Chapter 16 – After

Dare,” Hardin answers before I even ask him. His green eyes bore through me with an intensity that says I’m the one on the spot, that I’m the one dared to do something.

And I falter, not having really thought this out, or expecting to be met with such a reaction. What should I dare him to do? I know he will do whatever it is, just because he won’t want to back down from me.

“I . . . hmm. I dare you to . . .”

“To what?” he says impatiently. I almost dare him to say something nice about each person in the group but I decide against it, however amusing it would have been.

“Take your shirt off and keep it off the entire game!” Molly yells out, and I’m glad. Not because Hardin will be taking his shirt off, of course, but because I couldn’t think of anything and it eases the pressure of my having to give him orders.

“How juvenile,” he complains, but he lifts his shirt over his head. Without meaning to, my eyes go directly to his long torso and the way the black tattoo ink stretches across his surprisingly tan skin. Under the birds on his chest, he has a large tree inked onto the skin of his stomach. The branches are bare and haunting. His upper arms have many more tattoos than I expected; small, seemingly random images and icons are scattered along his shoulders and hips. Steph nudges me, and I tear my eyes away from him, praying that no one saw me staring.

The game continues. Molly kisses Tristan and Zed both. Steph tells us about her first time having sex. Nate kisses the other girl.

How did I find myself in the middle of this group of hormonal college rock- and-roll misfits?

“Tessa, truth or dare?” Tristan asks.

“Why even ask? We know she will say truth—” Hardin starts. “Dare,” I say, surprising them and myself.

“Hmm . . . Tessa, I dare you to . . . take a shot of vodka,” Tristan says, smiling.

“I don’t drink.”

“That’s the point of the dare.”

“Look, if you don’t want to do it . . .” Nate starts to say and I look over at Hardin and Molly sharing a laugh at my expense.

“Fine, one shot,” I say. I think Hardin will probably have yet another contemptuous expression at this, but when his eyes meet mine, I find he’s giving me a strange look instead.

Someone hands me the clear bottle of vodka. I mistakenly put my nose against the top, smelling the foul liquid, which burns my nostrils. I scrunch my nose, trying to ignore the chuckles behind me. I try not to think of all the mouths that have been on the bottle before me, and I just tilt it back and take a drink. The vodka feels hot and burns all the way down to my stomach, but I manage to swallow it. It tastes horrible. The group claps and laughs a little—everyone except Hardin. If I didn’t know him any better, I would think he was mad or disappointed. He is so strange.

After a short time, I can feel the heat in my cheeks and then, later, the small amount of alcohol in my veins that grows with each round that I am dared to take another shot. I oblige, and I have to admit I feel pretty relaxed for once. I feel good. With this feeling, everything seems a little easier. The people around me all seem a little more fun than before.

“Same dare,” Zed says with a laugh and takes a swig from the bottle before handing it to me for the fifth time. I don’t even remember the dares and truths that have been happening around me for the last few rounds. This time I take two big drinks of the vodka before it’s ripped from my grasp.

“I think you’ve had enough,” Hardin says and hands the bottle to Nate, who takes a drink.

Who the hell is Hardin Scott to tell me when I have had enough? Everyone else is still drinking, so I can, too. I grab the bottle back from Nate and take a drink again, making sure to give Hardin a smirk as the bottle touches my lips.

“I can’t believe you have never been drunk before, Tessa. It’s fun, right?” Zed asks and I giggle. Thoughts of my mother’s lectures on irresponsibility flood my mind, but I push them back. It’s only one night.

“Hardin, truth or dare?” Molly asks. He answers “dare,” of course. “I dare you to kiss Tessa,” she says and gives him a fake smile.

Hardin’s eyes go wide, and though the alcohol is making everything more exciting, I really just want to run away from him.

“No, I have a boyfriend,” I say, making everyone laugh at me for the hundredth time tonight. Why am I even hanging around these people who keep laughing at me?

“So? It’s just a dare. Just do it,” Molly says, pressuring me.

“No, I’m not kissing anyone,” I snap and stand up. Without looking at me, Hardin just takes a drink from his cup. I hope he’s offended. Actually, I don’t care if he is. I’m through interacting with him like this. He hates me and is just too rude.

As I get to my feet, the full effect of the alcohol hits me. I stumble but manage to pull myself together and walk away from the group. Somehow I find the front door through the crowd. As soon as I’m outside, the fall breeze hits me. I close my eyes and breathe in the fresh air before going to sit on the familiar stone wall. Before I realize what I am doing, my phone is in my hands, dialing Noah.

“Hello?” he says. The familiarity of his voice and the vodka in my system make me miss him more.

“Hey . . . babe,” I say and bring my knees to my chest.

A beat of silence passes. “Tessa, are you drunk?” His voice is full of judgment. I shouldn’t have called him.

“No . . . of course not,” I lie and hang up the phone. I press my finger down on the power button. I don’t want him to call back. He’s ruining the good feeling from the vodka, worse than even Hardin did.

I stumble back inside, ignoring whistles and crude comments from drunk frat guys. I grab a bottle of brown liquor off the counter in the kitchen and take a drink, too big of a drink. It tastes worse than the vodka and my throat feels like it’s on fire. My hands fumble for a cup of anything to get the taste out of my mouth. I end up opening the cabinet and using a real glass to pour some water from the sink. It helps the burn a little, but not much. Through a break in the crowd, I see that the group of my “friends” are still sitting in a circle playing their stupid game.

Are they my friends? I don’t think they are. They only want me around so they can laugh at my inexperience. How dare Molly tell Hardin to kiss me—she knows that I have a boyfriend. Unlike her, I don’t go around making out with everyone. I’ve kissed only two boys in my life, Noah and Johnny, a freckle-faced kid in third grade who kicked me in the shin afterward. Would Hardin have gone along with the dare? I doubt it. His lips are so pink and full, and my head plays an image of Hardin leaning over to kiss me and my pulse begins to race.

What the hell? Why am I thinking about him like that? I am never drinking again.

Minutes later, the room begins to spin and I feel dizzy. My feet lead me upstairs to the bathroom and I sit in front of the toilet, expecting to throw up. Nothing happens. I groan and pull myself up. I am ready to go back to the dorms, but I know Steph won’t be ready for hours. I shouldn’t have come here. Again.

Before I can stop myself, my hand is turning the knob on the only room I’m somewhat familiar with in this oversize house. Hardin’s bedroom door opens without a problem. He claims to always lock his door, but he’s proving otherwise. It looks the same as before, only this time the room is moving around beneath my unsteady feet. Wuthering Heights is missing from where it was on the shelf, but I find it on the bedside table, next to Pride and Prejudice. Hardin’s comments about the novel replay in my mind. He has obviously read it before— and understood it—which is rare for our age group, and for a boy especially. Maybe he had to read it for class before, that’s why. But why is this copy of Wuthering Heights out? I grab it and sit on the bed, opening the book halfway through. My eyes scan the pages and the room stops spinning.

I’m so lost in the world of Catherine and Heathcliff that when the door opens, I don’t hear it.

“What part of ‘No One Comes Into My Room’ did you not understand?” Hardin booms. His angry expression scares me, but somehow humors me at the same time.

“S-sorry. I . . .”

“Get out,” he spits, and I glare at him. The vodka is still fresh in my system, too fresh to let Hardin yell at me.

“You don’t have to be such a jerk!” My voice comes out much louder than I had intended.

“You’re in my room, again, after I told you not to be. So get out!” he yells, stepping closer to me.

And with Hardin looming in front of me, mad, seething with scorn and making it seem like I’m the worst person on earth to him, something inside me snaps. Any composure I had snaps in half, and I ask the question that’s been at the front of my brain without my wanting to acknowledge it.

“Why don’t you like me?” I demand, staring up at him.

It’s a fair question, but, to be honest, I don’t really think my already wounded ego can take the answer.

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