Chapter Four

After We Fell


chapter four

 

TESSA

 

Turn it off,” Hardin groans as the alarm rings throughout the dark bedroom.

    My fingers fumble for my phone, and finally, with a swipe of my thumb across the screen, the unwelcome sound stops. My shoulders feel heavy as I sit up in bed, the weight of today’s tensions threatening to pull me back down: the university’s decision whether to expel Hardin, the possibility of Zed pressing charges against him, and lastly, Hardin’s potential reactions to my telling him I’m planning to follow Vance Publishing to Seattle, and that I want him to come even though he’s professed to hate the city.

    I can’t decide which of these terrifies me the most. By the time I turn the bathroom light on and splash cool water against my face, I realize that the assault charges are the worst. If Hardin is sent to jail, I honestly have no idea what I would do, or what he would do. The thought alone makes me nauseous. Zed’s request to meet with me this morning resurfaces, and my mind reels with all the possibilities of what he could want to talk about, especially since he said something about having fallen “in love” with me the last time I saw him.

    I inhale and exhale into the soft towel hanging on the wall. Should I reply to Zed and at least see what he has to say? Maybe he can offer an explanation for why he told Tristan one thing and me another about pressing charges. I feel guilty for asking him not to, especially considering how badly Hardin hurt him, but I love Hardin, and Zed had the same intentions as Hardin did, to win a bet, in the beginning. Neither of them is purely innocent here.

    Before I can overthink the possible repercussions, I text Zed. I’m only trying to help Hardin. I remind myself of that over and over after I hit send and obsess over my hair and makeup.

 

WHEN I SEE that the blanket is folded neatly on the arm of the couch, my heart sinks. He left? How will I get hold of him—

    The soft sound of a cabinet opening in the kitchen picks my heart up from the floor. Going into the dark room, I switch the light on and see my father startle and drop a spoon onto the concrete floor with a clatter.

    “Sorry, I was trying to be as quiet as possible,” my father says as he quickly bends to retrieve the utensil.

    “It’s okay. I was up. You could have turned the light on.” I laugh quietly.

    “I didn’t want to wake anyone. I was just trying to make some cereal; I hope that’s okay.”

    “Of course it is.” I start the coffee pot and check the clock. I need to wake Hardin in fifteen minutes.

    “What are your plans for today?” he asks with a mouth full of Frosted Flakes, Hardin’s favorite.

    “Well, I have class, and Hardin has a meeting with the university board.”

    “The university board? That sounds serious . . .”

    I look at my father and wonder, Should I tell him? But then, figuring I have to start somewhere, I say, “He got in a fight on campus.”

    “And they’re making him talk in front of the board? In my day, you got a slap on the wrist, and that was that.”

    destroyed a lot of property, expensive property, and he broke the guy’s nose.” I sigh and stir a spoonful of sugar into my coffee. I need the extra energy today.

    “Nice. So what was the fight about?”

    “Me, sort of. It was something that was building over time, and it finally just . . . exploded.”

    “Well, I like Hardin even more now than I did last night.” He beams. Though I’m glad that he’s warming to my boyfriend, it’s not for a good reason. I don’t want the two of them bonding over violence.

    I shake my head and gulp down half my coffee, letting the hot liquid soothe my frantic nerves.

    “Where’s he from?” He sounds genuinely interested in learning more about Hardin.

    “England.”

    “Thought that was the accent. Though sometimes I can’t tell it from Australian. So his family’s still there?”

    “His mother is. His father’s here. He’s the chancellor at WCU.”

    Curiosity fills his brown eyes. “Ironic, then, about the expulsion.”

    “Very.” I sigh.

    “Your mother’s met him?” he asks, then takes a big spoonful of cereal.

    “Yes, she hates him.” I frown.

    “ ‘Hate’ is a strong word.”

    “Trust me, in this case it’s not strong enough.” The ache from the loss of my relationship with my mother is much less potent than it used to be. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not.

    My father puts down his spoon and nods several times. “She can be a little hardheaded; she just worries about you.”

    “She doesn’t need to. I’m fine.”

    let her be the one to come around, then; you shouldn’t have to choose one or the other.” He smiles. “Your grandma didn’t approve of me either—she’s probably scowling at me from her grave as we speak.”

    This is all so strange, sitting in my kitchen with my father, bonding over cereal and coffee after all these years. “It’s just hard because we’ve always been close . . . as close as she’s capable of, at least.”

    “She always wanted you to be just like her; she made sure of that from a young age. She’s not a bad person, Tessie. She’s just afraid.”

    I look at him quizzically. “Of what?”

    “Everything. She’s afraid of losing control. I’m sure seeing you with Hardin terrified her and made her realize she doesn’t have control over you anymore.”

    I stare at the empty cup in front of me. “Is that why you left? Because she wanted to control everything?”

    My father sighs softly, an ambiguous sound. “No, I left because I have my own issues and we weren’t good for one another. Don’t worry about us.” He chuckles. “Worry about yourself and your troublemaker of a boyfriend.”

    I can’t picture the man in front of me and my mother being able to hold a conversation; they are just so different. When I glance at the clock, I realize it’s past eight.

    I get up and put my cup in the dishwasher. “I need to wake up Hardin. I threw your clothes in the wash last night. I’ll get dressed and bring them out.”

    I go into the bedroom and see that Hardin is awake. As I watch him pulling a black T-shirt over his head, I suggest, “Maybe you should wear something a little more formal to the meeting?”

    “Why?”

    “Because they’re deciding your educational future, and a black T-shirt doesn’t show much effort on your end. You can change right after, but I really think you should dress up.”

    “Fuuuuuck.” He exaggerates the word and throws his head back.

    I walk past him and into the closet to retrieve his black button-up shirt and pants.

    “No dress slacks—for the love of God, no.”

    I hand the pants to him. “It’s only for a little while.”

    He holds the garment like it’s nuclear waste or an alien artifact. “If I wear this shit and they still kick me out, I’ll burn that whole campus to the ground.”

    “You’re so dramatic.” I roll my eyes at him, but he doesn’t look amused as he steps into the dress pants.

    “Is our apartment still operating as a homeless shelter?”

    I drop the shirt, still on the hanger, onto the bed and march to the door.

    Frantic fingers lace through his hair. “Dammit, Tess, I’m sorry. I’m getting anxious, and I can’t even fuck you to settle me down because your dad is on our couch.”

    His vulgar words stir my hormones, but he’s right: my father in the other room is a big impediment. I walk over to Hardin, whose long fingers are struggling with the top button on his shirt, and gently move his hands out of the way. “Let me,” I offer.

    His eyes soften, but I can tell he’s beginning to panic. I hate seeing him this way; it’s so foreign. He’s so controlled all the time, never caring much for anything—except me, and even then he’s still pretty good at hiding his feelings.

    “Everything will be fine, babe. It’ll work out.”

    “Babe?” His smile is instant, and so is the flush in my cheeks.

    “Yes . . . babe.” I adjust the collar of his shirt, and he leans over to kiss the tip of my nose.

    “You’re right; worst-case scenario, we go to England.”

    I ignore his comment and return to the closet to pick out my own clothes for the day. “Do you think they’ll let me accompany you inside?” I ask him, unsure what to wear.

    “You want to?”

    “If they allow it.” I grab the new purple dress that I planned to wear to Vance tomorrow. I undress and put it on as quickly as possible. I slip on some black heels and exit the closet with my hands holding up the front of the dress. “Can you help me?” I ask Hardin, turning my back to him.

    “You’re purposely torturing me.” His fingertips travel across my exposed shoulders and down my back, leaving goose bumps in their wake.

    “Sorry.” My mouth is dry.

    He slowly raises the zipper, and I shiver as his lips press against the sensitive skin on the back of my neck. “We need to get going,” I tell him, and he groans, fingers digging into my hips.

    “I’m going to call my dad on the way. Are we dropping the . . . your dad off somewhere?”

    “I’ll ask him now; can you grab my bag?” I say, and he nods.

    “Tess?” he calls as my hand hits the doorknob. “I like that dress. And you. Well, I love you, of course . . . and your new dress,” he rambles. “I love you, and your fancy clothes.”

    I curtsy and do a little three-sixty so he can see me. As much as I hate Hardin being nervous, it’s also very appealing to me, because it reminds me that he’s not so tough after all.

    In the living room, my father is sitting on the couch, having fallen back asleep. I don’t know if I should wake him up or just leave him here to rest until we get back from campus.

    “Let him sleep,” Hardin answers, sensing my thoughts as he walks up behind me.

    I quickly scribble a note for him explaining when we’ll return, along with our phone numbers. I doubt he has a cell phone, but I leave them just in case.

    The drive to campus is short, too short, and Hardin looks like he’s going to either scream or punch something at any moment. When we arrive, he scans the parking lot for Ken’s car.

    “He said to meet him here,” Hardin says, checking the screen on his phone for the fifth time in five minutes.

    “There he is.” I point to the silver car pulling into the lot.

    “Finally. What the fuck took him so long?”

    “Be nice to him; he’s doing this for you. Please, just be nice to him,” I beg, and he sighs in frustration but agrees.

    Ken has brought his wife, Karen, and Hardin’s stepbrother, Landon, which surprises Hardin and makes me smile. I love them so much for supporting him, even when he acts like he doesn’t want their help.

    “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Hardin says to Landon as they approach us.

    “Don’t you?” Landon retaliates, which makes Hardin laugh.

    Listening to their exchange, Karen smiles with a brightness completely at odds with how she first appeared when she emerged from Ken’s car.

    As we walk toward the administrative building, Ken says, “I’m hoping this won’t last long. I’ve been calling everyone I can to pull as many strings as possible, so I’m praying for the best.” He stops for a minute and turns to Hardin. “Let me do the talking in there—I mean it.” Watching for his son’s response, he waits for him to agree.

    “Okay, yeah,” Hardin says without argument.

    Ken nods and swings the big wooden doors open, leading us all inside. Over his shoulder, Ken says authoritatively, “Tessa, I’m sorry, but you can’t come inside the room with us. I didn’t want to push it, but you can wait right outside.” He turns and gives me a sympathetic smile.

    But Hardin immediately goes into full panic mode. “What do you mean she can’t come inside? I need her in there!”

    “I know you do. I’m sorry, but it’s family only,” his father explains as he leads us down the hall. “Unless she was a witness, but even then, that’s a huge conflict of interest.”

    Ken stops us in front of a conference room and muses, “It’s not like I’m not engaged in a conflict of interest, being the chancellor. But you’re my son, and let’s at least have only one conflict, okay?”

    I turn to Hardin. “He’s right, and it’ll be better this way. It’s okay,” I assure him.

    He lets go of my hand and nods, looking past me to shoot daggers at his father, who sighs and says, “Hardin, please try your best to—”

    Hardin holds up one hand. “I will, I will,” he says and kisses my forehead.

    As the four of them walk into the room, I want to ask Landon to wait with me, but I know Hardin needs him in there, whether he’ll admit it or not. I feel so useless just sitting here outside this room while a group of stuffy men in suits decides Hardin’s educational future. Well, maybe there’s one way I can help . . .

    I pull my phone out and text Zed. I’m at the administrative building, can you come here?

    I stare at the screen, waiting for a reply, and my phone lights up less than a minute later: Yes, I’m on my way.

    I’ll be I send.

    With one last glance at the door, I head outside. It’s cold, too cold to be waiting out here in a knee-length dress, but I don’t have much of a choice.

 

AFTER WAITING AWHILE, I’ve just decided to go back inside when Zed’s old truck pulls into the parking lot. He steps out, wearing a black sweatshirt and dark-wash jeans. The deep bruising on his face shocks me, despite the fact that I just saw him yesterday.

    He tucks his hands into the pocket on the front of his sweatshirt. “Hey.”

    “Hey. Thanks for meeting me.”

    “It was my idea, remember?” He smiles, and I feel slightly less unsettled.

    I smile in return. “I guess you’re right.”

    “I want to talk to you about what you said at the hospital,” he says, which was exactly what I was planning to talk about.

    “So do I.”

    “You go first.”

    “Steph said you told Tristan you’re pressing charges against Hardin.” I try not to look at his bruised and bloodshot eyes.

    “I did.”

    “But you told me you wouldn’t press charges. Why lie to me?” I’m sure the hurt is clear in my shaky voice.

    “I didn’t lie to you; I meant it when I said it.”

    I step closer to him. “So what changed your mind?”

    He shrugs. “A lot of things. I thought about all the shit he’s done to me, and to you. He doesn’t deserve to just walk away from this.” He gestures to his face. “Look at me, for God’s sake.”

    I’m not sure what to say to Zed in this moment. He has every right to be upset with Hardin, but I wish he wouldn’t take legal action against him.

    “He’s already in trouble with the university board,” I say, hoping to change his mind.

    “He’s not going to get in trouble; Steph told me his dad’s the chancellor,” he scoffs.

    Dammit, Steph—why would you tell him that? I nod to acknowledge what he said. “That doesn’t mean he won’t get in trouble.”

    But my saying this only makes him exasperated. “Tessa, why are you always so quick to defend him? No matter what he does, you’re right there to fight his battles for him!”

    “That’s not true,” I lie.

    “Yes, it is!” He throws his hands up in disbelief. “You know it is! You told me you’d think about what I said about leaving him, but then I see you with him at a tattoo shop days later. It doesn’t make sense.”

    “I know you don’t understand, but I love him.”

    “If you love him so much, then why are you running away to Seattle?”

    His words rattle me. I pause for a second, but say, “I’m not running to Seattle. I’m going there for a better opportunity.”

    “He’s not coming with you. Our group of friends talk, you know?”

    What? “He was planning to,” I lie. But I can tell Zed sees right through it.

    With challenge in his eyes, he looks off to the side, then levels his stare at me. “If you can tell me that you have no feelings toward me, none at all, I’ll drop the charges.”

    Right then, the air seems to grow colder, the wind stronger. “What?”

    “You heard me. Tell me to leave you alone and never speak to you again, and I’ll do it.” His request reminds me of something Hardin said to me long ago.

    “But I don’t want that; I don’t want to never talk again,” I admit.

    “So what do you want, then?” he asks, his voice tinged with sadness and anger. “Because you seem to be just as confused as I am! You keep texting me and meeting up with me; you kiss me, sleep in the same bed as me; you always come to me when he hurts you! What do you want from me?”

    I thought I’d made my intentions clear at the hospital. “I don’t know what I want from you, but I love him and that’s never going to change. I’m sorry that I gave you mixed signals, but I—”

    “Tell me why you’re going to Seattle in a week and haven’t told him!” he shouts back at me, his arms waving in front of his body.

    “I don’t know . . . I’m going to tell him when I get the chance.”

    “You won’t tell him because you know he’ll leave you,” Zed snaps, his eyes looking past me.

    “He . . . well . . .” I don’t know what to say—because I really fear Zed’s right.

    “Well, guess what, Tessa? You can thank me later.”

    “For what?” I watch as his lips turn up into a wicked smile.

    Zed lifts his arm up, gesturing behind me, and a shiver rakes through me. “For telling him for you.”

    I know that when I turn around, Hardin will be standing there. I swear I can hear his ragged breathing over the harsh winter wind.