Before: Part 2: During – Chapter: 0

Hardin

He was misguided, moving through life with minimum expectations of himself. He was getting too used to life in that foreign place—even believing that his accent was slightly washing away with each night he spent away from home. He nailed his life down into a robotic loop of the same actions, same reactions, same consequences. The women were blending together, their names becoming an endless loop of Sarahs and Lauras and Jane Does.

He wasn’t sure how his life could continue this way, day in and day out.

And then the first week of the next year, he met her. She was strategically placed at Washington Central by someone or something more powerful than him—to taunt him. He—or it—knew who he was, the kind of person he was known for being, and he had an agenda. He was set to steal another innocence, to ruin another girl’s life. It won’t be so bad this time, he figured. He wouldn’t go to the same extremes as before. This was different, more juvenile. This was all just in fun.

And it was, until the wind caught her hair and it whipped around her face. Until the gray of her eyes haunted his sleep and the pink of her lips drove him mad. He was falling hard for her—at first it was so fast that he wasn’t sure if he was actually feeling it or imagining it. But he felt it… he felt it rip through him like the roar of a lion. He began to rely on her for his every breath, every thought.

One night in the middle of it all, the snow falling, blanketing the concrete, he sat alone in the parking lot. His hands were gripping the steering wheel of his old Ford Capri, and he could barely see straight, let alone think straight.

How could he have done this? How did it go so far so fast? He wasn’t sure, but he knew, he felt it deep down inside of himself, that he shouldn’t have done it, and he knew that he would regret it. He was regretting it already.

She was supposed to be an easy target. A beautiful girl with an innocent smile and odd-colored eyes that weren’t supposed to hold depth or meaning behind them. He wasn’t supposed to fall in love with her, and she wasn’t supposed to make him want to be a better person.

He thought that he was fine before.

He was getting by just fine before—before he made the beautiful mistake of allowing her to become his entire world. He loved her, though, he loved her so much that he was terrified of losing her—for losing her meant losing himself, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to bear such a loss after going his entire life without something to lose.

As his fingers gripped harder and his knuckles turned white against the black steering wheel, his thoughts became more jumbled. He became more irrational and desperate, and he realized in that moment, with the silence of the empty lot drowning his fears, that he would do anything—absolutely anything—to keep her forever.

He had her, lost her, and had her again over the months that followed. He just couldn’t quite get it. He loved her. His love for her burned brighter than any star, and he would highlight passages from ten thousand of her favorite novels to show her that. She gave him everything, and he watched her fall in love with him, hoping he would stop letting her down. Her faith in him made him want to be good for her. He wanted to prove her right and everyone else wrong. She made him feel a type of hope that he had never felt before. He didn’t even know it existed.

Her presence made him feel at ease; the fire in his heart was cooled and he was becoming addicted to her. He craved her until he had her, and once he took her, neither of them could stop. Her body became his safety, her mind his home. The more he loved her, the more he was hurting her. He couldn’t stay away, and through their struggles and growth, she became the normalcy he’d craved his entire life.

His relationship with his dad continued to grow slowly into something close to familiar. A few family dinners, and he had begun to chip away at the hatred he felt toward the man. He was seeing himself differently, and that helped him see the wrongs of his father in a different light. And that’s when he needed her to anchor him, as his life changed again and his family shifted. He was growing to care for a houseful of strangers in a way that he swore he never would.

It wasn’t easy for him to fight against twenty years of destructive patterns and base animal reactions.

He had to fight each day against the liquor calling to his blood, against the anger he was trying to let go of… but didn’t know how to. He vowed that he would fight for her—and he did. He lost a few battles, but never lost sight of winning the war. She taught him laughter and taught him love—and he has expressed this time after time to her, but he will never stop.

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