Chapter Sixty-Eight

After We Fell


chapter sixty-eight

 

TESSA

 

The moment that Landon’s car is out of sight, the emptiness weighs heavy on my chest, and I step back from the entryway, letting the door close.

    Noah is leaning against the threshold between the living room and kitchen. “Is he gone?” he asks gently.

    “Yeah, he’s gone.” My voice is distant, unfamiliar even to myself.

    “I didn’t know you guys weren’t together.”

    “We . . . well . . . we’re just trying to figure everything out.”

    “Can you tell me one thing before you change the subject?” His eyes scan my face. “I know that look—you’re about to find a reason to.”

    Even after the months we’ve been apart, Noah still reads me so well. “What do you want to know?” I ask.

    His blue eyes stare into mine. He holds my gaze for a long time, a bravely long time. “If you could go back, would you, Tessa? I heard you say you want to erase the last six months . . . but if you could, would you, really?”

    Would I?

    I sit down on the couch to ponder his question. Would I take it all back? Erase everything that’s happened to me in the last six months? The bet, the endless fights with Hardin, the downward spiral of my relationship with my mother, Steph’s betrayal, all the humiliation, everything.

    “Yes. In a heartbeat.”

    Hardin’s hand on mine, the way his inked arms wrapped around me, pulling me to his chest. The way he sometimes laughed so hard that his eyes would pinch closed and the sound would fill my ears, my heart, and the entire apartment with such a rare happiness that I felt more alive than I’d ever felt before.

    “No. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t,” I say, changing my answer.

    Noah shakes his head. “Which is it?” He chuckles and sits on the recliner across from the couch. “I’ve never known you to be so indecisive.”

    I shake my head firmly. “I wouldn’t erase it.”

    “You’re sure? It’s been a bad year for you . . . and I don’t even know the half of it.”

    “I’m sure.” I nod a couple of times, then take a seat on the edge of the couch. “I would do some things differently, though, with you.”

    Noah gives me a slight smile. “Yeah, me, too,” he quietly agrees.

 

“THERESA.” A hand grasps my shoulder and shakes me. “Theresa, wake up.”

    “I’m up.” I groan and open my eyes. The living room. I’m in my mother’s living room. I kick a blanket off my legs . . . a blanket Noah covered me with when I laid down after we talked a bit more and then started to watch some TV together. Just like old times.

    I wriggle out of my mother’s grip. “What time is it?”

    “Nine p.m. I was going to wake you up earlier.” She purses her lips.

    It must have been driving her insane to let me sleep the day away. Oddly, the thought amuses me.

    “Sorry, I don’t even remember falling asleep.” I stretch my arms and stand to my feet. “Did Noah leave?” I peer into the kitchen, and I don’t see him.

    “Yes. Mrs. Porter really wanted to see you, but I told her it wasn’t a good time,” she says and goes into the kitchen.

    I follow her, smelling something cooking. “Thank you.” I do wish I’d said a proper goodbye to Noah, especially because I know I’ll see him again.

    My mother goes to the stove and says over her shoulder, “Hardin brought your car, I see,” disapproval coloring her voice. A moment later, she turns from the stove and hands me a plate of lettuce and grilled tomatoes.

    I haven’t missed her idea of a good meal. But I take the plate from her hand anyway.

    “Why didn’t you tell me that Hardin came here that night? I remember it now.”

    She shrugs. “He asked me not to.”

    Taking a seat at the table, I poke at the “meal” tentatively. “Since when do you care what he wants?” I challenge, nervous about her reaction . . .

    “I don’t,” she says and prepares her own plate. “I didn’t mention it because it’s in your best interest not to remember.”

    My fork slips from my fingers and hits the plate with a sharp clink. “Keeping things from me isn’t in my best interest,” I say. I’m doing my best to keep my voice cool and calm, I really am. To emphasize this, I dab the corners of my mouth with a perfectly folded napkin.

    “Theresa, do not take your frustrations out on me,” my mother says, joining me at the table. “Whatever that man has done to make you this way is your own fault. Not mine.”

    The moment her red lips pull into a confident smirk, I stand from the table, throw my napkin onto the plate, and storm out of the room.

    “Where are you going, young lady?” she calls.

    “To bed. I have to get up at four in the morning, and I have a long drive ahead of me,” I yell down the hallway and close the door to my bedroom.

    I take a seat on my childhood bed . . . and immediately the light gray walls seem to be closing in on me. I hate this house. I shouldn’t, but I do. I hate the way I feel inside it, like I can’t breathe without being scolded or corrected. I never realized how caged and controlled I had been my entire life until I had my first taste of freedom with Hardin. I love having pizza for dinner, spending the entire day naked in bed with him. No folded napkins. No curled hair. No hideous yellow curtains.

    Before I can stop myself, I’m calling him, and he’s answering on the second ring.

    “Tess?” he says, out of breath.

    “Um, hey,” I whisper.

    “What’s wrong?” he huffs.

    “Nothing, are you all right?”

    “Come on, Scott. Get back over here,” a female voice says in the background.

    My heart starts hammering against my rib cage as the possibilities flood my mind. “Oh, you’re . . . I’ll let you go.”

    “No, it’s fine. She can wait.” The background noise gets softer and softer by the second. He must be walking away from whoever she is.

    “Really, it’s okay. I’ll just go, I don’t want to . . . interrupt you.” Looking at the gray wall nearest my bed, I swear it’s crept closer to me. Like it’s ready to pounce.

    “Okay,” he breathes.

    What?

    “Okay, bye,” I say quickly and hang up, holding my hand over my mouth to keep from vomiting on my mother’s carpet.

    There has to be some sort of logical—

    My phone buzzes next to my thigh, Hardin’s name clear on the small screen. I answer despite myself.

    “I’m not doing what you think I’m doing . . . I didn’t even realize how it sounded,” he immediately states. I can hear a harsh wind blowing around him, muffling his voice.

    “It’s okay, really.”

    “No, Tess, it wouldn’t be,” he says, calling me out. “If I was with someone else right now, that wouldn’t be okay, so stop acting like it would be.”

    I lie back on the bed, admitting to myself that he’s right. “I didn’t think you were doing anything,” I half lie. I somehow knew he wasn’t, but my imagination . . . it took me there still.

    “Good, maybe you finally trust me.”

    “Maybe.”

    “Which would be much more relevant if you hadn’t left me.” His tone is sharp.

    “Hardin . . .”

    He sighs. “Why did you call? Is your mum being a bitch?”

    “No, don’t call her that.” I roll my eyes. “Well . . . she kind of is being one, but it’s nothing big. I’m just . . . I don’t know why I called, really.”

    “Well . . .” He pauses, and I hear a car door shut. “Do you want to talk or something?”

    “Is that okay? Can we?” I ask him. Only hours ago I was telling him that I needed to be more independent, yet here I am, calling him the moment I’m upset.

    “Sure.”

    “Where are you, anyway?” I need to keep the conversation as neutral as possible . . . not that it’s ever possible to keep things between Hardin and me neutral.

    “A gym.”

    I almost laugh. “A gym? You don’t go to the gym.” Hardin is one of the few people to be blessed with an incredible body without ever having to work out. His naturally large build is perfect, tall with broad shoulders, even though he claims that he was lanky and thin as a young teenager. His muscles are hard but not too defined; his body is the perfect mixture of soft and hard.

    “I know. She was kicking my ass. I was genuinely embarrassed.”

    “Who?” I say a little forcefully. Calm down, Tessa, it’s obviously the woman whose voice you heard.

    “Oh, the trainer. I decided to use that kickboxing shit you got me for my birthday.”

    “Really?” The thought of Hardin kickboxing makes me think about things that I shouldn’t be thinking about. Like him sweating . . .

    “Yeah,” he says, a little shyly.

    I shake my head to try to cast out the image of him shirtless. “How was it?”

    “Okay, I guess. I prefer a different type of exercise. But on the plus side, I’m a lot less tense than I was a few hours ago.”

    I narrow my eyes at his response even though he can’t see me.

    My fingers trace the flower-print fabric of the comforter. “Do you think you’ll go again?” I finally feel like I can breathe as Hardin begins to tell me about how awkward the first half hour of his session was, how he kept cursing at the woman until she slapped him across the back of his head, repeatedly, which, in turn made him respect her and stop being such a jerk to her.

    “Wait.” I finally speak. “Are you still there?”

    “No, I’m home now.”

    “You just . . . left? Did you tell her?”

    “No, why would I?” he asks, as if people acted like him all the time.

    I like the idea that he dropped what he was doing just to talk to me on the phone. I shouldn’t, but I do. Which warms me, but also makes me sigh and say, “We aren’t doing a very good job on this space thing.”

    “We never do.” I can picture his smirk even though he’s speaking from more than a hundred miles away.

    “I know, but—”

    “This is our version of space. You didn’t get in the car and drive here. You only called.”

    “I guess so . . .” I allow myself to agree with his twisted logic. In a way, though, he’s right. I don’t know yet if it’s a good or a bad thing.

    “Is Noah still there?”

    “No, he left hours ago.”

    “Good.”

    I’m looking at the darkness beyond the ugly curtains of my room when Hardin laughs and says, “Talking on the phone is so fucking weird.”

    “Why?” I ask.

    “I don’t know. We’ve been talking for over an hour.”

    I pull my phone from my ear to check the time, and sure enough, he’s right. “It doesn’t seem that long,” I say.

    “I know, I never talk to anyone on the phone. Except when you call me to bother me about bringing something home, or a few calls to my friends, but they never last longer than like two minutes.”

    “Really?”

    “Yeah, why would I? I was never into the teenage dating shit; all my friends used to spend hours on the phone listening to their girlfriends go on about nail polish or whatever the fuck girls talk about for hours on end.” He laughs lightly, and I frown a little at the reminder that Hardin never got the chance to be a normal teenager.

    “You didn’t miss out on much,” I assure him.

    “Who did you used to talk to for hours? Noah?” Spitefulness is clear in his question.

    “No, I never did that talking-for-hours thing either. I was busy shoving my nose into novels.” Perhaps I was never a true teenager either.

    “Well, I’m glad you were a nerd, then,” he says, making my stomach flutter.

    “Theresa!” I’m snapped back into reality as my mother repeatedly calls for me.

    “Oh, is it past your bedtime?” Hardin teases. Our relationship, nonrelationship, giving-each-other-space-but-talking-on-the-phone thing, has become even more confusing within the last hour.

    “Shut up,” I respond and cover the receiver long enough to tell my mother I’ll be right out. “I need to see what she wants.”

    “You’re really going tomorrow?”

    “Yeah, I am.”

    After a moment of silence, he says, “Okay, well, be safe . . . I guess.”

    “I can call you in the morning?” My voice is shaky as I offer.

    “No, we probably shouldn’t do this again,” he says, and my chest tightens. “Well, not often, anyway. It doesn’t make sense to talk all the time if we aren’t going to be together.”

    “Okay.” My response sounds small, defeated.

    “Good night, Tessa,” he says, and then the line goes dead.

    He’s right—I know he is. But knowing that doesn’t make it hurt any less. I shouldn’t even have called him in the first place.