After We Collided
chapter one TESSA
It took longer than a month,” I sob as Zed finishes explaining how the bet came to be made. I feel sick to my stomach, and I close my eyes to get some relief.
“I know. He kept coming up with excuses and he kept asking for more time and he’d lower the amount he was supposed to get. It was weird. We all just thought he was obsessed with winning—like to prove a point or something—but now I get it.” Zed stops talking for a second, and his eyes scan my face. “It was all he talked about. Then, that day when I invited you to the movies, he flipped out. After he dropped you back off, he totally flipped shit on me and said I had to stay away from you. But I just laughed it off, because I thought he was drunk.”
“Did he . . . did he tell you about the stream? And the . . . other stuff?” I hold my breath as I ask. The pity in his eyes answers me. “Oh my God.” I put my hands over my face.
“He told us everything . . . I mean everything . . .” he says in a low voice.
I stay quiet and turn off my phone. It hasn’t stopped vibrating since I left the bar. He has no right to be calling me.
“Where’s your new dorm?” Zed asks, and I notice we’re near campus.
“I don’t live in a dorm. Hardin and I . . .” I can barely finish my sentence. “He convinced me to move in with him, just a week ago.”
“He didn’t,” Zed gasps.
“He did. He’s so beyond . . . he’s j-just . . .” I stutter, unable to come up with a fitting word for his cruelty.
“I didn’t know it was going this far. I thought once we saw the . . . you know, the proof . . . he’d be back to normal, seeing a different girl every night. But then he disappeared. He’s barely come around us at all, except the other night he showed up at the docks and was trying to get Jace and me to agree not to tell you. He offered Jace a shitload of money to keep quiet.”
“Money?” I say. Hardin couldn’t be lower. The space inside Zed’s truck grows smaller with each sickening revelation.
“Yeah. Jace laughed it off, of course, and told Hardin he would keep his mouth shut.”
“And you didn’t?” I ask, remembering Hardin’s busted knuckles and Zed’s face.
“Not exactly . . . I told him that if he didn’t tell you soon, I would. He didn’t like that idea, obviously,” he says, and waves at his face. “If it makes you feel any better, I do think he cares about you.”
“He doesn’t. And if he does, it doesn’t matter,” I say, and lay my head against the window.
Every kiss and touch have been shared among Hardin’s friends, every moment on display. My most intimate moments. My only intimate moments aren’t mine at all.
“Do you want to come back to my place? I don’t mean that in a pushy or creepy way. I just have a couch you could stay on until you . . . figure things out,” he offers.
“No. No, thank you. Can I use your phone, though? I need to call Landon.”
Zed nods at the phone resting on the console, and for a moment my mind wanders to thoughts of how things would be different if I hadn’t blown Zed off for Hardin after the bonfire. I would never have made all of these mistakes.
Landon answers on the second ring, and just like I knew he
would, he tells me to come right over. Granted, I haven’t told him what’s up, but he’s just so kind. I give Zed Landon’s address, and he stays quiet for most of the drive across town.
“He’s so going to come after me for taking you anywhere but to him,” he finally says.
“I would apologize for being in the middle of this . . . but you guys did this to yourselves,” I say honestly. I do pity Zed slightly, because I believe he had much better intentions than Hardin did, but my wounds are too fresh to even think about that right now.
“If you need anything, call me,” he offers, and I nod before climbing out of the car.
I can see my breath coming out in front of my face in hot spurts through the cold air. I can’t feel the cold, though. I can’t feel anything.
Landon is my only friend, but he lives at Hardin’s father’s house. The irony of this is not lost on me.
“IT’S REALLY COMING DOWN out there,” Landon says as he rushes me inside. “Where’s your coat?” he scolds playfully, then flinches when I step into the light. “What happened? What did he do?”
My eyes scan the room, hoping that Ken and Karen aren’t downstairs. “That obvious, huh?” I wipe under my eyes.
Landon pulls me into his arms, and I wipe my eyes again. I no longer have the strength, physical or emotional, to sob. I’m beyond that, so far beyond it.
Landon gets me a glass of water and says, “Go up to your room.”
I manage to smile, but some perverse instinct leads me to Hardin’s door when I reach the top of the stairs. When I realize it, the pain that is so close to breaking back through stirs even more
forcefully, so I quickly turn and go into the room across the hall. Memories of running across the hall to Hardin that night I heard him screaming in his sleep burn within me as I open the door. I sit awkwardly on the bed in “my room,” unsure what to do next.
Landon joins me a few minutes later. Sitting next to me, he’s close enough to show concern, yet far enough to be respectful, as is his way.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks kindly.
I nod. Even though repeating the whole saga hurts worse than finding out about it in the first place, telling Landon feels almost liberating, and it’s a comfort to know that at least one person didn’t actually know about my humiliation the entire time.
Listening to me, Landon is as still as stone, to the point that I can’t read what he’s thinking. I want to know what this makes him think of his stepbrother. Of me. But when I finish, he immediately jumps up with an angry energy.
“I can’t believe him! What the hell is wrong with him! Here I thought he was becoming almost . . . decent . . . and he does—this! This is so messed up! I can’t believe he would do this to you, of all people. Why would he ruin the only thing he has?”
As soon as Landon finishes speaking, his head snaps to the side.
And then I, too, notice it: footsteps rushing up the staircase. Not just footsteps, but heavy boots slamming against the wooden steps in a frenzy.
“He’s here,” we both say, and for a split second I actually consider hiding in the closet.
Landon looks at me with a very adult seriousness on his face. “Do you want to see him?”
I shake my head frantically, and Landon moves to close the door just as Hardin’s voice slices right through me.
Just as Landon reaches out his arm, Hardin bursts through
the doorway and blows past him. He stops in the middle of the room, and I stand up off the bed. Not used to this sort of thing, Landon stands there, stunned for a moment.
“Tessa, thank God. Thank God you’re here.” He sighs and runs his hands over his hair.
My chest aches at the sight of him and I look away, focusing on the wall.
“Tessa, baby. I need you to listen to me. Please, just . . .”
I stay silent and walk toward him. His eyes light with hope and he reaches out for me, but when I continue past him, I catch the hope extinguishing in him.
“Talk to me,” he begs.
But I shake my head and stand next to Landon. “No—I’ll never be talking to you again!” I shout.
“You don’t mean that . . .” Hardin steps closer.
“Get away from me!” I scream as he grabs my arm.
Landon steps between us and puts his arm on his stepbrother’s shoulder. “Hardin, you need to go.”
Hardin’s jaw clenches and he looks back and forth between us. “Landon, you need to get the fuck out of the way,” he warns.
But Landon stands his ground, and I know Hardin well enough to know that he’s weighing his options, whether it’s worth punching Landon right now, in front of me.
Seeming to have decided against it, he takes a deep breath. “Please . . . give us a minute,” he says, trying to keep his calm.
Landon looks at me and my eyes plead with him. He turns back to Hardin. “She doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“Don’t you fucking tell me what she wants!” Hardin screams and his fist connects with the wall, cracking and denting the drywall.
I jump back and begin to cry again. Not now, not now, I silently repeat to try to manage my emotions.
“Go, Hardin!” Landon shouts just as Ken and Karen appear at the doorway.
Oh no. I shouldn’t have come here.
“What the hell is going on?” Ken asks.
No one says anything. Karen looks at me with sympathy, and Ken repeats his question.
Hardin glares at his father. “I’m trying to talk to Tessa, and Landon won’t mind his own damn business!”
Ken looks at Landon, then at me. “What did you do, Hardin?” His tone has changed from worried to . . . angry? I can’t quite put my finger on it.
“Nothing! Fuck!” Hardin throws his hands in the air.
“He messed everything up, is what he did, and now Tessa has nowhere to go,” Landon states.
I want to speak; I just have no idea what to say.
“She has somewhere to go, she can go home. Where she belongs . . . with me,” Hardin says.
“Hardin has been playing Tessa this entire time—he did unspeakable things to her!” Landon blurts out, and Karen lets out a gasp, stepping over to me.
I utterly shrink. I’ve never felt so naked and small. I didn’t want Ken and Karen to know . . . but it may not make much of a difference, since after tonight they surely won’t really want to see me again.
“Do you want to go with him?” Ken asks, interrupting my downward spiral.
I shake my head meekly.
“Well, I’m not leaving here without you,” Hardin snaps. He steps toward me, but I cringe away.
“I think you need to go, Hardin,” Ken surprises me by saying.
“Excuse me?” Hardin’s face is a deep shade of red that expresses what I can only describe as rage. “You’re lucky I even come here to your house—and you dare to kick me out?”
“I’ve been very happy with how our relationship has grown, son, but tonight you have to go.”
Hardin throws his hands into the air. “This is bullshit, who is she to you?”
Ken turns to me, then back to his son. “Whatever you did to her, I hope it was worth losing the only good thing you had going for you,” he says and then drops his head.
I don’t know if it was the shock of Ken’s words, or just that he’d hit a point where all the rage peaked and flowed out of him, but Hardin just stills, looks at me briefly, and marches out of the room. We all remain quiet while we listen to him walk down the stairs at a steady pace.
When the sound of the front door slamming cuts through the now-quiet house, I turn to Ken and sob, “I’m so sorry. I’ll go. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
“No, you stay as long as you need. You’re always welcome here,” Ken says, and both he and Karen hug me.
“I didn’t mean to come between you,” I say, feeling terrible for the way Ken had to kick his son out.
Karen grabs hold of my hand and gives it a squeeze. Ken looks at me with exasperation and weariness. “Tessa, I love Hardin, but I think we both know that without you, there isn’t anything to come between,” he says.