Page 24 of Before (After 5)

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“Not to me,” she says plainly, and at first I almost think it’s a joke. But the conviction in her voice tells me that she’s actually serious. This girl is absolutely mad. She thinks someone like me could be friends with someone like her? Doesn’t she know that I can barely stand people in general, let alone my own group of “friends”?

How shall I begin the list of reasons why this would never work?

“Well, for starters, you’re too uptight—you probably grew up in some perfect little model home that looks like every other house on the block,” I begin, thinking of the black mold covering the ceiling in my childhood bedroom. “Your parents probably bought you everything you ever asked for, and you never had to want for anything. With your stupid pleated skirts . . .” I look at the outfit she’s wearing now, ignoring the way the material rests on her full hips. “I mean, honestly, who dresses like that at eighteen?”

Her mouth falls open and she steps toward me. I back away without thinking. I can tell by the stormy gray of her eyes that I’m in for it.

“You know nothing about me, you condescending jerk! My life is nothing like that! My alcoholic dad left us when I was ten, and my mother worked her ass off to make sure I could go to college. I got my own job as soon as I turned sixteen to help with bills, and I happen to like my clothes—” She waves her hands toward her outfit, shouting now, so frustrated that her small hands are shaking. “Sorry if I don’t dress like a slut like all the girls around you! For someone who tries too hard to stand out and be different, you sure are judgmental about people who are different from you!”

And with that, she turns away from me to face the door.

Is she telling the truth? Is this perfect girl actually caught up in the unfortunate cycle of kids having to grow up too fast? If so, why is she smiling every time I see her?

Judgmental? She’s calling me judgmental after labeling girls who dress a certain way sluts? She’s staring at me now, waiting for my reaction, but I don’t have one. I’m rendered speechless by this fiery, judgmental, intriguing woman.

“You know what? I don’t want to be friends with you anyway,” she says before my brain pulls out of its stupor.

Tessa reaches for the door handle, and I think back to Seth, my first friend in my life. His family had no money either, but when one of his rich grandparents he didn’t know died, he got a pretty penny. His ratty shoes were traded in for white ones with lights on the bottom. I thought they were so cool. I asked my mum for a pair once for my birthday. She gave me a sad smile, and on the morning of my birthday, she handed me a shoe box. I was so excited to tear the thing open, expecting those damn light-up shoes. Inside the box was a pair of shoes, all right, but with none of those pretty lights on the bottom. I could tell the gift made her sad, but I didn’t quite understand why until the months went by and I started to see Seth less and less, until one day, the only time I got to see him was when he walked past my house with his new friends, all wearing light-up shoes.

He was my first and last friend, and my life has been much more simple without friendship.

“Where are you going?” I ask Tessa, a girl who thought we could be friends. She pauses, confused. Just like I am.

“To the bus stop so I can go back to my room and never, ever come back here again. I am done trying to be friends with any of you.”

I feel like a complete shit. On the one hand, having her hate me will be better in the long run, but on the other . . . well, I want her to like me enough to fuck me.

She can hate me after I win the Bet.

“It’s too late to take the bus alone,” I say. Looking the way she does and the fact that she’s been drinking liquor all night, it would be a really fucking bad idea for her to go to the bus stop by herself.

She spins around to face me, and I realize for the first time there are tears in her eyes. “You’re not seriously trying to act like you care if something happened to me?” Tessa laughs, shaking her head.

“I’m not saying I do . . . I’m just warning you. It’s a bad idea,” I tell her. I glance at my bookshelf, comparing her to Catherine, the main female character in the book she was reading when I walked in. She’s a lot like her: moody and with too much to prove. Elizabeth Bennet is the same, always opening her mouth with some emphatic point to make. I like it. College girls these days just seem to have lost the spunk. They only want to please men, not themselves—and where’s the fun in that?

“Well, Hardin, I don’t have any other options. Everyone is drunk—including myself.” She starts to cry all over again.

I soften a little. Why is she crying? She’s always crying, it seems.

I try to cheer her up the only way I know how . . . with sarcasm. “Do you always cry at parties?”

“Apparently, whenever you’re at them. And since these are the only ones I’ve ever been to . . .”

Tessa opens my door, but as she goes to leave, she stumbles and grips the edge of my dresser.

“Theresa . . .” My voice is soft, softer than I knew it could be. “You okay?” I ask.

She nods. She looks confused, pissed, and stunning; mostly pissed, though.

Do I care if she’s okay? She’s sick and drunk, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to try and score points against Zed tonight. I don’t want to, and that would be cheating, anyway; she’s far too drunk.

“Why don’t you just sit down for a few minutes, then you can go to the bus stop,” I suggest. Maybe I’ll win some points for being the nice guy.

“I thought no one was allowed in your room.” Her voice is soft and full of curiosity as she sits on my floor. If she knew all the shit that has been on that floor, she wouldn’t be sitting there, I’m sure.

I find myself smiling, and the moment I realize what I’m doing, I stop immediately. I make myself clear. She nods and hiccups, looking as if she’s going to puke any second. “If you throw up in my room . . .” I warn.

She’ll be cleaning that shit up, that’s for sure.

“I think I just need some water,” Tessa tells me.

I hand her my cup. “Here.”

Her hand pushes against the cup as she rolls her eyes in annoyance. “I said water, not beer.”

“It is water. I don’t drink.”

She snorts. “Hilarious. You’re not going to sit here and babysit, are you?”