Chapter 62: Otherside

Alley

JULY

Everything reminds me of Taylor. It’s getting absolutely ridiculous.

“Allison? We’re out of Ale8s. Can you pick some up at the store?” Louise asked me. We were sitting at the table, eating lunch. Or rather, I was eating, and she was observing the amount of food I was shoving down my throat with something like awe. Hey, it’s comfort food. I’m allowed.

“Ale8s?” I mumbled. “Sure.” Taylor liked Ale8s…

“Actually, I think we’re out of dish soap, too, now that I think about it. Let me start writing this stuff down,” Louise said. She jumped up and grabbed a pen and a scrap of paper and sat back down, writing furiously.

“Okay,” I said listlessly. Taylor used to help wash the dishes…

“Thanks, Alley. I’d go with you, but I have to get to Lerner before their sale ends. They’re having some kind of special sale on their shoes, especially their summer sandals, but it expires at four o’clock today so I have to hurry up and get there before it ends.”

Taylor wears sandals, I thought. Then I put my elbows on the table and my head in my hands. “I’m pathetic,” I groaned aloud. “So completely pathetic.”

“And why is that?” Louise looked up at me sympathetically.

“You know what I’m talking about. I can’t look at anything without thinking of him. Seriously, name something, anything, in this house, and I can connect it back to him. It’s like six degrees of Taylor Hanson, or something.”

Louise laughed, leaning over and squeezing my arm. “Oh, Alley! That’s normal. Everyone does that with someone important in their life.”

“But do they do it about Taylor Hanson?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, probably not. But you’re a special case.”

Ah, yes, ‘special’. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that word used to describe me, though it usually wasn’t a compliment. I crammed another bite of my BLT in my mouth, chewing furiously. God, I missed him. His absence was practically a physical pain, like a soreness deep in my chest. Louise tried to keep me company as best she could, but she was a busy woman, with work, school, a boyfriend, and numerous extra-curricular activities. She was rarely home during the week. Which left me, hermit that I am, sitting alone in the house. In the house where Taylor (or part of him, anyway) lived for a year. With the air he breathed, the things he touched…

“I miss him,” I said aloud. I’m sure Louise was tired of hearing it. I said it at least once a minute.

She smiled patiently and ruffled my hair – just like Taylor used to, I thought. “I know, honey. I know you do. And you know, I miss him, too. But just have patience – this will all work out.”

“If you don’t quit telling me to have patience…”

She laughed. “If you don’t stop being so impatient!” She grabbed my empty plate and put it in the sink. “I’m going to Lerner now. I’ll see you later, alright? We’ll go see a movie or something tonight. I told Steve we needed some ‘girl time’.”

I smiled gratefully. “Thanks. See you later.”

She left, leaving me alone with the house and the memories. I slowly walked through the rooms, remembering various Taylor-related incidents that had occurred in each one… we were wrestling and we knocked over that lamp… he dragged me in the shower that one time after I doused him in bed… he helped me with my final exams here in the study, doing flashcards… I wandered down into the living room. We fell asleep in each other’s arms right here… I sighed heavily.

I miss you so much, Taylor, I thought, gently sitting down and wrapping a quilt around me. Please, please remember me.

AUGUST

Thankfully, sort of, classes began, offering me some distractions. So, instead of hanging around my house, moping and daydreaming of Taylor, I hung around the arts and sciences buildings, moping and daydreaming of Taylor during class. Which really wasn’t an improvement, if you think about it.

“Allison? Miss Krzyzewski? Can you tell me the atomic mass of sodium?”

I slowly looked up from my notebook, which had seemed so fascinating minutes before. My professor was looking at me with concern. Did she just ask me a question? “What?” I mumbled.

“The atomic mass of sodium, please.”

I shrugged. Normally, I would have been horrified to be called on and not know the answer… I hated being embarrassed. But I was too far past that point to care. “I don’t know,” I said simply.

She fixed me with a stern stare. “Perhaps you should pay more attention to the lecture then, and not to your desk.” She turned around and began writing notes on the board.

“Perhaps,” I mumbled. Taylor was going to ruin me. How would I ever make it through more years of these shitty science classes when all I could think of was him? At least in my art classes, I could let my frustrations take some sort of form – art, particularly painting, was a release for me. I could think about Taylor and create something beautiful there – but I couldn’t think about Taylor and balance chemical equations.

The bell rang, signaling the end of that class, and I grabbed my bag and jetted out of the building. The air was sweltering, and I felt bits of damp hair cling to my face and neck. Taylor sweats a lot… Dammit! There was no ending to this madness!

I trooped across campus to the art building. I had Art Studio III with Mindy Ryan next, and I was actually kind of looking forward to it. I liked Dr. Ryan; she was my advisor in the college of art, and I’d had her in class before. I really hoped she had a full syllabus planned out for the semester… I needed something constructive to do with all my time.

“Hi, Allison! How are you?” she asked me warmly when I walked into her room. I smiled halfheartedly, throwing my bag down in a chair.

“Alright, I suppose… I’ve been better. But not too bad.”

“Oh, what’s wrong? Something bothering you?”

Well, yes. You see, last June, Taylor Hanson appeared in my bedroom one night as I slept… although it wasn’t the real Taylor, you see, just his ‘inner soul’, per se, because he was actually in a coma… and I was the only one who could see him! During the course of the year, though, he started becoming more a part of this world, and more people started seeing him, and he even got in a huge fight with an ex of mine… oh, and we fell in love along the way… and when we finally had the balls to confess to each other, we attacked each other like hormone-driven teenagers, but then he disappeared on me in the middle of the night, and now that he’s real again, he doesn’t remember who I am. So yeah, that’s what’s bothering me.

However, I didn’t want her to think that I was on crack, so I simply said, “Ah, just boy trouble.” Well, at least that much was true.

She smiled sympathetically. “Ohhh, I understand. Men are tough sometimes.”

“Yeah… sometimes I think they’re more trouble than they’re worth.” Women always said that, but personally I didn’t really believe it, especially not about Taylor. He had caused me unimaginable trouble during his time here and I still worshipped the ground he walked on.

“Amen to that!” She laughed merrily. “So have you been working on anything new over the summer?”

“Sort of,” I said. There were a few half-finished canvases lying around in our garage, collecting dust. “Haven’t finished anything, though. I just don’t feel that inspired lately.”

“Ah, that’s okay. We all go through periods like that.” She patted my arm. “You’ll find something to inspire you – probably when you least expect it.”

“Yeah… I guess.” I smiled at her and took my seat.

SEPTEMBER

The internet should never have been invented. There’s just way too much shit to get caught up in online… and it was turning me into a zombie. I felt like a stalker, like one of those psychotic teeny fans Taylor had told me about. I spent my evenings searching through every picture gallery, perusing every news section, looking for information about him.

This is what I had learned: Taylor had awakened, his mind and body were relatively unharmed, he was in physical therapy for a little muscle atrophy, he had a vocal coach, and he was seeing a psychologist. He was also planning to race into the studio as soon as the doctors gave the OK, and he and his brothers were already writing some new songs.

He also had a girlfriend… the same one he’d told me about all those months ago, Jennifer something-or-other, who looked like a total skank, based on the few old fuzzy photos I found of them together. I had freaked out when I first saw those, but Louise had immediately calmed me down by reminding me that one, he didn’t really love her anyway, and two, he was probably waiting for the right moment to break up with her, if he hadn’t already. Though I still felt a small twinge when I saw them together, I heeded her words, trusting that they would come true.

I went to Google, quickly typing in the now-familiar name. Results 1-10 of about 799,000 for “taylor hanson”… Almost eight hundred thousand web pages that mentioned Taylor? Of course… I couldn’t forget that I wasn’t the only one in this world obsessed with him. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you view it, his popularity had increased a hundredfold. It was funny, really. When he’d been in the coma, he had fallen out of the public eye. Teen girls had affixed their crushes onto other good-looking young singers and actors. When he woke up… Jesus. Every girl in the world, apparently, loved him. I cringed whenever I skimmed the message boards, knowing I shouldn’t do that to myself but unable to stop. They were filled with other heartsick girls like me, all wanting to take care of Taylor, to be there for him, to help him in any way possible, to love him. I understood their desire, but scoffed at it. They had never held Taylor in their arms as he cried… they had never nursed him back to health after a fight…. They had never felt the unbelievable burning of his lips against theirs.

He was mine, still mine. I wanted to believe that. But as I sat at the computer, staring listlessly at the screen, I knew it was no longer true. He didn’t belong to me – he belonged to the world again.

“Allison.” That was Louise, probably wondering why I was sitting in front of my laptop in the dark, covered with a blanket and staring at the screen. No, not wondering. Worrying. “Allison, you’ve got to stop this. You’re going to go insane.”

“Hello to you, too,” I mumbled, spinning around in the desk chair.

“I thought you were going out tonight,” she said.

“I was, but Heather called me and said she got called in to work, so…” I shrugged.

“Well, there has to be something better for you to do than sit here with no lights on and scour the internet for the latest news on Taylor.”

“What makes you so sure I’m looking up stuff about Taylor?” I asked dryly. “I could be sitting here researching monks in Tibet, or finding a recipe for potato soup, or something.”

Louise flipped on the light and walked toward me. “Because I know you too well.” She came around the desk and looked at my screen. “What did I say?” She sighed.

I gave her a sardonic smile and clicked on one of the Google links. “Check this out. Teen Idols 4 You! It’s a picture gallery!” Dozens of thumbnails of Taylor popped up, all circa 1997…  little, apple-cheeked, long-haired Taylor.

“God, he looks like a girl,” Louise said. “This is the man of your dreams?”

I couldn’t help but giggle. “Yeah… well, how about this one?” I tried another link. “See, here? This is a page about Taylor made by someone named…” I peered closely at the writing on the screen. “Someone who calls herself ‘Tayzbabydoll’. So you know it’s gotta be good…look! News, biography, song lyrics, even fan fiction…”

“Fan fiction? Who reads that shit?”

“Who writes that shit is what I wanna know… freaks… ooh, look! Another picture gallery!” I eagerly opened it up, gazing dolefully at the collage of photos on the page. “Look at his face in this one – trying to look tough! Haha! Awww… he looks so cute in that one…” I sighed, resting my chin on my hand, staring at the screen.           

“Okay, that’s enough,” Louise said, rolling her eyes. She grabbed my arm and forcibly lifted me up from the chair. “We’re getting out of here. You need to get out of this house.”

“But--”

“Come on.”

OCTOBER

“Louise!” I shrieked.”Hurry up, you’re gonna miss it!” I grabbed a soda from the fridge and a box of Twinkies and ran into the living room.

“I’m coming! Hang on just a minute,” I heard her call from upstairs. Moments later, she came bounding down the steps. I grabbed the remote and flipped the television on. It was 11:30 at night – time for Leno. I scanned the channels, suddenly forgetting, in my tizzy, which one was NBC.

“Dammit! What number is NBC? I can’t remember,” I said frantically, flipping through the channels. Sighing, Louise grabbed the remote from my hand and switched it.

“Channel 8. God, you’re a wreck, Alley. You act like you’re the one about to go on national television.”

“I’m just nervous for him,” I mumbled, tearing open a Twinkie package. “And I haven’t even seen him since he woke up… I don’t know what they’ve done to keep the paparazzi away, but it’s working…” I began nibbling on the Twinkie.

Louise smiled. “That’s probably a good thing, Al. He needs to be able to get better with a little privacy.”

He needs me, I thought. Actually, more like the other way around. “Yeah, I know.”

We settled in to watch the show. The monologue dragged on, and Leno’s first guest seemed to stay on the screen forever. I was getting antsier by the minute, squirming in my chair, uneasily taking sips of my soda and gnawing on my sugary snacks. Finally, Leno said the words I’d been waiting to hear all night.

“Keep it here, everyone, the guys from Hanson are up next!”

 

I grabbed the remote and cranked up the volume. Louise screeched. “Allison! They’re not on yet. Turn it down! Commercials are too loud as it is!”

I scowled, slowly tuning it down. “Sorry. Got a little too excited.” I watched as 30-second spots for Volkswagen, Crest toothpaste, and Coke played across the screen. “Come on! Dammit, no one cares about commercials!”

“Allison… chill.”

“I can’t help it, Louise, I – oh, it’s back on!” I turned the volume up again. I curled up on the couch, tucking my knees against my chest. I rested my chin on my knee, jaw set, eyes glued to the screen.

“Sheesh,” Louise muttered. “Does it really need to be that loud?”

“SSSSSHHHH! I can’t hear!!” Thanks to Louise, I’d missed the first part of Leno’s introduction. I only caught the tail end.

“… and gentlemen, Hanson!”

The screaming that followed could only be described as insanity. Zac walked out first, looking not entirely pleasant, then Isaac, looking handsome and serene… then him. My breath caught in my throat, and my heart dropped. It felt like the last time we’d gone to Kings Island and Louise had forced me to ride the Vortex with her – it was exhilarating, amazing, but I’d also felt like I was about to die…

“Oh, my God,” I whispered, staring at Taylor’s skinny frame and long blond hair. He was much thinner and paler than he’d been while he was here – which, thinking about it, made sense – the ‘inner’ Taylor had thrived here, while the ‘real’ Taylor had been laid up in a hospital bed… but it was still shocking to see. I gripped the couch cushion, fighting back tears that suddenly threatened to appear. I wanted him in my arms, I wanted to feed him and take care of him and run my fingers through that silky blond hair.

“Poor guy,” murmured Louise. I looked over at her. She had a sort of wistful half-smile on her face, shaking her head slowly. “Skinny little thing, isn’t he? Ah, he’ll fill out as he gets better.”

I watched as the brothers sat – Taylor in the closest seat to Leno, naturally, Isaac and Zac after him. He looked a little nervous, I thought – in the way that he shifted in his seat, ran his hands through his hair.

Jay Leno began speaking, upbeat and cheerful as always. “So… wow… I’m not even sure where to start! Taylor, tell us how you’re you doing!”

“Good,” Taylor answered with a small smile. “I’m feeling great, all things considered.” His voice was deeper than I remembered. Leno continued to ask Taylor a slew of questions – things about the accident, what he remembered, how he felt, if he would ever go rock climbing again, etc. I was getting annoyed.

“I realize that Taylor is the one we all want to see… I mean, he’s definitely the one I wanted to see, no offense to Isaac or Zac… but damn! Give him a chance to talk about something else,” I griped. “They’re working on some new music! Give the others a chance to talk!” I grabbed another Twinkie and stuffed it in my mouth, chewing angrily.

“Yeah, Taylor’s starting to look a little worn out,” Louise agreed. “Though I never thought I’d see the day he’d get tired of talking…” She giggled, and I shot her a glare. “Oh, Alley… Cheer up! He’s looking good. He seems to be okay. Aren’t you happy? For him, if not for yourself?”

I didn’t answer. No, I wasn’t happy, as selfish as it sounded. Yes, he seemed to be okay, but he wasn’t himself – I could tell. He was holding back; subdued. Which was understandable, I guessed, given the situation… I closed my eyes, realizing that I was coming perilously close to shedding tears.

Jay Leno’s next question, however, immediately snapped my eyes back open.

“So did you dream anything?” The question was directed at Taylor.

“What? Dream?” Taylor repeated. He seemed caught off guard, confused.

Jay kept smiling, apparently not picking up on Taylor’s discomfort. “When you were… asleep. Do patients dream in those situations?”

I sucked in my breath, watching as Taylor began rubbing his temples, obviously tired. It was something that had never occurred to me – did he dream? Did he remember me, but only as some odd vision he’d had while asleep? I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad…

“Well, Jay…” Taylor began speaking and stopped suddenly. His face had gone paler, his eyes wide. For a moment, he looked frozen, as if thinking hard. Luckily, Isaac smoothly stepped in and answered for him. As Isaac spoke, Taylor blinked several times, appearing to come back to himself. Leno again attempted to ask Taylor another question about it, which pissed me off to no end – Can’t you see he’s still recovering? Cut him some slack! – but again, Isaac answered and steered the conversation towards their music, effectively removing Taylor from the line of fire.

I decided I really liked Isaac.

“What was that all about?” Louise asked. “He looked like he was about to get up and run out of there.”

“I don’t know,” I said softly. My eyes never left the screen as the interview wound down. Jay asked Zac a question.

“You glad to have him back, Zac? You haven’t said much tonight.” Zac gave an affirmative, if unenthusiastic response.

Louise was still going on about Taylor. “I mean, he looked terrified… just out of the blue, like that… wonder what it was that set him off…”

I ignored her, listening as Taylor spoke again. “Ah, he’s just mad because we have to share a bathroom again,” he joked about Zac. I smiled, the first one since the interview began, and rolled my eyes.

“Well, at least his lame sense of humor is still intact,” I murmured. God, I missed that lame humor…

“I mean, I haven’t seen him look that scared since the time I was gonna force him to confess his feelings for you,” Louise said. I whipped my head around.

“What?”

She smirked. “I knew that would get your attention.”

“Force him to confess? When was this? Where was I? Why didn’t he do it?”

Louise answered my questions in the respective order they were asked. “Yes, it was in January, you were in school at the time, and he didn’t do it because that exact same day you came home squealing about how Alex had just asked you out.”

I stared at her silently. Oh, the cruelty of irony… I suddenly wanted another Twinkie, but I’d already eaten four… “So… you’re telling me… I could have had Taylor back in January, and…um, enjoyed him for six months… but I didn’t, because of Alex.”

“Pretty much, yes.”

“Fuck,” I sighed. I grabbed another of the cream-filled treats and tore open the package. What the hell. “My life is seriously messed up.”

NOVEMBER

“Well, Alley Kat… I’d tell you to blow the candles out and make a wish, but I’m pretty sure I know what that wish is…”

I stared morosely at my cake, covered with twenty flickering candles. My twentieth birthday. Last year at this time, I had argued with Taylor over what kind of cake I wanted. He had discovered that his reflection had returned. He had devised that plan to get revenge on Jay, and had helped me orchestrate it. It all seemed so long ago…

I sighed. “Yeah, you do. I guess I’ll try it anyway.” I wish you would come back to me, Taylor. I blew out the candles.

After we ate the sweet dessert, Louise and I sat back in our chairs, relaxing. The house still seemed so silent without him there. I mean, it had been nearly five months… I still hadn’t adjusted. I still spent my nights lying awake, unable to sleep because he wasn’t there with me. I had gotten so used to that warm body sleeping just a foot away… even with all his squirming, tossing and turning, and kicking. I actually missed his soft snoring, his sleeptalking.

“It’s so quiet,” I said softly.

Louise nodded. “Yeah. Especially since Jessica and all of them moved out. No more blasting shitty pop music or throwing block parties all hours of the day and night.”

That actually brought a smile to my face. I had come home one day to see a huge U-Haul truck in front of our neighbor’s house. Jessica and her roommates had been dragging out furniture and boxes and loading them onto the truck. When I had asked, sweetly, what she was doing, she had sullenly informed me that she was moving. Thankfully, she hadn’t asked about Taylor, which probably would have sent me into tears.

“Yeah… I’ve never been so glad to see anyone leaving in my life. Though I wonder why she left. She hasn’t graduated, has she?” I asked.

“Graduated?” Louise snorted loudly and laughed. “Oh, Alley, honey… she flunked out. She’s probably moved back in with her parents back home.”

“How do you know?”

“Steve had class with her, he heard her talking about it one day to one of her friends. He said she was a complete imbecile. Apparently she failed every test in that class.”

“Well, that’s too bad… we were becoming such good friends.” We both laughed. “So why did the other girls leave? Did they flunk, too?”

“I don’t know… I’d say they just moved somewhere cheaper, since they didn’t have her to help split the rent.”

I nodded silently. Whatever the reason, I was grateful.

“So…” Louise said slowly, changing the subject. “How are you?”

“Fine.”

“Fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional?”

I chuckled. “Yeah, pretty much.”

“So… you want to talk about it? You’ve been very quiet lately…”

I sighed. “I just… I don’t know. I think about him every minute of the day. It’s ridiculous. I’ve become one of those… creatures, one of those crazy girls who are obsessed with their crushes. I’m ashamed of myself, but I can’t stop. I… I love him. I almost wish I’d never found out how he felt about me… because it’s just making it harder, knowing what I could have had.”

“What you will have,” Louise said firmly. “You’re not crazy. If your positions were switched – if Taylor was sitting here and you were the one who couldn’t remember, he’d be acting the same way. Actually, he’d probably be worse. He’d be much whinier.”

“He is awfully bratty, isn’t he?” I asked with a grin.

“Well, of course. Like I’ve told you before, you two are a match made in heaven…”

“Louise!” I shrieked, but laughed. I was beginning to feel a tiny bit better.

“You know what you need, Alley?”

“Besides Taylor?”

She gave an exasperated sigh. “Yes. Well, until you get Taylor back. You need a distraction. Something to keep you from thinking about him every second of the day.”

“Like a hobby?”

“Actually… I was thinking more along the lines of… a job.”

“A JOB?” I screeched. I’d never had a job, not a real one, anyway. All my money came from my uncle or from selling some of my art on the side. The thought of having to get an actual, paid-by-the-hour job frightened me, to be honest…

“Yes, a job. That way, you can be distracted, and make some money. It’s a win-win situation!”

“But… but…” I frantically tried to think of a good excuse not to do it. “There’s school! I have to make good grades! A job would cut into my study time…”

“I didn’t say you had to work all the time, dear. Just 10 or so hours a week. No big deal. Just enough to get you out of this house and into the real world.”

“Do you realize how impossible that is?” I scoffed. “Who is going to hire a crazy girl who cries over Taylor Hanson and only wants to work like 10 hours a week?” Louise didn’t find that amusing. “And besides, I don’t want to be out in the real world,” I mumbled. She ignored that last statement.

“I’ll help you job-hunt. And Steve has all sorts of connections – he used to work for WKQQ. I bet he could get you a position at the radio station, or at that media store in the mall, or something like that… see? That way it wouldn’t be completely about work. You love movies and music!”

Taylor plays music, I thought. “Well…”

She took my hesitance as acceptance. “So it’s settled. We’ll start looking tomorrow.”

God help me.

DECEMBER

“Alley! Come on, you need to start getting ready. We’re gonna be late.”

I wiped my hand against my brow, careful to not accidentally smear paint in my hair. The garage, which I had recently converted into a mini art studio, was chilly, despite the small kerosene heater in the corner. I didn’t mind. Better it be too cool than too hot. “I’m coming, Louise. Let me just get this cleaned up.”

“Okay, but don’t poke around. Aunt Joanna always gets onto me for being late.”

“I’m hurrying.” I squeezed the excess paint out of the brush before setting it in a can of paint thinner. I replaced the tops to all my jars and placed the canvas over against the wall to dry. Sighing, I trudged back inside, preparing for another Christmas dinner with the Sorrells.

After I’d showered and dressed, I met Louise downstairs. She was gathering up the presents we’d bought. “Can you help me with these?” she asked. I obliged and grabbed several packages, carrying them out to her car.  We piled in and set off.

“Is Steve coming? Are we picking him up?” I asked.

“No, he can’t come… his family decided to go to Florida for Christmas, to get away from the cold. So it’s just me and you, babe.” That was something of a relief. At least I wouldn’t be a third wheel.

Louise’s Aunt Joanna and Uncle Travis lived just outside the city, on a farm. They had a large, rambling Victorian-style house, so they were always the host of the annual Christmas get-together – they had plenty of room for all the guests to mingle about. I stared at the window as we got past the traffic lights and tall buildings of the city and into smooth, rolling countryside.

“I hope Joanna made that casserole she had last year again… that stuff was awesome. You remember, the one with the cheesy potatoes in it and stuff?”

“Yeah, I had like three helpings.”

“Yeah… I bet there’ll be a lot more people this year. Mom told me that her cousins from Washington were gonna come down and celebrate with us this year. I haven’t seen them since I was like, nine.”

“That’s nice,” I said absentmindedly. Wonder what Taylor is doing right now. Are they eating dinner? Opening presents? Roasting chestnuts on an open fire? I smiled in spite of myself.

“Here we are.” Louise pulled up to the house, and we grabbed our gifts and took them inside. We were immediately assaulted by various relatives, all eager to hug us and squeal over how grown-up we were becoming.

Louise’s mother, Ellen, wrapped me in a fierce hug. “How are you, honey?”

I managed a smile. “Oh, I’m good, good… glad finals are over. What about you?”

“I’m just fine.” We chatted for a few minutes more before we were whisked away into the kitchen. Joanna was standing over a stove, stirring something and talking to one of the cousins, whose name escaped me. It smelled wonderful in there. Figures. The ability to cook apparently ran in the Sorrell family.

Louise had disappeared somewhere, leaving me with the relatives in the kitchen. I leaned against the counter, listening as they talked and gossiped. I didn’t really feel like talking. I wondered if they thought I was rude. I was planning on the easiest way to escape without being seen when they apparently decided I needed to join the conversation.

“So, Allison… are you seeing anyone? Has some lucky guy come and swept you off your feet?” Joanna asked me, her eyes twinkling. It was an innocent question, I knew – Joanna was always teasing me about my fierce independence. I swallowed the lump in my throat, unsure of how to answer.

“Well,” I hedged. Probably the wrong thing to say – I should have just offered a simple ‘No’. Joanna and Ellen’s eyes lit up.

“Oh! Who is he? What’s he look like? Is he a student?” I was suddenly peppered with questions. Louise, I thought frantically. Where are you? Help me out here!

 

“He--” I faltered. “We’re not even dating. It’s nothing.”

“Oh, that’s no fun! But you like him, right? Tell us about him!”

My face flushed, and I stared at my black leather boots. “He’s… nice.”

“What’s his name?”

“Um… Taylor.”

“Ooh, nice name. What’s he look like? Is he cute?”

“Yeah,” I said wistfully. “Very.”

“Ooh!!! What does he do? Where’s he from?”

Louise! Get back here! “Well, he’s…. um…. a musician. From… Oklahoma.”

“Oklahoma, eh? How did you meet him, then?” asked Joanna.

“What instrument does he play?” asked Ellen. I decided to go with Ellen’s question, as it was the easiest to answer.

“He plays several… piano, mostly. And guitar, and harmonica…. plus he sings.”

“Piano, eh?” Joanna said. She wiggled her eyebrows at me. “Does he have those long, nimble pianist’s hands?”

I blushed furiously. They laughed, seeing the answer written all over my face. A memory flared in the back of my mind -- Taylor and I on the couch, his hands gently stroking my face and neck, tickling my stomach…Taylor pinning me to the floor, laughing as he slid one of those pianist’s hands up the leg of my jeans… I bit my lip, hoping they wouldn’t notice my watery eyes.

“What’s going on in here?” Finally! Louise walked in, grinning. She was wearing a set of furry reindeer antlers, hooked onto a headband. I was sure Travis had given them to her to wear. He loved silly stuff like that.

“Allison here was just telling us about this guy she’s got her eye on,” Ellen said. “I can’t believe you haven’t mentioned this to me, Miss Louise!”

“Oh, Mom, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t mention to you,” Louise teased her. She turned and gave me a sympathetic look. I shrugged.

“She told us he was cute,” Joanna said. “What do you think, Louise? Have you met him?”

God, there was no ending to this conversation. Louise smiled at me apologetically. “Yeah, I have. And yes, he’s cute. Heartbreakingly gorgeous, actually. And sweet, and smart, and an all-around great guy.” She looked at me slyly. “Plus, he’s absolutely crazy about Alley Kat here.”

The two women squealed and laughed. “Oh, honey! You should have brought him tonight! We would love to meet him!”

“Yeah, well, he’s, um… with his family. Back home,” I mumbled.

“Well, you make sure you bring this young man by and let us meet him sometime, Allison. He must be something if Louise approves of him. You know how picky she is.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well,” Louise said, “Alley, why don’t we go into the den? I was just helping Uncle Travis separate the gifts, and he was asking about you. You’ll have to tell him about the new stuff you’re working on.”

“As long as he doesn’t ask about boyfriends,” I muttered to Louise as she steered me out of the kitchen.

She wrapped one arm around my shoulder, grinning. “Ah, that’s just how relatives are.”

“Yeah, I guess. Though at least Joanna and Ellen are nice about it. Some of your cousins can get downright obnoxious when it comes to us single folk. Last year, Melissa showed me her engagement ring four times and kept telling me how wonderful it felt to be with such a handsome, charming man that she absolutely adored. I nearly gagged.”

“Only four times? Honey, you got off easy. I saw it at least ten.” We walked into the den, where Travis was showing his niece the singing Santa figurine he’d put on the mantle. She lowered her voice. “Well, just think how satisfying it would be to bring Taylor to one of these functions and show him off. They’d be frothing at the mouth.”

I sighed. “If only that would happen…”

“Will happen, Alley. Will.”

JANUARY

I hate January. There’s absolutely nothing good about it. It’s winter and horribly cold, all the fun holidays are over for the year, and all the shitty movies that studio execs can’t believe they agreed to fund come out in January. It’s like starting all over. Everything you have to look forward to seems so far away…

Not to mention that microbiology labs are only offered at 8:00AM starting in January, for the spring semester. And that I, being as stupid as I am, signed up for one of them.

I wrapped my coat around me as tight as I could manage. My toboggan, wooly, worn, and navy blue, was pulled down firmly over my head, just above my eyebrows. I carefully adjusted my scarf so that it covered my nose and tried valiantly not to think about a certain someone who wore scarves on a regular basis… I stared at the snow-strewn ground as I trudged to the lab. Yeah. I hate January.

I suffered through the next three hours, listening to the professor drone on and on. Why was it that every single one of the science faculty here were dull as bricks? I doodled on my notebook as he pulled up an overhead screen, going over the notes we would need for our first test. He had also flipped the lights off so we could see the projector better – bad idea. I looked around, noticing that everyone sitting around me had fallen asleep. I shrugged – hey, maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but at least I was awake. Though I wasn’t sure how long that would last…

“Hey,” a voice whispered next to me. “What time is it?” I turned, seeing a bleary-eyed girl looking at me expectantly. I told her class was nearly over, and she nodded, relieved. “I’m dying here,” she mumbled.

“Me, too.”

The bell rang, thankfully, and I headed back to the car. The wind had picked up even more since the morning, and even my thick peacoat and scarf wasn’t enough to keep me warm. I couldn’t wait to get home. Couldn’t wait to fix some hot chocolate, get a good book and curl up in bed and just relax the rest of the day… and hopefully not think about Taylor.

Right. And maybe I’ll buy a Powerball ticket and win a hundred million dollars.

I pulled into our driveway about twenty minutes later. Louise was home already, but as I walked inside, I saw no sign of her. Shrugging, I threw my jacket, scarf, and hat on the coat rack and dragged myself up the steps to my room.

I was still so cold – like a numbing chill that you just can’t seem to shake. I quickly changed into a t-shirt and sweats and slipped my soft, furry bunny slippers on my feet. I needed a sweatshirt, but since I rarely wore them, there weren’t any hanging in my closet. What did I do with those? Did I put them in storage boxes? Frowning, I crawled over to my bed, lifting up the skirt and eyeing the row of plastic Tupperware tubs underneath. I grabbed each of them, one at a time, and pulled them out into the floor.

The first box was filled with summer clothes – shorts, tank tops, bathing suits. I shoved it to the side. The next one, I hit jackpot – I opened it up and found nearly a dozen thick sweatshirts. I picked up a royal blue UK shirt, emblazoned with the phrase ‘L, NO!’ – I’d gotten it before the annual Louisville-UK basketball game a few years ago. I smiled wistfully, remembering the last time I wore it – and how much explaining I’d had to do for Taylor for him to ‘get’ the joke.

Speaking of Taylor… I closed the lid on the sweatshirt box, eyeing the other two that had not been opened. I suddenly remembered what was in them. I swallowed thickly – I had vowed not to dig through his old things, because that seemed too psycho and obsessive, even for me, and I had even managed to follow through on that vow for nearly seven months… but now that they were right there in front of me… I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I was powerless to stop. I slid the boxes I’d already opened back under the bed, and gingerly pulled the other two closer to me.

I slowly lifted the lid off the first. Rows and stacks of shirts and jeans, all neatly folded and organized. I smiled softly, remembering what neat freak he could be. I picked one shirt up after another, unfolding them. Most of them were tees, though there were a few long-sleeved sweatshirts inside. I lifted one up, holding it out. It was a red and faded, with no design other than the white GAP logo across the chest. It was worn and soft to the touch. I gently held it against my chest. This was all I had left of him. Old clothes, one picture, and thousands of memories. I carefully smelled of the shirt, but his scent was gone, much to my chagrin. Of course – they were all clean clothes, and as fastidiously neat as Taylor was, he wouldn’t want to wear the same thing twice without washing it…

“Oh my God, what are you doing?”

I looked up guiltily, still holding the shirt to my chest. Louise stood in my doorway, arms crossed. “Oh… nothing,” I mumbled. I slowly folded it back up and gently laid it back in the box. I stared at it. I needed to put the lid back on, I needed to put it away before I started losing my mind, but I couldn’t.

Louise said nothing else, just silently walked in and bent down to give me a hug. I gratefully reciprocated, resting my head on her shoulder. After a few minutes of silence, she spoke. “Let’s put these away,” she said softly.

“Okay.” I started to replace the lid, but stopped. “Wait.” I snatched up the GAP sweatshirt. “I… let me keep this one. Just this one.”

Louise gave me a look, but didn’t stop me. I pressed the lid back on the top and started to shove the box back under the bed, but she shook her head.

“No, let me put them somewhere else. So you won’t be tempted to get them out again and roll around in them, or something.” That brought a slight smile to my face.

“I’m not that bad off… well, not yet, anyway,” I said. I carefully fingered the soft cotton fabric of the shirt in my lap. Not that bad off? Yeah, right. Louise winked, stacking the boxes and picking them up. I watched her leave the room. “Where are you putting them?” I called after her.

“I’m not telling you.”

While she was gone, I slowly pulled the sweatshirt over my head, relishing the feel of the material against my skin. Relishing the fact that Taylor had once worn it. The sleeves were a little too long, but that didn’t bother me. Sighing, I allowed myself to sink down until I was lying on my side, facing the door. I curled up in a ball, wrapping my arms around me. I was finally beginning to warm up.

I remained in the floor, completely unmotivated to move. About ten minutes later, Louise reappeared in my doorway, smiling.

“Well, I’ve got some good news for you,” she said.

I looked up at her. “Oh, really? Did the science building at UK burn down?”

She rolled her eyes. “No, honey. Steve called me earlier.”

“Okay…”

“He spoke to the guy who owns FYE. They’re gonna give you a job.”

I froze. FYE (For Your Entertainment, how clever) was a movies/music/media store in the mall. “That’s your good news?”

“Yes.”

“You’re sending me to work at a freaking music store, of all places?”

She offered me a hand up. “It’s not just a music store, Allison. They sell all sorts of stuff.” She continued to speak as she pulled me to my feet. “Besides, they’re going to work around your school schedule… you only have to work like 10 or 15 hours a week, or more if you feel like it. You get at least one day off on the weekend. Do you know how hard it is to find workplaces that’ll do all that for you? It’s impossible! Now, you’ll be closing most nights, obviously, but they’re only open until nine, so it’s not that late.”

“Oh, goody,” I mumbled.

“You need to give this guy a call and tell him when you can start.”

“Never?”

She ignored me. “Here’s his number. Tell him you’re Steve’s friend.” She handed me a yellow post-it note.

“Well, you can tell Steve that he and I are most definitely not friends anymore.” I scowled.

Louise crossed her arms and gave me a look. “I think you’ll like it there, Alley. You can meet some new people, make some money, listen to music and watch movies all day, get your mind off of Taylor for the time being…”

“You sound like you’re my mother,” I said dryly.

She wrapped an arm around me and ruffled my hair. “Well, Alley, someone’s gotta do it.”

FEBRUARY

I remember now why I never bothered to get a real job. Because they suck.

“Allison? Will you go work the register for awhile? It’s time for my break.” That was Ryan, my co-worker.

“Sure. Anything to get away from these kids,” I mumbled, eyeing the two dark-haired girls that had been running around the back wall, screaming and tackling each other. I was never going to get the display done, at this rate… at least at the register I would be up front, away from all the ruckus.

“Thanks, kiddo. I’ll be back in fifteen.” He gave me a huge, sweet grin and disappeared into the back. I smiled and waved at him as he departed. I liked Ryan. Actually, he was about the only thing about this job that I did like. Ryan was charming, laidback, with a wicked sense of humor. Plus, he was really into the Ramones, which I thought was cool. When I’d first met him, I thought he was around my age – he had a young face. He’d gotten a major kick out of that when I’d asked him his age… and then informed me that he was 32. His parents must have had great genes.

He’d also won points in my favor for, if not being a Hanson fan, then at least respecting them. He’d caught me the first day I’d started, mooning over a copy of This Time Around from the rack. “Hanson fan?” he’d asked, surprising me and causing me to drop the CD in the floor, chipping the corner of the case. I hadn’t been sure how to answer that, but he’d smiled understandingly, realizing I was embarrassed. “Hey, I respect ‘em. Not really my style, but those guys can play. You can tell they really love music.”

“Yeah,” I’d said softly. “They sure do.”

I walked toward the front of the store, carefully avoiding the Pop/Rock aisle and especially the ‘H’ section. I planted myself on a stool behind the register, watching the customers walking past the store. I really hated the mall. I disliked shopping there, I disliked working there… especially on Valentine’s Day. Couples, holding hands, snuggling… love songs blaring over the loudspeakers everywhere I went… stupid red and pink hearts all over the place. It was enough to make me want to throw up.

“Ma’am? Can you price check this for me, please?”

I obliged, taking the gray Godsmack shirt from the young boy and swiftly scanning it. “Eleven ninety-eight,” I said. He smiled and scampered off, presumably to go beg his mother to buy it.

I sighed and drummed my fingers across the counter. The store wasn’t busy – other than the little boy and his mother, it was empty – the two screaming girls had been carted off by their mother sometime while I was daydreaming. I glanced at the clock – 8:00PM. Just another hour, then I’d be out of here.

Yeah, and then what? It’s not like you have plans…

 

“I’m back. Ya miss me?”

I turned and smiled at Ryan. He was chomping on a wad of gum, that ever-present grin on his face. “Yeah. I’m bored to tears. This is almost as bad as my micro lab. Almost.”

“I hear ya. I fall asleep in my marketing classes all the time.” He pulled up another stool and sat next to me. “So, you got big plans tonight?”

I snorted loudly. “Yeah. Big plans with my television and a box of Ho-Ho’s.”

He laughed. “Oh, why not? I know you could get a date for Valentine’s Day. A pretty girl like you?”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“I’m serious! I thought you had a boyfriend. If I’d have known you didn’t have plans, I would have set you up with one of Tracy and mine’s friends, or something.” Tracy was Ryan’s girlfriend. She was a sweet, petite redhead who was working on her Master’s in Accounting. She visited us often at FYE, and always brought me an Ale8 and some sort of snack, so she was alright in my book.

I smiled half-heartedly. “Thanks for the offer, but I wouldn’t have taken it.”

“Why not?”

“I…. um… let’s just say I’m not ready for another relationship.”

“Why? What happened?”

I squirmed in my seat. I liked Ryan, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into this. “Just… it’s complicated.”

“Spill. We’ve got an hour, there’s no one in here, and I’m not getting why a girl as intelligent, funny, and cute as you is going to be sitting home on Valentine’s Day. Who is this guy?”

It was obvious I wasn’t going to get out of this one without giving him a few details. “Tay--” I started, and then realized halfway through his name that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to give out such information to a guy who knew anything and everything about music. I began coughing loudly, pretending that I was choking on something. He gave me an odd look as I recovered and spoke again. “His name is… Jordan.”

“Okay. And what does he do?”

“He… he’s...” I looked around the store, suddenly wishing, for the first time ever, that we would get more customers… that someone would need my help, or something. Anything to get me out of this conversation again. “He… writes stuff.” Well, that was true. He wrote music, didn’t he?

“Really? Books?”

Dammit, this was not going the direction I intended. “Just… all kinds of stuff. But anyway, he lives far away.”

“So… it’s a distance problem? He wouldn’t even come see you on Valentine’s Day?”

I looked down, pulling on a frayed thread from the hem of my shirt. “Well, no… it’s a little more complicated than that. He had this… accident… and now he has, like… amnesia. So he doesn’t remember me.”

Ryan’s eyes widened. “No shit?”

“No shit. He doesn’t even remember that I exist.”

“Aww, Allison… I’m so sorry. That’s gotta be tough.”

“Yeah,” I said softly. “It is.”

“Is there anything they can do? To help him remember? Do you visit him?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

He thankfully didn’t notice that I failed to answer the ‘visit’ question. I would have hated to explain that I couldn’t visit Taylor because about a million other girls wanted to visit him, too…

“Well,” he said, obviously forcing cheerfulness. “There’s always hope. Just… have patience, I guess. What else can you do?”

I smiled in spite of myself. “That’s what my roommate always says.”

MARCH

I wandered down the hall of the science building, past all the rows of offices. It was mid-March, therefore mid-semester, and time to schedule classes for next year. And it was also time for me to meet my new advisor in the college of science.

I found the main office and walked in. A lanky young woman was working the front desk, presumably a student. She looked up and smiled when I approached her.

“Can I help you?”

“Yeah… I just got accepted into upper-division, I need to find out who my new advisor is,” I said. I leaned on the tall counter around the desk as she brought up something on her computer and started typing.

“Okay… and what was your name?”

“Allison. Krzyzewski, K-R-Z-Y-Z-E-W-S-K-I.” She typed that in, and pursed her lips, studying my file.

“Okay, Allison. Chemistry major, right?”

“Yes,” I sighed.

“Okay. Just fill out this little form here,” she said, handing me a yellow sheet. “And then you’ll take it to your new advisor. And it looks like your new advisor is…” she checked the screen one more time. “Dr. Tanenbaum. Have you ever had him in class?”

Of all the people in the science department… I stared at her, still holding the yellow form. “What?”

“He teaches chemistry and the occasional bio class here. His office is just--”

I interrupted her. “I know, I know who he is. Are you sure that’s my advisor?”

She raised an eyebrow, glanced at the screen, and nodded. “Yes.”

I closed my eyes, praying for strength… the strength to restrain myself from throwing something against the wall. I must be God’s grand joke, I thought. Murphy’s Law, or something… everything that can go wrong, will. After I lost Taylor, I thought surely I’d hit the bottom… but apparently He had other ideas. I was only vaguely aware of the receptionist staring at me and asking a question – my mind was drifting. Remembering Taylor’s words, the day before he’d disappeared on me. ‘You don’t need the science. You could easily make a living with your art. And you would be much happier.’

 

You know, Taylor, I think you’re right.

“Oh. Okay. Well… I have another question,” I said suddenly, breaking out of my reverie.

“Okay…”

“If someone was to… drop their major… how would they go about doing so?”

*******

“Let me get this straight. You just got accepted into the school, you were going to find your new advisor, and when they told you it was that cranky old man you had for biology, you just dropped out!??! Allison! What were you thinking?!” Louise was shrieking at me over the phone. I was standing in front of Arby’s, munching on a roast beef sandwich and wasting the time until I met with Dr. Ryan, over in the Art department. I adjusted the cell phone closer to my ear.

“Well, yes, pretty much. I just sort of… snapped.”

“Well, un-snap! Can’t you go back and…. fix it or something??”

“I don’t want to. I hated it, Louise. I never wanted to do it in the first place, and I never would have, if stupid Mrs. Ester hadn’t convinced me that I was wasting my life away trying to paint. But I don’t care anymore. I’d rather cut out my own kidney with a rusty scalpel than set foot in that stupid science building again.”

“Well, you didn’t need to be quite so graphic about that… so what are you doing to do?”

“I’m meeting with Dr. Ryan here in a few minutes. She’s gonna help me get everything straightened out and see when I can graduate in that college.” I wadded up the sandwich wrap and tossed it into a trash can sitting next to the sidewalk. The art building was down the block, and I slowly began walking that way, holding the phone tight against my ear to hear her over the wind.

“I just can’t believe you did that. If you had gone on to pharmacy school, just imagine the money you could have made…”

“I don’t think the money would have made up for the misery,” I said. “Seriously. I feel better now than I’ve felt in a long time, Louise.” And strangely enough, that’s thanks to Taylor, I thought.

Louise sighed heavily. “Well, okay, Alley, if that’s really what you think is best.”

“I do. Well, I gotta go. I’ll talk to you later, Louise.” We both hung up, and I hitched my backpack up and strolled into the art building, searching for Dr. Ryan’s office.

Her door was open, but I knocked hesitantly before stepping inside. “Oh, come in!” she said, looking up from her desk. “Just make yourself at home. Sorry, it’s a mess in here! I’m such a slob.”

“Me, too,” I said lightly, eyeing her cluttered shelves and filing cabinets. Books, papers, art supplies, and crude drawings by her daughters littered the office. Wow. I considered myself the world’s biggest slob, but I was pretty sure she could give me a run for my money.

“So what can I do for you today?”

I sat down, throwing my backpack to the side, and placed my hands in my lap. “Well… I just now dropped my chemistry major. So… I’m just art now.”

“Wonderful! You won’t regret it. That science is just a waste of time for people like you... I don’t care what anyone says.” She grinned, her eyes sparkling. I couldn’t help but grin back.

“Well, I’m sure I won’t regret it. But anyway… so I was just wondering when I could graduate. I know I have very few classes left to take… are any of them offered half-semester? Or like independent study, where I could start on them now? Could I graduate in May?”

She shook her head sympathetically. “Unfortunately, you’re too late for the May ceremony, regardless of whether you could add a class now. The deadline to apply for May graduation was in February.”

Well, shit. With no more science to suffer through, I’d had high hopes to be done with school in just a few months… “Oh, okay. So, I guess, just go another semester and graduate in December?”

“Well, you could… or you could do summer school, and be done in August. Now, they do have a ceremony in August, but it’s very small and simple… no keynote speakers or anything. It’s usually like fifty or so students. If you waited until December you would have a bigger, fancier ceremony.”

“August?” I repeated, my interest piquing. That was just five months… and I didn’t care what kind of ceremony they had, I didn’t even want to go to one, period. “That sounds good to me.”

“Excellent. Let’s just figure out what you can take here…”

We spent the next twenty minutes going over list of possible summer courses. In the end, I opted for one class from each summer session – and even better, Dr. Ryan herself taught the course in Summer II. I meticulously wrote down the class numbers so I could register when I got home. When we were done, I stood up to leave and she shook my hand.

“Congratulations, Allison. You’re almost done!”

“I know!” I said. I felt better than I had in ages, all fluttery and excited. And free. I started to walk away, but she stopped me.

“Just out of curiosity… what made you change your mind? Just had enough of it, finally?” She was referring to the science classes, I realized.

“Well, that… and a friend of mine, he, um, really encouraged it. He’s a musician, so… he kind of understands.”

“Oooh,” she said, nodding in understanding. “That’s great. It’s always amazing to meet someone who gets what you’re about.” She smiled, her eyes wandering over to the children’s drawings strewn up around her office, and I wondered if she was thinking of her own husband.

“Yeah,” I said wistfully. “It is.”

APRIL

I love spring. It’s refreshing, it’s renewing, it signifies that summer is on its way. And it’s a shame I can’t even enjoy it this year.

Since making the bold decision to drop a major (and all classes I had been taking related to it, including that dreadful micro lab), I had taken on more hours at FYE. Mainly, as Louise had said, to get me out of the house and keep me busy. Unfortunately, that meant that most of my time was spent indoors. Dealing with idiotic customers and people with really, really shitty taste in music.

“Miss? Do you have that new Britney Spears album? I looked but I couldn’t find it!” I turned to the buxom teenage girl, fighting the temptation to shoot off a smartass remark.

“If it’s not out there, we don’t have it,” I said evenly. “We get new stock in on Tuesdays. So you can check back then. But otherwise, we don’t have it.”

“Well, what kind of a stupid store is this? I can’t even buy a CD by the most popular artist in the world?” she snapped. I narrowed my eyes. That thing about not being a smartass? Forget I said it.

“Well,” I replied coolly. “Your loose definition of the word ‘artist’ aside, I’d like to remind you that popularity does not equate quality. And as a matter of fact, that statement you just made was oxymoronic in itself – if something is very popular, it’s harder to keep it on the shelves.” She glared at me and started to stalk away. I couldn’t resist getting in one last remark. “Why don’t you go down to Sam Goody? I hear they stock up on shit music,” I called after her.

I heard a chuckle behind me. “You really shouldn’t do that,” said Ryan, thoroughly amused. “It’s not good for business.”

I smiled. “So? All the better for us. Less idiocy to deal with.”

“True,” he agreed amiably. We walked over to the register and sat down behind the counter. “So, what’s going on? Anything new?”

“Nope. Nothing at all.” Other than I’ve been staring at Hanson’s new EP all morning… daydreaming about Taylor and resisting the temptation to buy the CD, just to hear his voice…

“Me, either.”

An older woman came up to the counter, obviously in a hurry, so I took her items and checked her out. She had a newspaper under her arm, and set it down on the counter as she pulled money from her purse. The paper flipped open.  Headlines jumped out at me. ‘TWO FOUND DEAD IN CARTER COUNTY’, ‘GOVERNOR TO VISIT FLOOD VICTIMS IN SOUTHERN KY’, ‘FAYETTE TEACHER WINS NATIONAL AWARD’. And, I notice, in the top corner, ‘SUMMER CONCERT GUIDE INSIDE!’

“Summer concert guide?” I asked, glancing at the paper. “Summer’s not for two months!”

“Well, I’m sure they consider May the start of summer,” Ryan said. “Plus, you gotta give people enough time to get tickets and prepare.”

The woman hurriedly paid for her CDs and flitted from the store. She’d left her newspaper on the counter. “Ma’am!” I called after her, but she was already out of sight. Shrugging, I turned to Ryan. “Guess it’s ours now.”

“Good way to kill some time.” He grabbed the paper and flipped it open, reading all the news stories. I started to tell him that it might not look good for the employees to be sitting around reading the paper while on the clock, but decided against it. After all, I wanted to read it, too.

I picked up some pens that had strayed away from the register. People were fond of taking the pens we used for credit card purchases, so we had to keep careful tabs on them. “Summer concert guide…” I murmured. “So… what’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?”

“Easy,” Ryan said, lowering the paper. “Page/Plant tour. Hands down. It kicked ass.”

I turned and stared at him. “You got to go to that? I’m so jealous! I was too young, I couldn’t go!”

He laughed. “Too bad, kiddo. What about you? What’s your best concert experience?”

“Ben Folds. Solo, with just a piano. God, it was amazing. I really think it rocked harder than any full-on electric live show I’ve been to!”

“Oh, yeah. He’s pretty amazing. I’d like to see him next time he tours.”

“Well, you should definitely go,” I said. “Which reminds me… did you know that Southern Culture is playing at The Dame next Saturday? I’m dying to go, but I’m not old enough…”

He roared with laughter at my pitiful expression. “Ah, youth,” he said. “Sometimes I forget you’re just a baby.”

I scowled. “I’m not a baby.”

“Yeah, yeah. Well, kiddo, let’s see if there’s any concerts in here that you can actually attend.” He cackled at that, and I punched him in the shoulder. He took out the Arts section of the paper and flipped through. “Wow, look at all the country musicians. You can see Tim McGraw at Rupp Arena… or Keith Urban… Second Helping Band…”

“I’d rather hang myself, thank you.”

He snickered. “Lloyd Wainwright… hey, that might not be too bad. He’s interesting… Oh, but it’s at The Dame, as well. Sorry, kiddo.”

“Wow,” I said dryly. “My summer sure is looking up.”

“Kid Rock in Louisville… ugh, he sucks… Hey, Simon and Garfunkel in Cincinnati…”

“I’d like to go to that,” I said. A teenage boy came up to the counter. I studied him – he was decked out in a complete goth getup. Piercings everywhere, Marilyn Manson T-shirt, saggy black jeans with a belt chain, black eyeliner… You’re trying way too hard, buddy, I thought as I took the CD from him and scanned it. It was a White Zombie album – of course…

“Hanson at the Kentucky Theater…” Ryan continued. “Hey, did you know that Bob Dylan was going to play at Applebee’s park?”

I stopped cold, frozen in place. The goth guy gave me an odd look, but I ignored him. “What?” I squeaked.

“Dylan at the ballpark. That should be a cool show, I bet he--”

“No, no,” I interrupted. “Before that. Who’s at the Kentucky Theater?”

“Hanson.” Ryan peered at me from around the paper. I could only imagine how my face must have looked. “You okay, Allison?”

“Fine,” I whispered. I ripped off the credit card receipt and practically threw it at the boy. “Sign this, please,” I mumbled. He signed it, rolling his eyes as he handed it back. I shoved the bag at him and he thankfully left.

“You sure? You look a little sick…” He put the paper down and started to get up.

Sick? No, not quite… I waved him off. “Oh, I’m fine. I’m just… thirsty. Really thirsty. Maybe I should go on my break now. Get something to drink.” Get some valium. Calm myself down…

“Oh, well, yeah. You haven’t had your break yet. Go ahead. Do you need anything? Tracy’s stopping by later, I could have her bring you some medicine, or something…”

“No,” I said. I had to get out of there before I had a panic attack. “No, I’ll be okay. I’ll just… grab a drink, go lay down for a minute. Okay? I’ll be back in fifteen.”

“If you’re sure…”

“I’m sure.” With that said, I snatched up the newspaper and managed to make it back to the break room, where I immediately called Louise. If she couldn’t calm me down, nothing would. As soon as she answered, I began screeching into the phone. I wasn’t even sure if what I was saying made any sense, but it didn’t matter, because Louise caught the most important words – Hanson, tour, Kentucky Theater.

Louise sounded very smug as she replied. “Well, Alley Kat, looks like your patience is paying off. We’re gonna go to that show.”

“We are?”

Of course we are, dimwit! It’s a small venue! Steve has connections! This is your chance!”

“Oh, my God,” I whispered. “Why are they coming here? They’ve never come here, Taylor said so…Oh, my God…”

“Why? It’s fate, Alley,” Louise said. I could hear the mischief in her voice. She was probably getting a grand kick out of it all. “Rearing its ugly head again. It brought him to you the first time, it’ll bring him back.”

Bring him back… “I need to go,” I said faintly. “My break’s over and I think I’m close to passing out.”

MAY

In less than a week, I would be seeing Taylor again. I would see that tall, thin body, that long blond hair, those hypnotizing blue eyes. I’d waited nearly a year for this, so you would think I’d be excited and eager for it to happen. I wasn’t.

So much could happen. So much could go wrong. What if he didn’t remember? I’d be crushed. Not just disappointed, not just depressed; absolutely crushed, smashed, broken. I’d fallen hard for Taylor – really fallen for him, not just some cheap facsimile of love. I knew him inside and out, every fault and every quirk… and I adored it all. My hope had been firmly and steadily kindled by Louise all year long – he will remember, he loves you, you’ll live happily ever after… and I’d eagerly accepted her words, because they made me feel better. But if that hope completely burned out… I would be a wreck.

Or, what if he did remember… but had changed? He could decide he didn’t love me – maybe he’d turned into a different person, or maybe time apart had made him realize he’d made a mistake. I’d brought that point up a time or two, and it was always met with an immediate, forceful rebuttal by Louise. It was as if she couldn’t even believe I could think it. I couldn’t quite understand her zealous confidence. Life was unpredictable… like I said, so much could go wrong.

I was sitting in the living room, alone. Louise was out somewhere, even Chester was nowhere to be seen. The TV was off, the house was silent. Just me and my thoughts. My crazy, Taylor-centric thoughts… I was going to go insane, thinking about him. And I still had a week to go…

“AAAAAAHHHHH!” I shouted, breaking the silence, and thankfully, my concentration. I glared up at the ceiling. This is all your doing, isn’t it? My life has become like some weird, fucked-up soap opera… I hope you’re entertained by all this. Sighing with frustration, I forced myself up off the couch. I needed to get up, to move around; find something else to think about. I went into the kitchen and immediately started digging through the pantry.

Louise finally came home a little later, to discover me sitting at the kitchen table, devouring an entire box of Goldfish crackers. She sat down across from me, grinning from ear to ear. I stared back, my mouth full of the crackers, chewing slowly. “Hello,” I mumbled around a mouthful of food.

“Just how much do you love me?” she asked, still grinning maniacally.

I swallowed, licked my lips, and took a long drink of soda. “Hmmm… after yelling at me yesterday for drinking the last Ale8, and dragging me to that horrible chick flick a few weeks ago, and forcing me to get a job in the mall, in a fucking music store, of all places… your stock’s gone down, Louise.” I laughed.

She sniffed at that, but the mirth was still in her eyes. “Well. I’d say it’s about to skyrocket.”

“And why is that? Did you bring me some Twinkies? A cake? Oooh, is it a cake?!”

She rolled her eyes. “No.”

“Well, what is it?”

“I spoke to Steve just a minute ago--” Uh-oh. The last time I’d heard that phrase, I’d ended up at FYE. I narrowed my eyes, realizing that my heart was beginning to pound a little faster. “—and, as you know, he used to work at the station…”

“Yes…”

“And he told me today that the guys are doing a an autograph signing, or meet and greet, whatever they’re called, before the show.”

I jammed my hand back into the box of crackers and grabbed a handful. “Yes? I knew that already. You have to have passes, and they’ve already handed them all out.” Not to mention that the thought of being face-to-face with the real Taylor in any sort of situation was enough to make me feel queasy.

“Not all of them. It pays to have connections, Alley Kat.”

I halted, my hand still in the box. “What?” I squeaked.

She laughed gleefully. “Steve called in a favor to the guy at the station. They’re gonna let us go.” She leaned in closer, smirking. “You’re gonna see him in person again, Alley.”

“Oh, my God.” How many times had I said that in the past month? It was like a reflex, whenever Taylor was mentioned. I stared at the table.

“Well, aren’t you happy!? You should be ecstatic! You’re going to see him again, and jog his memory, and the rest will be history! You’ll date for awhile, get married, have cute little towheaded babies…”

While she continued predicting my sunny, perfect future, I stuffed more crackers in my mouth. I wasn’t even hungry, it was just comforting to be chewing on something. “I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself there, Louise.”

I think you’re underestimating him.”

Underestimate Taylor? Never. I was just smart enough to try and set my expectations low. That way, when it all went wrong, as all things tended to do in my life, maybe I wouldn’t be quite so disappointed… I didn’t reply to her, instead choosing to stare off into space. This was bad. I was already a nervous wreck, and that was when I thought I’d just be going to the concert… now I had a whole week to imagine the various ways our reunion could play out. So much for doing well in my summer class, I thought sourly. I might as well not go at all next week; my mind is going to be elsewhere…

 

“Come on,” Louise said, interrupting my whirling thoughts.

“What? Where are we going?”

“Shopping. We’re finding you something cute to wear.”

“Cute?” I repeated. Shopping? No… I needed time to chill out, to calm down. “Such as?”

She eyed me slyly, grabbing my arm and dragging me up from the table. “Something that shows off your shoulders. Come on!”

She was chattering away excitedly as she dragged me out to the car. It was like we were in high school again, getting ready for the prom or something... not planning for the event that would make or break my life. But I stopped listening to her after a few minutes, because the same four words kept spinning through my head: Taylor. In person. Again.

Oh, my God.