Chapter 1: Just a Girl
When my parents said they were taking us on a short vacation, this is not what I’d had in mind.
Kentucky? Who goes to Kentucky for vacation? A real break would have been Hilton Head, or Panama Beach, or even freaking Disneyland, not the self-proclaimed ‘Horse Capital of the World’. I mean, I don’t even like horses. Ornery, messy, smelly, and too big and wild for my tastes.
Of course, when I had relayed this information to Mom on our first day here, I was met with a swift reprimand: “Taylor, don’t complain. You wanted a break from the studio, and you’re getting it. Now go help Aunt Beth set the table.”
The story of my life, just like that old expression Grandma used to deal out to us when my brothers and I were being whiny -- 'Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.' My aunt and uncle used to live on a farm, just between Lexington and Richmond, but when that proved to be too much work for them to handle, they’d moved inside city limits. City? Some city. This place made Tulsa look like an unrestrained mecca of entertainment, and that was genuinely not saying much. There wasn’t a damn thing to do around here.
“Mom?” I asked, approaching her while she helped Beth prepare dinner. Somehow, she always seemed more amiable when she was in the kitchen, keeping her hands busy. “I’m going for a walk.”
“Now?" She glanced up from the countertop, where she was methodically slicing tomatoes. "It’s almost dark outside, Taylor.”
“I know… but I need to get out of the house. Move around.” I waved my arms in front of me for dramatic effect.
“I don’t think it’s such a good idea, hon…”
“But-” I started, then paused. I thought about explaining to her that if I spent one more minute in a confined space with Isaac and Zac and the rest of our brood, I was going to end up on America’s Most Wanted for murder in the first degree. “I’ll stay right outside here. I won’t stay out long. I just need to get out, just for a minute…”
She sighed at my whiny tone. “Fine. But take Isaac with you.”
I started to protest, but stopped, an idea forming. “Okay.” I scuttled out of the room, looking for my winter coat and gloves. Once I put them on, I went upstairs to the guest room that the three of us had been sharing. Isaac was sprawled on his bed, reading, and Zac was sitting in the floor, drawing.
He looked up from his book. “Yeah?”
“I’m gonna go outside for awhile. Don’t go downstairs until I get back, because Mom thinks you’re going with me," I instructed him. "She won’t let me go by myself.”
“I’ll go!” Zac piped up, leaping to his feet in typical zany fashion.
“No,” I said sharply. Listening to him chatter and carry on was definitely not going to nurture my need for relaxation. “I’m going by myself.”
“Because I feel like being alone right now, that’s why,” I said, irritated. “No offense. And don’t you tell, either. Ike, did you hear me?”
“Yes, Taylor, I heard you.” He rolled his eyes and went back to his book. Zac scowled at me, but threw himself back onto the floor and picked up his pencil again. Sighing with relief, I quietly slipped out and closed the door. A moment later, I was stepping outside into cool, crisp November air.
I shuffled my feet lazily through the snow that blanketed the ground. Although it was cold, the wind wasn’t blowing, so it didn’t feel too bad outside. But still, snow in November? Of course, Kentucky was known for having crazy weather. Uncle Rick was forever complaining about it.
I stopped, furrowing my brow. Naturally, although I’d told Mom that I wouldn’t stray too far, that hadn’t happened. I looked up at the nearest street sign, trying to figure out how far I’d walked. Oldham Street… I didn’t even recognize it. I had zigged and zagged through the small maze of roads, heedless of the direction I was going… and now I had no idea where I was. Fantastic.
I pulled my scarf further up over my nose and shoved my gloved hands into the pocket of my parka, frantically looking around. On second thought, it definitely was getting too cold out here. What to do, where to go…
The wind picked up then, almost as an omen. It was basically dark out by now, the roads illuminated by streetlamps and the headlights from passing cars. I suddenly wished I had asked Isaac to come with me, or even taken Zac up on his offer. At least I wouldn't have been alone. Sighing, I began trudging down Maxwell, which looked to be a main road. Boy, was I gonna get it when I got back…
I heard loud, raucous laughter behind me, getting closer with each step. I swallowed, daring to peek over my shoulder. A group of boys was strolling down the street, heading my way. They had yet to notice me… and I wanted to keep it that way. I quickened my pace. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip, it’s that young Kentucky boys don’t take kindly to other boys who have long hair. Isaac, Zac, and I had been teased and taunted since the first day we arrived. Sort of hypocritical, when you think about it, considering some of the haircuts the locals sported... Nevertheless, a small ball of fear formed in my stomach. I listened intently, hoping that they would continue to not notice me.
One boy's voice, presumably belonging to the 'leader' of the group, stood out above the others. “HA! And then me ’n Butch set that thing on fire and threw it on her porch! Butch rang the doorbell and we ran and hid behind the bush, then that ol’ bitch came out and saw that flamin’ bag of shit and just about had a heart attack right there on the spot. Yeah, that’ll show her who’s--” The ringleader, a guy with a deep, harsh accent and cruel tone, suddenly stopped his story. I froze. “Hey wait. Ain’t that one of the pretty boys up there ahead?” My eyes widened. The ball of fear was snowballing and about to start an avalanche...
“Well, shit, it is!” one of his companions said. “GET HIM!”
I turned around quickly to gauge how much of a headstart I had. Not much. I dashed down the street, cutting quickly down a side road, heedless of what direction I was going. My heart pounded harder with each step I took. I briefly thought of the old lady the boys had tormented. Yeah, lady, I know the feeling. I’m about to be the first thirteen-year-old boy in history to have a heart attack.
My lungs burned. They were getting closer; I could hear their footsteps crunching behind me. I ran as fast as I could, but the snow and ice combined with my heavy galoshes and thick clothing did not a sprinter make. I could see lights up ahead on the corner, from one of the local coffeeshops, and that was my goal. People would be inside, I could go in and ask for a phone and get away from my tormentors… but it was still so far away. I knew they would reach me before I got there.
“I GOT HIM! I GOT HIM!” screamed one of the boys as a rough hand clamped down on my shoulder. He shoved me and I tumbled headfirst into the snow. I sputtered and coughed, trying to get the dirty, slushy ice out of my mouth. He rolled me over, and suddenly, they were all there; all five of them, standing around me in a circle, as if they were about to perform a sacrifice. They looked like they were a few years older than me.
“Well, hello there, pretty boy,” the leader said smoothly. I couldn’t make out his features because they were in shadow. “What brings you to Maxwell Street?”
“I-I-I...” Stop stuttering, Tay! I felt weak, disoriented. “I was just taking a walk. I’m sorry. I’ll go now. Please. Please let me go.”
The leader turned to face the others and I finally saw him clearly. His eyes were dark and cold, his face relaxed. He looked like the kind of guy who got high all the time and killed kittens for fun.
“Well, well. Should we let him go boys?” he asked with a laugh. The others didn’t reply, and he turned back to me and smirked. “Well, I guess that means no, sweetie, sorry.”
He slowly walked over to where he was standing directly over me. He leaned down and I could feel his hot breath on my face.
“What’s your name?” he inquired, as if we were just making polite conversation and he wasn't planning to pummel me into a heap.
“Taylor,” I mumbled.
“Well, Taylor..... we don’t like pretty boys around here. What do you think about that?”
Was that a rhetorical question? Or was he looking for an answer? I nervously darted my gaze back and forth between each member of the group. When I didn’t respond, the leader took control, backing up from my side and walking until he standing right in front of me. Oh, God. I suddenly leaped to my feet in a rush of adrenaline, preparing to make another escape effort. However, five against one really aren’t very good odds. I didn’t even make it three feet before I was accosted again.
“Get him, Jay!” one of the other boys hooted. A rough hand gripped my arm, slinging me back around until I was face to face with this ‘Jay’. He gave me a wicked smile, and my stomach bottomed out.
“Where ya going? The party’s just getting started.”
I was about to respond and tell him that if this was his idea of a party, he was a seriously fucked-up psycho, but he effectively ended my ability to speak for the next few minutes. A fist connected with my stomach, and I gasped, doubling over. Then he kicked me between the legs, just for good measure, I suppose. My world flashed red, then black, then red again. I crumpled to the ground, struggling for breath. I vaguely heard the rest of them cheering as one of the other boys lined up to deliver another blow. Hot tears rolled down my cheeks, burning my cold skin. I’m dying, I thought grimly. Or, at least, my future children are…
Then, I heard another voice. A girl’s shrill, earsplitting voice. “HEY!!!”
Damn, she had a set of lungs. I weakly rolled over, snow halfway covering my face, watching my savior approach. A blond, gangly girl, who looked no older than me, was stalking down the sidewalk from one of the houses, slipping and stumbling on random patches of ice as she came. Terrific. This is what you send to save me, God? She’s going to get eaten alive… if she doesn’t fall down before she gets here, that is. “What the HELL do you think you’re doing?!” she demanded, once again demonstrating her prowess at being loud.
The boys looked up for a moment and stared at her. “Hey girlie, mind your own business,” Jay growled. I managed to sit myself halfway up so I could get a better look at her. Uh-oh. She may have been small, and a little imbalanced, but there was a fire in her eyes. Fire, I tell you. She advanced towards us.
“You leave him alone right now. Go on! GO! GET!” she shooed them with her hands, the way someone shoos a dog that’s begging for a treat. I stifled a laugh, despite my agony. The other boys just stared at her and one began to laugh. After a moment, the rest joined in, turning back to me, apparently deciding she wasn't a threat and to ignore her.
Big mistake. She turned halfway around, towards the house behind her.
“DAAAAAAAAAAD!!!” she screeched. “Those boys are bothering me again!”
“Ah, shit!” one of them cried. I had the feeling they had gone through this sort of thing before. A man, who I presumed to be the girl’s dad, walked out of the front door at his daughter's shrieking. He strode towards us purposely and the next thing I knew, the group was gone. They scattered in all directions, like a bunch of pigeons. I looked around, amazed. The girl walked up to me and held out her hand.
“Are you okay?” she asked loudly and matter-of-factly. Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The way she screamed earlier should have indicated to me that she didn’t possess what my mother liked to call a ‘six-inch voice’. Other than my aching lower half and my wounded pride at having been saved by a girl, I supposed I was okay.
“I guess so,” I muttered, dusting myself off and resisting the urge to massage my crotch. That might not make a good impression. I glanced up at her, finally getting a good look at her features. Pale skin made ruddy by the cold; impish, bright eyes, and a bird's nest of wild, curly hair. She cocked her head at me and lifted her lips in a small smile.
“What’s your name?”
“Taylor.” I stood up, fighting back a groan. “Where am I? What street is this?”
She giggled. “High Street, silly.” She pointed to the street sign that was about ten feet away.
“High Street?” I repeated. “Where’s that?”
She laughed again, her mouth widening into a huge, contagious grin. I found myself smiling back at her, despite the circumstances. “You need a ride somewhere? It’s awfully dark.”
“Uh…” Ride? What, on her bike? She wasn’t old enough to drive…
“My dad will drive you home,” she said, as if reading my mind. She turned and beckoned to her father, who walked over, smiling and nodding. He was a tall man, handsome, with black hair that was graying on the edges. His eyes, a near-exact replica of his daughter’s, crinkled when he smiled, reminding me a little of my own father.
“Okay,” I said shyly. They always warn you not to ride with strangers, but I was uneasy about what might happen if I took off walking again. Anything to get me off the roads... He nodded again, apparently being a man of few words, and turned back towards their house. I followed him to their driveway.
“Hey, Alley Kat, you coming with us?” He turned, calling over his should to his daughter, who was still standing on the sidewalk, looking smug at her triumph over the neighborhood bullies. She nodded and quickly caught up to us, clomping through their yard and the snow with reckless abandon.
We piled into their car, a Lexus. I sat in the back, wide-eyed. Pretty fancy. I ran my hand over the posh leather interior. Maybe one day we’ll buy a nice car like this, I thought. If the record does well... Her father asked me where I needed to go, and I told him, still admiring the inside. The engine started up and we backed out of their driveway.
“Where are you from?” She was on her knees in the front seat, peeking around the headrest, looking at me with those wide, hazel eyes. I was a little surprised that she assumed I wasn’t from this area, but then again, I supposed I had a different accent.
“Tulsa... in Oklahoma.”
“Why are you here?”
“Visiting some family,” I said, amused by her nosiness.
“Sweetie, sit back down and put your seatbelt back on,” her father said. She protested loudly but obeyed, twisting back around and sitting properly in the seat.
“Can we go get ice cream?” she asked.
“Ice cream?” He laughed. “It’s cold outside, honey. You don’t want ice cream.”
“Yes, I do.” She wiggled around in the seat again, looking back at me. “Do you like ice cream, Taylor?”
“See? He can come with us!” she declared. Her father laughed again at her enthusiasm, patting her arm.
“I think Taylor needs to get back to his family. They’re probably worrying about him, Alley Kat.”
“Yeah,” I murmured softly. And, apparently miffed at being declined her sugary treat, she remained silent the rest of the way, staring out the window as we cruised along the streets.
Minutes later, we pulled up to my relatives’ house. I thanked them, slid out of the car, and slammed the door. I started walking to the door, when I heard the window on her side roll down. I turned, and she stuck her head out of the window.
“Bye, Taylor,” she said sweetly. Hmm, so she can speak softly. I opened my mouth to tell her goodbye, but then realized I didn’t even know her name. Well, her father had called her “Alley Kat” but that surely wasn’t her real name. I started to ask her what it was, but she threw me another huge smile and rolled the window up before I got the chance. She waved as they drove off.
I stood there, not wanting to go inside just yet, and smiled. I lifted my hand to return the wave, wondering for a moment if I’d ever see her again.
“Jeez, Taylor, what happened to you?” Isaac asked as I strolled back into our room. I had immediately crept upstairs upon entering, hoping that my parents wouldn’t notice how late I was in getting back. Isaac was still lying on the bed. Zac was nowhere to be seen. “You look like you’ve been run over by a truck.”
“Ambushed,” I muttered, taking off my coat and flinging it into the floor. The scarf and gloves followed. My face was reddened from running and being out in the cold; my hair was a tangled wreck. Not to mention the mud and ice clumps all over my jeans from being shoved to the ground. I immediately began changing into warm, dry clothes.
“Yeah. By some psycho-jock types.” I didn’t feel like elaborating. “It wasn’t pretty.”
“What happened? Are you okay? Are you hurt?” He sat up, looking at me with concern. Good old Isaac. Always looking out for me…
“I’m okay. Not hurt. Just a little… sore.” I grimaced. Yeah, tomorrow I would definitely be sore. “I was rescued before they could, um, finish what they started.”
“By who? What happened, Taylor?” Isaac was staring at me, as if he couldn’t believe I was being so nonchalant about it all.
“This girl…” I said, trailing off when I realized how embarrassing it was to have to say that. “And her father,” I added quickly. Isaac didn’t laugh. Zac would have, definitely, but Isaac wasn’t that type. “Scared them off, and then they gave me a ride home. They were nice.”
“You rode with strangers?” Isaac asked, appalled. I rolled my eyes.
“Well, it was either walk back, and risk getting beaten into a pulp again, or take my chances with a scrawny girl and her dad! That one’s a no-brainer, Ike!”
He gave me a disapproving look. “You should have called. We would have come to get you.”
“And risk Mom’s wrath? No, thanks.”
Isaac sighed. “You’re impossible, Taylor. At least you’re alright.”
I threw myself down on my bed. “Yeah. So let’s never mention it again.”
He actually laughed at that. “So, a girl, eh? Was she cute?”
I shrugged, mentally recalling my awkward, wild-haired savior. “She was alright. Sort of gangly-looking. Had a cute smile, though.” I grinned slyly. “But not like that girl we saw at the mall yesterday… now she was hot.”
Isaac looked at me with disgust. “The girl in the jewelry store? Ugh… jeez...”
“What?" I demanded. "What was wrong with her?” Nice hips, great hair, gorgeous face... what was the problem?
“You have the worst taste, Taylor,” was all he said. I grumbled but didn't directly respond, instead rolling over onto my back and studying the ceiling. As I stretched out over the soft pillows, the door opened, and Zac bounded in.
"Taylor!" he said. "Where've you been? We're almost ready to eat."
"Did you tell Mom?" I asked sharply.
He looked irritated at my accusatory tone. "No." He flung himself on the bed next to me. "What are you all talking about?"
"Nothing," I said. I didn't feel like going through my story again. Zac looked annoyed, but said nothing, apparently realizing he wasn't getting anything else out of me. I sighed, closing my eyes. “So when are we getting out of here?” I asked.
“The day after tomorrow," Isaac said. "Mom said we’re leaving in the morning. Then it’s back home, and then back to the studio…”
And back to the music. I closed my eyes, smiling faintly. “Do you think people will like it? The record, I mean.”
"Of course!" exclaimed Zac in his usual over-the-top manner. "It's gonna be awesome."
Ike, on the other hand, just shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
A typical Isaac non-answer. “Yeah…” I murmured, imagining what could possibly be in store for us in the future. “I guess we’ll wait and see.”