Page 81 of Before (After 5)

Font Size:  

He’s really weird.

“How did you know about that, Smith?” my dad asks.

Hardin’s face turns red, and he mouths, Don’t tell him.

I lift my hands up and reach for more chips. “Hardin says not to tell.”

Hardin slaps his forehead, then mine, and Kim smiles at us both. She smiles so much, all the time. I like when she laughs, too; it sounds nice.

My dad walks closer to us.

“Well, Hardin doesn’t make the rules, remember?” My dad puts his hands on my shoulders and rubs. It feels good when he does that. “Tell me what Hardin said, and I’ll take you for ice cream and buy you a new track for your train.”

My train is my favorite toy. My dad always buys me new tracks to add, and last month Kim helped me move the whole thing to an empty room, so now I have a whole room just for my trains.

Hardin looks like he’s sweating. But he doesn’t look mad, so I decide I can tell my dad.

Plus, there’s the new train stuff I’ll get.

“He said you brought him books like this.” I hold up the heavy books. “And that it made him happy when he was a little boy like me.”

Hardin turns his head, and my dad looks surprised by what I said. His eyes are shiny now, and he’s staring at me.

“Did he, now?” My dad’s voice is weird.

“Yeah, he did,” I say, nodding.

Hardin stays quiet, but he looks back at me. His face is red, and his eyes are shiny like my dad’s. I look at Kim, and she has her hand over her mouth.

“Did I say something bad?” I ask them.

My dad and Hardin say “No, no” at the same time.

“You didn’t say anything wrong, little man.” My dad puts one of his hands on my back and one on Hardin’s.

Usually when he tries this, Hardin moves away.

Today he doesn’t.


New York is having one of its hottest summers when Tessa has Auden. It’s Tuesday, release day for my newest novel, and Tessa and I are lying on the carpet, staring up at the ceiling fan we installed just last week.

We keep redecorating our small apartment, for some insane reason. We know we won’t end up staying here, yet we keep putting money into this place. Our very impulsive decision to completely redo our son’s nursery when he was only eight weeks old has ended up being much more of a task than we expected. The renovation has Auden’s crib in our room, centered at the end of our bed. I find it stuffy and cramped, like we’re refugees in a tiny boat, ones who decided to give their five-year-old, our daughter, Emery, the main cabin while we took the escape raft.

Tess loves it.

Some nights she falls asleep with her feet facing the headboard and holds his hand while they both sleep. Half of the time I wake her to right her position by nibbling at her ear, rubbing her tense shoulders. The other half, I wrap my arms around her legs and just sleep that way. I have to touch her in some way. She always ends up next to me by the morning, nibbling on my ear or rubbing my lower back.

I already feel like an old man; my back aches from my shitty excuse for a writing posture: sitting slouched on the couch or cross-legged on the floor with my laptop on my actual lap.

Tessa points up to the fan. “It’s crooked. We should repaint.”

Currently, the nursery is painted a soft, Easter yellow to go along with a gender-neutral room. We wanted to keep the space light, having learned firsthand what a mistake—and subsequent pain—it was to assume one’s daughter wanted cotton-candy-pink walls. Those we painted before she was born. But as soon as Emery learned that she didn’t really like pink, it took us three afternoons and three coats of green to cover that damn color. We learned our lesson from that, and Tessa learned a few new swear words from me. So, insisting that a muted pastel yellow was all the rage, we went with that; we all know how I just have to keep up with the Joneses and please my lady. That, or the fact that it’ll be a really easy color to paint over when Auden starts expressing preferences.

The nursery contains several different shades of yellow. I didn’t realize there were shades of yellow, or that they could clash so much. Each has come from Tessa’s stops at IKEA and Pottery Barn, which I swear occur at least three times a week. She finds all sorts of things she loves and hugs them to her chest, exclaiming things like “This decorative pillow will look soooo good!” and “This toy is so cute I could eat it up!” And then she tucks said item under a sofa cushion or into a random cubbyhole in the nursery that she hadn’t filled yet.

The room has ended up being a big ball of undulating sunshine that Tessa can’t be in for longer than ten minutes without getting nauseous. She made me promise her that I would never again let her decorate a room—especially not a nursery. And now she wants me to repaint it all again.

The things I do for this woman.

And I’d do more. I do all I can.

One thing I could do for her is, by some magical means, make it so she can leave more of her work at her office. She’s been so tired lately, and it’s driving me fucking mad. She won’t slow down, but I know how much she loves her job. Her career is her third baby. She works so incredibly hard to produce the most beautiful weddings imaginable. She’s new, brand-new in the industry, but she’s fucking amazing at this.

Tessa was terrified when she’d brought up her potential career change with me. She was pacing back and forth in our small kitchen. I had just loaded the dishwasher and “finished” painting Emery’s nails. I thought I was doing fine with the role reversal, but Emery made Tess fire me when I claimed that the mess I was making on her tiny hands was okay, that the red polish just looked like she had killed something.

I hadn’t realized any child of mine could have such a weak stomach and sour sense of humor.

“So, I want to turn down the promotion at Vance and go back to school,” Tessa said casually from the kitchen table. Or what I took as casually. Emery sat quietly, having no idea of the impact such adult choices have on people’s lives.

“Really?” I rubbed a towel over a wet plate to dry it.

Tessa tucked her bottom lip between her teeth, and her eyes went wide. “I’ve been thinking about it so much lately, and if I don’t do it, I’ll go insane.”

She didn’t have to explain that to me. Everyone needs a change sometimes. Even I got bored between books, and Tessa came up with the idea of me substitute teaching two or three days a month at Valsar, Emery’s elementary school, where Landon happens to work. Granted, I quit after three days, but it was an entertaining experiment and earned me brownie points with my girl.