Seventeen: Seether

Alley

I followed Taylor through the aisles of the store, my head downcast. I felt like a jerk. No, no, I was a jerk. All I had done was bitch at him all day, almost forgetting that he was the one in trouble here. He was trying to be reasonable about the whole situation and I was acting like a brat, thinking only of my own feelings and what other people would think of me. When had I become so selfish? I thought about what he said about getting lost, and a chill went through me when I realized it was true. He’d never make it on his own here. He did need me.

We shoved our way through the racks of clothes. Taylor suddenly halted in front of a long wall rack, crammed full of jeans. Overpriced, ugly jeans.

“Okay, I like these... and these,” he said, pointing. “These are alright, too.”

“Sheesh,” I muttered as I gathered the clothing in my arms. I threw a look behind my shoulder to make sure no one was in earshot. “You don’t need to try these on? They’ll fit?”

He shrugged. “They should, they’re my size. I’ve never had any problems with jeans I’ve bought like that before.”

I stared at him. Men had no clue how lucky they were. “I hate you.”

He looked offended. “Why?!”

“Because you’re a boy, and you have no idea how easy you have it... if I tried to buy anything without trying it on, I would just completely waste my money and time.”

“Oh, whatever." He looked over his shoulder. "Sssh, here comes someone.”

I shut up and carefully inspected the merchandise on another rack. The 'someone' was another sales associate.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked pleasantly, though he gave me a somewhat perplexed look. Perhaps wondering why there was a teenage girl buying an armload of men’s jean.

“Um.... no, just looking,” I said softly, “for, uh, my friend. It’s his birthday, you know, here pretty soon, and he really needs some jeans.” I babbled on, feeling a little nervous. I could have easily stopped after “No, just looking,” but as usual my mouth acted before my mind could stop it.

The associate nodded and assured me that my friend would simply love the ones I had picked out. I nodded eagerly and agreed -- anything to get him to move on and out of the way. I sighed with relief as he walked off to assist someone else.

Taylor raised an eyebrow. “'Friend's birthday'? You’re getting uncannily good at this lying thing.”

“Too good. I’m starting to fool myself.”

He chuckled at that, and prodded me towards another rack. "Well, I'm not done..." he said. I groaned loudly.

A little while later Taylor’s whimsical fashion taste had me laden with various colorful shirts and jeans. I staggered under the weight. Jeans can be really heavy... especially when you're holding approximately 250 pairs of them...

“Hey, I need some underwear,” he piped up, spying a display of designer boxers and briefs. “Oh, and socks too!”

"Jesus Christ," I muttered, looking down. My arms were full; there was no way anything else was going on this mountain of clothes without taking me down. I wondered how I was going to carry all of it out to the car. Finally I settled on tossing the clothes onto the checkout counter, then going back for the underwear and socks. I rolled my eyes at him as I grabbed a pack of each and threw them up on the counter with the rest. Anything else? Maybe some fashion accessories? Designer headwear? I thought sarcastically. I can't believe I agreed to this. Uncle James is going to freak out over the credit card bill...

The cashier was quite impressed with my enormous stack. “My, my, my, it looks like someone’s getting a load of presents!” she chirped while scanning the items. “What’s the occasion?”

Part of me was tempted to tell her that the clothes were for me... just to see her reaction. But I thought better of it and decided to go with my original lie.

“My friend’s birthday,” I said, and left it at that. Short ‘n sweet... I thought to myself.

I dug around in my purse for my checkbook while she totaled the sale. Suddenly a voice broke into my concentration, nearly causing me to drop everything. A very unpleasant voice.

“Allison! What brings you here?” The sugary-sweet voice that spoke those words was like nails down a chalkboard, to my ears... I closed my eyes, gritting my teeth. Just when I thought I would make it out of the mall unrecognized... I turned, slowly, to face the source. The ringleader of my lovely neighbors, Jessica. Stealer of prom dates. She should get that engraved on a plaque.

“Wow, she’s hot,” Taylor said, obviously impressed with her short jean skirt and equally skimpy halter top. He gave her a once-over, nodding his approval. I suppressed the urge to groan again. Great, another male lost to her charms. What the fuck was wrong with guys? Do they always think with their dicks?

“Hello, Jessica,” I said flatly and unenthusiastically. Beside me, I noticed Taylor shift uncomfortably. “Just shopping, you know.”

“For men’s clothes?” She laughed merrily, but I immediately picked up on her vindictive, sarcastic undertone. “I would have thought you'd grown out of the tomboy phase by now." She patted my arm condescendingly. "Haha, I’m just kidding, darling. So who’s the clothes for?”

I cleared my throat and forced a pleasant smile. Why was the cashier taking so freaking long? “Oh, they’re just for a friend of mine.”

“Oh, really? A male friend?”

“I think that’s pretty obvious.”

“Ha, ha... well, I never know with you sometimes. A boyfriend?” She tossed her coal-black hair behind her shoulder. It was thick, lustrous, perfectly combed, and so not like mine.

Nosy bitch, I thought. I stuck my nose up in the air a little. “Perhaps.”

Really?

The amused and disbelieving tone with which she said that one word finally got to me. Even Taylor seemed a little shocked by it, judging by the noise he made. I seethed with anger. First of all, it was none of her business who the clothes were for. And secondly, why was it so unbelievable that I would actually have a boyfriend? I mean, I didn’t... but still... it was the principle of the matter!

“Yes,” I snapped back at her. She raised her eyebrows a little, and it was pretty obvious she didn’t believe me.

“Really? What’s his name?”

I suddenly went blank. You know how that works sometimes -- it’s like when someone asks you what they should name their new pet, or to pick a number between one and a million, or to name any member of the Wu-Tang Clan. There are practically infinite possibilities with which to answer these questions, and yet you can’t think of a single acceptable one. My blood rushed up my body, towards my face, as I realized that I was about to be caught in my lie. How completely embarrassing.

Throughout most of our little spectacle, Taylor had kept his mouth shut. However, thankfully, he supplied the answer for me.

“Taylor,” he said. How original. Although I wasn’t looking at him, I could feel his grin loud and clear.

“Taylor,” I said casually. Hell, I had to say something.

She nodded slowly. She wasn't buying it. “How long have you been dating?”

“Oh, not really long....”

“About three months,” Taylor said.

“About three months,” I repeated. I cast a furtive glance at the cashier. Still not done yet?!

“So, where’s he from? Do I know him?” Ugh! Why was she so fucking nosy? I was practically frothing at the mouth with anger.

“You don't know him... He’s from Tulsa... I really don’t see him that often, but he’s coming to visit me sometime pretty soon, and stay awhile...” I was rambling again. Thankfully, the cashier interrupted our conversation to tell me that my total came to 425 dollars and 67 cents. Sweet Jesus! Taylor, I hope you've enjoyed knowing me, because I'm going to be dead once James sees this bill... I handed the cashier the credit card and paid. Once I'd signed the slip, I gathered up the numerous bags lying on the counter. I smiled sweetly at her as Taylor and I left the store.

“When he comes in, make sure to introduce us! I’d love to meet him,” she called after me. Why do you want to meet him? So you can steal him away, like you did the last one, you wretched bitch? I ignored her comment and strolled out into the mall.

“What a bitch,” Taylor remarked as we walked back through the mall. I actually felt relieved.

“Still think she’s hot?”

“Well, she’s got the physical assets, but is distinctly lacking in the personality department.”

I laughed loudly, causing several people to look over at me in surprise. Yeah, that’s right, I thought, annoyed. Keep staring. I readjusted my bags and walked on.

“I wish I could help you there,” Taylor said sincerely as I struggled to walk. Yeah, I wish you could, too, blondie... considering all this stuff is yours.

We had walked far enough so that I could now see the main entrance, where we’d come in earlier. Naturally, this would be the point where I lost control of the purchases and they all tumbled to the floor. I cried out in frustration as the bags spilled their contents onto the tile, but I managed to keep the swearing to a minimum, a rarity. But hey, there were kids around...

“Excuse me,” a male voice spoke up from somewhere behind me. “Um, you need some help?”

I jerked around to see a young man standing behind me, a slightly amused look on his face. He was fairly tall, well-built, with dark hair and eyes, and a gorgeous tan. In other words, there was no way a man like that could be talking to me. I simply stared, blinded by his dark, strong beauty, and didn’t respond.

“Um, miss?” His brow furrowed, and his friendly eyes never left mine. So... perhaps he was talking to me. I continued to stare.

“Alley, maybe I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure he’s talking to you,” Taylor’s loud, sarcastic voice interrupted my reverie.

“Oh!" I finally came back to my senses. "I, uh... I... it’s alright, I’ve got it, just let me get everything together,” I said. Handsome or not, I was a paranoid human being. One who has received way too many email chain letter emails containing stories about women getting attacked in parking lots by strange men who offered to “help them with their bags.”

“Are you sure?” he asked again.

“Yeah,” I said softly, gazing into his deep eyes and silently cursing myself for being so neurotic. He shrugged lightly and smiled, then turned around and headed off.

“Well, that was stupid.”

I whipped around to face Taylor. He nodded his head at the guy and spoke again. “Go back there and get him. You need help with this stuff, you’re never going to make it to the car. And besides, if he tries any funny business, I’m here to protect you.” He smirked, reading my mind. "I could pretend to be a ghost and scare him off."

I grunted dejectedly, looking around. Well, it was mid-day... and there were people around.... and true, Taylor was there, although I didn’t have the greatest amount of faith in his self-defense abilities. Oh, what the hell.

“Excuse me, sir!” I called after him, my merchandise falling as I ran, leaving a trail behind me. He turned around quickly and laughed.

“Change your mind?” he asked.

“Um, yeah... you could say that,” I laughed uncertainly. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, it’s more than alright. Come on, I’ll help you.” He smiled, revealing a set of perfectly white, straight teeth. I melted.

He took several of the bags -- well, most of them, to be honest -- and followed me to the entrance.

“So,” he remarked casually. “You like Zeppelin?”

I gave him a curious look. “Yeah, how’d you know?”

He laughed. “Your shirt.”

I glanced down. I was wearing a solid black shirt with Zoso written in red script letters. One of my favorite shirts, because it was such a simple design. Simple was better, in my opinion. I didn't go for crazy designs and pictures and shit.

“Oh, yeah, I love Zeppelin,” I replied with a smile. He agreed enthusiastically, and I found myself relaxing as we chatted about music on our way to the car. It turns out that we had very similar tastes... so rare for me, living in Kentucky, the shitty-music capital of the world. Wow, good looks, manners, and taste. He was too good to be true.

I wished that horrid bitch Jessica could see me now... ha, wouldn’t she be jealous? I was the filling in a handsome guy sandwich. Walking between Taylor Hanson and uh... wait, I didn’t know his name.

“So, what’s your name?” I asked boldly. Well, asking a hot guy's name is bold for me, anyway.

“Alex,” he smiled. “Yours?”

“Alley,” I said, feeling a little light-headed.

“Alley,” he repeated. “I like that name, it’s cute.”

Now I know I’m dreaming. Blushing, I thanked him and asked him which Zeppelin album was his favorite, listening intently as he answered. I was so absorbed in my conversation with him, in fact, that I didn’t even notice that we had completely by-passed my car.

“ALLEY!” Taylor shouted. “Your car’s back here! Quit flirting, let’s get out of here!” He sounded irritated.

“Um, I lost track of where we were going,” I said shyly. “We’ve passed my car. Sorry this is taking so long!”

Alex laughed and turned around. “Ah, it was time well spent.” My heart fluttered in and out of my chest. My God, he was flirting with me. I looked up, fully expecting to see a pig with wings float by.

He helped me load my trunk. I walked over to the driver side and opened the door, then casually backed away, leaving it wide open, while I talked some more. Taylor bitched, but crawled into the car from my side. Meanwhile, my eyes never left Alex’s face. I had never been one to believe in love at first sight before... but hey, there’s a first time for everything.

“Thanks,” I said shyly. I didn’t know what else to say.

“You’re welcome.... take care, Alley.” He smiled again. “You be careful driving home, okay?”

“I will...” I trailed off, not wanting to leave, but realizing that this was the end of the line. He stood in front of me for a moment, as if he was expecting more, creating an awkward moment where all we could think to do was examine our shoes. Finally he spoke again.

“Well, uh, um, I guess I’ll see you around then?”

“Yeah.....” Brilliant, Alley. Your monosyllabic vocabulary is highly impressive.

He turned slowly and walked off, leaving me to admire his behind. I might have admired it all day if Taylor hadn’t stepped in, once again.

“HELLO!? Can we get out of here, please?! Weren’t you the one who didn’t want to come here in the first place?” Jeez, he sounded like a teenage girl suffering from PMS, or something.

I snapped back to attention and collapsed into the car, shutting the door and starting the engine before I spoke.

“I think I’m in LOVE...” I cooed, realizing that I sounded like a total lovesick idiot, but not really caring.

“You’re what?” Taylor’s eyes narrowed for a moment. “How can you be in love? You just met him! You spent, like, five minutes with him, tops!”

“Don’t you have any romance in your heart? Haven’t you ever heard of love at first sight?”

“Whatever," he snapped. "Don’t be stupid.”

I cringed at his words,  so unusually harsh for Taylor. Why was he being so hateful?

“Sorry,” I muttered. “Thanks for raining on my parade.” I backed the car out of the space and started for home.

“You’re welcome.” There was no apology, no remorse in his tone at all for his rudeness. I looked over at him in disgust.

“What is your deal?”

“Nothing. I just don’t believe in that stuff, it’s ridiculous.”

“Why is it ridiculous?”

Because, you don’t fall in love with someone without knowing them. You don’t meet someone and just immediately want to run off and marry them. You have to get to know a person, you have to spend lots of time with them, learn their strengths and faults, before you can be in love.”

I chewed on my lip silently for a moment. I mean, what he said was true, also. Generally, that’s how most people fell in love, I guess... But I couldn’t understand his harsh opinion on what I’d just said. Love at first sight was such a romantic notion. Unless... suddenly, it dawned on me.

“Let me guess..." I said slowly. "You’ve had enough girls in your life tell you that they love you, without ever having met you, to fill Rupp Arena 30 times over.”

“That could be part of it," he answered shortly.

“That is part of it.”

He didn’t say anything, just stared out the window and watched the buildings flash by. After a moment's hesitation, I continued.

“Well....this is different, Taylor. You know that. He's no rock star, and I'm no groupie. But if it makes you feel any better, it’s not like I’ll ever see him again. I didn’t ask him out, or ask for his number, or even his last name. He’ll just be another fantasy, one of those ‘what-if’ type situations.” I sighed theatrically.

“Mmmmm,” was all he said. His lips were pressed together tightly, his eyes drawn into slits.

It was apparent from the look on his face that he didn’t want to discuss it. I decided not to press him about it, and, returning my eyes to the road, continued the drive home in silence.