Sixteen: Don't Leave Me


Taylor

We arrived at the mall around one o’clock. Alley parked the car, killed the engine, then turned to face me, her face set and serious.

“OK,” she stated. “It’s time to set some ground rules.”

Ground rules? Sheesh, she sounded like my mother.

“OK, are you 18, or 40?” I grumbled.

She ignored me. “Rule Number One: Do not talk to me unless absolutely necessary, and only when it’s safe for me to reply. In other words, when there is no one else in the vicinity.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, come on!”

“Taylor! Do you agree or not?”

“I don’t see what the big deal is. Let’s just go in.” I folded my arms and leaned back against the seat.

“The big deal is, this is my local mall. I know people here, and I’d prefer they not think I was schizophrenic. It’s already bad enough that I’m going to be buying men’s clothes, when everyone knows good and well that I have no social life whatsoever. No boyfriend, no prospects, nothing.”

“You’re so melodramatic.”

“Dammit, Taylor, yes or no? I can turn this car around, you know…”

“YES, GODDAMMIT! Alright!”

She pointed a finger at me. “Watch your mouth, young man. Okay, next. Number Two: You don’t touch anything. Got it?"

“Got it.” I saluted her.

“Three: Stay out of the way, particularly of other people. Yes, I know you can't even touch them, but please. Show a little respect. Don't do anything stupid." She took a deep breath. "Four: And this one really just ties everything else together -- please, for the love of God, just behave yourself.”

“I think I’m having second thoughts about coming here…”

“Come on, let’s go.” She jumped out of the car, and beckoned for me to follow, out of her side. Presumably so people wouldn’t see the passenger door open and close for no reason. Jeez, she really had thought of everything. I sighed, unbuckling the lap belt so I could get ready to crawl over. I felt like an undercover agent, with all this hiding out and watching for people. Personally, I thought she was overreacting, but I didn’t protest. It was just easier to go along with whatever weirdo scheme she'd dreamed up, I’d learned.

I struggled out of my seat and into the driver’s seat while she stood outside the car and pretended to look for something in her purse. Of course, she would have to drive a stick shift. The tall knob jammed into my leg and my pants caught on it. Shit. I was stuck.

“Alley,” I hissed. “Help me!”

Her face appeared inside the car. “What?!”

“I’m stuck.” I struggled vainly against the offending stick shift to demonstrate.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake--” she leaned in and grabbed my arm, yanking me towards her. “Come ON.

I managed to untangle my pant leg and after twisting my body in ways I never dreamed possible, I was outside of the car, and out of breath. She slammed the door closed and sighed.

“Not even in the damn building yet, and already causing trouble,” she muttered, although her lips quivered slightly with laughter.  “How does your mother do it?”

“My mother usually doesn’t require that I play this stupid game of Spy Vs. Spy.”

She flipped me off casually as she began walking and continued. “Now, stay close behind me, and don’t get lost. New rule -- Number Five: Don’t wander off.”

I was still recovering from the rude gesture I'd just gotten, which was completely unprovoked, in my opinion. “You flipped me off!” I exclaimed.

“That I did. Are you over it yet?” She looked at me sideways, gauging my reaction.

I threw my hands up. She was completely impossible. “You are so... You know what? Nevermind. Let’s go.”

“Yes, I agree, let’s go, and get this over with. The faster we get in there, the faster we get out.” She took off at a gazelle's pace.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I grumbled. I followed her through the parking lot and into the main entrance of the mall.

We entered the mall-- a huge, spacious structure lit up with sunlight, thanks to various skylights along the walkway. A not-entirely-unpleasant buzz greeted us, just the normal sounds of conversation and clutter. It was music to my ears. It was the music of life. I was suddenly reminded of this movie I'd watched with Kyle, some TV miniseries... The Langoliers, I think it was called... When the passengers of the plane had returned to the present time, and the sounds of life had finally caught up with them -- it was the most beautiful sound they’d ever heard. I kind of understood what they meant now. I hadn’t realized how much I missed being part of society, a part of the “real” world, until now. I'd always heard the phrase 'No man is an island', but I was just now starting to really understand it...

Stores were lined up endlessly, one after another, on either side. Claire’s, Lerner, Gap, Gadzooks.... Hmmm, where to start. I rubbed my hands together eagerly.

“So, what all is in here? What stores?” I asked.

Alley walked over to the map, pretending to look for something. She was getting good at this 'pretending to be busy' stuff. She stood in front of it, staring at the long list of stores was at the bottom of the map.

“Here, take your pick,” she murmured, so softly that I had to lean in to hear her.

I scanned the list, searching for potential places to blow my money. Er, her money, actually. She couldn’t use my credit cards, and I had no cash on me. But I’d promised to pay her back, with interest, as soon as I woke up, or my 'inner man, as she had put it, decided to get the hell out of Kentucky and reunite with my body back in Tulsa.

“How about Abercrombie?” Yeah... some nice casual shirts... jeans... perfect. For a start, anyway...

She snorted softly and ran her fingers through her hair. “Figures.”

I was offended by that statement. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Wordlessly, she hoisted her purse over her shoulder and took off towards what I guessed to be Abercrombie. I trailed behind her, feeling a little like a lost puppy. It was midday, so the mall wasn’t too crowded, but there were still enough people milling about to make me nervous about losing her. And if I got lost, well, it wasn’t like I could ask for directions.

“Hey Speedy, would you mind slowing your ass down? If you don’t want me to get lost then you’re going to have to take it down a notch or two,” I shouted after her. Meanwhile, the passers-by continued on with their business. I looked around, still amazed me that no one else had even registered that. God, it was so weird to be stuck like this... with only her for company...

She consented by slowing down to a mid-tempo walk. I scurried up beside her, scanning the stores as we ambled through the mall. I looked over, trying reading the expression on her face. I was pretty sure she had blocked me out entirely; her eyes were dreamy and almost expressionless. I wondered if she was even paying attention to where we were going.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked the question before I remembered that I wouldn’t get an answer. Her eyes slowly panned sideways toward me, and then returned to their original state. It was her silent way of saying, 'Shut the fuck up, Taylor.'

Finally, a set of golden letters proclaiming ABERCROMBIE AND FITCH came with our view. She stopped briefly, staring up at the black-and gold storefront, at the huge black-and-white pictures of Abercrombie models in the windows. She sighed loudly and pointedly as we entered the store.

“OK, I get it, you don’t like this store. But you don’t have to be all hateful about it,” I said. “Cut me some slack.”

She reached up to scratch her face, and while doing so, extended a finger up. And not the one meant for rings. What was with this girl and her middle finger?!

“You’re so rude.” I stalked off to look in the men’s clothing.

I remembered what she said about not touching anything, and I actually agreed with it. My brief encounters with Zac, back home, had been more than enough to convince me to try otherwise. God, he had looked so scared... poor guy, I was sure he'd never get any of them to believe what he'd seen... I sighed.

Brushing those melancholy thoughts away, I walked around, observing everything, and mentally choosing which clothes I would have her come get. Once I'd worked up a mini-inventory, I turned, satisfied, and called for her.

“Alley!” I said loudly, looking around. Where the hell was she? All that shit about me not wandering off, and what does she do? Leave me. Hypocrite.

My heart began thudding quickly as I dashed around the store. Where are you? You didn't leave the store, did you? Why are you doing this to me? I am too young for this kind of stress...

I finally found her, talking to a sales associate near the back. Standing back, I crossed my arms, thinking. Time to even the score a little. If she didn’t abide by the rules, then neither would I.

“Alllleeeeeyyyyyy,” I sang in a shrieking, falsetto voice. “Alley Kat! What are you doing?”

I saw her shoulders tense up slightly at my words, and I laughed evilly. Walking up to their conversation, I positioned myself directly in front of her, causing a divide between her and the associate. I was several inches taller than both of them, so I knew she wouldn’t be able to see him. I put my hands on my hips and spoke in a fake cheery tone.

“Whatcha talking about? I picked out some clothes.”

She stared at me silently, not quite believing what she was seeing. I made a big show of turning around, looking behind me, studying the associate. Some generic-frat-boy type. He was giving her an odd look, though obviously she couldn't see it.

“Oh, did I interrupt something?" I asked sweetly. "Were you flirting with this guy here? Should I move out of the way?”

She blinked several times in rapid succession, as if trying to think of what to do. Shove or yell at me? Nah. Move over to the side to see around me? Nix that one, too. Yeah, you deserve it for abandoning me... work your way out of this one, Alley.

“Ma’am, are you OK?” the associate asked.  Her face was kind of scrunched up now, whether from laughter or anger, I didn’t know. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. I'd seen an angry Alley my first day here, and it wasn't a pleasant experience.

“Oh, well, no, not really, I think there’s something in my eye,” she suddenly said, clapping her hand over her right eye. “Do you have a bathroom here?” I was actually impressed -- not a bad save, all things considered.

He smiled. “Yes, just over here, and to the left.”

“Thank you so much.” She marched towards the bathroom; I followed, sauntering behind.

She flung the women's bathroom door open, and I hesitated before entering.  I couldn’t decide whether it was really wrong or not... I mean, women need their privacy, right? Just because I was able to go in unseen didn't mean that I should... Lucky for me, I suppose, Alley made that decision for me. She grabbed my arm, practically twisting it off in the process, and yanked me inside and into a stall with her before I could protest. She immediately locked the door.

“What the--" I exclaimed, mortified. I looked around at the toilet paper dispenser, the little trash bin on the wall. "I shouldn’t be in here! I feel like a peeping tom pervert!”

“This place is empty, but never mind that. What the hell was that all about, you jackass? We set some rules here!”

Jackass? I felt my blood heat up a little. “Yes, we did, and you immediately broke one of them," I snapped at her. "You left me by myself and I couldn’t find you.  What would have happened if you lost me? What would I do? Where would I go? It’s not like I can just ask someone if they’ve seen you around." My voice had risen to a yell by the time I reached the end of my rant. I stopped, breathing raggedly.

I immediately regretted letting my temper go like that. Her face fell, flushing a deep red, and a guilty look spread across it. She lowered her eyes.

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” she said in a quieter tone. “I didn’t realize--” She stopped.

“It’s okay,” I said gruffly, feeling a little guilty myself. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to yell, but I was just kind of upset. I can't lose you, Alley. I -- I need you. You're all I've got right now.” 

She kept looking down at her shoes and remained silent for a moment. “I’m sorry. I just thought I’d be over there for a second... I just asked him a question, but he kept talking, and I kind of forgot why I was here for a second.” She gazed dolefully up at me. “I guess I’m a hypocrite, huh?”

“I guess you are.”

“I won’t let it happen again. Alright? Truce?” She held out her hand.

I grabbed it and shook it firmly, noticing, for the first time, how soft her palms were. “Truce.”

She managed a smile, and squeezed my shoulder. “So, you were saying you found some stuff?”

“Yeah,” I returned the smile easily. It was impossible to hold a grudge against her. “Follow me.”