Page 76 of Before (After 5)

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Two decades ago . . .

The sun is hot, blazing for Hampstead in April. Trish lies beside me on the grass, the wind whipping her thick brown hair across my face, which she found to be the most entertaining moment of her entire sixteen years in this world. Most of the time she’s mature for her age, going on and on about her theories about the world and its leaders, but in this moment she’s choosing to be the eleven-year-old version of herself.

I push her hair away from my face for the tenth time.

“Weren’t you supposed to be cutting that gargantuan mane?” I ask cheekily as I scoot my body a few inches away from hers. Last week she claimed that she was planning to cut all of her hair off to prove some point, but I forget what the point actually was.

Hampstead Towne Park is nearly empty today, so Trish’s laugh echoes off the trees enclosing us in the grass. We come here often, but most of the time Ken misses our meetings because he’s so busy.

“I was considering it, but this is too much fun,” she replies. Trish rolls her body closer to mine and throws her brown hair across my face once more. It smells like flowers and a little bit like mint. It’s a scent that always pulls me in. Her body is pressed to my side, and she kicks her leg up over mine.

I should move it, but I don’t. It feels too nice there.

“What if babies were born with long hair?”

Her question is random, but not one bit surprising. Trish Powell is known for her questions. What if this? What if that? It’s her thing, and I find it equal parts weird and cool. She’s so different from all the girls at my school—even the girls at the local university aren’t like her. Her wild hair was the first thing I noticed when I met her, and now it’s become the biggest problem in my Tuesday afternoon.

“Did we really skip class to talk about babies coming out of their mums’ bodies with rocker hair?” I ask.

I open my eyes and roll onto my stomach to get a good look at her. She has so many freckles. I want to connect them with my fingertips and watch her eyes flutter closed in delight.

“No, I suppose not.” She giggles, and I follow her eyes to the shadow approaching us. Ken sits down on the grass, and I watch his eyes change from the moon to the sun as he studies Trish’s face.

She smiles back at him, and Ken looks like he’s won the lottery as he makes his way through the tall grass. I can’t tell if she notices the way he looks at her. I’ve always noticed it—and gotten used to pretending it doesn’t burn like acid through my veins.

It’s common knowledge that of the two of us, he’s the better man.

The sun is becoming too hot on my skin, and I stand, shading my eyes with one hand. “I’m going to head out—I have a date,” I say, and wipe my hands on my jean shorts. Seeing their brown hue against the faded denim, I again marvel how I’ve gotten quite the tan over the summer. Trish mentions it almost daily. It must be from hanging out with her so much.

Trish rolls her eyes and mouths something rather dirty to both of us. Ken flushes just a little in the apples that are his cheeks. His hair is growing long, looking ratty where it starts to cover the back of his neck. There are dark bags under his brown eyes from studying like a madman to prepare for his entry exam into law school. Ken Scott is the most stable student in Trish’s and my entire level; I have no idea how someone like him ended up becoming our best friend. I suppose Trish is a tad more stable than me. She’s firecrackers and sunshine, but she’s also cool stone and steady waves. She knows when to cut loose and when to be cautious and smart. I’ve always loved that about her.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” Ken says when I stand. He comes a little closer to me; he’s taller than me by a few inches. I nod, waiting for him to begin, but then seeing his eyes focus on Trish, I catch on that he means alone and gesture for him to lead the way. I follow him for about twenty meters, at which point he stops next to an old metal bench. He sits first and pats the empty space next to him.

He’s acting so serious—should I be worried? A young couple walks past us, their hands linked together. Ken waits for them to pass and my worry to rise before he finally speaks.

“I wanted to talk to you about something,” he says. His brows draw down, making him look much older than seventeen.

“You’re not dying, are ye?” I push my shoulder into his, and he relaxes a fraction.

He shakes his head. “No, no. It’s not that.” The noise he makes is half laugh, half nervous titter.

What could he be so tense about? I wish he would just spit it out.

“I-want-to-ask-Trish-to-be-mine,” he breathes out in one long syllable.

Now I wish I could cram the words back inside his anxious face, or that maybe he was dying. Okay, not something so harsh, but something else. Anything else.

“To be your . . . what?” I struggle to keep my composure.

Ken’s eyes roll. “My girl, you twat.”

I want to tell him that he can’t have her, that it isn’t fair that he’s the one who gets to ask her first. Give her a choice, I want to tell him. She was always supposed to be mine, I want to argue.

“Why are you telling me?” comes out instead.

My friend sits back against the bench and rests his palms against his knees. “I just wanted to make sure . . .” he starts, but the words are trapped behind his tongue.

And in that sudden silence I realize I’m caught between being honest with my best friend and making him happy. It’s impossible to do both.

I break into a smile, choosing his happiness over mine.

I’m not surprised when Trish accepts Ken’s offer, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t hold on to some fraction of hope that maybe she loves me, too. She loves stability more, though, and so for the next year, I avoid every thought of Trish being anything other than my best mate’s girlfriend. Sometimes when they kiss in front of me, I catch her looking at me for approval after they’ve pulled away from each other. I keep that little morsel of hope alive, and it makes my year a very rough one. When I fuck, I think of her. When I kiss, I taste her.

I have to stop.

It’s an easy task at first. I stop comparing all the girls I date to her. She stops slipping her hand through mine when we’re talking. I begin to see the world differently now that I no longer think of her as a tether to home. She’s no longer keeping me here. Nothing is.