Chapter Eighty-One

After We Fell


chapter eighty-one

 

TESSA

 

I can’t help the anxiety that fills me as I drive through the campus. The WCU Seattle campus is not as small as Ken had made it out to be, and all the roads in Seattle seem intent on curving and going up and down hills.

    I prepared as best I could to ensure that everything would go as planned today. I left two hours early to be sure to make it to my first class on time. Half of that time was spent sitting in traffic, listening to talk radio. I’d never understood that whole fad until this morning, when a distraught woman called in and told the story of her best friend betraying her by sleeping with her husband. And the two of them running off together, taking her cat, Mazzy, with them. Through her tears, she held on to a certain amount of her dignity . . . Well, about as much as someone calling in to a radio station to relate her own tale of woe possibly could. I found myself sucked right into her dramatic story, and in the end I got the sense that even she knew she was better off without that guy.

    By the time I stop by the administration building and retrieve my student identification card and parking pass, I have only thirty minutes before my class. My nerves are stretched to the limit, and I can’t shake my anxiety over possibly being late to my first class. Luckily, I find the student parking lot easily, and it’s near to where my class is, so I make it with fifteen minutes to spare.

    As I take my seat in the front row, I can’t help but feel a sense of loneliness. There was no meeting Landon at the coffee shop before class, and he’s not in the seat next to mine now as I sit in this classroom remembering my first half year of college.

    The classroom fills with students, and I begin to regret my decision when I notice that besides me and one other female, the entire class is guys. I thought I’d sandwich this course—which I didn’t really want to take—between some others this semester, but overall I just wish I hadn’t decided to take political science at all.

    A handsome boy with light brown skin sits down in the empty chair next to me, and I try not to stare at him. His white button-up shirt is crisp and perfectly ironed at the seams, and he’s wearing a tie. He looks like a politician, bright white smile and all.

    He notices me looking at him and grins. “Can I help you with something?” he asks, his voice full of both authority and charm.

    Yeah, he’s certainly going to be a politician one day.

    “No, s-sorry,” I stammer, not meeting his eyes.

    When class starts, I avoid looking at him and instead focus on taking notes, reading over the syllabus repeatedly, and looking at my map of the campus until class is dismissed.

    My next class, art history, is much better. I feel more comfortable surrounded by a casual crowd of art students. A boy with blue hair sits next to me and introduces himself as Michael. As the teacher has us all go around and introduce ourselves, I find that I’m the only English major in the room. But everyone is friendly, and Michael has quite a sense of humor, making jokes throughout class and keeping everyone entertained, including our instructor.

    Creative writing is last, and most certainly the most enjoyable. I’m lost in the process of writing down my thoughts on paper, and it’s freeing, entertaining, and I love it. When my professor releases us, it feels as if only ten minutes have passed.

    The rest of my week comes and goes in this fashion. I oscillate between feeling like I’m finding my way around more easily and thinking I’m just as confused as ever. But most of all, I feel as if I’m constantly waiting for something that never comes.

 

BY THE TIME Friday evening arrives, I’m exhausted and my entire body is tense. This week has been challenging, both in good ways and bad. I miss the familiarity of the old campus and having Landon there with me. I miss Hardin meeting me between classes, and I even miss Zed and the glowing flowers that fill the environmental studies building.

    Zed. I haven’t spoken to him once since he rescued me from Steph and Dan at the party and drove me all the way to my mother’s house. He saved me from being thoroughly violated and humiliated, and I haven’t even thanked him. I put down my political science textbook and reach for my phone.

    “Hello?” Zed’s voice sounds so foreign, despite the fact that it’s been no more than a week since I’ve heard it.

    “Zed? Hi, it’s Tessa.” I chew on the inside of my cheek and wait for his response.

    “Um, hey.”

    I take a deep breath and know that I have to say what I called to say. “Listen, I’m so sorry for not calling you to thank you sooner. Everything has happened so fast this week, and I think part of me was trying not to think about what happened. And I know that’s not a good excuse . . . so, I’m a jerk, and I’m sorry, and—” The words are rushing out of my mouth so quickly I can barely process what I’m saying, but he interrupts me before I finish.

    “It’s all right, I know you had a lot going on.”

    “I still should have called you, especially after what you did for me. I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you were at that party,” I say, desperate for him to understand how much gratitude I feel toward him. I shiver at the recollection of Dan’s fingertips trailing up my thigh. “If you hadn’t shown up, God only knows what they would’ve done to me . . .”

    “Hey,” he says to silence me, but gently. “I stopped them before anything could happen, Tessa. Try not to think about it. And you definitely don’t have to thank me for anything.”

    “But I do! And I can’t help how much it hurts me that Steph would do what she did. I never did anything to hurt her, or any of you—”

    “Please don’t include me with them,” Zed says, clearly a little insulted.

    “No, no, I’m so sorry—I didn’t mean to say that you were involved. I just meant your group of friends.” I apologize for the way my mouth has been moving before my mind has approved the words.

    “ ’S’okay,” he mumbles. “Anyway, we aren’t much of a group anymore. Tristan is leaving for New Orleans early—in a few days, actually—and I haven’t seen Steph on campus all week.”

    “Oh . . .” I pause and look around this room I’m staying in, in this massive, somewhat alien house. “Zed, I’m also sorry for accusing you of texting me from Hardin’s phone. Steph admitted that it was her during the . . . Dan I smile, to try and counteract the shiver that person’s name induces.

    He lets out a little breath that might also be a chuckle. “I have to admit, I did appear to be the most likely candidate to have done that,” he replies sweetly. “So . . . how’s everything?”

    “Seattle is . . . different,” I say.

    “You’re there? I thought maybe since Hardin was at your mom’s house—”

    “No, I’m here.” I interrupt him before he can tell me how he, too, expected me to stay for Hardin.

    “Have you made any new friends?”

    “What do you think?” I smile and reach across the bed to grab my half-empty glass of water.

    “You will soon.” He laughs, and I join him.

    “I doubt it.” I think of the two women who were gossiping in the break room at Vance. Each time I saw them this week, they seemed to be laughing to themselves, and I can’t help but think they were laughing at me. “I really am sorry it took me so long to call.”

    “Tessa, it’s okay—stop apologizing. You do that too much.”

    “Sorry,” I say and lightly smack my palm against my forehead. Both that waiter, Robert, and Zed have said that I apologize too much. Maybe they’re right.

    “Do you think you’ll come visit anytime soon? Or are we still . . . not able to be friends?” he asks softly.

    “We can be friends,” I remark. “But I have no clue when I’ll be able to come visit.” Truthfully, I’d been wanting to go back home this weekend. I miss Hardin and the traffic-less streets further east.

    But wait—why did I just call it home? I only lived there six months.

    And then I realize: Hardin. It’s because of Hardin. Wherever he is will always feel like home to me.

    “Well, that’s too bad. Maybe I’ll make a trip to Seattle soon. I have some friends there,” Zed says. “Would that be okay?” he asks after a few seconds.

    “Oh, yeah! Of course.”

    “Okay.” He laughs. “I’m flying down to Florida to see my parents this weekend—I’m running late for my flight, actually—but maybe I could try next weekend or something?”

    “Yeah, sure. Just let me know. Have fun in Florida,” I say just before I hang up. I put the phone down on my stack of notes, and mere seconds later it vibrates.

    Hardin’s name appears on the screen, and taking a deep breath and ignoring the flutter in my chest, I answer.

    “What are you doing?” he asks immediately.

    “Um, nothing.”

    “Where are you?”

    “Kim and Christian’s house. Where are I sarcastically respond.

    “Home,” he says matter-of-factly. “Where else would I be?”

    “I don’t know . . . the gym?” Hardin has been consistently going to the gym, every day, all week.

    “I just left there. Now I’m home.”

    “How was it, Captain Brevity?”

    “Same,” he curtly remarks.

    “Is something wrong?” I ask him.

    “No. I’m fine. How was your day?” He’s quick to change the subject, and I wonder why, but I don’t want to push him, not with the phone call to Zed weighing on my chest already.

    “It was okay. Long, I guess. I still don’t like my political science class,” I groan.

    “I told you to drop it already. You can take another class for your social science elective,” he reminds me.

    I lie back on my bed. “I know . . . I’ll be okay.”

    “Are you staying in tonight?” he asks, warning clear in his voice.

    “Yeah, I’m already in my pajamas.”

    “Good,” he says, which makes me roll my eyes.

    “I called Zed, just a few minutes ago,” I blurt. Might as well get it over with. Silence looms on the line, and I wait patiently for Hardin’s breathing to slow.

    “You he says sharply.

    “I called him to thank him for . . . last weekend.”

    “Why, though? I thought we were . . .” I can hear him barely controlling his anger as he breathes heavily into the receiver. “Tessa, I thought we were working on our problems.”

    “We are, but I owed it to him. If he hadn’t shown up when he did—”

    “I know!” Hardin snaps, like he’s trying to keep something at bay.

    I don’t want to argue with him, but I can’t expect anything to change if I keep things from him. “He said he was thinking about visiting,” I say.

    “He’s not coming there. End of discussion.”

    “Hardin . . .”

    “Tessa, no. He isn’t. I’m doing my best here, okay? I’m trying really fucking hard not to lose my shit right now, so the least you can do is help me out on this.”

    I sigh in defeat. “Okay.” Spending time with Zed can’t possibly end well for anyone, Zed included. I can’t lead him on again. It’s not fair to him, and I don’t think he and I will ever be able to have a strictly platonic relationship, not in Hardin’s eyes, or, really, in Zed’s own.

    “Thank you. Now, if it were always that easy to get you to comply . . .”

    What? “I will never just comply, Hardin, that’s—”

    “Easy, easy, I’m just teasing. No need to get all testy,” he says quickly. “Anything else I should know about while you’re at it?”

    “No.”

    “Good. Now, tell me what’s been happening on that shitty radio station you’ve become obsessed with.”

    And as I go into detail about a woman who was looking for her long-lost love from high school while she was pregnant with her neighbor’s child, the lurid details of the story, and the scandal that ensues, have me animated and laughing. By the time I mention the cat, Mazzy, I’m laughing hysterically. I tell him how it would be hard to be in love with one man while pregnant with another man’s child, and he doesn’t agree. Of course, he believes the man and woman brought the scandal upon themselves, and teases me for getting so involved in talk radio. Hardin laughs along with my story, and I close my eyes and pretend that he’s lying next to me.