Page 71 of Before (After 5)

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“I need to piss,” I complain to the air as I lean against the wall next to the bathroom door. A few moments later, a petite girl with blond shoulder-length hair steps out of the bathroom. Her gaze turns down toward the floor when she walks past me. She’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt that extends down to hug the curves of her hips perfectly despite her loose, even baggy jeans.

“Excuse me,” she says, and smiles at the carpeted floor as she maneuvers past me and down the hall.

I step into the bathroom and close the door. The small space smells like artificial vanilla spray. It’s quite disorienting, so I piss quickly, wash my hands, and open the door . . . and step into a crowd of girls. One of them looks me up and down, her eyes widening as she takes in my features. I can almost read her mind. She opens her mouth to speak, but when I look over her head, the blond girl with the killer hips is standing at the top of the stairs. I watch as she goes to grab something from her back pocket, but coming up empty, she licks her lips and rolls her eyes. I can feel her attitude from here. I had made it a point not to look for anyone for a while after the Tessa thing, but I find myself moving down the hallway toward the blonde. I’m not looking for anything serious, but I could use a decent conversation at this point.

As I near the top of the staircase, her small hand wraps around the metal post in a very delicate manner. I take a few steps closer to look at her, and she descends the stairs slowly and cautiously even though she’s wearing sneakers. Her hair is thick, covering half of her back. I watch as her eyes scan the crowd. She’s aware of her surroundings—I can tell by the way she rests her eyes on every face she sees. Is she looking for someone? I watch her teeth pull in her top lip and decide to approach her. Her jeans are rolled at the bottom, and I can make out the shape of a star near her ankle.

“Are you looking for someone?” I ask her.

When she turns to face me, her brown eyes are big, nearly too big for her face, which makes her seem slightly terrified. “I was looking for my friends, but I think they left.” She frowns.

“Oh. Do you want me to help you find them?” I offer.

Continuing to look around the room, she reaches past my face and lifts a baseball cap off of a passing guy. He grumbles and she smiles, only slightly embarrassed and somewhat desperate seeming.

I look at her, wondering why she did that. “My friend John is wearing a cap, too,” she explains. I can’t tell if she’s timid or aggressive yet, but I want to find out.

“Can’t you call them?” I ask.

“No, my phone is in my friend’s purse,” she says with a sigh. “I didn’t want to have to bring one. I knew I shouldn’t have come here. Parties aren’t my thing.” Her voice grows louder, and she begins to gesture with her hands. “And yet Macy begged and begged. It will be fun, she said—we’ll only stay for an hour, she said.”

With a little huff her nose crinkles up, and I bite down on my bottom lip to keep from laughing.

She flushes, embarrassed. “What?”

“Nothing,” I lie. She’s pretty damn cute. “Do you want a drink or something?”

“I don’t drink often,” she says softly.

“Often or at all?”

“Sometimes, but definitely not at crowded parties with a bunch of strangers.”

“Well, I guess that makes sense.” I smile, letting her know that I find it kind of cool that she’s not feeling the need to get wasted like the rest of the girls here. Or the boys, for that matter.

“It’s not like I can’t have fun without being trashed.”

“Okay.” I nod, finding her more attractive by the second. “Well, I can get you some water or pop and you can hang out with me and my friends until you find yours?”

“Um, I’m not sure.” She looks around the living-room-ful of strangers. “I don’t know anyone, and parties like this are usually pretty shady.” Her gaze moves to two drunk guys circling a group of freshman girls in small dresses.

She’s got a point.

Nate waves at me from across the room, and I look at this intriguing girl once more.

“Well, if you decide you don’t want to stand here alone, you’re more than welcome to join us over there.” I point toward the group and watch her eyes widen as she takes in the hundred or so tattoos among the lot of us.

“They’re nicer than they look,” I tease. When she smiles uncertainly, I add, “Well, some of them, anyway.”

She surprises me by barking out a little laugh and then following me over to my group of friends. Tristan stands up, allowing her to sit on the couch, and she politely thanks him. I haven’t seen him too much lately, but I’m glad he’s back from Louisiana, single and officially done with Steph’s bullshit.

“Here’s to the last year of this college bullshit.” He raises his cup and taps Logan’s. Molly joins in and adjusts herself on his lap.

“Ugh, not for me—I still have two more,” Nate complains. The girl he’s been seeing—Briana, I think—rolls her eyes, mutters what I think is a playful “Drama queen,” and grabs his cup to take a drink.

“I should have gone to a trade school.” He tilts his head back, and the girl watches him in amusement. “College fucking blows.”

“I told you you should have taken that apprenticeship at the tattoo shop,” she scolds him. He rolls his eyes and tugs at the tiny strap holding her shirt on one of her shoulders; half of her deep brown skin is showing, but I sure as hell don’t mind.

“I’m still thinking about it,” he tells her. Honestly, it sounds like a decent play, since he’s having such a hard time finishing college.

“Anyway, enough of this boring career-planning shit. Who’s this?” Molly points to the girl I met in the hallway.

“This is . . .” I look at her for help. I forgot to ask her damn name.

“Therise,” she says, and I get a tiny hint of an accent I hadn’t noticed before.


“You’ve gotta be shitting me.” Molly laughs, leaning against Logan.

“Nice name.” Jace smirks, licking along the edges of the rolling paper in his hands.

“Wanna play a game, Therise?” Molly says with a tone I know. “Truth or Dare?” She looks to me, and I shake my head.