Page 32 of Before (After 5)

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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.