Before by Anna Todd


  I’ve outgrown Hampstead. I know it. Trish knows it. Even the local bakery has grown suspicious of my recent behavior and the fact that my weekly trips to buy sweets there have tapered down to nothing.

  Suddenly I crave more of this world than living in this town. I want to move to the States, away from the daft minds of my mates who have no plans for their futures—and even farther away from my two favorite lovers. I’ve quickly become a fifth wheel with Ken and Max and their ladies. I want to learn more about the world, about people in general, and I can’t settle down here. Everyone around me has their roots firmly planted here already. They’ve opened up bank accounts and chosen a local university. I can already foresee their ambition short-circuiting when they take their first job doing what one of their parents did. They settle into these roles and never audition for any others.

  Trish has become one of them. She’s gone from being an excited liberal arts major to barely attending her classes. She and Ken moved into a small apartment across from the campus of his school to save travel time. He’s a mess lately, working so much. Every time I see him he’s behind a stack of textbooks. Trish is less of a lover and more of a mother to him now. She sets his alarm clock every evening. She makes sure his clothes are clean and laid out on their bed in the morning. She makes his coffee, his breakfast, packs his lunch. She waits for him to get home, she feeds him a hot meal and is ignored in favor of his books, and then the next day the same tedious cycle repeats all over again. She’s no longer the vibrant risk-taking flower child she once was. She’s the overworked and underslept waiting woman. Because of her efforts, their apartment is as clean as it is small, and she’s managed to charm up the place. Trish has even taken in a stray kitten and named it Gat after one of my favorite characters. I suspect Ken doesn’t care for the creature, or the name she chose.

  Her what-if games that I enjoyed on the hill become less and less frequent every day, and more and more of what she expresses can be called free-floating anxiety. She no longer indulges in flights of fancy that entertain us both; instead she worries about minute things, and I’m no longer a playmate in a grassy field, but someone who has to reassure her, even though I’m not the first in her heart.

  Even through this, though, she still keeps her humor—and I pray to God each night that she won’t lose it completely. The more often I stop by, the brighter she seems to burn. I make it a point to stop by weekly, then twice a week, as she asks me to do. The hours Ken’s gone become longer, leaving their home emptier. She shares with me her worries and whispers her darkest questions into the dark room. I pretend to have all the answers, and like a good friend to them both, I encourage her to share her fears with her lover.

  Quickly, I regret this decision. One night, a rare night when Ken is at home and not studying, we’re all sitting around the kitchen table, each of us with a glass of whiskey in hand. During a lull in the awkward conversation in which we try to catch up with one another’s recent life, Ken refills his glass. He doesn’t bother to look for ice—he never does anymore.

  Trish sighs loudly and gets up, only to go into their small living room and sit on the arm of their couch. “What if the whole world exists in a glass case inside some alien child’s bedroom, like an ant farm of sorts?” I swear Trish’s accent grows deeper each time she drinks.

  “What a fucked-up question,” I snort, the whiskey burning in my nostrils. Ken doesn’t break a smile; his lips don’t even make the slightest upturn. I get up to stretch, to not be the only one sitting at the table with him.

  “Fine. What if the world ends tomorrow, proving that we all are wasting our time working so hard and sleeping so little?” Her eyes are light in the dim room. Gat climbs up onto her lap, and she runs her fingers through his burnt-orange fur.

  I begin to think through her question. If I died tomorrow, would she know how much I ache for her? How much I love her?

  Ken finally laughs, but his comment is not what I expected. “Working hard? As if you know anything about that.”

  He’s smiling now, head tilting back in a sinister way as he leans over the table. Gat seems to sense the threat as Trish takes in a deep breath. I’ve never seen them fight, but if they do, my money is on Trish. The cat jumps down and prances off into the hallway. I should follow it—I should leave and stay out of this—but I can’t.

  Ken lifts his glass to his lips and gulps down the remainder of the brown liquor in his tumbler.

  “I’m sorry, I couldn’t possibly have heard that correctly,” Trish says through her teeth.

  I ignore the way my hands shake under the table when he stands up and starts raising his voice. I ignore my instinct to tackle him and shake him until he wakes up from this sleepwalking state he’s been slipping into lately, a state in which he starts yelling at her, calling her terrible names, and saying terrible things about her. I ignore the way my stomach feels like surging lava when she slaps him across the face. I ignore the way her tears burn through the flesh of my arms as I hold her on the couch, after he’s been gone for thirty minutes, drunk as a fish and out driving somewhere even though he’s incapable of walking straight—but after the way he stormed out of here, not bothering to turn around when I called after him, I’m glad he’s gone.

  “What if he doesn’t come back?” Trish’s lips tremble as she finally starts to calm down, her head on my chest.

  “And what if he does?” I ask her.

  She sighs and squeezes my hand between hers. I look down at her face, and my heart aches. She’s so beautiful, even when her lips are red from chewing at them, and her eyes are swollen from wetting them with her tears. She’s calm now, her eyes stuck on my lips.

  “What if I’m losing sight of the man I thought I knew?” Trish’s question comes out quickly, her next even more so. “What if I would rather have attention than a stable life?”

  She seems frantic now, pushing her fingers through her thick brown hair. She faces me, squaring off her shoulders. “What if I confused friendship with love? Do you think Ken and I did that?”

  She looks down at my hands, which are reaching for her without my having realized it.

  “I don’t know,” I say, pulling my hands back to run them over my hair and then sitting back against the couch. I confused friendship and love when I chose friendship over my feelings for Trish, but now my best friends have made a life together. The problem they face isn’t a lack of love, it’s a lack of time. That’s all. He loves her, and if she loved me rather than him, she would have told me long before now.

  She moves onto her knees on the couch, just to reach me. Her hand moves to my hair, and she pushes it back for me. “What if it’s not that simple?”

  Can she sense how I feel for her? Is that why she’s moving closer and closer with every rise of her chest?

  When her face is only an inch from mine, she looks me straight in the eyes. “Do you ever think of me?”

  The whiskey on both of our breaths hangs in the air even though both of us had far less to drink than Ken. There I go mentioning Ken again; it’s like his presence is everywhere in this apartment. He marked Trish’s body as his; he lies with her every night. He gets to feel her breasts under his palms. He gets to touch the pale skin on her stomach, her thighs. Her lips touch him. He tastes her . . .

  And I never will.

  “I shouldn’t . . .” I say.

  But I would be a fool not to think of her slender hips and perfect skin. I watched her grow up, and fantasizing about her was a daily, constant thing.

  Trish is pleased by my answer. I can see it in the way she licks her lips while staring at mine, the way her mouth is slightly open. Does this mean she’s been having . . . well, having thoughts about me? Why else would she ask?

  When her eyes flicker to my eyes, then back to my mouth, common sense and self-restraint are no longer in my vocabulary, and I wrap my hand in her hair and pull her mouth to mine. I take her mouth slowly, claiming every bit of her tongue, her lips. She’s mine in this momen
t, and we’re both taking full advantage of it. Quickly she grows eager, aggressive in her movements, and shoves me to the floor and climbs onto my torso. The look on her face is one of deep relief as she slips her tongue back inside my mouth. I groan, lifting my hips to meet hers. I’m hard for her, and I want her to feel it.

  Her fingers lace through mine, and she guides them between her legs. She’s excited to show me how wet she is; she’s ready to confess her need for me. I’m ready, too, and I show her when I grind my hips up into her; she curses, begging me to take this to the next level.

  Can we—

  “What if we get caught?” she asks, pulling back only a fraction.

  I don’t know if I care as much as I always thought I would.

  “What if we don’t?” she then says to herself and silences any further questions either of us may have with her tongue between my lips and her hands unbuttoning my trousers. Her hand slips inside, gripping me, and I melt into her. My fears of being caught by an angry Ken, my knowledge that she is not mine for the taking, the anxiety I’m filled with when I think of leaving here—all of it melts. The only thing I can think of is being buried in her, needing every part of her.

  I tug at my trousers, pulling them down along with my boxers. Her mouth is tasting me, tongue probing, licking the swollen vein down my center. She closes her eyes, relishing the way her wet mouth takes me all the way into her throat, then back up. She’s becoming less cautious as she devours me, quickly yet efficiently. She’s pleasing me as if she won’t ever taste me again. It’s true that she won’t.

  “Lie down, facing up, legs spread wide. I want to look at you,” I tell her. I have to look at her while I finally have what I want beneath me. Trish moves toward the center of the carpet, dragging the dark cherry coffee table to one side. She quickly undresses, and I don’t mind, because watching her is something else. Her long cotton dress is falling to her feet, and her arms are already lifting the straps of her simple white bra. My eyes follow the curve of her body; her nipples are tight little pebbles as my gaze passes them. Her stomach is tight; the muscles on her torso curve down to her hipbones.

  I’m throbbing and heavy in my hand when I reach her. She’s lying down on the carpet, her legs spread wide for me. My cock hangs heavy between us, and I can smell the wetness of her pussy. I swear I can feel how tight she’ll be. I inch closer, pushing against her until I slowly fill her. She feels like a damn glove as I thrust in and out of her. I don’t think I can stop this, ever. I already need more of her. Trish’s eyes have rolled up into her head, and I know I’m not going to be able to hold on much longer. I rock my hips, and she wraps her thighs around my waist. She’s coming, she says, “so hard,” she whimpers, clawing into my arms as I fuck harder.

  I spill into her, wishing this wasn’t the first and only time I’ll be able to enjoy her body in this way. She’s breathing hard into my shoulder, and I’m kissing the wet marks on her neck from my previous licks.

  Minutes later, we’ve returned to reality with a crash of sore arms and legs, of sweat and exhausted breaths. Trish is sitting on the floor, legs crossed, and I’m on the couch, keeping as much distance between us as possible.

  “What if we can’t stop?” she says, looking at me, then toward the kitchen table.

  I’m not sure what to do. Not sure what I want, what she wants. Not sure what’s possible. “We have to,” I say dumbly. “I’m leaving next month.”

  Even though she’s heard me say this—even though she helped me book my flight—she turns her head to me suddenly, looking as if she’s hearing the news for the first time.

  Then, without a word, she nods her head, both of us feeling a storm of guilt and relief and loss for something we truly never had.

  The wondrous present . . .

  Ken was my friend—my closest friend, I would say—and I was obsessively mad about his wife. I loved the crazy woman and the fire that burned along with her presence. She was challenging and brilliant—my weakness. It was unacceptable what we were doing, and she knew that. She knew it, but neither of us could help it. We were stuck, victims of bad timing and worse choices. It wasn’t our fault, I would convince myself each time I collapsed, spent and panting, onto her naked body. We simply couldn’t help it; it wasn’t our fault. It was the universe, it was the circumstances of our situation.

  I was raised that way. I was taught as a young boy that nothing was my fault. My dad was always right, even when he wasn’t, and he taught his eldest son to think the same way. I was a spoiled child, but not by money. During the times I got to spend with my father, I was taught his arrogance. My father never owned up to any of his mistakes; he never had to. I learned that in life there was always someone else to blame. I tried to be a different father than he was, a better one.

  Kimberly says I’m doing a great job at that. She praises me much more than I deserve, but I’ll take it. She can dish it out, too—her mouth is worse than my university mates’ after a twelve-pack of cheap piss-water beer.

  “Put Karina to bed and I’ll be waiting for you.” Kimberly kisses me on the cheek and gently slaps my bum, winking and grinning as she prances into our bedroom.

  I love that woman.

  Karina makes a little burping sound in her sleep, and I gently rub at her back. One of her tiny hands rises up and grasps mine.

  I still can’t believe I’m a dad again. I’m old now. Patches of gray hair keep popping up here and there.

  After Rose passed and it was just Smith and me, I never expected to have another child. Or to discover that I had already had another child. Still less than that, particularly given the way things started, I never expected to have a twenty-one-year-old son in my life as a friend and man. Hardin went from being my biggest regret to my greatest joy. I used to fear for his future, so much so that I hired him at Vance just to make sure he had a job.

  What I didn’t expect was for him to turn out to be a goddamn genius. He was struggling so hard during his teens that I thought he was going to ruin or end his life before it really ever began. He was so pissed off all the time, and the little shit that he was gave his poor mum hell.

  I watched Hardin go from being a troubled and lonely young boy to a bestselling author and advocate for troubled youth. He’s become everything I could have dreamed for him to be. Smith looks up to Hardin in every way, with the glaring exception of his tattoos, which they both love to argue over. Smith finds them tacky, and Hardin loves to show Smith each new tattoo he manages to somehow squeeze onto his already covered skin.

  I look down at the sleeping beauty in her crib and switch on the night-light on the dresser while I silently promise this sweet, precious girl that I’ll be the best father I can possibly be.

  Smith

  As a young man, he didn’t know how to be a role model. He had absolutely no fucking idea why anyone would want to be like him, but the little boy did. The little dimpled boy followed him around every time he visited, and as the boy grew, so did he. The boy would end up being one of his closest friends, and by the time the boy was as tall as him, he was truly his brother.

  Hardin is coming over again today, and I’m more excited than usual because he hasn’t been here in a few months. I thought maybe he wasn’t going to come back. When he moved, he promised he would make sure to visit every once in a while, as much as he could, he said. I like that he’s kept his promise so far.

  These past few days, my dad keeps making me do stuff to distract me, things like my math homework, unloading the dishwasher, and taking Kim’s dog out to pee. I like taking the dog, Teddy—he’s nice and really small, so I can carry him when he gets too lazy to walk. But still, I’m really distracted that Hardin’s coming.

  Today was long: school, piano lessons, and now homework time. Kimberly is singing in the other room. Man, she’s so loud. Sometimes I think she thinks she sounds good, so I won’t tell her that she doesn’t. Her high-pitched notes sometimes scare her little dog.

  Each time Hardin comes to m
y house, he brings me a book. I always read them, and then we talk or text a little about them later. Sometimes he gives me hard books that have language I can’t understand, or books that my dad takes away because he thinks I’m too young to read them. With those, he always swats Hardin on the head with the book before putting it away for me for “someday.”

  I think it’s funny when Hardin cusses at my dad. Which usually accompanies those thumps to the head.

  Tessa told me once that Hardin used to teach me curse words when I was younger, but I don’t remember that. Tessa always tells me things about when I was younger. She talks more than anyone else, except Kim—no one talks as much, or as loudly, as Kim. Tessa is pretty close, though.

  As I pass the front door, the alarm system beeps a few times, and I look over to see a small screen pop up on the living room TV. Hardin’s face, with his big nose, covers the little box screen. His neck is there now, his tattoos making it look like he scribbled on the screen. I laugh and press the speaker button.

  “Did your dad change the code again?” Hardin asks, which is funny because his lips move faster on the screen than his voice goes through the speaker.

  His voice is the same as my dad’s almost, but slower. My grandma and grandpa talk like them, too, because they all were born in England. My dad says I’ve been there four times, but the only time I remember is last year, when we went to his friend’s wedding.

  My dad got hurt on that trip—I remember his leg looked like cow meat that someone ground up to cook and eat. It reminded me of The Walking Dead (but don’t tell him I found a way to see some episodes). I helped Kim change his bandages, and they were so gross but they left some cool scars. Kim had to push him around in a wheelchair for a month; she said she did it because she loves him. If I was ever hurt and needed to be wheeled around, I’m sure she would push me, too.

  I buzz Hardin in and walk to the kitchen as I hear his shoes stomping through the living room.

  “Smith, honey,” Kim says when she comes into the kitchen. “Do you want something to eat?” Today her hair is curled up around her face; she kind of looks like her dog, Teddy, whose hair is everywhere. I shake my head, and Hardin joins us.

 
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