Chapter 63: In the Waiting Line

 

June 1

 

I knew I should have eaten something before we came. As if my hands weren’t shaking bad enough… I was sure that I looked like I had Parkinson’s, or something. My stomach was growling, my head was pounding, and I was trembling like a leaf in a monsoon.

 

“Louise,” I whispered. “I don’t think I can do this.”

 

Her hand gripped my arm, like a vise, probably in an effort to keep me from running away. We were standing outside the Kentucky Theater, lined up to go inside. It was humid and overcast, and I was about to have a nervous breakdown. Louise, however, was as cool, calm, and collected as one could get. Though I couldn’t see behind her dark shades, I knew she was glaring at me.

 

She leaned in close. “You can do this, and you will, if I have to drag you in there myself.”

 

“I know,” I mumbled. “Believe me, I know…” I craned my neck, trying to see past the long line of girls who were cluttering the sidewalk. We were among the last in line – a fact that really bothered me. I wanted to be up front, to go ahead and get it over with before my heart gave out and I collapsed on the concrete. Louise, however, had taken our position as a good sign. “Save the best for last,” she’d joked with me. Unfortunately I was decidedly not in a joking mood.

 

“We’ll be out here forever, and we’re gonna get rained on, and then I’m going to look like shit,” I’d grumbled in response. She had made some smartass comment about how he’d seen me looking like shit plenty of times and how it never seemed to bother him before, which resulted in us not talking to each other for a good twenty minutes. Luckily, Steve had returned from the vending machine, giving us both Ale8s to soothe our frazzled nerves, and after terse apologies, we began talking again.

 

“I can’t believe I’m here,” Steve sighed. “Remind me again, Louise?” I gave him a sympathetic look. I felt sorry for the guy, really. Louise had dragged him along because, quote, “We might need him for something.” I hadn’t quite figured out what we might have needed him for, other than a soda gopher, but I hadn’t protested. Not when she was as fired up as she’d been all week. Steve and I both knew our limits.

 

“Because you love me, Steven. That’s why.” She grinned at him, wrapping one arm around his waist and kissing his cheek. He rolled his eyes and grumbled something under his breath.

 

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m glad you’re here, too,” I said to him. “So when I pass out, you can be the only sane one left who can call a paramedic.”

 

He snorted. “You girls are killing me. First, you make me talk to Randy at the station and get you these passes. Do you know how much shit I got for that? Then, you make me actually come with you, which is even worse. And now, you’re both acting like a bunch of thirteen-year-olds. What gives? When did you two become such big Hanson fans, anyway? Especially you, Allison. What happened to your good taste in music? Hendrix is probably rolling over in his grave right now…”

 

“Steve,” Louise said sharply. “Don’t make fun. This is very important.”

 

“Why? Are you wanting fashion advice, or tips on haircuts or something from these guys? I’m at a loss here, Louise… I’ve just been doing what I’ve been told. I have no idea what’s going on.”

 

“Yes, and you just keep doing what you’re told. Besides, you owe me for making me go to that horrible movie last week…”

 

They continued to argue for several minutes, and so I turned around and ignored them. In front of me, about thirty or so girls were lined up. Everyone was sequestered in little cliques, chattering away excitedly. Several were checking their makeup, brushing their hair. All of them were so attractive, so tan, so curvy and pretty. I felt gawky, awkward, and pale in my jeans and halter top…

 

“I shouldn’t have worn this,” I said suddenly. “Why did you make me wear this? I look ridiculous.”

 

“You look adorable, Alley. That’s so cute on you!” Louise insisted. She poked Steve, and he nodded somberly.

 

“Yeah, cute,” he said.

 

I gave him a sour look. I leaned closer to her, where he couldn’t hear. “I don’t think ‘cute’ is going to cut it, Louise. Look at the rest of these girls! They’re like, freaking models or something… I can’t compete with this!”

 

She sighed loudly, as one might do when dealing with an impetuous child. Which, in a way, wasn’t too far from the truth. “That’s the thing, Al! You don’t have to compete. You’ve already won! He just needs a little reminder…”

 

She trailed off as the girls in front of us jumped up excitedly and began squealing. The line is moving, I realized. Oh, my God… I gripped the bottle tightly in my hand, grateful that I had something to hold onto. I felt a long, slim arm slide around my waist.

 

“Hey,” she murmured, squeezing me. “You’re gonna be okay.”

 

“That remains to be seen.” I leaned against her for support. “Louise… I might pass out. I’m serious. I’ve felt so sick, I haven’t been able to eat anything for like two days, and now I’m consuming a large amount of caffeine. It’s not gonna be pretty.” From the corner of my eye, I noticed the girl in front of us giving me an odd look. She probably thought I was psychotic.

 

She stared at me. “Two days?! You told me you had something this morning!”

 

“I lied. I didn’t want you to yell at me.”

 

“Jesus Christ, child… you’ve never gone two hours without eating, much less two days… no wonder you’re such a wreck…”

 

“Thanks,” I mumbled. We inched forward as the line moved. As I understood it, they were taking people in to meet the guys in groups of five or six. I surveyed the girls directly in front of us and behind. Gorgeous and tan and scantily clad, all of them. It didn’t matter who we went in with, I would definitely be the oddball.

 

“You need to eat something! You want Steve to run and get you something real quick? There’s that barbecue place just down the street…”

 

“No,” I said quickly, visions of me covered in orangy-red sauce dancing through my head. Me plus wild nerves plus barbecue? Bad combination. “No. I’m not hungry.”

 

What? Are you sure?”

 

“Sure,” I insisted. We moved forward a few more feet. I tried to think of calming things, like furry puppies, or golden sunsets, or waterfalls rushing over rocks. It didn’t quite work, but it was a little distracting. Louise began digging around in her purse, and quickly pulled something out and shoved it in my palm. A plain white envelope escaped from her purse and fluttered to the ground, and I watched it, mesmerized.

 

“Here, eat this. At least it’ll keep you from going into diabetic shock, or something,” she said, as she bent down to retrieve the envelope. I held the mint in my hand, watching her.

 

“What’s that?” I asked, bewildered. “Did you get him a card?” The thought nearly made me laugh out loud. 

 

She looked at me sharply and stuffed the envelope back in her purse. “It’s nothing. Eat that!”

 

I held up my bottle of soda pointedly. “Louise, this is pure sugar… and caffeine. I don’t think a mint is going to do any good now…”

 

“Well, eat it to sweeten your breath, then. You might need it…” She raised an eyebrow at me, and my anxiety came rushing back full force. I managed to get the mint unwrapped and tossed it in my mouth, crunching on it loudly.

 

I grabbed her hand. “Louie,” I whispered, using the nickname I reserved for special occasions, “I just want you to know… if I die when we get in there, you can have all my stuff. You’ve been a good friend and roommate, and I appreciate everything you’ve done for me…”

 

“Would you quit being so melodramatic?” We moved again, and she had to forcibly push me forward in the line. The girls in front of us were now whispering amongst themselves – probably talking about the delusional, crazy-looking blond who was currently being propped up by her dark-haired friend.

 

“I’m not being dramatic. I mean that. You’ve done so much for me. You didn’t have to do this.” I sucked in my breath, lowering my voice. “You really didn’t have to do this…”

 

“I know I didn’t,” she said simply. Forward again. And again… suddenly, we were right by the door. Where did the time go? How did we get up here so quick? I wrapped my arms tightly around me, careful not to spill my drink.

 

“Okay, guys, you’re up next,” I heard someone say. The man’s voice sounded faint and echo-like, as if he was far, far away. Oh, my God…

 

“This is it,” Louise whispered in my ear. “You ready?”

 

******

 

If I’d thought seeing him on television was bad for my nerves, it was nothing compared to seeing him just before my eyes.

 

I had walked in the door and halted in my tracks. I had imagined this, prepared what I would say and do, for the past week. However, being in that room, seeing his perfectly coiffed hair and blue eyes, made all of that fly out the window. I felt my breath hitch in my throat, and I was paralyzed. Louise had placed her hands against my back and carefully pushed me forward until I managed a few lurching steps. We were now just a matter of feet away, trailing behind the three girls in front of us. Steve, who was embarrassed at having been dragged along to this estrogenfest, opted to stay by the door, his arms crossed firmly over his chest. I noticed, in the corner of my eye, a tall, sandy-haired man go over and start speaking to him. I assumed it was the radio guy, as Steve’s eyes lit up and they chatted animatedly. He was probably just glad to be in the presence of another male again.

 

The boys were seated at a table, over against the far wall. Taylor was first in the line, then Isaac, then an empty chair. Zac was nowhere to be seen, though there was a water bottle on the table in his space… I wondered at that, briefly, but only for a millisecond, because my mind, my entire being was focused on Taylor. I stopped again, just before their table, and simply stared. The girls in front of us went down the line, shaking their hands, squealing and declaring their love for the guys, while I stood straight and still as a statue.

 

He was, simply put, beautiful, even more so than I remembered. The last I’d really seen of him was when they were on Leno, when he had looked so thin, so wan and nervous. Any trace of that was gone now. His formerly pale skin had a slight tan, a healthy glow, which accented the nearly platinum highlights in his long, shaggy hair. And as far as his body… while he’d been with me, he’d been thin, but not skeletal, with just a hint of muscle definition. On Leno, he’d been skinny, verging on bony. But apparently he had been eating his Wheaties, or drinking some of that Oklahoma water laced with steroids, or maybe just putting in some serious hours at the gym, because... damn. His shoulders and chest seemed broader, his arms slightly bigger underneath his tight t-shirt. He wasn’t huge or stacked, just a little… bigger. Stronger. It was hard to miss, with that snug shirt leaving little to the imagination…

 

“Damn,” I heard Louise whisper, echoing my sentiments. Surprise was evident in her voice. “Has he been working out, or what?” I didn’t answer. I didn’t really feel the need to. “But what’s with the scarf? It’s fucking June, for Chrissake…”

 

That actually brought a smile to my face, the first of the day. The girls ahead of us moved on down the line from Taylor, leaving a wide gap in front of me. I was next. I was supposed to step forward, stand right in front of him. Give him a CD to sign, or shake his hand, or something. But instead, I stood still. I just observed him, drinking in his presence. I didn’t want to move on; for the moment, I was perfectly happy just watching him from not-so-afar.

 

“Move it along, girls,” a deep male voice murmured, and I knew without looking that it must be the guys’ friend, the one with a girl’s name. Ashton, or Ashley, something like that. I felt like protesting – I’m not ready! This is the biggest moment of my life, I can’t breathe, you might want to go ahead and call 911 – but once I felt Louise’s hands against my back again, simultaneously comforting me and pushing me, I found I was unable to speak. Before I realized what was going on, before I could even attempt to get my thoughts in some sort of coherent order, I was in front of the table. In front of him.

 

I’ve never been one to be truly at a loss for words. For better or worse, my big mouth has routinely gotten me in trouble time after time, in situations where any normal person wouldn’t (or couldn’t) respond. Even the first time I’d really seen Taylor – when I had awakened to find him standing in my bedroom – I hadn’t been speechless (actually, I’d shot off some sarcastic remarks and then accused him of being a vampire, if memory serves). As I stood stock-still, facing him, my mouth slightly agape, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I had no idea what to say. All my preparation, the carefully crafted speech I’d been ready to give to him, had disappeared. I was reduced to mush… just another nameless, run-of-the-mill speechless fangirl, eager to have the rare opportunity to shake Taylor Hanson’s hand for a second or two.

 

He looked up at me, finally, and I got my first glimpse of those shocking blue eyes… God, it seemed forever ago since I’d last looked into them. So long since we had been lying on my couch, bodies pressed together… his hand splayed across my cheek, fingers running gently through my hair. His eyes had been bright and bold, then – sultry, passionate, yet full of love and adoration. Now, as I looked into them, they seemed darker, more somber. Though he appeared to be fully recovered, happy and healthy on the outside, I could tell, with just a glance, that all was not completely well within him. The thought saddened me; burned me to the core. I understood then why Louise had been so insistent and confident all year long… he did need me, as much as I needed him.

 

He smiled, familiar lines forming on his face around his eyes and mouth. It wasn’t a real smile, though, at least, not like the real ones I had seen before. It was a careful, pleasant, how-do-you-do sort of expression, nothing like the huge, silly grins and boisterous laughter I’d grown accustomed to. It was the sort of smile that had been constructed for occasions such as this. Reserved for girls he’d never met; that he’d never meet again. I sucked in a deep breath, horrified when I felt my lower lip start to tremble.

 

“Hello,” he said smoothly. “How are you?”

 

Such a plain, bland question. And wasn’t the answer completely obvious to him? I was a wreck. I gave a stupid sort of half-smile and shrugged – still speechless. I didn’t yet trust my vocal cords. I felt Louise poke me, but I ignored her.

 

He nodded, still smiling, obviously used to dealing with flighty, lovestruck girls such as myself. Years of practice, I supposed. “Well, I’m glad you came out to the show. We hope you enjoy it.” He paused then, seeming a little confused at my lack of response. He leaned forward, speaking a little more softly. “Are you nervous?”

 

I nearly laughed – another appropriate question. “You could say that,” I said softly. I felt my lips curve up around the edges at the irony of that understatement.

 

He grinned at me then – wide and brilliant – and I felt my heart leap. There was that smile I remembered. I couldn’t stop myself from grinning back – he was just so irresistible. “Don’t be,” he said, laughing. “We’re just normal guys.”

 

I know, Taylor. I know that better than anyone. “I know.”

 

“Well, then, why are you so nervous?” he teased. I looked down, still smiling, and shrugged. How in the world could I explain to him the reason for my anxiety? What could I possibly say, without sounding like a complete freak, to make him remember that we loved each other? Before I could formulate some sort of reply, their dark-haired, girly-named friend came up and hinted to the guys, loudly, that they needed to wrap things up.

 

Taylor shrugged at me apologetically. “Sorry. So, well, do you have anything you want me to sign, or something?”

 

I felt panic rising in my chest – it wasn’t working! My time with him was almost up – and nothing. He was supposed to see me, hear my voice and remember, dammit! Louise had promised me…

 

“You don’t remember me, do you?” I asked slowly, my voice incredibly soft and weak. It was a whisper of defeat, of desperation. I wasn’t sure where the question came from. It wasn’t even original, he probably heard it all the time.

 

He squinted his eyes, as if studying my face. I had to look away, staring at the corner of the table. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely. “No, I don’t. Where did we meet?”

 

Where did we meet? In my bedroom, Taylor. I let out the breath I’d been holding, hugging my arms tightly against myself, still clutching my soda bottle in my left hand. I scrunched my eyes closed tightly, forcing back the tears that threatened to surface. When I opened them, I saw their friend standing behind the table, giving me a very pointed look. My time was up. He nudged Taylor, another hint to keep things moving.

 

Taylor gave me one more heartbreaking smile and held out his hand.  “Well, it was very nice to meet you…” he said, his hand poised in front of him like a politician. I looked at it hesitantly, before slowly unhugging myself and enveloping my hand in his. His hands weren’t as smooth as they had been before, I could feel small calluses from playing the guitar on his fingertips. I gripped it tightly, not wanting to let go. I was observing how our hands fit together so perfectly when I felt his fingers suddenly unclasp. He jerked his hand out of mine, causing me to jump back slightly, startled. Horrified, I mentally berated myself. You grabbed him too hard. He thinks you’re some obsessed, mute freak… He looked down at the table. “Thanks for coming,” he said hoarsely, and immediately turned his attention to Louise, who was next in line, while I was left standing there, completely and utterly broken.

 

So that was it? No shocked and delighted look of recognition? No undying declaration of love? No grabbing me and passionately kissing me while exclaiming how much he’d missed my presence? There had been nothing. Not so much as a spark behind the darkened blue of his eyes. If anything, he’d seemed a little disgusted, if the way he’d forcibly removed his hand from mine was any indication. I couldn’t believe it. I had tried to prepare myself for a worst-case scenario, but it hadn’t worked. Not at all…

 

“Hey, what’s up?” I heard a deep voice say, right beside me. I managed to break away from looking at Taylor to see Isaac, looking at me expectantly. I shuffled slowly down the line, accepting Isaac’s hand when he offered it. I couldn’t help but sneak glances over at Taylor, who was talking quietly to Louise, seeming even more subdued than before we’d come up to the table. I was sure Isaac thought I was rude, but I just couldn’t help myself. The more I looked at him, the worse I felt. I realized, with some horror, that my hands had started shaking again. This can’t be how it ends… not after all this time…

 

“Hey, you look familiar,” Isaac said suddenly, giving me a careful, searching look. “Have you been to one of these before?”

 

I shook my head, still gazing at Taylor. “No,” I said softly, absentmindedly. Do I tell him where we’ve met? Do I tell him that I was in Tulsa and gave him that painting? Oh, what did it matter? They had probably just thrown that painting away as soon as they got home, or maybe even sold it or something. Isaac was talking again, making more polite conversation, but I didn’t hear him. I drew my arms close to my chest, staring down at my soda bottle. I wanted to look at Taylor again, but I couldn’t… because the tears I’d managed to hold in all day, that I’d managed to hold in all year, were about to break through. It was useless. He didn’t remember me. Surely, surely if God had intended him to remember, then he would have recognized me as we spoke. I mean, what else could I do? It wasn’t like I had any real proof of his existence in my life…

 

 I felt a small, choked gasp escape from my lungs. I turned away from Isaac, lowering my head, realizing I was about to make a huge scene. I have to get out of here… I have to get out of here…

 

“Hey, miss, are you okay? You look a little sick…” I felt Isaac’s hand on my arm, but I pulled away. With an embarrassingly loud sniffle, I began jetting towards the door before I lost all control. I kept my line of vision on the tile just in front of my feet, because I knew if I looked anyone in the eye, I was going to lose it.

 

“Allison!” I heard Louise shout. I ignored her. I quickened my steps, hastening to the door. Please, just get me out of here… let this all be over with… let me move on with my life… I was close to reaching that goal – close to the door, close to escaping, when I collided head-on with something huge and rock-hard. Zac, returning from wherever he’d been.

 

It happened before I could figure out what was going on. I let out a sort of half-shriek and stumbled backwards. At some point my fingers had unfurled from the bottle and it had dropped to the ground, shattering into hundreds of pieces. But not before half the contents had spilled all down the front of Zac’s outfit… oh, shit. I heard the other girls in the room, the ones who’d already had their turn, gasp in horror.

 

“What the fuck?!” he shouted, looking down at his soaked t-shirt and suede jeans. Suede jeans…oh, shit! I gaped in horror at his ruined outfit, speechless once again. “Shit! Why don’t you watch where you’re going next time?” He looked up, glaring at me.

 

“I…. Oh, my God… I’m so sorry… I’m so sorry…” This was, by far, the worst day of my life. I dimly heard Isaac yelling at Zac to calm down as I dashed out the door. Someone else yelled my name: Steve, who I was sure was completely flabbergasted by this sudden turn of events. I paid no heed to any of it – I had to get out of there.

 

Louise had driven, so I had no way to escape. I didn’t know what to do, so I stood on the sidewalk, looking around frantically. Which way do I go? Where do I go? What do I do? Then I noticed a familiar yellow-and-black car stopped at the closest intersection. YELLOW CAB CO. was printed on the side.

 

I ran towards it, grabbing the door open and flinging myself inside. The startled cabbie turned around, but I cut him off before he could speak. “825 Reynolds,” I said shakily. “And please, please hurry.”

 

*****

 

I had been raised, all my life, to be a strong person. First by my father, and for most of my teenage years, from Louise’s mother, Ellen. I’d come to appreciate the importance of doing things on your own. That you needed to learn to live by yourself, pay your own bills, get a great job, do your own laundry, cook for yourself. Well, though I have failed pretty miserably at that last one, I used to feel, overall, that I had done that. That I was an independent, strong young woman who could do what she wanted, live by herself, and sure as hell didn’t need a man.

 

Obviously, I’d failed miserably at that, too. I did need a man; one in particular. But what was so horrible about it was that I finally realized that I would never have him. The thought made me want to cry huge, ridiculous baby tears, the kind that leave you swollen-faced and gasping for breath, but I couldn’t even do that. I wanted that release – but it was like it was stuck, just behind my eyes, building up. Giving me one hell of a headache.

 

I was lying on my stomach on my couch, face buried in my arms. I felt horrible. I’d never felt so sick, so sad, so broken before. I needed to think about something else, but I couldn’t. I needed to stop replaying the last few hours in my mind, but I couldn’t. I was exhausted, physically unable to move. Louise hadn’t returned home yet, a fact for which I was grateful. I didn’t know if I could deal with her again anytime soon. She would probably be furious.

 

But she was there, she saw what happened. And even she has to understand now that it’s not meant to be. There’s nothing she can possibly say to justify his behavior today. It’s over. Time to get on with my life… I heard a loud mewing, and then felt the pressure of four tiny little feet on my back. Chester. He paced in a circle for a moment before curling up on my back. This is what I’ve been reduced to… a bed for a cat.

 

“You still love me, don’t you,” I mumbled into the cushion. “You won’t ever disappear on me. You won’t ever break my heart.” No response except purring. I took that as a yes.

 

Our house phone rang shrilly. I groaned loudly, but didn’t move. I was sure it was Louise, and so I wasn’t about to answer it. I sat and listened to it ring five times, until the machine picked up. Whoever it was didn’t leave a message. I sighed, closing my eyes.

 

Then my cell phone rang. Once again, I refused to get up and answer it. But I didn’t yet have voicemail on my cell, due to a long drawn-out battle with Cingular, and so it kept ringing, and ringing… angry, I leapt up off the couch, sending Chester sprawling into the floor. Just leave me alone! Just fucking leave me alone!

 

I ran into the hall, where my purse was on the steps that led to our study. Rather than take the time to rummage through it, I dumped the entire contents of the purse into the floor, looking for the phone. It clattered loudly as it hit the ground. I picked it up, intending to turn it off, when I noticed the name on Caller ID – WORK-FYE. I shouldn’t have answered it – but I had been so surprised that it wasn’t Louise that I did it without thinking.

 

“Hello?” I said dully.

 

“Allison? Allison, oh good, we caught you.” It was my boss, Mark. I felt my spirits sink, knowing that my day was somehow, somehow going to get even worse. “Listen, I know you had the day off, I know you worked both days last weekend, but we need a huge favor.”

 

“I really don’t feel--”

 

“Stephanie called in sick – she’s in the hospital, kidneystones, or something. Nothing terribly serious, but she won’t be making it today. We’ve tried calling everyone, but no one is home. And I would stay, but I have a flight to catch at six for that conference out in San Francisco. We have to have someone to help close the store tonight, there has to be someone there while the cashier counts up the money--”

 

“This really isn’t a good time--”

 

“—and so I hate to ask this, I do – but we’re desperate here. I’ll make it up to you – you can have all next week off, if you want, I’ll redo the schedule – but we need you there tonight.”

 

“I don’t feel well,” I whispered.

 

“It’s just a few hours. Besides, Ryan is here, and he’ll make you feel better. I’m not even asking you to do anything tonight – no inventory, no displays, nothing – just show up and be that extra person there. I could get in serious trouble if some of the bigwigs found out I had just one guy do the count-up at the end of the night…”

 

“But--” I felt my resolve slowly slipping. Why, God, why?

 

“So you’re coming?” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. I gave serious consideration to another alternative, which would be to curse him out and slam the phone down, but decided against it. I simply didn’t have the energy or resolve to fight.

 

“Fine,” I said softly. “I’ll be there in a minute.” I clicked off the phone, and tossed it aside, not waiting to hear his response. I grabbed my keys from where they’d been dumped in the floor, without even bothering to pick up the mess I’d made. I slowly headed out the door, pulling my wild hair into a messy ponytail, still dressed in the same Ale8-stained outfit I’d worn to the Meet & Greet, and knowing my makeup probably looked like roadkill. But by that point, I was beyond caring.

 

*****

 

“Kiddo! You made it! Listen, I’m sorry about this. He called everyone and you were the only one he could get ahold of. Listen, I’ll make it up to you. Tracy and I are running out to Tolly-Ho after work, you can come with us, and I’ll buy you a Smirnoff or something. How does that—Jesus, Allison, are you okay?”

 

I walked into the store, staring at the ground and dragging my feet. Ryan had begun his little speech immediately upon seeing me enter, and didn’t stop until I looked up and he noticed my face. In response to his question, I simply shook my head.

 

“You look terrible… what happened? What’s wrong?”

 

I shrugged, biting my lower lip. My head was pounding… I brushed past him, heading toward the breakroom. There was a snack machine back there, and I needed to eat something before I passed out. I could feel his eyes on my back as I retreated. Once I made it to the back, I fished in my pocket for some quarters. I studied the snack machine and decided I wanted a Nutty Buddy. I slid the coins in the slot and pressed the appropriate button. Nothing. I pushed again. Still nothing. I hit the ‘coin return’ button. And… nothing.

 

“I don’t fucking believe this,” I mumbled. Why didn’t I just go throw myself off the nearest bridge or something? Save God the trouble of tormenting me. I angrily kicked the machine and trudged back out into the store. I headed towards the front, where the cash register was. Passing the Pop/Rock section on the way. I tried not to look, I really did – but it was like a magnet, pulling my gaze towards it. I looked at their new EP, sitting on the shelf, in the ‘featured artist’ slot… and I felt those big baby tears that had been suppressed start to well up.

 

“I wish I’d never met you,” I whispered, staring at Taylor’s handsome face that adorned the cover. I covered my mouth, hiccupping with unspent tears. I closed my eyes, feeling them begin to burn. I lowered my head, leaning against a rack of movies for support.

 

“Allison!” Ryan was walking towards me. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

 

I lost it then, at his fatherly behavior. I started sobbing; wailing, letting out all my frustrations from the past year. The customers were staring at me, but I didn’t care. I sank down into the floor, buried my face in my hands, and cried like I’d never cried before. I was sure they could probably hear me in every nearby store. Ryan silently bent down next to me and hugged me. “Everything,” I wept. “Everything in my life is wrong. Just when I think things can’t get any worse, they do.” I stopped and caught my breath, furiously wiping at my eyes. “I wish I’d never met him,” I whispered again before I could stop myself. I knew I didn’t really mean it.

 

“Him? Who?” Ryan looked confused, but then I saw his eyes widen a bit in understanding. “The guy? James? No, Jordan. Jordan?”

 

I sighed shakily. “Yes…”

 

“What happened?”

 

I wiped my messy face with my palm. “I just saw him. And I have to say I don’t think there’s any hope of a future with us.” I stumbled on the words. “Plus I got called in to this shithole, and Louise is probably mad at me, and I haven’t eaten anything in two days, and all I wanted was a fucking Nutty Buddy and the goddamn machine took the last of my money!” I wailed.

 

“Awwww…” He squeezed my arm. “You poor thing. I think you should go home. Screw Mark.”

 

I shook my head. “I can cry here just as well as at home,” I wheezed between sobs.

 

“Well, at least at home, it’s, um, in private…”

 

“No.” I sniffled loudly, sounding like foghorn. “Louise is probably back home. And I don’t think I can handle her right now.”

 

He sighed, standing and offering me a hand up. I accepted it, unsteadily rising to my feet. “You really haven’t eaten in two days?” he asked. I shook my head. “Well, why don’t you run to the back and um, clean yourself up a little… and I’ll run down to the food court and get you something. Okay?”

 

I managed to crack a smile then – being a guy, of course he had latched on to the one problem of mine he could solve – food. “Okay,” I said softly.

 

*****

 

Two chicken sandwiches, a box of tater tots, three apple pies, and two Cokes later, I was sitting at the register with Ryan beside me. He had been trying valiantly to cheer me up for the past three hours, first by making repeated trips to the food court, and then by cracking jokes. It was a failure, but I had to give him credit for trying. And for wisely not bringing up “Jordan” again.

 

“Sure you don’t want anything else?” he teased. “I think there’s some crumbs still in the bottom of the bag…”

 

I sniffed. My sinuses felt horribly clogged. “No.” I wiped my greasy hands on a napkin and attempted a lame joke. “I don’t want to spoil my appetite for supper.”

 

He laughed, gathering up my trash and throwing it away. We sat silently at the counter for awhile. There were no customers in the store – actually, there hadn’t been any for hours. I was pretty sure I had scared them all off.

 

“What time is Tracy getting here?” I asked, just to break the silence.

 

“Well, any minute, I guess. She called a little bit ago and said that she was stuck downtown… apparently they had police rerouting traffic for something.”

 

I cringed inwardly. “A concert,” I mumbled.

 

“Concert?” he asked. “I doubt it. She said there were sirens and everything. Probably an accident or something.”

 

“Oh,” I said. I curled my arms around me, leaning over. It was 8:30 – just another half-hour… and then what? Ryan had invited me out to eat with them, and I planned on going if only to procrastinate going home.  But eventually I would have to return… and Louise would want to talk, and I would start crying again. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

 

“You know what?” Ryan asked. “Why don’t we just close up now?”

 

“What?”

 

“There hasn’t been anyone in here for, like, three hours. You shouldn’t have to be here, and I’m just tired of being here. I’ll call Tracy and have her go ahead to the restaurant and get us a table. We’ll just put the cage down and count up the money and get the hell out of here.”

 

It was completely wrong, somewhat unethical, and would have sent our boss into conniptions. So of course I agreed. While he went into the back to start checking the day’s sales, I went up front and pulled the metal “cage” door down to indicate we were closed. Several people walking by gave me strange looks. I ignored them. After making sure the door was firmly locked down, I retreated into the back, where Ryan was in the small office at the computer.

 

I sat across from him and watched as he counted up all the cash and went through the checks. “Can you get one of those bags for me?” he asked. I obliged, handing him the cash bags that we were supposed to put the money in before it went in the safe – they were clear, tough plastic, and once they were sealed they had to be cut open. He started tallying on the calculator, matching the money with the receipt print-out from the register. “Okay, just put this cash in the safe… almost done here…”

 

“Where’s the key?”

 

He glanced up, pursing his lips. “Shit. I left the keys out on the counter by the register.”

 

“I’ll go get them.” I got up and trudged back out into the store. I held my head high and refused to look at the racks of CDs as I passed them. I went up to the register, picking up Ryan’s keychain. I straightened up the mess on and around the counter while I was there – arranging the pens, picking up paper scraps, straightening the small displays. My back was to the main entrance, so I was startled when I heard it rattle noisily.

 

“We’re closed,” I said loudly without turning around. “Sorry.”

 

ALLISON!” I froze at the sound of that desperate, hoarse wail… My heart hammered and I could feel the blood rushing up into my head.

 

I turned, slowly, to see the source of that heart-wrenching scream. My breath hitched in my throat, rendering me unable to speak for the second time that day. I managed one staggering step forward, vaguely aware of Ryan’s keys slipping out of my hand and clinking against the tile.

 

“Oh, my God,” I whispered. It was the last thing I remembered saying before everything went black.