closet and find yourself something to wear.”

    The moment the screen door closes, a flash of Hardin’s voice pops into my mind.

    This is all my fault, he said. It couldn’t have been Hardin—my mind is playing tricks on me. I need to call Zed and thank him for everything. I owe him so much for coming to my aid, for saving me. I’m so grateful to him, and I’ll never be able to thank him enough for helping me and driving me all the way here. I can’t imagine what would have happened in front of that camera had he not shown up.

    Salty tears mix with black coffee for the next half hour. Finally, I force myself from the table and into the bathroom to wash last night’s disgusting events from my body. By the time I’m searching in my mother’s closet for something without a built-in underwire bra, I feel a good deal better.

    “Do you not own any normal clothing?” I groan, pushing through hanger after hanger holding cocktail dresses. I’m at the point where I would rather sit naked before I finally find a cream-colored sweater and dark jeans. The jeans fit perfectly, and the sweater is tight on my chest, but I’m grateful to have found anything casual at all, so I’m not going to complain.

    Searching the house for my phone and purse, I realize that I don’t have a single memory that could point me toward their hiding place. Why can’t my mind just clear through the jumbled night and make sense of everything? I’m assuming my car is still parked outside of Steph’s dorm; hopefully she hasn’t slashed my tires.

    I go back into my old bedroom and pull open the desk drawer. My phone sits inside, on top of my small purse. I press the power button and wait for the home screen to appear. I nearly turn it back off when the alert vibrations go on endlessly. Text message after text message, voicemail after voicemail, pop onto the small screen.

    Hardin . . . Hardin . . . Zed . . . Hardin . . . unknown . . . Hardin . . . Hardin . . .

    My stomach flutters in the most uncomfortable way as I read his name on the screen. He knows; he has to. Someone told him what happened, and that’s why he called and text-messaged me so many times. I should call him and at least let him know that I’m okay before he worries himself crazy. Regardless of the state of our relationship, he’s probably upset after hearing about what happened . . . “upset” being an understatement, for sure.

    I hang up the phone after six rings, just as his voicemail picks up, and head back into my mother’s bedroom to attempt to style my hair. The last thing I care about is my appearance right now, but I also don’t care for the idea of listening to my mother’s insults if I don’t make myself look at least decent. Dealing with my appearance also helps to distract me from my anxiety over the scattershot memories of last night that flash into my mind occasionally. I cover the deep circles under my eyes and apply a few swipes of mascara and brush my hair. It’s nearly dry now, working in my favor as I rake my fingers through the natural waves. It doesn’t look nearly as good as I would like, but I don’t have the energy to mess with the frizzy mess any longer than I already have.

    The faint sound of someone knocking at the front door draws me out of my daze. Who could be coming here at this time? And suddenly my stomach turns at the thought of Hardin being on the other side of the door.

    “Tessa?” a familiar voice calls as I hear the door open.

    Noah lets himself in, and I see him in the living room. Relief and guilt hit me as I take in his familiar but shaky smile.

    “Hey . . .” He nods, shifting from one foot to the other.

    Without thinking, I practically throw myself at him, wrapping my arms around his neck. I bury my face in his chest and begin to cry.

    His strong arms wrap around me and hold me, keeping both of us from toppling over. “Are you okay?”

    “Yes, I’m just . . . No, I’m not.” I lift my head from his chest, not wanting to smear my mascara on his tan cardigan.

    “Your mom said you were in town.” He continues to hold me while I continue to relish the familiarity of him. “So I kind of ducked out before the service ended so I could say hey without everyone around. So what happened?”

    “So much, too much to even explain. I’m being so dramatic,” I groan and step away from him.

    “College still isn’t treating you the way you hoped?” he asks with a sympathetic little smile.

    I shake my head and gesture for him to follow me into the kitchen, where I make another pot of coffee. “No, not at all. I’m moving to Seattle.”

    “Your mom told me,” he says and sits at the table.

    “Are you still thinking of going to WCU in the spring?” I bark out a little laugh. “I wouldn’t recommend that school.” But trying to make a joke at my own expense fails as tears fill my eyes.

    “Yeah, that’s the plan. This . . . girl I’ve been seeing . . . we’ve been thinking about San Francisco, though. You know how I love California.”

    I wasn’t prepared for that—Noah dating someone. I suppose I should have been, but it feels so weird that all I can think to say is, “Oh?”

    Noah’s blue eyes shine under the fluorescent kitchen lights. “Yeah, it’s been going pretty well. I’ve been trying to take it in stride, though, you know . . . because of everything.”

    Not wanting him to finish that thought and make me feel even more guilty about how we broke up, I ask, “Uhm, so how did you two meet?”

    “Well, she works at Zooms or something, a store in the mall near you, and—”

    “You were in town?” I interrupt him. It feels strange that he didn’t tell me, didn’t stop by . . . but I get it.

    “Yeah, to see Becca. I should have called you or something, but everything was so weird between us . . .”

    “I know, it’s okay,” I assure him and let him finish. That name, Becca, rings a bell . . . but the fragment of memory drops from my mind as he continues.

    “Well, anyway, I guess after that, we got pretty close. We had some problems here and there, and I thought I couldn’t trust her for a while, but we’re doing pretty good now.”

    Hearing about his woes brings me back to my own, and I sigh. “I feel like I can’t trust anyone anymore.” When Noah frowns, I hastily add, “Except you. I’m not talking about you. Every single person that I’ve met since I arrived at that school has lied to me in some way.”

    Even Hardin. Especially Hardin.

    “Is that what happened last night?”

    “Sort of . . .” I wonder what my mother told him.

    “I knew it had to be something big to bring you home.” I nod, and he reaches across the table to clasp my hands in his. “I missed you,” he murmurs, sadness clear in his voice.

    I look up at him with wide eyes; I can feel the tears coming again. “I’m so sorry that I haven’t called about your grandma.”

    “It’s okay, I know you’re busy.” He leans back against the chair with soft eyes.

    “That’s not an excuse, I’ve been so terrible to you.”

    “You haven’t,” he lies, shaking his head slowly.

    “You know that I have. I’ve treated you so poorly since I left home, and I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve any of it.”

    “Stop beating yourself up; I’m okay now,” he assures me with a warm smile, but the guilt doesn’t subside.

    “I still shouldn’t have done it.”

    Then he surprises me with something I wouldn’t have expected him to ever ask. “If you could do it all over again, what would you change?”

    “The way I went about things. I shouldn’t have strung you along and gone behind your back. I’ve known you half my life and I dropped you so suddenly, it was terrible of me.”

    “It was,” he starts, “but I get it now. We weren’t good for each other . . . Well, we were perfect together,” he says with a laugh. “But I think that was actually the problem.”

    The small kitchen feels more spacious now as my guilt begins to dissolve. “You think so?”

    “Yeah, I do. I love you, and I’ll always love you. I just don’t love you the way I always thought I did, and you could never love me the way you love him.”

    I choke on my breath at his mention of Hardin. He’s right, he’s so right, but I can’t talk about Hardin with Noah. Not right now.

    I need to change the subject. “So Becca makes you happy, then?”

    “Yeah, she’s different than you’d probably expect, but then, Hardin isn’t exactly who I expected you to break up with me for.” His smile isn’t harsh as he chuckles softly. “I guess we both needed something different.”

    He’s right, yet again. “I guess so.” I laugh along with him and we continue to lighten the conversation until another knock at the door interrupts us.

    “I’ll get it,” he says, standing to his feet and leaving the small kitchen before I can stop him.