Chapter 55: Girlfriend

Alley
May 11


Love does strange things to people, I’ve heard. Now I know it’s true.

I thought I’d loved Jay (and why, I have no idea). I was wrong. For awhile, I thought I might be able to love Alex. No so. I had a tendency to fall madly, deeply in what I thought was love in just a short amount of time – and every time, it led me straight to heartache and disappointment. But I realized something -- that Taylor had been right all along. Once, when we’d been on a shopping expedition, he’d explained to me exactly what he thought love was, and I’d never forgotten it: 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.

And in the end, I realized, that had been precisely my problem. I’d been more in love with the idea of being in love, and attached myself to these men without knowing them. In Jay’s case, not realizing he was using me. In Alex’s case, not realizing that… well, that I was in love with Taylor. A guy who I knew inside and out… and in his own words, whose strengths and faults I could appreciate.

Yet, I knew the repercussions of unrequited love, and for now, I kept my thoughts to myself. Telling Taylor was out of the question. Nor did I tell Louise – she would tell him, I was sure, and I just wasn’t ready for that yet.  I simply smiled, bottled up those feelings for a later date, and tried to act normal. Well, as normal as I had ever been, anyway.

The first few weeks were rough – the smallest touch, which I had taken for granted before, could set me on fire. Taylor was a touchy-feely kind of guy, constantly rubbing my shoulder, brushing my hair out of my face, squeezing my knee affectionately. I couldn’t deny the uncontrollable shiver that would run through my spine when he leaned in close to whisper something. As the weeks continued to pass, I managed to tone down my physical response. Taylor had remarked one day that I had seemed edgy – and after that, I forced myself not to jump whenever he came near or touched me. Yet, it was so hard… I knew I wasn’t myself, and I knew that Taylor could tell I wasn’t myself. But it seemed there was nothing I could do about it, short of confessing… and that was, as I said, out of the question.

I slowly raised up out of bed, shaking off my thoughts. The bed was otherwise empty. I suspected Taylor was with Louise going for their morning walk, which I was grateful for. Some mornings it was especially hard to wake up and look over at him sleeping without feeling incredibly wistful.

Chester greeted me when I opened the door and staggered out into the hall. In the bathroom, I checked out my reflection in the mirror – frightening. I look like shit. And he sees me like this every morning, I thought, despaired.  I knew I was acting like a silly girl; I hated the fact that I cared so much about these things when I’d spent all my life vehemently stating that any man who wanted me would have to love me for who I was.

“Mmmmmrrrrrr.” Chester was rubbing up against my leg, cooing. I scowled at him.

“You don’t fool me for a second, cat,” I mumbled as I brushed my teeth. “I know you just want fed.” I ignored him and finished my morning rituals. Once I had dressed, I sauntered downstairs, stomach rumbling. There was some leftover pizza in our refrigerator, and I heated it up and munched on it absentmindedly, watching the clock slowly tick the seconds away.

I grabbed a scrap of paper and a pen, wiping my greasy hands on my shorts. I’d heard from a professor that my painting, Celebration, was finally on display at the museum.  I was planning on taking Taylor through the museum so we both could see it, but I wasn’t sure when the best time to go would be. I reached for the phone and called to inquire about their hours of operation.

While I was on the phone, I heard the familiar sound of the door squeaking open. A few minutes later, Taylor and Louise burst through the door. Taylor’s hair was disheveled, his face ruddy from exercising in the warm May air. He smiled sweetly when he saw me, his face alight. I quickly looked instead at Louise, who was tossing her wrist weights on the table.

“How was it?” I asked, clapping my hand over the receiver. On the line, the phone was ringing; no one had picked up yet.

“Not too bad,” Louise said. “Although every dog in the neighborhood made a beeline for Taylor when we passed.” She raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Not to mention their female owners.”

Taylor actually blushed, his sweaty hair falling into his eyes. I frowned. Taylor had told us about his close encounter with the bitchy kind a few weeks back. “So… there’s more? Can the whole freaking neighborhood see him now?”

Louise shrugged. “Well, not quite. But it’s definitely on the rise.”

I looked at Taylor, uncertain. “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to go out, then. I mean, go out in public,” I added hastily. “We might draw undue attention to ourselves.” Meanwhile, an automated machine had finally picked up. We are open from 11 to 8 Monday through Friday, 9 to 8 on Saturday, and 12 to 6 on Sunday. Thank you for calling the-- I hung up, scribbling the time down on the scrap paper.

Taylor’s face fell. “No! I’ve been looking forward to this. Besides, no one knows it’s me. And even if they think it’s me, they’ll know I can’t be me, so they’ll just think I’m someone who looks like me.”

Louise and I blinked silently for a minute. “Oooookay,” I said, trying not to laugh. “Whatever you say, Taylor.”

He gave me a triumphant look. “So, when are we going?”

“Well, anytime before eight o’clock. My day is open.” I sighed and rolled my eyes. “As it is every day.”

“Why don’t we go early evening, then stop and get something to eat afterward?” Taylor suggested. “Hell, I may even be able to order for myself now!”

“I still don’t feel comfortable with that,” I said. “I mean, some people may see you, but some don’t. So what if someone who can see you points you out for some reason to a friend, but the friend can’t see you? How are we supposed to explain that?”

“That’s their problem,” Taylor said. “They’ll look like the crazy one, not you.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. We’ll do that. But,” I added, “I’d want Louise to go eat with us. I would just feel better.”

Louise gave me a strange, narrow-eyed look but said nothing. Taylor pouted for a moment, but finally shrugged. “Alright, Alley Kat. Whatever you say.”

******

“Come on, Taylor. Your hair looks fine,” I whined. It was almost seven o’clock. If we didn’t get down there soon, the damn place would be closed and I would be seriously pissed at him, beautiful blue eyes or no.

“Well, may I remind you, that my, quote, ‘Visibility Count’, has been on the rise lately,” Taylor shot back. “So therefore, I am taking a little time to look presentable.”

“A little time? You started getting ready at 5:30!”

“There! I’m done!” He grabbed my hairspray and spritzed it all over. I rolled my eyes. He gave me his best charming, puppy-dog forgive-me-please look. “See? I’m ready. Let’s go.” He linked his arm through mine, and I struggled not to suck in my breath. He was warm, he smelled good, and God, as much as I hated to admit it, he looked good. I was absolutely miserable.

“Bye, Louise!” I shouted as we tumbled out the door – Taylor still hadn’t let go of my arm. She was in the kitchen, scrubbing the stove.

“You kids have fun,” she said with a smirk, wiping some grease off of her hands.

“Okay. I’ll call you when we’re done – you can meet us at Cheddar’s. Okay?”

Louise sighed. “Alright. See you then.”

Taylor and I got in the car and headed downtown. Taylor turned up the radio as we drove, singing and tapping the rhythm to LA Woman by the Doors. “If they say I never loved you…. You know they are a liar… drivin’ down your freeway…

“I didn’t know you liked the Doors,” I commented, trying not to take the words to heart.

“Well, I’d never been a huge fan, until I met you, that is, and this is a great song.”

I smiled in spite of myself, pleased that at the very least, I had influenced him musically. “You should do a Doors cover, then. You all do well with older music. I could see you all doing Hello, I Love You or Peace Frog, or something.”

He paused, thinking. “Hmmmm. Perhaps,” he remarked. “Maybe we will.” He looked at me and wiggled his eyebrows mischievously. “Will you come watch, if we do that?”

He was in such a great mood, which surprised me somewhat. We were calmly conversing about what was in store in his future and for once, he seemed to have no trace of sadness at the thought. Maybe it was because we figured out what was happening. Ever since we’d been back from Tulsa, he’d seemed a little more upbeat overall. Probably happy to be going home, I thought. I kept waiting for that day… the day I would wake up and no longer see him lying beside me…Getting back to a normal life, where he didn’t have to depend on me for anything…

I suddenly realized he was still waiting for an answer. “Watch? With all those crazy girls?” I scoffed. “Whatever! I don’t have a death wish. I’d get eaten alive…. Hormonal teenage girls are worse than a mosh pit!”

He pouted. “You wouldn’t be in that crowd! You could sit on the side of the stage and watch. Safe and sound. What about then?”

The thought of me sitting backstage at a Hanson concert was so absurd I nearly laughed out loud, but Taylor was dead serious. But really, how realistic was that? Given that I was sure Taylor’s memory of this place would be wiped clean after he woke up, it just didn’t look likely. And even if he did remember, by some chance…. Well, I was sure he had more important people to invite backstage. But I didn’t voice any of these concerns to Taylor. Not when he was in such a good mood.

“Yeah,” I said finally. “Of course!” I smiled wistfully at him. “Wouldn’t miss it.” I carefully navigated the car into a parking space as I replied.

“Great,” he said, reaching over and squeezing my knee affectionately. “Come on, let’s go.” He practically leaped out of the car, whistling softly.

                                                                                   ******

“I hadn’t realized just how obsessive you people are,” Taylor murmured in my ear. We were in the museum, observing the various displays about basketball. I rolled my eyes.

“You’ve been here almost a year and you haven’t noticed that? Basketball is in people’s blood here. It’s our one lonely source of pride in this state, unless you count horses,” I whispered back. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I still wasn’t sure) the clerk taking admission had not seen Taylor, and although it was nice that he got in free, it meant that we had to be especially cautious. Hence all the whispering.

We stopped in front of a large framed collage. “What’s so special about this?” Taylor asked, wrinkling his nose.

I scowled. “Look! This is like a history of UK basketball! Rupp’s Runts, the Untouchables, ooh, look! The old-style Converse sneakers…”

“Where’s your painting? That’s what I came here to see.”

I sighed. Well, I guess everyone can’t be a hardcore fan. Or, it was more likely that he was hungry and ready to eat.  “I don’t know. Let’s go find it.”

We wandered around a bit, carefully avoiding the other patrons. Finally, I saw it. “There,” I whispered. “Over there, on the wall.” I had barely gotten the words out before Taylor raced over there.

I took longer to walk over. I stepped up behind Taylor, who was standing directly in front of the painting, arms crossed. I remained behind him, suddenly embarrassed. It was a whole new experience to stand there and watch someone so close to you actively mentally critiquing your work.

Taylor finally turned around when I never joined him. He looked… impressed. “Nice,” he said. “Seriously. You need to forget suffering through that chemistry shit and concentrate on your art. This is incredible.”

“Thanks,” I said shyly. When I didn’t move or say anything else, he smiled and gently pulled me up so we were both facing the painting side by side.

“The detail is incredible,” he continued. “Look over here in this corner, where you have the street lights. You can tell exactly where this--” It was bad, I know, especially when he was being so complimentary, but I stopped listening. He was telling me what he loved about my work but all I could think about was how nice, how right it felt to be standing there arm-in-arm with him. I’m not any better than those crazy fans I was talking about earlier, I thought.

I noticed, in my peripheral vision, that an older couple was approaching. I gently pulled Taylor off to the side so that we weren’t blocking the entire wall, and so that I could listen in on what they were saying.  Taylor gave me a questioning look, and I cocked my head to indicate the newcomers. He nodded in understanding, still keeping his arm intertwined with mine. Why do you insist on touching me so much, Taylor? Do you enjoy torturing me? Meanwhile, the couple silently appraised my work for a few minutes. They looked to be in their late ‘60s or early ‘70s, but still in good health. The woman seemed a grandmotherly type, with short, curly white hair and a royal blue pantsuit. My eyes widened when I noticed the rock on her hand, the pearls around her neck. Her husband was significantly taller, thin and wiry. He had an open, serious face, and was dressed nicely, although his suit was somewhat plain next to his wife’s bold blue outfit.

“Oh, this is simply beautiful,” remarked the woman. The man nodded his assent, and she continued. “Look how these lines draw you in to the center – subtle, but effective. And the detail!”

Taylor gave me a smug look. “See?” he said. “I told you it was good. You can make a living at this.”

The couple turned to us, having heard Taylor. “Excuse me,” she said, “but did you make this?”

“Um, yeah.” I nodded, feeling my cheeks grow warm.

“Oh, dear! You have such talent!” she exclaimed. She offered a hand and introduced herself. “Forgive my manners – I’m Emma, and this is my husband, Richard.” Taylor and I shook both their hands and gave them our names.

“Well, thanks,” I mumbled. I was horribly embarrassed. Taylor, however, was beaming.

“It’s great, isn’t it? I keep telling her, she needs to do this full-time, but she won’t listen,” he said. The couple nodded their assent.

“Tell me, miss,” said Richard, “Would you consider selling this piece?”

I stuttered a response. “Wha—well, uh, I… you know, I gave it to the museum... so it's technically not mine anymore...”

“I see. Do you have any other pieces like this? Similar?”I nodded. He continued, “We collect UK memorabilia. Why don’t I give you my card... give me a call sometime, we'd love to see what else you have. How does that sound?”

“Great!” I blurted out.

He handed Taylor a business card. Taylor chatted with the couple animatedly for a few more minutes while I stood there like an idiot, nodding when appropriate. Finally, they apologized and said they had to leave, but not before Emma got in one last comment.

“Oh, honey,” she said in a stage whisper, loud enough for anyone nearby to hear, “he is a doll! So handsome and polite. And supportive! Don’t let him get away!” She laughed merrily. I blushed even harder, realizing for the first time that she thought Taylor was my boyfriend. Well, why wouldn’t she? I was standing there clinging onto him for dear life… “And you two make such a cute couple.”

Oh, God. I was too embarrassed to correct her or even look back at Taylor, who was standing there listening. Luckily, he’s never been one to be at a loss for words.

“Why, thank you,” he replied smoothly. “I think so, too. It was so nice to meet you.”

“Yes, nice to meet you,” I managed to add.

We watched them walk away. Finally, I dared to look at Taylor, who was grinning at me wolfishly. “You hear that? She thinks we’re cute,” he declared mischievously. “Now come on, darling. I’m starving.”

                                                                                    *****

Cheddar’s was crowded, as usual. We’d had to wait over an hour before being seated, and by the time we were flipping through the menus, I was ravenous. I sat on one side of the booth, Taylor and Louise sat on the other – our typical setup when eating in public. Fortunately for Taylor, our waitress, a petite redhead who talked a mile a minute, could see him, which made our job significantly easier.

The redhead appeared with our drinks. “Ready to order?” she asked cheerfully.

We answered that we were, and I ordered first. Taylor was last, and I couldn’t help but notice the not-so-casual way the waitress leaned in to hear him, or the way she practically undressed him with her eyes as he spoke. When he finished, he handed her his menu with a smile. She smiled back and gave a flirty giggle, and flounced off, completely forgetting mine and Louise’s menu.

“Dammit,” I muttered darkly, wishing I could throttle the jealousy rising in my chest. The menus were huge, and took up half the table even when closed.

Louise snorted. “See what I mean? That was basically the same reaction the dog-walkers had this morning. We can forget about getting any drink refills, Allison – this is going to be a Taylor-centric dinner.” She eyed Taylor. “Thanks a lot, blondie.”

Taylor shrugged helplessly. “I didn’t do anything! I just ordered!”

I fiddled with the salt shaker. “She could have at least taken the freaking menus.” I looked up and met Louise’s eyes. She rested her chin on her hands, elbows on the table, and carefully studied me. It was unnerving. 

“Maybe we should tell her you’re gay,” Louise suggested to Taylor. “Or find some way to mention a girlfriend, or something.”

“Like that would stop her,” I mumbled.

Taylor’s face lit up and he laughed. “Good idea, Lou,” he said. “Hey, Al, feel like pretending to be my girlfriend again tonight?”

Damn my fair-skinned face… it was heating up again. “You’re sitting next to Louise, Taylor,” I said pointedly. “Why would I be your girlfriend, if I’m on the other side of the table?”

“What’s this about girlfriends?” Louise asked sharply, her gaze tennis-balling back and forth between me and Taylor. “Explain!”

Taylor proceeded to recount our evening with great gusto. I remained silent, since he was enjoying it so much. When he got to the mistaken-couple part, Louise slowly turned her head and looked at me, her head cocked to the side. She gave me a look, and an almost imperceptible shake of the head.

“What?” I said.

Taylor stopped telling his story, looking at us strangely. “What?” he repeated.

Louise looked between us again. And sighed. “Nothing,” she said.

“Okay, guys! Here’s your appetizer!” The redhead appeared again. She set the plate right down in front of Taylor; her eyes never left him. “Enjoy! Need anything? Another drink, perhaps?” Before anyone could answer, she quickly snatched Taylor’s Coke. “I’ll get you some more, honey.”

“Here, take these,” I said, shoving the menus at her. She barely gave me a second glance. Louise and I simultaneously rolled our eyes. We were in for a loooong dinner.

“What!” exclaimed Taylor. “I haven’t done anything!”

                                                                                   *****

After dinner, which was roughly the equivalent of getting one’s wisdom teeth cut out with a rusty knife, Louise went back home, while Taylor and I drove around aimlessly, neither of us ready to go back just yet. He rolled down his window, letting the cool May air blast his blond locks around. I shrieked as it whipped through mine, as well.  “My hair!”

He laughed. “My hair!” he mocked me. “And you talk about me!” He rolled the window back up.

We stopped at a red light, and I glanced over, laughing in spite of myself. His part was messed up. A large chunk of hair up front was flipped over the wrong way. Without thinking, I reached over and gently flipped it back, smoothing it down with my thumb. He closed his eyes, smiling as I did so. I swallowed, hoping he didn’t notice my trembling hands. “There,” I said, forcing a light tone. “Much better.”

“Thanks.” The light turned green, and we rode on in silence for awhile. Then suddenly, “Hey. Let’s go for a walk.”

“This late at night?” I asked.

“It’s not that late. Besides, we’ll be alright, if we go to a park or something that’s well-lit. There’s probably a ball game going on somewhere anyway, so there’ll be lots of people around.” He shifted in his seat. “It feels so good outside.”

I shrugged. “Alright.” The closest place I could think of was a small park just off Tates Creek Road. It was surrounded by residential neighborhoods, and had several small ball fields and volleyball courts.  We were there in minutes, and when we pulled up to park, sure enough, there was a Little League game going on.

We got out and strolled along the walking path, which circled the entire park. We passed a few couples here and there, but other than that, not many people were out walking. Taylor sighed, looking up at the stars. Soft moonlight played across his features, making them glow. God, how pathetic. I’m sitting here thinking about how he’s glowing…

“I could go for a milkshake right now,” he said thoughtfully, breaking the silence. “Or better yet, an ice cream sundae…”

I snorted. “Well, we’ll give that waitress at Cheddar’s a call and she’ll have it right out.”

He scowled. “Stop saying that. I wasn’t flirting with her!”

I smiled. “I know, Taylor. We’re just teasing, you know. We tease because we love.” More than you know…

He looked down at me as we walked, a hint of a smile playing around his lips. “Yeah, I know.” He began whistling softly. I recognized the song – one of their own, Runaway Run.

We were straying far away from the bright lights of the ball field. I thought about stopping and turning around, but decided not to. There was no one around. “Bet you can’t wait to get home,” I said suddenly. I wasn’t sure where that came from.

He gave me a confused look. “Home?” he repeated.

“Yeah. I mean, when you wake up. You’ll be back with your family, you’ll be back with your friends, you can play music again… do you get tired of waiting?”

He shrugged. “When it happens, it happens. And if you’re implying that I’m suffering here,” he added, “you’re wrong. This, strangely enough, has been one of the best years of my life.”

I stopped dead in my tracks, unsure of how to respond. “Really?”

He gently chucked me under the chin. “Of course! I’ve made two fantastic new friends. You all have taken care of everything for me. I haven’t had to worry about being stalked by crazy fans… and some of the shit you get yourself into… let’s just say I’ve got memories here to last a lifetime.”

That is, if you still have them when you wake up…
“Oh,” I said. “Wow. Thanks.” Apparently, being articulate around him nowadays was simply not going to happen.

He gave me a sly look. “What, are you tired of me? Eager to get rid of me?”

“No!” I practically shouted. “I mean, no, not at all. We’re really going to miss you.”

“Good.” He nodded. “But you won’t miss me too much – we can visit each other all the time. I’ll pay for your flights, don’t worry,” he added quickly. “But you’ll have to meet my family. My mother would absolutely love you.”

“Sure, sure,” I said, knowing it would never happen. “That would be--” I stopped suddenly. “Did you hear that?” I whispered.

We were now on the opposite end of the park from the Little League game, far out of earshot from anyone in the crowd. There were almost no lights back here. And I was positive I just heard – no, there it was again – Oh, God… someone walking towards us, from the large, looming bushes that separated the park from the neighborhood houses. Or not so much walking as lurching, from the sound of it. That’s too much noise to be one person, I thought frantically.

Taylor’s head whipped around to see what was coming, and the next thing I knew he was standing stiff and rigid and had jerked me behind him, as if shielding me. I latched on to his shoulders and dared to peek around. The footsteps were getting closer, twigs snapping in their wake, and a voice was starting to become audible. A drunken voice, I realized, as the person approached. I strained to see. It appeared to be a man, a young one… so apparently it was just one person, just making a hell of a lot of racket…

Do we stand here and ignore him, or do we run?
I decided on the latter. I tugged on Taylor’s shirt. “Tay,” I whispered nervously. “Come on. Let’s go.” He slowly nodded, taking my hand in his firmly and leading me away. We began walking at a brisk pace, when the voice behind us grew loud and raucous.

“HEY. Hey, you.”

We both stopped instinctively. I looked up at Taylor with fear. His jaw was set. “Come on,” I whispered. But Taylor turned slowly to face our attacker.

“Holy shit,” he muttered.

“What? What? Does he have a gun? Oh, shit, I don’t have any money. Do you have anything to give him? I’ve got nothing. Come on! We need to get out of here!” I was about to have a panic attack. Why the fuck was he just standing there??

The loud, obnoxious voice behind us grew closer, speaking slowly and sarcastically. “And look what we have here. Is that – well, hell, it is. How are you this fine evening, Allison?”

I recognized that voice. I turned around. “Jay,” I squeaked.

He snorted. His hair was disheveled, his clothes mussed. I could smell the alcohol on him from where we were standing ten feet away. Where did he come from?

“What are you doing here?” I asked, my voice wavering. God, he looked absolutely murderous. And it wasn’t as if we had parted on the best of terms…

“Just out partying,” he slurred.  Of course… plenty of college students lived in the neighborhoods around the park. He must have strayed from a kegger… “You should have joined us. That is, if you weren’t too busy fucking with other people’s grades, you fucking bitch.”

“Hey,” Taylor said sharply. I grabbed him before he could say any more.

“Sssh,” I whispered. “Stay out of it.”

Jay laughed uproariously. I cringed at the sound – God, how could I ever have thought he was attractive? “This your new boyfriend? This little gay shit? He looks like a fucking fruit.”

Now it was my turn to get pissed. “Shut the fuck up,” I hissed. “You’re just a worthless, cheating, no-good drunk.”

Probably the wrong thing to say. Jay lurched towards me. “Listen, you stupid whore,” he shouted, stumbling over his words. “You fuck with me, you pay. I got put on fucking probation because of you!”

It was as if I didn’t even realize that he was rapidly approaching me with his fist raised – I just couldn’t stop the words from coming, once they started. “You got put on fucking probation because of yourself!” I shouted back. I was vaguely aware of Taylor pulling me back, his arm around my waist. “You deserved what you got! I hope you flunk out of school!”

“Allison,” Taylor murmured in my ear. “You’re not helping matters.”

“That’s it,” Jay growled. He suddenly jumped forward and grabbed my arm, pulling me from Taylor’s side. I shrieked – I was so startled I didn’t have time to react. He’s going to beat me to death, I thought dimly as he tried to throw me down on the ground. I tripped over a rock and went sprawling on my stomach. I quickly flipped over as fast as I could with my arms raised, preparing to defend myself – but then saw that Jay was not looming over me… rather, he was doubled over, groaning loudly. The world around me was whirling, but I finally realized that Taylor had socked him in the stomach.

I staggered to my feet. “Taylor,” I half-yelled, reaching out for him. “Come on! Let’s go!” He was sweating, his fine hair sticking to his forehead and the sides of his face. I ran over and grabbed his arm. He stood stock-still for a moment, unsure of what to do – a classic ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Well, I intended to help him make that decision. “Come ON!”

“You fucking--” Jay had finally straightened up, but was still holding his stomach. Taylor was facing me, as I had managed to pull him toward me a little, and he didn’t see Jay marching towards us again, .

“LOOK OUT!” He whipped around again, and suddenly, I found myself sprawling on the ground again, where Taylor had pushed me out of the way. Shit, I thought, irritated. How were we supposed to escape when I kept getting thrown in the grass? I looked up just in time to see Taylor get punched right in the face. He staggered back, clutching his left eye. He reeled and almost fell, his legs buckling. He ended up in a squat, one hand over his eye, the other steadying himself against the ground.

“TAYLOR!” I screamed. I felt dizzy, almost nauseous. I recklessly started to crawl toward him. “Taylor!”

Jay approached Taylor again, intending to finish him off. I managed to scramble to my feet and I threw myself at him, clawing and kicking whatever I could. “Get off him!” I shouted. “Leave us the fuck alone!”

Luckily, him being drunk and all, I caught him off guard and he fell to the ground, but not before one of his hands connected with my face. He must have been wearing his class ring –  I groaned, clutching my cheek, feeling an angry red scratch forming.  I turned around, looking for Taylor – he was no longer squatting on the ground, but standing in front of Jay, positively seething. Though we only had moonlight to light our way, I could see his left eye swelling.  His hands were clenched tightly; his whole body was rigid. Jay had yet to get up from the ground.

Taylor looked up at me, his eyes filled with some unknown emotion. “Allison?” he asked in a soft voice that belied his physical state. I slowly withdrew my hand from my cheek and looked at it in the gentle blue light. Blood, all over my fingers. Dripping down my face. That’s one huge ring, I thought, crazily, and almost laughed.

Everything was silent and still for a minute. Taylor was still staring at me; I stared back. His face scrunched up, his lips trembling. And suddenly, he snapped.

“You bastard,” he hissed at Jay, who was still wallowing around on the ground. “You stupid, fucking bastard. GET UP!” he roared. “If you wanna fight, then fight with me!” No, no, not a good idea!

“No, Taylor--” I started to speak. The next thing I knew, Taylor had grabbed Jay’s arm and jerked him to his feet. Jay staggered back, flailing his arms at Taylor. Taylor waited until he stopped, then stepped forward and struck him again. 

I’ll never be sure what happened in the next moments – I was confused, in pain, and I’d just been slapped in the face, hard – but somehow the two of them ended up on the ground, wrestling around. I was terrified– Jay was practically twice the weight of skinny little Taylor… but then again, Tay was a lot tougher than he looked (or than I gave him credit for). They rolled over and over, throwing punches and screaming obscenities at each other.

“Stop! Stop!” I shouted. “Taylor! Please stop!” Amazingly, no one had noticed the ruckus, but I was sure that would change soon. We had to get out of there. “Taylor,” I begged, slowly walking towards them. I gasped for breath – at some point, I had started crying and hadn’t even realized it. “It’s not worth it.”

Taylor stopped. Jay was lying on his back, groaning; Taylor kneeling above  him. He looked at me – he looked so pitiful, his hair matted with grass and sweat, his eye growing larger and blacker by the minute. He was breathing heavily, and I noticed his shirt was torn along the side. “Taylor,” I repeated shakily. “We have to go. Please.”

Wordlessly, he stood up and calmly walked over to me. I reached up to push his blond hair away from his face, to get a better look at his wound, but he flinched away, shaking his head. I started to speak but he cut me off. “Your face,” he said softly. I had tried to wipe it away, but hot, sticky blood continued to trickle down my cheek. Along with hot, salty tears.

“I’m fine,” I lied. “Your eye--” He cut me off.

“I’m okay. Alley, you’re bleeding…” Suddenly he reached down, ripping at the seam of his shirt. He tore a large strip of his shirt apart, and gently used it to wipe my face. He pressed the makeshift rag against my cheek. “There. Hold this against it.”

“Taylor, we have to go. Someone is going to see,” I whispered. He carefully wrapped an arm around me, and we turned to look at Jay, who had finally gotten up off the ground, albeit very slowly. He glared at both of us, clutching his head. His lip and nose were bleeding, and like Taylor, his eye was swelling. For a moment I was certain he was going to come back and try to fight again, but his rare better judgment must have ruled that out. One more solid blow from Taylor, I thought, and he would probably be unconscious. Talk about revenge...
“You,” he slurred. “Fuck you.” With that eloquent declaration, he tottered away, going in the same direction he’d come from. As tempting as it was to yell after him and taunt his cowardice, I refrained. Taylor carefully guided me towards the car. I leaned on him for support the entire way back. I’d somehow stopped crying, for the moment.

We managed to make it back to the car, get inside, and lock the door. I put the key in the ignition, but found I couldn’t turn it. It started as a sniffle, then became sharp, ragged breaths, and then snowballed into full-fledge sobbing. The release of all that tension was unstoppable – God, what just happened? Taylor could have been seriously hurt, or… killed? Can you kill someone who’s not entirely existing to begin with?

I felt Taylor’s warm hand curl around my shoulder and pull me into as close a hug we could get in the front seats of a car. He wasn’t caterwauling like I was, but his breaths came sharp and deep.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated over and over. “I’m sorry. I was just – oh, shit… I thought he was going to kill you--” I continued to babble on for a few minutes before Taylor managed to quiet me down.

“Ssshh,” he murmured soothingly. “Sssshh, it’s okay.” He carefully rocked me back and forth, stroking my hair. Eventually my sobs subsided back into sniffles, but we silently remained in our embrace, waiting for the adrenaline and fear to subside before we left.

                                                                                         *****

Much, much later, Taylor and I sat side-by-side on the couch while Louise fretted around us like a harried mother. Taylor held an ice pack to his swollen face, and I waited as Louise grabbed some peroxide to clean my face with. She finally ran back into the room, holding several cotton balls and a bottle.

“Hold still, Allison,” she muttered, upturning the bottle and soaking a cotton ball. “This is going to sting.”

I closed my eyes and somehow didn’t scream. Louise sighed when she was done, tossing the dirty cotton balls onto the floor. “Well, it doesn’t look like you’re going to need stitches,” she said. “It’s stopped bleeding, finally.” She picked up a gauze bandage and carefully affixed it to my face with athletic tape.  “There. That feel okay?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled. I looked over at Taylor. “Let me see your eye, Taylor.”

He obliged, lowering the ice. Louise sucked in her breath at the sight – angry-looking purple and black bruises covered the upper left part of his face. Although, thankfully, the eye itself looked fine – he hadn’t ruptured a blood vessel or anything.

“What the hell happened?” Louise asked, amazed. “One at a time, please – I couldn’t understand either of you talking when you first came in.”

I let Taylor do the talking. He retold the story with considerably less enthusiasm than when he’d told the other story earlier at dinner. Louise sat and listened carefully, her lips pursed. After he was done, she shook her head and chuckled sadly. “You two look a fine pair,” she remarked before leaving to return the bandages and peroxide to the medicine cabinet. As she walked out of the room, I turned slightly so that I was facing Taylor. He was hunched over, elbows on his knees, one hand holding the ice to his face.

I wasn’t sure what to say. How do you feel? Are you okay? Do you realize you almost got killed? Nothing seemed right. Why did you do it? That was the question I really wanted to ask. Why, when we had the chance to get away, did he stay and fight? For some crazy idea of honor? Simple revenge? To show off? Surely not.

“Tay?”

He turned to look back at me. “Yeah?”

“You’re--” I stopped. “I don’t know what to say. Either you’re idiotic, or incredible. I’m not sure which.”

“Well, I would hope incredible,” he muttered, though I could see him crack a tiny smile. “Although truthfully, probably a little of both.”

I reached out and straightened his hair; his shirt. I couldn’t help it – I wanted to touch him. I really wanted to wrap my arms around him, bury my face in his shoulder, kiss his neck, stroke his hair… make his physical pain go away. Instead, I settled for holding his hand. “Thank you,” I finally said. I left it at that – simple, short, sweet.

“You’re welcome. Anytime, Alley,” he said, rubbing the top of my hand with his thumb. “Anything for you. A guy’s gotta defend…. his ‘girlfriend’…” he grinned at the joke and started laughing, but grimaced when the movement pained his sore ribs.

I smiled but didn't laugh. “Definitely idiotic,” I murmured. And, thinking of my predicament – my love for him, how chicken I was, how stupid I’d been all year not to see it, I added, “But then, so am I.”