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“You don’t have to”—he rubs the dark stubble on his chin—“but it makes more sense for now. You’re so close.”

“I’m not attending that ceremony,” I remind him.

“I had hoped you changed your mind.” My father sighs, and I look away.

“Well, I haven’t, so . . .”

“It’s a very important day for you. The last three years of your life—”

“I don’t give a shit. I don’t want to go. I’m fine with having my diploma mailed to me. I’m not going, end of discussion.” My eyes travel up the wall behind him to focus on the frames hanging heavily on the dark brown walls of his office. The white-framed certificates and diplomas mark his achievements, and I can tell by the way he proudly stares up at them that they mean more to him than they ever would to me.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He continues to stare at the frames. “I won’t ask again.” My father frowns.

“Why is it so important to you for me to go?” I dare to ask.

The hostility between us has thickened, and the air has grown heavier, but my father’s features soften tremendously as the moments of silence between us go by.

“Because”—he draws in a long breath—“there was a time, a long time, when I wasn’t sure . . .”—another pause—“how you would turn out.”


“Are you sure you have time to talk right now?” His eyes move to my busted knuckles and bloodstained jeans. I know he really means: Are you sure you’re mentally stable enough to talk right now?

I knew I should have changed my jeans. I didn’t feel like doing much of anything this morning. I literally rolled out of bed and drove to campus.

“I want to know,” I sternly reply.

He nods. “There was a time when I didn’t think you’d even graduate high school, you know, given the trouble you always got into.”

Flashes of bar fights, burglarized convenience stores, crying half-naked girls, complaining neighbors, and one very disappointed mother play before my eyes. “I know,” I agree. “Technically, I’m still into trouble.”

My father gives me a look that says he’s not at all pleased to hear me being a little flippant over what was a substantial headache for him. “Not nearly as much,” he says. “Not since . . . her,” he adds softly.

“She causes most of my trouble.” I rub the back of my neck with my hand, knowing I’m full of shit.

“I wouldn’t say that.” His brown eyes narrow, and his fingers play with the top button of his vest. Both of us sit in silence for a beat, unsure what to say. “I have so much guilt, Hardin. If you hadn’t made it through high school and gone to college, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

“Nothing—you would have been living your perfect life here,” I snap.

He flinches as if I’ve slapped him. “That’s not true. I only want the best for you. I didn’t always show it, and I know that, but your future is very important to me.”

“Is that why you had me accepted into WCU in the first place?” We’ve never discussed the fact that I know he used his position to get me into this damn school. I know he did. I didn’t do shit in high school, and my transcripts prove it.

“That, and the fact that your mother was at her breaking point with you. I wanted you to come here so I could get to know you. You aren’t the same boy you were when I left.”

“If you wanted to know me, you should have stuck around longer. And drunk less.” Fragments of memories that I’ve tried so hard to forget push their way into my mind. “You left, and I never had the chance to just be a boy.”

I used to occasionally wonder how it felt to be a happy child with a strong and loving family. While my mum worked from sunup to sundown, I would sit in the living room alone, just staring at the dingy and slanted walls for hours. I would make myself some shitty meal that was barely edible and imagine that I was sitting at a table full of people who loved me. They would laugh and ask how my day went. When I’d get into a fight at school, I’d sometimes wish I had a father around to either pat me on the back or bust my ass for starting trouble.

Things got much easier for me as I grew up. Once I was a teenager and I realized I could hurt people, everything was easier. I could get back at my mum for leaving me alone while she worked by calling her by her first name and denying her the simple joy of hearing her only child say “I love you.”

I could get back at my father by not speaking to him. I had one goal: to make everyone around me as miserable as I felt; that way, I would finally fit in. I used sex and lies to hurt girls, and made a game of it. That backfired when my mum’s friend spent too much time around me; her marriage was ruined, along with her dignity, and my mum was heartbroken that her fourteen-year-old son had done such a thing.

Ken looks like he catches on, as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking. “I know that, and I’m sorry for all the things you were subjected to because of me.”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” I push the chair back and stand up.

My father stays seated, and I can’t help the thrill of power that I get from standing over him this way. I feel so . . . above him in every way possible. He’s haunted by his guilt and regrets, and I’m finally coming to terms with mine.

“So much happened that you wouldn’t understand. I wish I could tell you, but it wouldn’t change anything.”