Page 3 of Before (After 5)

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The inside of the shop is just as untidy as the outside, and what with all the clutter, I can’t see the boy behind the register when I first approach. His presence there shocks me a little. He’s tall and broad-shouldered; he looks like the kind of boy who’s played sports for years.

“Mark . . .” I say, stumbling to remember his last name. Everyone just calls him Mark.

“I’m Mark,” a voice behind the athletic-looking boy says. Bending to the side a little, I notice another boy, sitting in a chair behind the desk, dressed in all black. His frame is much leaner than the first, and yet the presence he exudes is somehow larger than the other boy’s. His hair is dark, grown down the sides, leaving a swoop of hair across his forehead. His arms have tattoos on them, randomly scattered black ink patches in a sea of tan skin.

It’s not really my thing, but instead of being critical of him, all I can think is how everyone has a tan this summer except me.

“He’s not, I am,” a third voice says. Looking to the other side of the first boy, I find a kid of average height, thin build, with a very tight buzz cut. “I’m Mark Junior, though. If you’re looking for my old man, he’s not here today.”

The third boy has a few tattoos as well, though they’re more organized than the wild-haired boy’s, and he has a piercing in his eyebrow. I remember asking my family about getting my belly button pierced, and still to this day I have to laugh when I remember their horrified reactions.

“He’s the better of the two Marks,” the wild-haired boy intones, his voice deep and slow. He smiles, and two deep, beautiful dimples cut through his cheeks.

I laugh, suspecting this is not even close to the truth. “I somehow doubt that,” I tease. They all laugh along, and Mark Jr. steps closer, a smile on his lips.

The boy in the chair stands up. He’s so tall his presence is magnified even further. He comes forward and towers over me. He’s attractive; his face is strong. A sharp jawline, dark lashes, full brows. His nose is slender and his lips are a light pink. I stare at him and he stares at me.

“Are you looking for my dad for a reason?” Mark asks.

When I don’t immediately respond, Mark and the athlete both look back and forth between me and their friend.

Snapping back to the moment, and a little embarrassed to be caught staring, I begin my spiel. “I’m here from Hempstead Baptist and was wondering if you would like to donate paint or supplies to us. We’re remodeling our church and are in need of donations . . .”

I stop because the charming one with the pink lips is deep in discussion, whispering with his friends in a voice that is too low for me to hear. Then they stop, and the boys stare at me all at once, three smiles in a row.

Mark speaks first. “We can absolutely do that for you,” he says.

His smile reminds me of a feline of sorts. I can’t quite put my finger on why. I smile back and begin to thank him.

He turns to his friend with the giant ship tattooed on his biceps. “Hardin, how many cans are over there?”

Hardin? What a very strange name; I’ve never heard it before.

This Hardin’s black shirtsleeves barely cover the bottom half of the wooden ship. It’s nicely done; the detail and shading are attractively rendered. When I look up at his face, stopping for a beat on his lips, I can feel my cheeks get hot. He’s staring right at me, noticing my intense scrutiny of his face. I see Mark and Hardin make eye contact but miss what Mark mouths to him.

“How about a proposition?” Mark says, nodding toward Hardin.

I’m interested in hearing this. This Hardin seems funny—a little off, but I like him so far. “And what’s that?” I wrap my finger into the ends of my hair and wait. Hardin is still staring back at me. There’s something about him that’s guarded. I can sense it from across the small shop. I find myself very curious about this boy who’s trying awfully hard to look so tough. I cringe imagining what my parents would think, how they would react to me bringing him to our home. My mum thinks tattoos are evil, but I don’t know. They’re not entirely my thing, but I feel like they can be a form of self-expression, and there’s undoubtedly always beauty in that.

Mark scratches his smooth jaw. “If you go out on two dates with my friend Hardin here, I’ll give you ten gallons of paint.”

I look over to Hardin, who’s eyeing me with a smirk playing at the corners of his lips. Lips that are so pretty. His slightly feminine features make him more attractive than his black clothing or messy hair. I wonder if this is what they’re whispering about. Hardin liking me?

While I consider the idea, Mark ups the ante: “Any color. Any finish of your choice. On the house. Ten gallons.”

He’s a good salesman.

I click my tongue against the roof of my mouth. “One date,” I counter.

Hardin laughs; the lump in his throat moves with his laugh, and his dimples crease in his cheeks. Okay, he’s very, very hot. I can’t believe I didn’t notice just how hot he was when I first arrived. I was so focused on getting the paint that I barely noticed how green his eyes are under the fluorescent lights of the paint shop.

“One date works.” Hardin shoves his hand into his pocket, and Mark looks at the buzz-cut gentleman.

Feeling quite victorious at the success of my little haggling, I smile and list the colors I need for the pews, the walls, the stairs, all the while pretending that I’m not already anticipating my date with Hardin, the guarded, messy-haired boy who’s so innocent and shy that he’s willing to trade ten gallons of paint for one date.


His mum told him stories about dangerous girls when he was a boy. The meaner a girl is to you, the farther she runs from you, the more she likes you. You should pursue her, young boys are taught.

What those pushy boys grow up to find is that most of the time, when a girl doesn’t like you, she simply just doesn’t like you. The girl grew up without a woman to show her how to be. Her mum dreamed of a fast life, bigger than she herself could offer, and the girl learned how men were supposed to behave by observing the actions of those around her.

As the girl grew up, she quickly caught on to the game and became a master player.

I pull my dress down as I turn the dark corner to enter the alleyway. I hear the mesh fabric rip as I tug it, and I curse at myself for doing this again.

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