Before: Part 3: After – Chapter: 4

Smith

As a young man, he didn’t know how to be a role model. He had absolutely no fucking idea why anyone would want to be like him, but the little boy did. The little dimpled boy followed him around every time he visited, and as the boy grew, so did he. The boy would end up being one of his closest friends, and by the time the boy was as tall as him, he was truly his brother.

Hardin is coming over again today, and I’m more excited than usual because he hasn’t been here in a few months. I thought maybe he wasn’t going to come back. When he moved, he promised he would make sure to visit every once in a while, as much as he could, he said. I like that he’s kept his promise so far.

These past few days, my dad keeps making me do stuff to distract me, things like my math homework, unloading the dishwasher, and taking Kim’s dog out to pee. I like taking the dog, Teddy—he’s nice and really small, so I can carry him when he gets too lazy to walk. But still, I’m really distracted that Hardin’s coming.

Today was long: school, piano lessons, and now homework time. Kimberly is singing in the other room. Man, she’s so loud. Sometimes I think she thinks she sounds good, so I won’t tell her that she doesn’t. Her high-pitched notes sometimes scare her little dog.

Each time Hardin comes to my house, he brings me a book. I always read them, and then we talk or text a little about them later. Sometimes he gives me hard books that have language I can’t understand, or books that my dad takes away because he thinks I’m too young to read them. With those, he always swats Hardin on the head with the book before putting it away for me for “someday.”

I think it’s funny when Hardin cusses at my dad. Which usually accompanies those thumps to the head.

Tessa told me once that Hardin used to teach me curse words when I was younger, but I don’t remember that. Tessa always tells me things about when I was younger. She talks more than anyone else, except Kim—no one talks as much, or as loudly, as Kim. Tessa is pretty close, though.

As I pass the front door, the alarm system beeps a few times, and I look over to see a small screen pop up on the living room TV. Hardin’s face, with his big nose, covers the little box screen. His neck is there now, his tattoos making it look like he scribbled on the screen. I laugh and press the speaker button.

“Did your dad change the code again?” Hardin asks, which is funny because his lips move faster on the screen than his voice goes through the speaker.

His voice is the same as my dad’s almost, but slower. My grandma and grandpa talk like them, too, because they all were born in England. My dad says I’ve been there four times, but the only time I remember is last year, when we went to his friend’s wedding.

My dad got hurt on that trip—I remember his leg looked like cow meat that someone ground up to cook and eat. It reminded me of The Walking Dead (but don’t tell him I found a way to see some episodes). I helped Kim change his bandages, and they were so gross but they left some cool scars. Kim had to push him around in a wheelchair for a month; she said she did it because she loves him. If I was ever hurt and needed to be wheeled around, I’m sure she would push me, too.

I buzz Hardin in and walk to the kitchen as I hear his shoes stomping through the living room.

“Smith, honey,” Kim says when she comes into the kitchen. “Do you want something to eat?” Today her hair is curled up around her face; she kind of looks like her dog, Teddy, whose hair is everywhere. I shake my head, and Hardin joins us.

“I do,” Hardin says. “I’m hungry,”

“I didn’t ask you, I asked Smith,” she says, and wipes her hands on her blue dress.

Hardin laughs, a loud noise. Shaking his head, he looks at me. “Do you see how she treats me? She’s terrible.”

I laugh, too. Kim says Hardin picks on her. They’re both too funny.

Kim opens the fridge and takes out a pitcher of juice. “You’re one to talk.”

Hardin laughs again and sits down on the chair next to me. In his hands are two small packages wrapped in white paper. No bows, no writing on the outside. I know they’re mine, but I don’t want to be impolite.

I stare at them and try to read the title of the books through the paper, but it’s no use. I turn to the window and pretend to be looking outside so I don’t seem too rude.

Hardin sets the packages down on the counter, and Kim hands me a cup of juice, then goes to the cabinet for some chips. My dad always tells Kim not to let me eat a lot of them, but she doesn’t listen. My dad says she never does.

I grab for the bag, but Hardin swipes it and holds it over my head for a minute.

He smiles down at me. “Thought you weren’t hungry.”

The hole under his lip looks like someone drew a dot on his face. He used to have a piercing, I remember. I always tell him to put it back. He tells me to stop listening to Tessa.

“I am now.” I jump up and grab the bag back from him, and it makes a loud crinkling sound in my hands. Hardin shrugs, and he looks happy. He thinks I’m funny. He tells me all the time.

Once I’ve unclipped the bag, he takes a handful of chips and shoves them into his big mouth. “Are you going to open your gifts before you shove your face full of crisps?” Crumbs of food fly out while he talks, and Kim makes a grossed-out face.

“Christian!” she yells for my dad.

I laugh, and Hardin pretends to be scared.

I scoot the bag of chips away. “Well, since you asked, I want to open the books first.”

Hardin picks up both packages and holds them to his chest. “Books, huh? What makes you think I brought you books?”

“Because you always do.” I reach for the thickest one, and he slides it across the counter.

“Touché,” he says—whatever that means.

Forgetting my manners a little bit, I tear at the paper until a colorful cover is revealed. It shows a boy with a wizard hat.

“The Chamber of Secrets,” I read the title out loud. I’m happy about this book. I just finished the one before it.

When I look up at Hardin, he pushes his hair away from his face. I agree with my dad—he should get a haircut. His hair is as long as Kim’s now.

He points to the book. “It’s from Landon again. He likes that tiny wizard.”

My dad comes into the kitchen and cusses at Hardin. Hardin slaps him on the shoulder, and Kim calls them children. I act more like a grown-up than they do, she says.

“Well, that’s nice of him,” my dad says. “Smith, make sure you say thank you to Tessa’s friend.”

Hardin scoffs. “Tessa’s friend? He’s my brother.” He smiles and scratches the tattoos on his arms. I want tattoos like him when I’m older. My dad says no, but Kim told me that once I’m out of the house he really can’t stop me.

I can get whatever I want when I’m a grown-up.

“He’s not your real brother,” I tell him. My dad explained that Landon isn’t his real brother.

Hardin’s smile goes away, and he nods. “Sure. But he’s my brother, still.”

While I ponder what he means by this, Kim asks my dad if he’s hungry, and Hardin looks around the kitchen. He seems a little sad for some reason all of a sudden.

“Your dad is my dad. So is Landon’s mom your mom?” I ask.

Hardin shakes his head no, and my dad kisses Kim on her shoulder, which, of course, makes her smile. He always seems to make her smile.

“Sometimes people can be family without sharing parents.”

Hardin stares at my face like I’m supposed to say something back. Really, I don’t know what he means, but if he wants Landon to be his brother, too, that’s okay with me. Landon is really nice. He lives in New York, so I don’t see him very much. Tessa is out there, too. My dad has an office there; it’s shiny and smells like a hospital.

Hardin touches my hand, and I look at him. “Just because Landon is my brother doesn’t mean you aren’t, too. You know that, don’t ya?”

I’m embarrassed a little because Kim is making a face like she’s going to cry and my dad looks scared.

“I know,” I tell him, and look at the Harry Potter book. “Landon can be my brother, too.”

Hardin looks happy when he smiles, and I look up to see Kim is making that face again.

“Yeah, he sure can.” He looks at Kim and says, “Stop it already, lady! You would think someone died, with the way she’s acting.”

My dad calls Hardin a bad name, and Kim jumps out of the way when Hardin throws an apple at his chest. He looks like a baseball player, the way he snags it out of the air… and takes a bite, which makes us all laugh.

Hardin slides the other book across the counter, and I grab it. The paper is harder to tear on this one, and I get a small cut from one of the corners. I wince a little but hope nobody else notices. If I tell anyone, Kim will make me wash it right now and put a bandage on, but I really just want to see what this one is.

As the last piece is torn away, I see a big cross on the cover of the book.

“Dra-cula?” I sound out the word. I’ve heard of this before. It’s a vampire book.

My dad moves away from Kim and walks around the counter. “Dracula? You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s not even ten!” He holds his hand out for the book.

I look at Kim for help. She pushes her lips together and gives Hardin a mean look.

“Usually I’ll take your side,” she says. Hardin calls her a liar, but she keeps talking. “But Dracula? Out of all things? Harry Potter and Dracula—what a mix.”

My dad nods and stands still like he’s some big statue, the way he always does when he wants to show he’s right.

After a moment, Hardin rolls his eyes and tugs at the collar of his black T-shirt. “Sorry, man, your dad’s being a tool. You can read the Chamber book now, and when I come next time, I’ll bring you another—”

“One with no violence,” my dad interrupts.

Hardin sighs. “Sure, sure. No violence,” he says in a funny voice.

I laugh again. My dad smiles, and Kim is hugging him.

I wonder how long it will be until I see Hardin again.

“When will you be back?” I ask.

Hardin scratches his chin. “Hmm, I’m not sure. A month, maybe?”

A month feels really long, but I suppose the Harry Potter book is pretty long…

Hardin leans a little closer to me. “I will come back, though, and bring a book every time,” he whispers.

“Like my dad did for you?” I ask him, and his eyes look at my dad. Our dad. Hardin doesn’t call him dad, though. He calls him Vance, which is our last name. Not Hardin’s; his is Scott. He got it from his fake dad.

When I tried to call my dad Vance, he told me I would be grounded until I turned thirty if I said it again. I don’t want to be grounded that long, so I call him Dad.

Hardin shifts his body in the chair. “Yeah, like he did for me.”

He seems sad again, but I can’t tell for sure. Hardin is sad, then mad, then laughing, all the time.

He’s really weird.

“How did you know about that, Smith?” my dad asks.

Hardin’s face turns red, and he mouths, Don’t tell him.

I lift my hands up and reach for more chips. “Hardin says not to tell.”

Hardin slaps his forehead, then mine, and Kim smiles at us both. She smiles so much, all the time. I like when she laughs, too; it sounds nice.

My dad walks closer to us.

“Well, Hardin doesn’t make the rules, remember?” My dad puts his hands on my shoulders and rubs. It feels good when he does that. “Tell me what Hardin said, and I’ll take you for ice cream and buy you a new track for your train.”

My train is my favorite toy. My dad always buys me new tracks to add, and last month Kim helped me move the whole thing to an empty room, so now I have a whole room just for my trains.

Hardin looks like he’s sweating. But he doesn’t look mad, so I decide I can tell my dad.

Plus, there’s the new train stuff I’ll get.

“He said you brought him books like this.” I hold up the heavy books. “And that it made him happy when he was a little boy like me.”

Hardin turns his head, and my dad looks surprised by what I said. His eyes are shiny now, and he’s staring at me.

“Did he, now?” My dad’s voice is weird.

“Yeah, he did,” I say, nodding.

Hardin stays quiet, but he looks back at me. His face is red, and his eyes are shiny like my dad’s. I look at Kim, and she has her hand over her mouth.

“Did I say something bad?” I ask them.

My dad and Hardin say “No, no” at the same time.

“You didn’t say anything wrong, little man.” My dad puts one of his hands on my back and one on Hardin’s.

Usually when he tries this, Hardin moves away.

Today he doesn’t.


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