Page 7 of Before (After 5)

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I don’t know who she thinks she’s fooling. She was awarded enough money in the settlement to afford a lifetime’s worth of glass slippers.

Instead of bothering Tasha and my dad, I text Dan. He’s been dating a girl I went to high school with. She, unlike me, is still in high school. My brother is protective and loyal to a fault, but he’s a total pig. Let me repeat: a total pig. I try my best to stay out of his dating games. His friends are pigs too, usually younger and even worse than him. He likes to surround himself with people who are just as shitty as him, so he can feel better about himself. He wants to be the king of the rats, I suppose.

Dan responds rapidly, I’ll pick you up in twenty.

I send back a smiley face and jump out of my bed to get ready. My bare face and gray WCU T-shirt won’t do. I should look better than that. Still, I have to be somewhat careful with my outfit choice if I don’t want to hear my brother bitch all night.

I rummage through my closet, searching through the sea of black and sequins. I have too many dresses. My mom always gave me her dresses after she wore them once. My dad liked to try to make her happy with shiny dresses and a red sports car, but somehow her happiness never arrived. When she was leaving, she gave me the option of moving back to Mexico with her. But, funny as it might sound, I just couldn’t give up swimming or my swim team. It’s more important to me than anything else here in Washington. It was the only thing—outside of my dad and Dan—that I would miss. Dan considered moving back, but he didn’t want to leave me here. Or couldn’t, given the constant eye he keeps on me.

After trying on two dresses and then throwing them back into my closet, I pull out a jumpsuit I haven’t worn yet. It’s all black except for some small print on the thick shoulder straps. It’s tight enough to show off my butt, casual enough to wear to the party, and covers enough of my body for my brother to keep his mouth closed.

Just as I finish getting ready, Dan’s obnoxious horn blows outside, and I grab my purse and rush down the stairs. If I don’t hurry, the neighbors will complain about the noise again. I quickly set the security code and bolt out the door, and when I reach Dan’s Audi, I realize he’s brought a couple of his dudebro friends along.

“Logan, let her in the front,” Dan says.

I’ve been around Logan a handful of times, and he’s always been nice to me. He hit on me once at some party. When I stood up from the couch I was on, and he realized that I’m at least four inches taller than him, he said we would make great friends. I laughed in agreement, impressed by his gentle teasing. Since then, he’s become my favorite of my brother’s band of idiots.

“It’s fine. I’ll just get in the back,” I say when Logan unbuckles his seat belt. I climb into the backseat to find a guy with dark, wavy hair hiding his face. It’s swept to the side in a weird emo way, but it matches perfectly with the piercings in his eyebrow and lip. He doesn’t look up from his phone when I sit down or when I say hi.

“Ignore him,” Dan says, meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror.

Rolling my eyes, I pull out my own phone. Might as well entertain myself during the drive.

At the frat house, there’s nowhere to park. Dan offers to drop me at the house so I don’t have to walk. I pop out, but after I close my door, I hear the other door close too. Looking up, I see the guy from the backseat walking toward the house.

“Fucker!” Dan yells to him.

The stranger lifts his hand into the air, middle finger raised.

“I’m pretty sure he’d rather you walk with them,” I tell him, following him up the lawn. A group of girls stare at him as we walk by; one of them whispers something to another and they all look at me.

“You got a problem?” I ask them, meeting their dolled-up, desperate faces. All three of them shake their heads in a way that says they didn’t expect me to call them out.

Well, they were wrong. I don’t react kindly to prissy blonds who talk about other people to make themselves feel important.

“They probably just pissed their pants,” the wavy-haired guy says to me. His voice is deep, so deep, and I swear I heard an English accent. He slows down his pace but doesn’t turn around to look at me. His arms are covered in tattoos. I can’t make out what any of them are, but I can see that they’re all black ink, no color at all. It fits him, with his black jeans and matching T-shirt. His boots make a muffled stomp against the soft grass.

I try to keep up with him, but his strides are too wide. He’s tall, a few inches on me.

“I hope they did,” I tell him, and look at the girls one more time. They’ve moved on now, staring and pointing at a drunken girl in a small dress who’s stumbling by them.

He doesn’t say another word to me as we walk inside the house. He doesn’t look back at me when he walks into the kitchen or when he screws the top off of a bottle of whiskey and takes a swig. I’m curious about him now, so when Dan and Logan walk into the living room, I decide to get the dirt on the tattooed stranger. I grab a wine cooler from a bucket on the counter and walk over to my brother. He’s sitting on the couch, beer in hand. He smells like weed already, and his eyes are bloodshot when they meet mine.

“Who was the guy in the backseat?” I ask him.

His expression changes. “Who, Hardin?”

He’s not happy that I asked. And Hardin? What kind of name is that?

“Stay away from him, Mel,” Dan warns me. “I mean it.”

I roll my eyes and decide this is not something worth fighting my brother over. He never approves of any of my boyfriends, and yet he tried to set me up with his best friend, Jace—by far the most disgusting of his friends. Clearly my brother’s standards are as inconstant as the highs and lows of his weed and alcohol intake.

When my brother pats an empty cushion next to him, I sit quietly and people-watch for a bit. The music gets louder, the crowd more and more into their drinks, their moods, the vibe.

A few minutes later, when Logan asks my brother if he wants to smoke again, I look around the house for Hardin. I don’t think I’ll get used to that name.

But there he is in the kitchen, standing alone against the counter. The bottle of whiskey is significantly less full than it was when I last saw him—say, fifteen minutes ago.

So he’s a party boy, then. Good.

I get up from the couch quickly, too quickly, and as Dan grabs for my arm, I realize I better come up with a reason for leaving the room. If I tell him that I’m going to find Hardin, I know he’ll follow me.

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