Catapult

Chapter 6: Vertigo


Taylor


There was this fair my parents used to take us to when we were young, one of those local deals with greasy, fried food, animal shows and cheap, dinky rides. Zac used to drag me on the Scrambler every time we went, despite my emphatic protestations. I hated it. I’d get off the wildly spinning ride feeling disoriented, nauseous, and exhausted.

Which was sort of how I felt when I first woke up from my outdoor nap – my head felt light and loose, like I’d been twirling around. Like my equilibrium was frantically trying to balance. I’d never experienced vertigo before, but I was certain that this was what it felt like. I groaned, rubbing my face against the cushion.

The first thing I heard was laughter. Loud, annoying, shrieking laughter. And then voices. Which were also loud, annoying, and shrieking.

“Haha! Jessica! Omigod, hurry up! I’m fucking freezing!”

“I can’t find my keys!”

“You guys, I am sooooo drunk…”

I groaned, sitting up. Where am I? I wondered groggily. I mentally retraced my steps… okay, I’d gone outside for a walk… come back… the door had been locked, so I had lain on the chaise lounge on our porch… and, I supposed, I had fallen asleep.

“Did you see that guy at Banana Joe’s who I was talking to? He was totally hot, and was so checking me out…”

Who were those girls, and what were they doing so close to the house? Fans who'd somehow managed to get past the gate? Fuck... I shook my head, and for the first time, noticed my surroundings. I was still lying on a lounge chair, freezing my ass off... except, I was surrounded by a suburban block of houses. I looked down, discovering it wasn’t my lounge chair, and obviously not even my house. I glanced around, amazed at the strange homes.

I stood up and walked over to the edge of the porch, leaning over the rail. I had a perfect, unobstructed view of their front door. “Hey,” I called to them. “What road is this?” They didn’t turn around. I tried again, this time much louder. “HEY! CAN YOU HEAR ME?” Still nothing. Fuck.

“Great,” I muttered. “Still invisible…”

“I GOT IT! Omigod, it was in my purse the whole time!” I watched, bemused, as the shortest girl screamed and held up her key, jumping up and down. They managed to unlock their door and scuttle inside. I considered following them, simply to try and figure out where I was and what was going on, but eventually decided against it. First things first… where the hell was I, exactly?

I turned and slowly walked down the steps of the porch, ambling over to the sidewalk. I looked back at the house I’d just stepped down from. It was a nice enough little house, plain, two stories, brick, with dark-colored shutters. Big shrubs hulked beside the narrow front porch. It had a two-car garage, and there was an ancient, worn basketball goal affixed overtop the door. A silver car was parked outside, a huge blue K sticker in the back window. I stuffed my hands in my pockets, studying the house. I’d never seen it before in my life. There was absolutely nothing familiar about it.

Where am I? I wandered down the sidewalk for nearly ten minutes until I came to an intersection with street signs. REYNOLDS RD. Okay… I hadn’t even heard of a Reynolds Road, and I’d lived in Tulsa for eons. I hugged my arms across my chest as a cool breeze blew past, cursing my thin t-shirt. What to do now?

Sighing, I trudged back down the way I came, studying each house as I walked past, looking for signs of life. It was dark out, however, the neighborhood lit only by flickering streetlamps, and judging by the dark windows everywhere, it must have been long past the general bedtime hour. Except, of course, for wild sorority girls who had been out partying…

How did I get here? That was an even more disturbing question. It wasn’t like someone had picked me up and carried me here… had I sleepwalked? Possibly… although I’d never done that before in my entire life. Not to mention I’d apparently managed to sleepwalk to a part of town I’d never seen before. I retreated to the house where I’d awakened and stared up at it.

There’s got to be a reason why I’m here, at this house, I mused. I approached the front door, climbing back up the porch steps. Maybe it’s someone I know… maybe I came here for a reason. Maybe… I paused. Well, I had prayed for help, right? To be saved? Hmmm. My mind whirred with that thought. Swallowing, I decided to go inside.

It felt really wrong to be entering a strange house, but I was cold, desperate, and curious, and I reasoned that I wasn’t there to do any harm. Especially when I grabbed the door handle and it opened easily. Huh. Whoever lived here hadn’t even bothered to lock it – Jeez, that was practically inviting criminals to come in and raid the place. I stepped inside the foyer and locked the door behind me. So, actually, I’m doing them a favor, I reassured myself.

The wooden floors in the foyer squeaked softly as I crept down the hall. I didn’t want to turn on any lights, so I opened my eyes wide to adjust them to the dark and felt along the wall with one hand to keep from falling. My hands bumped up against frame after frame… hmmm. Apparently whoever lived here was an art lover. I reached the end of the hallway, struggling to see in the faint moonlight that spilled through the windows.

I’d reached a den – there were huge, plush leather couches, a large TV in one corner, as well as tall bookshelves covered with pictures frames and knick-knacks. I walked over, trying to observe the photos, but the light was too faint to see any details. A large stereo system was in another corner, with several CDs scattered in front. Curious, I walked over and sat down. I picked them up one at a time, holding them up in the moonlight, studying the labels. Nirvana. Rolling Stones. Fleetwood Mac. Ben Folds Five. Tracy Bonham. What an interesting collection. I nodded my approval. At least the person had taste.

I would have loved to put something in and listen, but I knew that was a bad idea. After I’d looked through all the CDs in the floor, I stood back up and wandered through a doorway into the next room, which appeared to be a kitchen. I took a few steps inside and then nearly tripped over something in the floor. What the hell?

There were packages all over the kitchen tile, strewn everywhere – boxes of food; cookies, chips, candy, pretzels. It looked like the cabinets had exploded. What a slob, I reflected, surveying the mess. Why in the world would you not clean this up? Although… My stomach rumbled slightly, looking at a box of Ritz crackers. I hadn’t eaten in… well, who knows how long? My meals at home had been reduced to sneaking food in the middle of the night, when I was certain no one was around. I bent down and grabbed a roll of crackers from the box. It wasn’t stealing… I fully intended to pay for it, in some way, whenever I could.

I ripped open the package as quietly as I could and stuffed several of the crackers in my mouth. Crisp, buttery, and delicious. I’d eaten the entire roll before I realized it, and so I looked for a trash can, feeling a little guilty for devouring it all. After I threw away the wrapper, I turned to the cabinets, thinking. All the salt from the crackers had made me thirsty… I carefully opened up each cabinet, grateful when they didn’t squeak. I found a set of plastic cups and grabbed one. There was a pitcher of water in the refrigerator, along with a jug of tea, cans of Coke, and several strange green bottles. I filled the cup with water and downed it.

Eating and drinking food from a house I’ve just broken into, I thought. I felt like Goldilocks – what was next? Go stake out a bed and have a nap? I nearly laughed at the thought as I walked back into the living room, cup in hand. I eyed the couch. Well, maybe not a bed… but it sure looked comfortable. And it wasn’t like I could do much else until the sun came up. I eased down on it and laid back. I didn’t sleep, however – I felt like I’d done nothing but sleep, so I wasn’t tired. Not to mention that I was confused and intrigued by this sudden change of location.

Where am I? Why am I here? Whose house is this? Where is my family? My head pounded from all the thought processes running rampant within. I was so tired of not knowing what was going on; of being stuck in this horrible limbo with no one to talk to. It was like a terrible, unjust punishment… something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But what had I done to deserve it?

                                                                                            *****

I had been staring up at the whitewashed ceiling for a few hours when I first heard signs of life. A door opened upstairs, and I heard the sound of water rushing through the pipes. I carefully sat up, listening. According to a tall grandfather clock against the wall, it was 5:00AM.

Damn… who gets up this early? Well, I guess I was about to find out. I nervously waited, sitting ramrod-straight against the cushions.

Twenty minutes later, I heard the stairs creaking. I suddenly felt anxious, like I couldn’t catch my breath… and I was too edgy to sit. I quickly leaped to my feet and stood nervously by the couch, waiting to see who was coming down the hall. I didn’t have to wait long. I saw the silhouette of someone approach, and then a bright light was flipped on, temporarily blinding me. I threw my arms up in front of my eyes with a soft cry.

A young woman, tan and curvy, stepped into the room, looking around. She was dressed in business casual – nice khakis, button-up shirt, strappy sandals, with her jet-black hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. I stared at her – she was quite attractive. Not in a knock-out model type of way, but the sort of person that once you looked at her, you had trouble tearing your eyes away. Kind of exotic-looking, especially with those coal-dark, almond-shaped eyes. I watched as she picked up a purse from the end table and went into the kitchen, humming. I slowly followed her.

I leaned against the wall as she sighed loudly and began picking up the mess in the floor. “Oh, Alley,” she sighed. Her voice was deep and smooth. “You poor thing.”

Alley? Who was Alley? Was there someone else in the house, too?

A loud, screaming banshee startled me. I looked down at the ball of fur that streaked into the kitchen. Well, not a banshee, but it sure sounded like one… Good God, was that a cat or a dog? Surely it was too big to be a cat…

“Awww, kitty… I guess you want a treat,” the girl said. The cat shrieked in response. I stared, amazed, as she grabbed a bag from the counter and took a piece of cat food out. I thought the thing was going to bite off her fingers when she bent to feed it.

“Jeez,” I mumbled aloud. “It’s like a fucking mountain lion, or something…” I continued to watch her put away the food from the floor, until she finally straightened up, grabbed a green bottle from the refrigerator, and took off out the door. She flipped off the light as she left, enveloping me in darkness once more.

“Well,” I murmured. “That was interesting.” Hmmm… Alley… I quietly stepped back in the hall, looking upstairs. My curiosity was piqued – who was this ‘Alley’, and what was wrong with her to make the black-haired girl take pity? I gnawed on my lip, debating – go upstairs, and have a look around? Or wait until morning for her to come out?

In the end, my morbid curiosity won out. I slowly crept upstairs to investigate. They squeaked and groaned as I climbed up, and I cursed, hoping she didn’t hear. I made it to the top and looked around – a hallway, filled with doors. There was a large bookcase against the wall on the right, cluttered with books. All of the doors were open except for the one right next to the staircase. I wandered down the hall, investigating each of the open rooms – two bedrooms, though one looked unlived-in, two bathrooms, and the door at the end of the hall led to an enormous room that looked like an office. I turned and walked back, eyeing the closed door.

She must be in there… I wasn’t sure why I was being so nosy, or why I cared to know who was inside so badly. I hesitated briefly before grasping the doorknob. I quietly turned it, opened the door, and stepped inside. I softly closed it behind me.

It was practically pitch black inside – the curtains had been drawn and crossed over to keep any light from entering. I waited a moment to let my eyes adjust before looking around. I could see the outline of the furniture – desk, nightstand, armoire, bed… and a still figure, sleeping in the bed.

This is so wrong… it’s like I’m spying… I should leave… Yet, I didn’t. I took a tentative step forward – there was a chair over close to the window, and I intended to sit in it. Well, I had intended to sit, that is, before I promptly tripped over an unseen pile of clothes and collapsed into the floor with a loud thud.

“Shit!” I hissed. I remained perfectly still, listening. Nothing. Damn, she didn’t wake up? I managed to climb back to my feet. I’d thought Ike was a heavy sleeper… I shuffled over to the chair and sat down, sighing.

“Mmmm…” I jerked to attention at the sound of a soft, feminine voice. “Which way…” The rest of the sentence was unintelligible. Is she talking to me?

I waited anxiously, but she was quiet for several minutes. Sleeptalking? I heard another phrase, then, which sounded like ‘fucking mad’, but I wasn’t sure. Then she groaned and sighed. Definitely still asleep… I smiled ruefully. Zac used to talk in his sleep… drove me crazy on tour when we were trying to catch some rest on the bus…

“Zac,” I murmured aloud. God, I missed him, even if he was a brat sometimes. I missed all of them. I stared at the floor. There was a CD case lying next to the chair, and so I picked it up, struggling to read the front. U2, Achtung Baby. Nice.

ARGH!”

I dropped the CD case and nearly fell out of the chair. The girl, ‘Alley’, I presumed, had bolted upright in bed with a ear-splitting shriek. I could barely make out the outline of her heaving form. “Shit,” she gasped. “What a fucked-up dream.”

Well, what a lovely mouth you have, I thought. My heart was pounding; she’d nearly scared the shit out of me. I leaned back in the chair, trying to calm myself down. She fumbled around with something on the nightstand for a minute, and suddenly the room was filled with muted, soft light. I squinted, trying to get a good look at her. However, before I could properly focus, I was frightened by yet another scream, this time much louder.

“AAAAAAH!” I found myself looking directly into a pair of huge, stunned eyes. A thin, pale girl, who looked about my age, was sitting up in bed, clutching her blanket to her chest. I couldn’t look away from her shocked face. She looked wild and terrified – her kinky, curly hair was sticking up in all directions, mouth agape, eyes wide… and staring at me. Staring at me. I stared back, my throat dry.

“Who the fuck are you?” she said, her voice quavering. For several moments, I couldn’t speak. What? Impossible… I turned around, looking behind me, to the sides, everywhere, just to make sure she was speaking to me. When I looked at her again, she was still staring. Still frightened. Oh, God, was this happening? Was this really happening? My eyes started feeling hot; prickly.

 “You can see me,” I whispered. “Oh, my God… You can see me…”

She said something else, but I was still too dazed to absorb what was going on. “You--” I stuttered as I spoke again. “You can see me!” I resisted the urge to lift my hand and wipe away the tears that threatened to fall. This wasn’t a dream, was it? This was really happening… Finally, finally, someone actually noticed my existence… even if she did look like an escapee from the local mental institution…

I stood up, without thinking, and walked towards her. I suddenly wanted to touch her, to make sure she was really there, to feel the softness of someone else’s skin against mine. I stopped immediately when she shrank back and shouted at me. “BACK OFF!”

Oh, right. In my amazement, I had nearly forgotten that to her, I must have appeared like some sort of criminal or pervert, breaking into her house and then spying on her as she slept. I tried frantically to think of some way to explain myself – I hadn’t expected for anything remotely like this to happen, I had no idea what to say…

“Who are you and what do you want? Is it money? It’s over in my desk, there’s a jar with over 500 dollars in cash…” She looked at me with beseeching eyes.

“No, no…” I said softly. “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you…” She didn’t look convinced. “But… you can see me, right? You can see what I look like?”

She had been looking frantically around the room as I spoke, but once I’d asked that question to reaffirm my suspicions, she looked up at me as if I was a total idiot. Which, I guess, it did sound like an odd question. “I’m calling the police,” she said.

I was tempted to say ‘Go right ahead, it’s not like they’re gonna find anything’ but thought better of it. Best to try to be straightforward and polite. “No, please, listen,” I pleaded. “Let me explain. I know this sounds… totally crazy. I’m not here to hurt you – in fact, I don’t know why I’m here. I just--”

She suddenly interrupted me. “Okay, buddy, I know taekwondo, so if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get the fuck out right now.”

“What?!” Taekwondo? Yeah, right… she looked like she couldn’t break a dry twig. “I’m not going to hurt you. Listen, I need your help…” She was looking around again, not paying attention. I sighed. “Please, just listen to me…”

“Help?” She snapped back to attention, staring at me. “Who are you?”

Hmmm… so she didn’t recognize me. “Taylor,” I said.

She raised one eyebrow. “Taylor…” she said slowly. I realized she was looking for a last name. I sighed.

“Hanson. Taylor Hanson.”

Her expression, surprisingly, didn’t budge. She merely blinked once. “Hanson? Hanson, as in MMMBop?” she asked, laughter hidden in her voice.

I locked my jaw. Here we go… “Yes,” I said simply.

“I ought to shoot you on sight right now…”

Good God, what was with all the threats? Screaming, wanting to kick my ass and shoot me? I realized that I was an intruder, but I hadn’t done a thing to her. Couldn’t she see that I was totally harmless? “Please don’t,” I said. “Now… if you’ll just let me explain…”

She nodded slowly and I continued. “Well, it’s like this. Bear with me, because this sounds totally fucked-up crazy, but I'm telling the truth. Something’s happened to me that I don’t understand... You see, I'm from Tulsa. I live with my parents, still... so I woke up one day, in my own bed, but everything had changed. It was like I didn’t even live there – all my stuff had been moved, and my room was clean like no one had lived in it for awhile. So when I went to talk to my family… they couldn’t see me. It was like I was invisible, or something… I couldn’t touch them, either…” She kept nodding, and for a moment, I wondered if she was even really hearing what I was saying. However, I rambled on, telling her all the sordid details of the last few weeks at my house. I was talking so fast I could barely keep my breath. Invisible? Check. Untouchable? Check. Family discussing me in third person? Check. Locking myself out of my own house? Check.

“—I suddenly got so tired, and I fell asleep on the chair outside,” I continued, nearly done with my tale. “And I don’t know what happened, but when I woke up, I was lying out there on your lawn chair, and I have no idea why. I didn’t know what else to do, so I--”

“I’m still dreaming,” she interrupted me suddenly, her voice full of wonder. I immediately shut up and stared at her. What? I’d just spent ten minutes detailing the situation at hand, and she was going to dismiss it all as a dream? “I am never eating cookies again,” she said, which further served to confuse me. Cookies? Who said anything about cookies?

“What?” I demanded. “You’re not dreaming, I’m really--”

“Sure, sure… But I’m tired, and I’m going back to bed now,” she sighed. I sputtered with irritation. “Just be sure to wake me up when the Spice Girls arrive. Oh, and I hear that Justin Timberlake is coming over for tea later, so be sure to let him in.”

Oh, hell, no. She didn’t just say that… there was absolutely no need for that sort of shit. Comparisons to mindless, corporate-driven pop machines did not sit well with me at all. “That’s not funny!” I growled. “I--”

“Okay, I’m sorry. Whatever you say, Taylor.” She yawned loudly and fell back against the pillow, flipping the lamp off before she rolled over, facing away from me.

“What the…” I glowered at the darkness. “Listen to me!”

She didn’t respond for a minute. Then, finally, she spoke one last time, her voice thick and tired. “Taylor Hanson,” she said, and snickered. “Crazy, crazy shit.”

I leaned back and crossed my arms over my chest, glaring at her still form. Figures. I finally meet someone who can actually communicate with me, and she’s a total weirdo bitch. Nevermind the fact that you sneaking into her room was totally wrong, my inner voice of reason stated. Or that anyone in this situation would have reacted the same way. I scowled at that irritating inner voice. Reacted the same way? Not quite.

“Fine,” I muttered. “But I’ll still be here in the morning. And I guess we'll talk then.” I stood up, scooting my way towards the door. She didn’t so much as budge, apparently unconscious once again. Well, she would just have to get her ‘Invisible Taylor’ crash course tomorrow morning. I walked out into the hallway and closed the door behind me, my heart still pounding in my chest. Once I had calmed down, my irritation gone, I had only one thought: She could see me. What the fuck was going on?

                                                                                               *****

I was sitting downstairs a little later, watching early-morning cartoons on their television. Hey, what did it matter? The secret was out. She knew I was here – or rather would know, when she got up and started listening to me. I just had to make sure to keep an eye out for the black-haired girl… I had a feeling the whole situation was going to get very complicated when she got home.

The coffee table was covered with magazines, and I eyed them with mild interest. Cosmopolitan. Marie Claire. Rolling Stone. The New Yorker. I picked up Rolling Stone and idly flipped through it. I landed on the album reviews page. Coldplay, A Sudden Rush of Blood to the Head. Bittersweet, sensual and poignant tear-jerk Brit pop. If music can break your heart, this is it...

I wrinkled my nose, confused. Coldplay had a new album? Jeez, where had I been? I hadn’t even heard anything about it… unsettled, I tossed it down and sifted through the rest of the magazines on the table. Nothing really interested me… until I scooted two off to the side, revealing a black leatherbound book that had been under the pile. A yearbook. Interesting… Sayre School, 2000. I slowly opened the front cover, peering at the wild, crammed scrawl of classmates all over the autograph pages. I rolled my eyes. Although I had never had the opportunity to write in one of these, I knew what they were all about. Lots of  ‘You’re a sweet girl, stay the same!’ and ‘I enjoyed having math together, see ya next year!’ bullshit messages. After debating whether it was too nosy to be reading her personal notes, I decided it wasn’t and pulled the book into my lap.

Alley, You are the funniest person I’ve ever known!!! I’ll never forget all the crazy times we had together. Stay away from German Shepherds! Ha ha! Love, Heather

Alley, thanks for all your help in Mrs. Johnson’s class! I would have failed if it hadn’t been for you! Love ya! Tiffany

You are the weirdest girl I’ve ever known, but you’re pretty cool. Keep in touch. John

Well, that was an interesting mix of messages. ‘Weird’? Yeah, John, I’d say I agree with you there. There were a ton of other notes on the spread, but nothing interesting caught my eye. I flipped to the next one, where a huge, loopy scrawl took up nearly a fourth of the page.

Alley, I just wanted to let you know what an inspiration you are to all those other girls who wanted to go to the prom but didn’t have dates. You showed them, didn’t you? Yours, Jessica

I blinked, re-reading that last message. Was that sarcasm? It sure didn’t seem very nice to me… So the girl didn’t have a date… big deal. Lots of people go to events without dates… well, not that I would know much about going to proms, though I had been to Jennifer’s last year and wanted to gouge my eyes out the whole time, but still…

Alley Kat, I’m not even in this school anymore, but I wanted to sign your book to tell you how much I love you. You are the funniest, cutest, smartest girl I know, and one day the whole world will wake up and see that. I realize this sounds incredibly corny, but I literally love you like a sister. You’ve accomplished a lot in the past few years, and I have no doubt that you’ll do much, much more in the years to come. Your father would be incredibly proud of you. I know I am. Love, Louise

P.S. Jessica can lick my crack. Don’t listen to that self-absorbed bitch.

Despite the hilarious, vindictive postscript, I didn’t laugh – I was too taken with the first two words of the message. Alley Kat? I slowly closed the book, thinking. I knew that from somewhere… had I met her before? I thought she had looked somewhat familiar, though in her room the light had been too dim to really tell… I flipped the yearbook back open, turning until I got to the student pictures. There weren’t very many pages, as it appeared to have been a small school. About halfway through the ‘Seniors’ section, I found her portrait. Alley Krzyzewski. A pair of playful, wide eyes and a huge, silly smile looked back at me.

I’d seen that expression, that smile, before… years ago. On a vacation, at my aunt’s… I hadn’t thought about that since… damn, it had been ages. The attack was something I didn’t really like to dwell on too much, as it was entirely too embarrassing to remember that I’d been rescued by a skinny, goofy girl… But I concentrated on the memory, remembering details. She had stopped the boys from beating me up… her father had driven me home… he had called her ‘Alley Kat’…

So I do know her, I thought. Or at least, we’ve met… So she wasn’t a total stranger, after all. I wondered if she would remember me, too, once she woke up and I explained to her what was going on.

For the first time in weeks, I felt a stirring in my chest – hope. She had helped me once before… maybe she could help me again.

Now, if I could only figure out how to convince her I was real…