Page 34 of Before (After 5)


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The bottle calls for me, and I slam the cabinet closed.

I still have control.

I won’t let Tessa or that fucking bottle control me.

I won’t.

I stare up at the ceiling when I finally make it to my bed, and I just know it’s going to be a long night.

IT’S DARK, SO DARK in this closet. I’m tired of hiding in here, but there’s nowhere else to go. My mum’s screams won’t be drowned out, and no matter how many times I search downstairs for her, I can’t find her. I hear her, but don’t see her. I saw them, though, the men. I saw them and I heard their voices echoing through the walls of this small house and into my head.

The closet door opens, and I curl back, hoping not to be seen but slightly wanting them to just end the sounds of my mum screaming.

A hand reaches through the small space, and I look around for something to defend myself with other than a coat hanger.

“Hardin?” a soft voice calls through the dark.

The hanging clothes part in the middle, and she steps in, looking directly at me.

Tessa.

She’s here? How?

“Don’t be scared, Hardin.”

She sits down next to me, her body so warm and unafraid. She has a flower pushed behind her ear, and she’s reaching for my hands. Her small fingernails are crusted with dirt, and she smells like a flower shop or a greenhouse.

My mum’s screams have stopped, and my heart slows from a panic to a cool rhythm as she wraps her small hand around mine.

BY THE TIME I get to campus, the caffeine has surged through my body, sharpening my sight and helping me forget the fucked-up dream that I had.

Why was she there? Why would I dream about Tessa? It wasn’t even Tessa as she is now; it was a version of young Tessa, her cheeks rounded and her eyes bright and comforting with premature womanliness. It was odd—so fucking weird, really—and I didn’t like it one bit.

I loved the sleep, though. I loved being able to sleep for once in my fucking life, and today I feel . . . well . . . rested? Hell, calmer, at least.

Inside the literature hall, I take a seat in the front row, next to two empty ones. I gaze toward the front of the room, waiting for class to start. I’m fighting the urge to watch the door, to wait for her.

When I finally look back a few minutes later, Tessa and Landon enter the room. She’s smiling, focusing only on him. She’s developed a friendship with the kid that has gone beyond what I saw coming.

I wasn’t surprised when they hit it off . . . but I didn’t think Landon’s friendship would be more of a threat than Zed’s competition for the Bet.



thirteen

Today will be our last day on Pride and Prejudice,” the professor tells us. “I hope you’ve all enjoyed it, and since you’ve all read the ending, it feels fitting to base today’s discussion on Austen’s use of foreshadowing. Let me ask: As a reader, did you expect Elizabeth and Darcy to become a couple in the end?”

Tessa’s hand shoots up instantly, and I lean back in my seat. She never fails to be a know-it-all. Just like Landon . . . the perfect little American couple.

“Miss Young.” The professor calls on her, and I watch her face light up. She really gets off on making other people happy or pleased by her. I could use this to my advantage, for sure.

I shut off my inner monologue and patiently await her rant on good ol’ P&P. If she’s as bright as I think she is, this should be interesting.

“Well, the first time I read the novel, I was on the edge of my seat about whether they would end up together.”

Yeah, I would bet they would end up together, just like I’m betting that Tessa and perfect Landon will have the perfect relationship.

“Even now—and I have read it at least ten times—I still feel anxious during the beginning of their relationship. Mr. Darcy is so cruel and says hateful things about Elizabeth and her family that I never know if she’ll be able to forgive him, let alone love him.” The smile on Tessa’s face is bright when she finishes, and her hands neatly fold together on top of her book. She waits expectantly for the professor to pat her on the head and tell her what a wonderful little pupil she is. Landon looks at her, expecting her to glow like a rainbow and spray out colorful glitter from her fingertips.

I’m going to throw a wrench into that.

Speak, Hardin.

My voice nudges at the back of my throat. All it will take is a few words. My mum’s reminder: “Just breathe, Hardin. You can talk in front of others.” She would always tell me not to worry. “A lot of people have social anxiety, Hardin. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

But me, I don’t have social anxiety. I just don’t like people.

“That’s a load.” My voice is loud, filling up the silent room.

“Mr. Scott? Would you like to add something?” the professor asks, clearly surprised by my participation.

“Sure.” I lean forward in my seat. Tessa’s face is a blank mask; she’s shocked but hiding it well. “I said that’s a load. Women want what they can’t have. Mr. Darcy’s rude attitude is what drew Elizabeth to him, so it was obvious they would end up together.”

That said, I look down and start to pick at the torn, pink skin surrounding my fingernails.

“That isn’t true, about women wanting what they can’t have,” Tessa bursts out. I look over at her as smoothly as I’m able. “Mr. Darcy was only mean to Elizabeth because he was too proud to admit he was attracted to her. Once he stopped his hateful act, she saw that he really loved her.” And to punctuate her passionate words, she slaps one shaking hand against her desk, hard.

I glance around to the roomful of eyes blinking back at us. My friend Dan’s sister is sitting in the front row, smiling widely at me.

I can feel the eyes of my fellow students probing at my skin. I need to say something back. I need to speak. “I don’t know what kind of guys you normally go for, but I think that if Darcy loved her, he wouldn’t have been mean to her,” I say. Just like I’m sure your current boyfriend and your future boyfriend, Landon there, wouldn’t be. They wouldn’t challenge her. “The only reason he even ended up asking for her hand in marriage was because she wouldn’t stop throwing herself at him.”

Did Elizabeth throw herself at Darcy? No, the exact opposite.

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