Before: Part 2: During – Chapter: 12


The pounding at the door won’t stop. The man behind the door calls my name, and I try to be as quiet as I can when I open the closet door and hide inside. I close the door and wait, covering my ears as the pounding gets louder.

“Get out here now!” his voice booms.

My father is drunk again; he’s drunk every night now.

With one final hit, his fist snaps the wood on the door, and the cracking of the wood sends a shiver down my spine. I hate that I’m afraid of him—I shouldn’t be. I’m twelve and I’m pretty tall for my age. I should be able to defend myself.

Why am I afraid? Because I’m so pathetic.

His voice mixes with the other men’s voices… are they here again? I’m not sure. They shouldn’t be because he is, but maybe he wouldn’t protect us anyway.

The closet door opens, and I scoot back against the wall until I have nowhere left to hide.

I wake with a shout, screaming into the empty, lonely space. I’ve stayed in this room for nearly three days straight now, and not one person has called, not one person has knocked on my door. I’ve gotten a lot of work done, though. I don’t want to run into her. I don’t want to see Zed or the rest of them. They haven’t called on me either.

That’s what happens when you’re invisible: no one gives a fuck about you, and you have no one to give a fuck about.

I reach for the dirty black shirt on the floor next to my bed and wipe it across my sweat-soaked face. My hair is damp and my vision is blurry, mixing the past and the present, keeping my lack of a future out of this mess for now.

I suppose I wouldn’t say “lack of.” I’ll be one of those men who work too much, fuck too much, and come home to an empty house every night. I’ll be successful financially and I’ll buy a house even bigger than Ken’s and never invite him over, just like Don Draper. Just to prove a point.

I’m not sure what that point will be, but I have one somewhere in there. Somewhere.

I’m getting the fuck out of this bed today.

WHEN I GET TO CAMPUS, I seek out Tessa immediately. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen her. I wonder if Zed has seen her… Has he won a few points while I’ve been in solitude? It’s midmorning, so she’d be getting out of Literature. Unless she’s cut class…

As if. I get to the building just as class is ending and in time to see her exit the classroom. She’s done something different to her hair. Just cut it, I think? It looks nice, mostly the same, but the change is just enough for me to notice. I wonder if anyone else has noticed… but when I see her sidekick Landon walking out after her, I realize that of course he did.

I walk up behind the pair of them and say, “You’ve cut your hair, Theresa.”

I’ve surprised her, but she turns around and quickly greets me—“Hey, Hardin”—before she starts walking faster. Her flat shoes make a squeaking sound as they slide across the floor tiles. What is she in such a hurry for…?

And then I get it: she doesn’t want her angelic friend here to know that she kissed me. That she practically threw herself on me.

Her discomfort is like a challenge I can’t ignore.

“How was your weekend?” I ask with a big grin.

In response, she grabs Landon’s arm and pulls him closer to her, walking even faster away from me. “Good. Well, I’ll see you around!” Tessa yells over her shoulder.

She pulls them outside through the main door, and I let them go, my urgency to see her dissipating.

I walk around the streets of the campus, slowly making my way to my car. Actually going to classes seems too difficult right now.

After a few minutes, I find Zed sitting on a bench outside the science building, a cigarette between his lips.

He looks up at me, smoke blowing from his mouth. “Hey.”

“Hey.” I don’t know if I should sit down or walk away.

“Have you made any progress with the girl?” he asks.

“Yes, a little,” I lie. “You?”

I wait impatiently as he takes another drag. “Nah. I’m feeling a little weird about it. Aren’t you?”

“Nah,” I say, repeating the word he uses too much. It’s always “nah” to this and “nah” to that, like nothing’s ever quite good enough to demand his attention and it’s all too lowly for him to have to utter a real word for.

Zed shrugs, and I decide to find Tessa now while he’s here being a pussy and smoking too many cigarettes. I hate the smell of cigarettes—reminds me of my mum’s house. Growing up, I could barely breathe through the thick clouds, and I can almost feel the sticky yellow streaks of tar covering the faded wallpaper of the living room.

To occupy a little time, I stop and get a coffee but end up gulping the thing down in less than two minutes. As my throat burns from the heat, I wonder why I’m so anxious.

After getting up with no aim in sight, I decide to go to Steph’s building, but take my time on the way there and look at all the people milling about campus. Couples walking together and brainiacs in clusters discussing something excitedly, a bunch of preppy jocks throwing a ball around. It’s just too much.

As I’m walking down the dorm hallway, I spot Steph’s red hair.

“Hardin! You looking for me?” she asks with her hand raised.

“Not exactly.” I glance across the hallway, toward the door of her room.

“Ohhh, got it.” She laughs and adjusts her cleavage. “Well, I’ll go find something to do so you can have some time with her.” As she walks away, back toward the exit, she turns when she reaches the end of the hallway and shouts, “You’re welcome, asshole!”

“I’m not thanking you,” I mumble quietly, and knock on her door.

I hear some papers ruffling around and a book close. Tessa takes six steps to the door, and I blow a deep breath into my T-shirt to check my breath.

Did I actually just…

“Steph isn’t back yet,” Tessa says as soon as she opens the door. Surprisingly, she doesn’t look at me once before she walks to her bed—and doesn’t slam the door in my face. A decent start.

“I can wait.” I sit down on Steph’s bed and look over at Tessa’s side of the room.

“Suit yourself,” she replies with a groan and childishly pulls her blanket over her head. I laugh and watch her still body, wondering what’s going through her mind. Is this like some method of reverse peekaboo that’s supposed to make me disappear or something?

I tap my fingers against Steph’s headboard, hoping to annoy Tessa enough to talk to me. No luck, but when a few minutes later an alarm starts beeping, she reaches one arm from beneath the blanket and turns it off.

Is she going somewhere? With who?

“Going somewhere?” I ask Tessa.

“No.” She sits up, the blanket falling and revealing her face, filled with attitude. “I was taking a twenty-minute nap.”

“You set an alarm to make sure your nap is only twenty minutes?” I laugh, mentally wishing I could get more sleep than every once in a while.

“Yeah, I do. So what’s it to you, anyway?”

I watch as she lays her textbooks out in order of her class schedule. I shouldn’t catch on to the fact that that’s what she’s doing, but I do. I apparently know a lot about her somehow. She takes a small binder and rests it next to the neat stack of books. She’s fucking obsessive.

“Are you OCD or something?” I ask her, kind of amazed.

“No, not everyone’s crazy because they just like things a certain way. There’s nothing wrong with being organized.”

She’s so condescending. She’s actually a very unpleasant girl, despite how sweet she appears. I laugh at the idea that she must think she’s so perfect and polished but she actually has one of the worst tempers I’ve seen and she judges people like it’s her job.

I walk closer to her, trying to think of a new way to get under her skin. She’s so easily annoyed, it won’t have to be anything serious. I quickly scan her neat room, taking in the perfectly made bed covered in neat stacks of paper and textbooks. Gotcha.

I grab a stack of papers from her bed the same moment her eyes rest on mine. She looks down, trying to think of a way to negotiate with me. She reaches for them, but I tease her, lifting them too high for her to grab. Debating how far I should go with this, I take in her heaving breaths, the way her chest is rising and her lip is quivering in anger. It kind of turns me on, and I want to go just a little further. Not far enough to actually piss her off, just to annoy her enough that I have to charm my way back in. I toss the papers into the air and watch the white pages float around the room before falling into a scattered mess on her floor. Her mouth falls open, and her cheeks flush with anger.

“Pick those up!” she snaps.

I smirk at her, wondering if she actually thinks I would comply with her command. Maybe if she agreed to wrap her lips around my cock. Upping the ante, I grab another stack of papers and scatter them to the floor.

“Hardin, stop!” Her voice cracks through the air, threatening me.

I repeat the action, and then she surprises me by charging forward and shoving me away from her bed.

“You mean, someone doesn’t like their stuff being messed with?” I tease her, laughing at her expense. She’s so angry now, much angrier than a normal person would be over something so stupid.

“No! I don’t!” she shouts, and shoves me again.

I thrive off her anger. Her energy is breathing life into me. I’m just as pissed off as she is—and I need to have her. Now.

I take a quick step toward her, grabbing her wrists and cornering her against the wall. She stares at me, not even close to backing down, and I can see the way her eyes change from frustration to hunger for me. If I know anything about women, it’s when they are turned on, and Tessa is most definitely turned on. She gets off on this passionate anger, the same way that I do. She stares into my eyes before her gaze quickly darts to my mouth, and that’s when I’m positive that she wants this to happen. She fucking wants me. She may not like me, but she’s attracted to me. It’s mutual, I want to tell her. I stare back, wanting to tell her that I don’t like her either, that this thing between us is just pure lust. That we are on the same wavelength here. That it’s all animal hunger—a very high level of lust, but lust all the same.

“Hardin, please,” she whispers.

Her voice is low, wanting me to go away and to kiss her at the same time. I know this because I want to run as far as I can from this girl, but here I stand, too, my eyes on her mouth. Her chest is rising and falling fast. I reach up, just needing to touch her, and the moment my fingers graze her skin, she sighs. She’s staring at me, waiting. I release her wrist but use my other hand to take both of her wrists. Her tongue peeks out, covering her bottom lip, and I lose it. The noise is so faint, so weak, that I don’t even think she realizes she made it. I heard it, though. I heard it, and I’m broken by it.

I press my body against hers, pinning her gently to the wall. She groans into my mouth, and her arms reach up and wrap around my shoulders. Her tongue follows mine, moving perfectly in sync with my claiming lips. I grip the tops of her thighs and lift her up to me. As I hold her against me, my heart is beating so fucking fast and I’m so turned on by her that I don’t know how I will ever stop this. Tessa’s body clings to mine still, and her mouth doesn’t stop taking mine as I walk us back to her bed.

Tessa pulls at my hair and drives me fucking wild. I feel like every inch of my body has been scattered across this small room; then, when she moans, her breath coming out in rapid uncontrollable huffs, I sit back on her bed, bringing her with me. I move her to sit on my lap, keeping my hands on her full hips. I know my fingers are digging into her skin, a sign of my body trying to comprehend what’s happening. I’ve done this before, many fucking times, so why can’t I keep up with this? I can’t keep up with her.

“Fuck,” I mutter, feeling my cock straining against my jeans.

I move my hands from her waist and tug at the bottom of her shirt; she moans, and I pull my mouth away from hers to remove her shirt. My eyes trace down from her eyes to her full and swollen lips, to her chest. Her tits are covered by a black bra: no lace, no sparkles, nothing special. Just worn black fabric. So innocent and plain and normal I find it oddly appealing. I bite down on my lip, trying to have some control over myself and not rip her bra from her soft body. Her tits are full, swollen and bursting out of the material. There’s a freckle there, just under her neckline, and I want to kiss it. I want to cover her entire body with my mouth and taste her release on my tongue as I make her come.

“You’re so sexy, Tess,” I breathe into her mouth. She gasps, and I swallow the incredible sound.

My control continues to diminish as she rocks harder against my body. I wrap my arms around her back to bring her even closer to me—

Tessa jumps off my lap and reaches for her shirt. The trance we were in is broken as she pulls her T-shirt over her head and down to cover her body, and it’s only then that I hear the sound of the door opening.

How did she hear it—was she not as into it as I was? No way I would have stopped, even if her schoolmarm mum and Mr. Rogers had been coming through that door.

But instead it’s Steph, standing there faking a shocked expression. I’ve seen this look before, and it immediately makes me wonder if Zed paid her to come back and interrupt us.

I hope Tessa doesn’t genuinely like her or believe her to be her friend. Steph’s personality is faker than her Kool-Aid–dyed hair.

“What the hell did I miss?” Steph asks, her hands on her hips.

“Nothing much,” I respond, getting to my feet. Steph winks at me as Tessa stares at the wall, avoiding eye contact.

I leave the room without looking back.

I can’t say anything or else I’ll explode.

My chest is killing me, my heart is beating loudly, and I feel like a maniac.

In a trance, I get back to the house, to my room, and immediately decide to take the longest shower I’ve ever taken to try and forget the way this strange, sheltered girl makes me feel. This is getting fucking messy. It wasn’t supposed to be messy. I wasn’t supposed to crave her mouth and her mind equally. I wasn’t supposed to think about how tight she would feel around me as I rock into her soft body. I’m not supposed to get off, imagining my hand is hers.

I was supposed to get what I wanted, win the Bet, and move along with my damn life.

After however long, the water starts to run cold and I finally step out onto the cold tile. When I open the cabinet for a towel, the bottle of brown liquor hidden inside by who-knows-who smiles at me, reminding me of its control over me. I’ve gone this long without that draw to the cabinet—why am I focusing on it now? I half expected one of the guys in the house to finish it off by now, but had also secretly wished no one would.

I have this nasty need to control everything in my life. So far, since I’ve been sober, I’ve done a damn good job of being fully aware and in control of my thoughts and my actions; but Tessa’s gray eyes won’t stop looking at me, and her brilliant mind won’t stop begging me to unlock more of her secrets.

The bottle calls for me, and I slam the cabinet closed.

I still have control.

I won’t let Tessa or that fucking bottle control me.

I won’t.

I stare up at the ceiling when I finally make it to my bed, and I just know it’s going to be a long night.

IT’S DARK, SO DARK in this closet. I’m tired of hiding in here, but there’s nowhere else to go. My mum’s screams won’t be drowned out, and no matter how many times I search downstairs for her, I can’t find her. I hear her, but don’t see her. I saw them, though, the men. I saw them and I heard their voices echoing through the walls of this small house and into my head.

The closet door opens, and I curl back, hoping not to be seen but slightly wanting them to just end the sounds of my mum screaming.

A hand reaches through the small space, and I look around for something to defend myself with other than a coat hanger.

“Hardin?” a soft voice calls through the dark.

The hanging clothes part in the middle, and she steps in, looking directly at me.

Tessa.

She’s here? How?

“Don’t be scared, Hardin.”

She sits down next to me, her body so warm and unafraid. She has a flower pushed behind her ear, and she’s reaching for my hands. Her small fingernails are crusted with dirt, and she smells like a flower shop or a greenhouse.

My mum’s screams have stopped, and my heart slows from a panic to a cool rhythm as she wraps her small hand around mine.

BY THE TIME I get to campus, the caffeine has surged through my body, sharpening my sight and helping me forget the fucked-up dream that I had.

Why was she there? Why would I dream about Tessa? It wasn’t even Tessa as she is now; it was a version of young Tessa, her cheeks rounded and her eyes bright and comforting with premature womanliness. It was odd—so fucking weird, really—and I didn’t like it one bit.

I loved the sleep, though. I loved being able to sleep for once in my fucking life, and today I feel… well… rested? Hell, calmer, at least.

Inside the literature hall, I take a seat in the front row, next to two empty ones. I gaze toward the front of the room, waiting for class to start. I’m fighting the urge to watch the door, to wait for her.

When I finally look back a few minutes later, Tessa and Landon enter the room. She’s smiling, focusing only on him. She’s developed a friendship with the kid that has gone beyond what I saw coming.

I wasn’t surprised when they hit it off… but I didn’t think Landon’s friendship would be more of a threat than Zed’s competition for the Bet.


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