After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  “First, I want you to know that no one—I mean no one, except my mother and father—knows this,” he says and picks at the scabs on his knuckles.

  I nod and take another bite.

  “Okay . . . well, here goes,” he says nervously before continuing. “One night, when I was around seven, my father was out at the bar across the street from our home. He went there almost every night and everyone knew him there, which is why it was a terrible idea for him to piss anyone off there. This night, he did just that. He started a fight with some soldiers who were just as plastered as him and he ended up smashing a beer bottle over one of their heads.”

  I have no idea where this is going, but I know it won’t be pleasant.

  “Keep eating, please . . .” he begs and I nod and try not to stare at him as he continues.

  “He left the bar, and they came across the road to our house, to pay him back for smashing the guy’s face, I guess. The problem was that he didn’t come home—they just thought he did, and my mum was asleep on the couch, waiting up for my dad.” His green eyes meet mine. “Sort of how you were last night.”

  “Hardin . . .” I whisper and grab his hand across the table.

  “So when they found my mum first . . .” He trails off and stares at the wall for what feels like forever. “When I heard her screaming, I came downstairs and tried to get them off her. Her nightgown was ripped open and she just kept screaming for me to go . . . she was trying to keep me from seeing what they were doing to her, but I couldn’t just leave, you know?”

  When he blinks back a tear, my heart breaks for the seven-year-old boy who had to watch those horrendous things happen to his mother. I climb onto his lap on the chair and put my face against his neck.

  “Long story short, I tried to fight them off, but it didn’t do any good. By the time my father stumbled through the door, I had put an entire box of Band-Aids all over her body to try to . . . I don’t know . . . fix her or something. How stupid is that?” he asks into my hair.

  I look up at him and he frowns. “Don’t cry . . .” he whispers, but I can’t help it. I never imagined his nightmares were from something so terrible.

  “I’m sorry I made you tell me,” I sob.

  “No . . . baby, it’s okay. It actually felt good to tell someone,” he assures me. “As good as it can feel.”

  He pets my hair and winds part of it around his finger, lost in thought. “After that, I would only sleep downstairs on the couch, so if someone came in . . . they would get to me first. Then the nightmares came . . . and they just kind of stuck. I went to a few therapists once my father left, but nothing seemed to help, until you.” He gives me a weak smile. “I’m sorry I was out all night. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be him,” he says and hugs me tighter.

  Now that I have a few more pieces of the puzzle that is Hardin, I can understand him more. And just as suddenly as my mood has shifted about him, my opinion of Ken has changed just as drastically. I know people change, and he obviously has improved himself from the kind of man he used to be, but I can’t help the anger bubbling inside me. Hardin is the way he is because of his father, because of the drinking, the negligence, and the terrible night that his father provoked an attack against his wife and son, and then wasn’t there to protect them. I didn’t get all the answers I wanted, but I got much more than I ever expected.

  “I won’t do it again . . . I swear . . . Just please tell me you won’t leave me . . .” he mutters.

  Every ounce of anger and entitlement I felt has evaporated. “I won’t leave you, Hardin. I won’t leave you.” And because he looks at me like he needs to hear it, I say it a few more times.

  “I love you, Tessa, more than anything,” he says and wipes my tears.

  chapter ninety-one

  We haven’t moved from our spot in the chair for at least thirty minutes, when finally Hardin lifts his head from my chest and says, “Can I eat now?”

  “Yes.” I give him a weak smile and start to climb off his lap, but he pulls me back.

  “I didn’t say for you to move. Just slide my plate over.” He smiles.

  I slide his plate over and reach for mine across the small table. I am still reeling from this new information and now I feel a little uneasy about going to the wedding in the morning.

  Sensing Hardin doesn’t want to discuss his confession further, I take a bite off my plate and say, “You are a much better cook than I expected. Having shown your hand, I expect you’ll cook for me more often.”

  “We will see,” he says with his mouth full and we eat the rest of the meal in a comfortable silence.

  Later, when I’m loading the dishwasher, he walks up behind me and asks, “Are you still mad?”

  “Not exactly,” I tell him. “I am still not happy about you being out all night, and I do want to know who you fought, and why.” He opens his mouth to speak, but I stop him. “But not tonight.” I don’t think either of us can handle any more tonight.

  “Okay,” he says softly. Worry flashes in his eyes but I choose to let it go.

  “Oh, and I didn’t appreciate you throwing my internship in my face, either. That really hurt my feelings.”

  “I know. That’s why I said it,” he answers, a little too honestly.

  “I know. That’s exactly why I don’t like it.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t do it again, okay?” I tell him and he nods. “I’m exhausted,” I groan in a small attempt to change the subject.

  “Me, too; let’s lie down for the rest of the evening. I got the cable turned on.”

  “I was supposed to be doing that.” I scowl at him.

  He rolls his eyes and sits next to me on the bed. “You can just give me the money for it . . .”

  I stare at the wall. “What time are we leaving here tomorrow for the wedding?”

  “Whenever we feel like it.”

  “It starts at three, so I think we should be there by two,” I say.

  “An hour early?” he whines and I nod. “I don’t know why you insist—” he says but is cut off by my phone ringing.

  The look on Hardin’s face as he leans over and grabs it tells me immediately who it is. “Why is he calling?” he huffs.

  “I don’t know, Hardin, but I think I should answer.” I grab the phone from his hand.

  “Noah?” My voice is soft and shaky as Hardin’s glower burns a hole through the apartment.

  “Hey, Tessa, I’m sorry to call you on a Friday night but . . . well . . .” He sounds panicked.

  “What?” I push, since he always takes longer than necessary to explain stressful situations.

  When I look over to Hardin he mouths, “Speaker.”

  I give him an are-you-kidding look, but end up putting Noah on speaker anyway so Hardin can eavesdrop.

  “Your mom got a call from the dorm supervisor about your final bill being paid for the room, so she knows you moved out. I told her I have no idea where you live now, which is the truth, but she refused to believe me. And so she’s coming there.”

  “Coming here? To campus?”

  “Yeah, I guess. I don’t know, but she said she’s going to find you, and she’s being irrational and is really pissed-off. I just wanted to warn you, you know, that she’s coming.”

  “I can’t believe her!” I shout into the phone, but then thank Noah before hanging up.

  I lie back on the bed. “Great . . . What an excellent way to spend tonight.”

  Hardin leans on one elbow next to me. “She won’t be able to find you. No one knows where we live,” he assures me and smooths my bangs off my forehead.

  “She may not find me, but she sure will pester Steph and ask every single person she sees in the dorm and make a huge scene.” I cover my face with my hands. “I should just go over there.”

  “Or you could call her and give her our address and let her come here. On your territory, so you have the upper hand,” he suggests.

  “You’re okay
with that?” My hands move from my face.

  “Of course. She’s your mother, Tessa.”

  I look at him quizzically, given the rift between him and his dad. But when I see he’s serious, I’m reminded that he’s willing to work on things with his parents, so I should be that brave, too. “I’ll call her,” I say.

  I look at the phone for a while before taking a deep breath and hitting her number. She’s terse on the phone, speaking very quickly. I can tell she’s saving all her hateful energy for when she sees me in person. I don’t give her any details about the apartment or tell her that I live here; I only tell her the address where I am and get off the phone as fast as I can.

  Instinctively, I jump out of bed and begin to straighten up our place.

  “The apartment is already clean. We have barely touched anything,” Hardin says.

  “I know,” I say. “But it makes me feel better.”

  After I fold and put away the few items of clothing that were on the floor, I light a candle in the living room and wait at the table with Hardin for my mother to show. I shouldn’t be as nervous as I am—I’m an adult and I make my own choices—but I know her and how badly she’s going to lose it. I am already overly emotional from the brief glimpse into Hardin’s past I was granted an hour ago, and I don’t know if I have it in me to go to battle with her tonight. I look over at the clock and see it’s already eight. Hopefully she won’t stay long, and Hardin and I can get to bed early and just hold each other while we each try to deal with our family legacies.

  “Do you want me to stay out here with you or give you two some time to discuss everything?” Hardin asks after a bit.

  “I think we should have a little time one-on-one,” I say. As much as I want him by my side, I know that his presence will antagonize her.

  “Wait . . . I just remembered something Noah said. He said the final bill for my dorm was paid.” I look at him questioningly.

  “Yeah . . . so?”

  “You paid it, didn’t you!” I half-shout. Despite my energy, it’s not really out of anger, just surprise and annoyance.

  “So . . .” He shrugs.

  “Hardin! You have got to stop spending money on me; it makes me uncomfortable.”

  “I don’t see what the big deal is. It wasn’t that much,” he argues.

  “What are you like secretly rich or something? Are you selling drugs?”

  “No, I just saved up a lot of money and don’t really spend it. I lived entirely for free last year while I worked, so my paychecks just kept piling up. I never really had anything to spend money on . . . but now I do.” He smiles wide. “And I like spending it on you, so don’t fight me over it.”

  “You’re lucky my mother is on her way and I only have it in me to go to war with one of you,” I tease and he lets out a long chuckle that fades until we’re just sitting, holding hands and waiting.

  A few minutes later there is a knock . . . well, a pounding at the door.

  Hardin stands. “I’ll be right in the other room. I love you.” He gives me a swift kiss before exiting.

  I fill my lungs with the deepest breath I can manage and open the door. My mother looks eerily perfect, as always. Not a single smudge mars her heavily made-up eyes, her red lipstick is smooth and silky, her blond hair is neatly piled almost in a halo around her head.

  “What the hell do you think you’re doing moving out of that dorm without telling me!” she shouts without introduction and pushes past me into the apartment.

  “You didn’t give me much of a choice,” I counter, then focus on breathing in and out to stay as calm as I can.

  She spins back to glare at me. “Excuse me? How did I not give you a choice?”

  “You threatened to not help me pay for my dorm,” I remind her and cross my arms.

  “So, I gave you a choice, but you made the wrong one,” she snaps.

  “No, you’re the one who’s wrong here.”

  “Listen to you! Look at you. You aren’t the same Tessa that I dropped off at college three months ago.” She waves her arms to gesture up and down my body. “You are defying me, even yelling at me! You have some nerve! I have done everything for you, and here you are . . . throwing it all away.”

  “I am not throwing anything away! I have an excellent internship that pays me very well; I have a car, and a four-point-oh grade point average. What more could you possibly want from me?” I shout back.

  Her eyes light up from the challenge, and her voice is full of venom as she says, “Well, for starters, you could have at least changed your clothes before I came. Honestly, Tessa, you look like hell.” As I look down at my pajamas, she switches to a new criticism. “And what is this . . . you wear makeup now? Who are you? You’re not my Theresa, that is for certain. My Theresa wouldn’t be hanging out in some devil worshipper’s apartment in her pajamas on a Friday night.”

  “Do not speak about him that way,” I say through my teeth. “I have already warned you.”

  My mother squints her eyes and cackles. Her head falls back in laughter, and I fight the urge to smack her across her perfectly painted-on face. I immediately cringe at my violent thoughts, but she’s pushing me too far.

  “And another thing,” I say slowly, calmly, to make sure I deliver the pronouncement just so. “This isn’t just his apartment. It is our apartment.”

  And just like that, I get her to stop laughing.

  chapter ninety-two

  This woman I’ve lived with values her sense of control so much that there are few times I’ve managed to surprise her, let alone stun her. But here, I have really, truly stunned my mother. Her posture is erect and her face has fallen.

  “What did you just say?” she asks slowly.

  “You heard me. This is our apartment—as in, we both live here.” I put my hands on my hips for dramatic effect.

  “There is no way that you live here. You can’t afford a place like this!” she scoffs.

  “Would you like to see our lease? Because I have a copy.”

  “This whole situation is even worse than I thought . . .” she says, then shifts her eyes to stare behind me, as if I’m not even worth looking at while she calculates her formula for my life. “I knew you were being foolish by messing around with that . . . that boy. But you are just plain stupid for moving in with him! You don’t even know him! You haven’t met his parents—aren’t you embarrassed to be seen in public with him?”

  My anger boils over. I glance at the wall, trying to gather some composure, but it’s too much and before I can stop myself, I am in her face. “How dare you come into my home and insult him! I know him better than anyone, and he knows me better than you ever could! And I have actually met his family, his father at least. You want to know who his father is? He’s the goddamn chancellor of WCU!” I scream. “That should satisfy your sad little judgmental streak.”

  I hate throwing Hardin’s father’s title around, but this is the type of thing that would jolt her.

  Probably because he heard the break in my voice, Hardin comes out of the bedroom with a worried expression. He comes over and stands beside me and tries to pull me back from my mother, just like last time.

  “Oh, great! And here’s the man of the hour,” my mother mocks, and gestures wildly at him. “His father is not the chancellor.” She half-laughs.

  My face is red and soaked with tears, but I couldn’t care less. “Yes, he is. Shocked? If you weren’t so busy being a judgmental bitch, you could have talked to him and found that out. You know what? You don’t even deserve to know him. He has been there for me in ways you never were, and there is nothing—and I mean nothing—you can do to keep me away from him!”

  “You do not speak to me that way!” she screams and steps closer. “You think just because you got yourself a fancy little apartment and put some eyeliner on that you are suddenly a woman? Honey, I hate to break it to you, but you look like a whore, living with someone at eighteen!”

  Hardin’s eyes narrow at her i
n warning, but she ignores him.

  “You better end this before you lose your virtue, Tessa. Just take a look in the mirror, then look at him! You two look ridiculous together; you had Noah, who was great for you, and you threw him out for . . . this!” She gestures to Hardin.

  “Noah has nothing to do with this,” I say.

  Hardin’s jaw clenches and I silently beg him not to say anything.

  “Noah loves you, and I know you love him. Now stop this rebellious charade and come with me. I will get you back into your dorm, and Noah will certainly forgive you.” She reaches a hand out authoritatively, as if I’ll take it and stroll out of here with her.

  I grab the bottom of my shirt with my fists. “You are so insane. Honestly, Mother, listen to yourself! I don’t want to come with you. I live here with Hardin and I love him. Not Noah. I care for Noah, but it was only your influence that made me think I loved him because I felt like I should. I am sorry, but I love Hardin and he loves me.”

  “Tessa! He doesn’t love you—he is only going to stay around until he gets into your pants. Open your eyes, little girl!”

  Something about the way she just called me “little girl” sends me over the edge.

  “He has already gotten into my pants, and guess what! He’s still around!” I shout. Hardin and my mother share the same shocked expression, but my mother’s turns to disgust while Hardin’s turns to a sympathetic frown.

  “I’ll tell you one thing, Theresa. When he breaks your heart and you have nowhere to go . . . you better not come to me.”

  “Oh, trust me, I wouldn’t. This is why you’ll always be alone. You have no control over me anymore—I am an adult. Just because you couldn’t control my father doesn’t give you the right to try to control me!” As soon as the words leave my mouth I regret them. I know bringing my father into this is low, too low. Before I can apologize, I feel her hand connect with my cheek. The shock is more painful than the assault.

  Hardin steps between us and puts his hand on her shoulder. My face stings and I bite my lip to keep from crying harder.

  “If you don’t get the fuck out of our apartment, I will call the police,” he warns her. The calm tone of his voice sends chills down my spine, and I notice my mother shiver, his tone clearly unnerving her, too.

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