Chapter 64: There Are Places I Remember

Taylor

I think I’m getting too old for this.

Isaac, Zac, and I were sitting at a table in one of the side lobbies of the Kentucky Theatre. It was set apart, sort of like a waiting room, and was large and open so it didn’t feel stuffy or crowded. The line of girls who had come to proclaim their undying love for us was long… too long.  I was weary of making idle conversation; I’d felt a little funny ever since we’d arrived – simultaneously tired and excited, if that were possible. So all I really wanted to do was nap. And dream…

“OHMIGOD! You guys are like, so awesome!” squealed the girl who was currently standing in front of me. She was practically bouncing up and down, clutching a copy of Middle of Nowhere to her chest. “Can you sign this for me? My name’s Amy!”

“Sure,” I said casually, giving her mild smile. “Thanks for coming.” I repeated the same niceties for each girl who came up. Hey, how are you, thanks for coming. Sign something, and NEXT.

Zac got up and stretched, ignoring the girl who was obviously waiting on him. “Be right back,” he said casually.

I felt Isaac tense up next to me. I ignored him. I didn’t feel like getting into another row with Zac, especially in front of all these teenage girls. “Zac,” Ike said in a low voice. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to take a piss. Is that alright with you?”

I winced, noticing the girl whose album I was signing seemed taken aback. Yeah, and I bet you thought he was a sweet little thing, didn’t you? I thought wryly. I did too, at one time…

“Leave it alone, Ike,” I whispered. “Just let him go.”

Isaac cursed under his breath, but agreed. He glowered at our younger brother as he strolled out of the room. I couldn’t blame him, but I was glad that for once I wasn’t the one fighting with the boy. We continued to sign for the girls, apologizing for Zac’s leave of absence. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ashley come in. He came up to the table. “Almost done, guys. Just a few more.”

Thank God, I thought. I watched as one group filed out and another came in. I put my smile back on and started the routine again.

Three more came through before I noticed that there was a wide gap in the line. “Move it along, girls,” I heard Ashley say, and slowly a girl with long, loosely curled blond hair stood in front of me. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her, a soda bottle in her hand. Right away, she caught my eye, because she didn’t look the typical Hanson fan. She was fully clothed, for one. Her skin was pale and smooth, and her face wasn’t hidden behind a pound of makeup.  I just studied her for a moment.

She looked terrified. Normally, I would have been exasperated – we see so many girls who just freak out, just make a huge deal about meeting us, that it gets old after awhile – but there was something about the look in her eyes that made me stop.

“Hello,” I said. “How are you?”

She gave me a bizarre sort of smile and shrugged, her smooth, bare shoulders inching up slightly. Okaaayyy… I tried again. “Well, I’m glad you came out to the show. We hope you enjoy it.” She merely nodded, still not saying anything. I noticed the way her hands were wringing, clutching onto her shirt and nervously tugging at it. I wasn’t sure what compelled me to try to engage her into conversation, especially as tired as I was, but I leaned forward, speaking gently. “Are you nervous?”

The smile on her face was strange – not bad, just unusual, and for a minute she looked as if she wanted to laugh. “You could say that,” she said softly, suddenly looking very shy.

The embarrassed look on her face at admitting that was somehow so appealing to me. I couldn’t stop myself from grinning at her. “Don’t be! We’re just normal guys!” I laughed.

She gave me a gorgeous, sincere smile that I found I couldn’t look away from.  “I know,” she said, and we just looked at each other for a moment, unsure what to say next.

“Well, then, why are you so nervous?” I asked teasingly. I was aware that I was holding up the line, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see that smile again… She laughed softly, looking away from me and shrugging. Her curls cascaded over her face, obscuring my view of her, and I was shocked when I realized how badly I wanted to push the strands back behind her ear. 

Jeez, Taylor… you know you’ve gone without a girlfriend too long when you’re having thoughts like this about a fan… some girl you’ve never even met…  I heard someone clearing their throat behind me. “Sorry to rush you, but we’ve still got another group to go,” Ashley said.

I shrugged at her apologetically. “Sorry. So, well, do you have anything you want me to sign, or something?” I had noticed there was nothing in her hand but the bottle – which I found more than a little odd.

A strange, flustered look came across her face. Her mouth dropped open slightly, her head was cocked to the side. The corners of her hazel eyes turned down, giving her a saddened, dismayed expression. No! Don’t do that… I want to see that smile again… “You don’t remember me, do you?” she asked quietly, meeting my gaze directly and honestly.

Her question caught me off guard – I’d been asked that many times before, and often I did remember fans from previous shows – and it was something my brothers found rather amazing. I felt the strangest twinge at her query, and I squinted my eyes, concentrating. I didn’t remember her face – I was sure I’d never seen that beautiful smile before, I know I would have remembered that – but sitting there in front of her, I had the strangest feeling of déjà vu. Where would I have met you? I wondered. I couldn’t think of anything… although that could have been because of the tension that was beginning to build in the back of my head.

“I’m sorry,” I said sincerely, surprised that I really meant it. “No, I don’t. Where did we meet?”

Her expression – one of absolute heartbreak – shook me to the bone. I felt like apologizing again; I wanted to say something to change that dismayed, distraught look on her face. She closed her eyes, as if steeling herself. I opened my mouth to say something else, but Ashley nudged me, hinting for me to wrap it up and move on. Reluctantly, I held out my hand as she opened her eyes again.

“Well, it was very nice to meet you…” I said, realizing that she had yet to tell me her name. She studied my hand for a moment, as if confused. Slowly she brought her hand out and clasped it with mine.

Some of my relatives used to live on a farm, in this very state, actually – we had visited them occasionally when we were younger, but not often, as the distance was too much to make them regular. They had kept a number of typical barnyard animals, including a few cows, a pony, some chickens, and one very wild rooster who used to enjoy chasing me around the yard and flogging me. Since my aunt and uncle didn’t have a lot of money, they didn’t have wooden fences to pen their animals in – they had electric fences. And I had made the mistake once, and only once, of grabbing the wire, just to see what it felt like.

As she enclosed her petite, smooth hand with mine, I felt a jolt, a spine-shattering shock, similar to what I’d felt the day I grabbed the fence. Her skin felt divine – soft and silky, unhardened by work or toil, and she had a sure, steady grip. I’d felt skin like that before… just not in reality, only in my crazy, unexplainable dreamland. I felt my breath speed up a bit, and was horrified when I felt a dizzy, familiar feeling sweep over me. Not again… shit!

She tightened her hold on me, as if reluctant to let go, which was a sentiment I shared. But the longer we held on, the more the swimminess intensified… I was still reeling from that jolt, terrified of what it meant. I was sure I was going to collapse and have another episode. I unclasped my hand with hers and jerked it back, trying to regain my composure. I only realized a second later how rude I must have appeared – but I was unable to apologize. I could feel her eyes on me, I could feel the hurt coming from her gaze without even seeing it. All the while, my vision was blurring. I mumbled something, although I can’t remember exactly what, as I stared down at the white cloth on the table, determined to ride it out. Not this time, I thought, gritting my teeth. I’ve lasted this whole tour without freaking out, I’m not going to do it on my last night. Not in front of all these people. It took every ounce of strength I had to fight it – and I sill wasn’t entirely successful.

…Do you believe in fate, Taylor? The words popped into my head from nowhere. Just wondering

I turned to the next girl in line, her dark-haired friend. My eyes still weren’t focused, and I struggled to make it through a conversation with her. She was the last one of the group – if I could just get through her, then I could tell Ashley that I needed to go lie down for awhile. The last group of girls would be disappointed, but they would have to get over it. “Hi,” I said quietly, fighting to look normal and composed. “How are you?” As I looked at her, fragments of thoughts spun through my head. A song, oddly enough… one we’d covered a few years ago…

…Last night I held Aladdin’s lamp, and so wished that I could stay… I shook my head, trying to clear it out.

“Such originality. I’m fine, Taylor; I think the real question is, how are you?” she asked flippantly.

I started, a little taken back at her tone. The pounding in my head increased. “I’m fine,” I lied.

…Before the thing could answer me, well, someone came and took the lamp away…

“Really?”

What was with this girl? “Yes. So, thanks for coming out. Do you want me to sign something?” Best to get this one out and over with. She had a gleam in her eye I didn’t quite like. Not to mention that I was well on my way to entering a mental asylum…

Another fragment, this time just one simple sentence… Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?

“Sign something? Nah. I just came to talk, Taylor.” She leaned forward casually, putting her palms flat against the table. I stared up at her, amazed at her audacity. She had a knowing smirk on her face, her eyebrows were raised ever-so-slightly. One after another, bits and pieces of conversation, of unexplained thoughts, kept running through my head…

…I’m serious, mister. You and me are gonna have a little chat…

“Well, unfortunately, we can’t really sit and chat… there’s another group that has to come through,” I said, bewildered. I looked down at the table again, realizing I was losing the battle with my insanity. I needed to tell Isaac that I had to get out of there…

She shrugged. “They can wait.”

Damn, what was with the arrogance? I took a deep breath. “Well, it’s really not my--” Before I could finish my reply, I heard a loud, hiccup-like sound coming from my left. Isaac, who had been chatting with the mysterious blond girl, looked totally confused as she broke away from the table and began heading for the door. I stopped in mid-sentence, entranced, watching her leave. Her head was down, staring at the floor. Which is why she ended up running straight into Zac, who was finally returning from his leisurely bathroom break.

… don’t forget, there are such things as second chances…

It seemed to happen in slow motion – the impact, the soda splashing down the front of Zac’s clothes, her horrified shriek, the bottle falling and smashing to pieces.  I’d heard that shriek before… I was sure of it…

…I—I… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Oh, my God… I’m so sorry… I – I have to go clean this up…

“What the fuck?” Zac roared. His eyes were narrowed and angry as he glared at the girl. I felt my jaw set as he screamed at her. Lay off her, Zac! It was an accident! “Shit! Why don’t you watch where you’re going next time?”

“I…. Oh, my God… I’m so sorry… I’m so sorry…” Her voice cracked, and I felt as if the breath had been kicked out of me. Impossible…impossible… Her hands fluttered up to her face, covering her mouth, and suddenly she dashed from the room without another word. ‘No! Don’t go!’ I wanted to scream but I couldn’t speak or even breathe.

“Allison!” The dark-haired girl yelled, looking panicked. Allison… It was pure chaos from there on out. “Steve!” she shouted. “Go get her!”

A dark-haired guy by the door, who’d been standing with his arms crossed the entire time, looked at us, startled. The girl in front of me must have given him a pretty convincing look, because he hesitated for only a moment before loping out the door after the blond. Isaac, meanwhile, had stood up and walked around the table, yelling at Zac for being an asshole. Ashley was trying to calm them both down, acting as a referee, which would have been hilarious had I not been so out of it. Two security guards were leading the fans out to get them away from the mess. I buried my face in my hands, trembling. Everyone shouting, too much going on… and all I could hear was her voice – the voice from my dreams...

…I love you… Oh, God, I love you so much…

 

“And I love you,” I whispered automatically. “So, so much…” Where had I heard that before? What was going on? What the fuck was going on?

“What do you remember, Taylor?” The black-haired girl had turned back to me. It was as if we were in our own little world – with the blond running away, and Isaac and Zac going at each other, no one was paying any attention to poor, confused little Taylor, still sitting at the table with his mental problems… I wished she would go away. I couldn’t deal with it all – I wanted to get up and run out, maybe even follow the blond girl, just get the hell out of that room.

…You two make such a cute couple…

“What?” I mumbled through my hands.

“Look at me, Taylor,” she hissed. “Look at me. Where have you seen us before?”

…I want you to answer something… look at me… do you like her?

When I didn’t comply with her request, I felt a strong set of hands grab my wrists and pull them away from my face. I gaped at her, shocked at her boldness and wondering where the hell security was. I looked into a set of dark eyes, hard and fixed. She looked ready to give me a lecture, or maybe slap some sense into me. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would have said… “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I whispered. “Please… I don’t feel well…”

“Not well? How so?” She still had ahold of my wrists.

…Taylor, you’re a mess…

I wasn’t about to get into explanations. “I need to go.” I yanked my hands out of hers and shakily started to stand up.

“How so, Taylor?” God, why wouldn’t she just leave me the fuck alone? Who was she to talk to me like this? I needed to be alone, to rest… to figure out why I couldn’t get her voice out of my head… “You seemed fine a minute ago, before we came up to the table,” she said pointedly.

“Stop it,” I whispered.

“Stop what?”

…Stop what?! Stop making him invisible? Sorry, but I can’t do that, Louise…

“What the hell is your problem, Louise?” I snapped, the words escaping before I could stop them. “I told you, I need to get out of here!”

Her eyes widened triumphantly. “So you do remember…”

“Remember what? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said irritably. I started to walk away, noticing that Zac and Isaac had finally calmed down, somewhat. Ashley had his arms around both of them and was talking quietly. The two security guys had reentered the room, surveying the mess.

“Then how did you know my name?”

I stopped. Name? “What?”

“My name. Louise. You just said it.”

“Probably because you told me,” I said, confused. “You must have mentioned it.”

“No, I didn’t.”

The pounding in my head was still roaring… “Well, I don’t know! Lucky guess, or something!”

“Goddammit, Taylor,” she snapped, her voice rising. “I promised her you would remember, and here you go making me look bad. I know it’s there, I can see it in your eyes; in the way you looked at her. If you’d just fucking try…”

I grabbed onto the back of my chair, leaning against it for support. I felt like I was being lectured… I felt bad, like I’d done something wrong. “I’m sorry,” I said, my voice cracking. “I don’t understand…” My legs began to feel weak, and I was forced to sit down again. My head felt light, loose… I looked up at the girl dully, in defeat.

“Maybe this will help you understand,” she muttered. She began rummaging through her purse. I swayed a little in my chair, fighting off the dizziness that had come over me. The voices had stopped – temporarily, I was sure, but I felt dangerously close to losing consciousness. From the corner of my eye, I noticed the two security guards walking towards us – to remove her, I was sure, as she was the only girl left in the room. I watched as she pulled out a white envelope and flung it at me. “I was planning on this being a last resort, because I didn’t actually figure we’d need it… not when you saw the real thing right before your eyes, but apparently even that wasn’t enough. So there. That’s all the proof you need, Taylor.”

“Proof of what?” I whispered. I tentatively took the envelope, slowly opening the flap. One of the security guys took her by the arm and started steering her out of the room. She protested loudly as they led her out, giving me one last look before she disappeared out the door. “825 Reynolds,” she shouted at me. An address? I watched her leave, still holding the envelope in my hand. After a moment, I carefully pulled out the contents with my shaking hands – a picture.

When I saw us together, it was like something snapped in the back of my mind. Everything began pulling together – the voices, the images… her. She was sitting in my lap, her arms loosely around my neck, smiling that beautiful smile… I had my arms protectively around her, holding one of those green soda bottles. An Ale8 bottle…we love those…  I was smiling, too – wide and bright, obviously enjoying it. We looked so perfect together – we were both fair and differing shades of blond, and in the picture, it was completely evident we were in love. A total stranger could have seen it… my eyes trailed down until I saw the date in the corner: 06 25 03. June 25 of last year… the day before I had awakened. Impossible, it had to be a mistake – but as the memories came uncontrollably crashing back, I knew that it wasn’t.

“Oh, God,” I said hoarsely, clutching the picture in my hands. It was real. She was real. I felt myself slipping back into another trance, but this time, I didn’t fight it off. Instead of snippets of thought or conversation, I saw entire scenes… entire memories… that’s what they were! Not dreams, but memories, coming back to me haphazardly, in  no order… a kaleidoscope of images and sounds…

The girl and I… Allison, her name was Allison…Alley… going to the mall, shopping… hiding in a closet, watching some guy curse and yell… Jay, that bastard… me fighting him later, beating the shit out of him in a white-hot rage after he attacked her… Us sitting in the coffee shop in Tulsa, watching in amazement as my brothers walked in… Her returning from a costume party, dressed in a glittery red gypsy outfit, crying, her makeup streaked… me, lying in her lap, crying, as she gently ran her fingers through my hair… Louise, glaring at us in the restaurant on the night we’d told her about my condition…

“Oh, shit,” I gasped, wrapping my arms around myself and rocking back and forth. I held the picture protectively against me, unwilling to let go of it. I could vaguely hear my brothers shouting at me – how kind of them to notice I was distressed – but I was unable to reply, still entranced in the world that I’d lost when I’d rejoined society. Each memory was like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle being pressed into place. All those events, over the course of a year – so much had happened, so many crazy things… I had fallen in love with her, how, how could I have forgotten that? How could I not have recognized her when she stood just before me?

“Taylor! Taylor! Shit, he hasn’t had one of these in awhile…”

“What do we do? Call 911 or something!”

“No, they won’t be able to do anything… Dr. Goldberg told him to just ride them out…”

 The last memory, the most vivid, nearly caused me to start sobbing. Alley and I in the kitchen, standing mere inches apart, gazing at each other with goofy grins on our faces. Me lifting her onto the countertop and kissing her passionately, love and lust rushing through my veins. Her legs wrapped tightly around me, her hands raking through my hair… I was kissing her all over, unable to get enough… her voice, breathless, ragged, in my ear, whispering the words I’d been dying to hear from her. “I love you… Oh, God, I love you so much…”

That was where I’d heard it before… “And I love you,” I croaked. “So, so much.”

“Taylor?!”

“What did he just say?”

“We need to get him out of here… let him lie down…”

Alley… I’m so sorry, I thought dimly, the image of her running out of the room burned into my mind. I felt two strong pairs of hands grab me by each arm, lifting me out of my chair. My arms were draped over their shoulders, so that they supported most of my weight. I was semi-aware that I was being carried somewhere, but I really didn’t focus on that. My head was filled with thoughts of her, how I could find her again…

*****

Isaac told me later that I had passed out, which wasn’t entirely true. I was conscious the whole time, my mind whirling with the knowledge I’d just discovered, but to everyone else, it appeared I was asleep. When I finally came back to myself, I realized we were on the bus, and I was lying on the couch. I opened my eyes wide, staring up at the ceiling. I felt strong and strangely alive, adrenaline coursing throughout my body. It was like I was finally truly awake… after nearly a year of just going through the motions. I wanted to jump up and run out the door, run down the street, shouting her name. Probably not the most reasonable thing to do, however.

I realized that my brothers were sitting at the table, talking quietly. I closed my eyes again and listened.

“—where did he get this?” That was Isaac.

“Beats me. I guess she gave it to him…” Zac, no longer sounding angry, thank God.

“I don’t think she gave it to him… she didn’t have anything with her, I think I would have noticed that.”

“Well, I don’t know, then.”

“When was this taken? This date can’t be right. But it looks recent, like right before his accident happened, or something… and she looks so familiar to me…”

“Well, obviously, Ike. She’s the one who gave us that painting of Taylor last year.” Painting? Shit, of course… she had told me about that. I thought of that painting, hung on the wall in my room. What had she said? “I thought… at the very least… if I never saw you again… you would have something of mine with you.” No wonder I’d been so attached to it. I remembered thinking it must have been a labor of love, and it had been. And the dreams… they hadn’t started until after I’d seen the painting… everything was falling into place – all the crazy little things that had happened to me all year long… they could all be traced back to her.

“YES! I knew she looked familiar! That’s where we’d seen her…”

I slowly opened my eyes and sat up. Isaac and Zac abruptly stopped speaking and stared at me. I stared back, unable to keep a smile from forming on my face. What was that old saying? ‘The first day of the rest of my life?’ Yeah. “What time is it?” I asked immediately.

Zac looked at me uneasily – probably thrown by my smile. “Uh…about seven… you okay, Taylor?”

“Yes. I’m great,” I said, my spirits lifting. “I feel better than I have in a long time.”

They exchanged knowing glances. “Um, okay,” Isaac said hesitantly. “Listen, we called the doctor. You have an appointment with him as soon as we get back home.”

I assumed they meant Dr. Goldberg, and it dawned on me that I didn’t think I’d be needing him again. However, I humored them, nodding as I replied. “Okay.” I stood up and walked over to the refrigerator, looking for something to eat. Despite what I’d told my brothers, I still felt a little woozy; plus, I figured I’d need all the energy I could get. I was aware of two sets of eyes boring into my back, and I knew they were probably confused at my nonchalance. Well, they would have to get over it.

“So, are we still playing tonight, or what?” I asked casually. I wasn’t sure what I wanted that answer to be – if they said no, that meant we would probably be leaving soon, before I got the chance to try and find her. If they said yes, then I would have to play an entire show, thinking about her and what had happened… and then we would leave immediately after the show, so I was screwed regardless. Seven o’clock… not enough time. I needed more time…

Isaac and Zac looked at me as if I had just told them I was thinking of getting a sex change. “That’s a joke, right?” Zac said. “You pass out in front of everyone, then wake up an hour later and suddenly you’re dying to get onstage? That’s either dedication or stupidity.”

“Taylor, we cancelled the show,” Isaac said.

“Why?” I demanded. Did that mean we were leaving soon? Dammit! No! I didn’t even care about playing… I just needed to stay in this city a little longer; think of a plan…

“Why?” Zac sputtered. “Sheesh. You are a blond. I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.”

I grabbed a soda and a cup of yogurt and sat down at the table with them. Glancing out the window, I noticed we were still back in the nook behind the Kentucky Theater. I shrugged. “So… if we’re not playing, what’s going on? Why are we still here?” And if you tell me we’re heading home, I’m going to have to do something drastic…

 

“Beats me. We’re waiting on Ashley. They got all the stuff loaded up awhile ago,” Isaac said. “I wish he’d hurry up. I’m ready to check in and chill. It’s been a long day.”

You’ve had a long day? HA. “Check in?” I repeated.

“He got us reservations to stay at the Marriott here, for tonight. I told him I thought we all needed to sleep in a real room tonight, before we headed back home.”

“Marriott?  Here?” I repeated. I knew where that was! Perfect! I could get to my room, call her, or something… “Let’s go. Fuck the Kentucky Theater! What are we waiting on?”

That won me several more strange looks. “Two seconds ago, you were pissed because we cancelled the show!” Zac said. “Now you’re all for it. Taylor, did you take something today? Something illegal? Seriously. You’re acting really messed up.”

“I feel fine,” I mumbled through a mouthful of yogurt. My eyes wandered over to the picture, lying on the table – one of them must have taken it from me at some point as I was being moved onto the bus. I reached over and picked it up, placing it in front of me. I gazed at it, drinking in the sight of us together – remembering that night and the sneaky way Louise had gotten us together. Damn, she was good. Clever girl, that Louise…

Ike and Zac watched me silently as I mooned over the picture, and I was pretty sure I knew the question they were obviously dying to ask. Only I wasn’t yet sure how I would answer it.

Zac spoke first. “So… what’s going on, Taylor?”

I shrugged, not sure if I should answer that question honestly or not. “I should have eaten something,” I said, sidestepping the issue. “I just felt a little dizzy, I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I feel better now. Great, actually.”

“About the girl, Taylor. The one you freaked out over.”

“Uh… what?” I tried to play dumb. Usually that works pretty well for me.

“We heard you talking. You screamed her name at the top of your lungs as we were dragging you back on the bus. What’s the deal?” Zac eyed me cautiously.

Shit. I did? I didn’t remember that. Maybe I had passed out. I looked down into the yogurt cup. Time to be semi-honest. I carefully picked up the picture and held it up for them. “This girl....” They both nodded slowly. “She’s been the one in my dreams. The voice.”

Silence for a moment. “Who is this girl?” Isaac finally asked. “And where was this taken?”

I licked some yogurt off the spoon, thinking… What could I tell them without sounding like a nutcase? “She’s a friend… a very good friend…” I trailed off, suddenly getting an idea. “I’ve known her for a long time. Remember the last time we came and visited Aunt Beth? Before we finished Middle of Nowhere?”

“Yeah…” they replied in unison.

“Remember when I got… ambushed by that guy and his friends?” They both nodded, and I continued. “Well, she was the one who brought me home after that. Well, she and her father. So… we’ve kept in touch ever since.” Not necessarily true, but at least it sounded believable. And since I was determined that Alley be a part of my life from here on out, I needed a good, solid story to explain her presence.

Isaac looked confused. “Where have I been? I’ve never heard you talk about her.”

“Well, he’s pretty good at hiding things,” Zac said sarcastically – a reference, I was sure, to the notebook he’d been so curious about yesterday.

I would have gotten mad again, but he’d just provided me with the perfect window… I shrugged. “Yeah… I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.”

“So… I’m still confused. Where did this picture come from?”

“I don’t remember when it was taken,” I lied. “We were at a friend’s house, she came to visit…” I took a sip of soda. “She was here today, but I didn’t even recognize her. I hadn’t seen her since… before…” I stopped, letting them fill in the rest. “Her friend gave me the picture,” I finished. “I saw it, and it all just sort of clicked.”

“That explains her crying,” Isaac mused. I winced at his words – the thought that I’d made her cry absolutely tore me in two… but on the plus side, I supposed, he was believing the story. “Since she thought you’d forgotten her…”

Zac, however, has never been one to accept things so easily. “So why didn’t she contact you sooner? If you were such good friends, why did she wait to come to one of these things? Why didn’t she send you that picture or something? And why didn’t you recognize her? I mean, she looks basically the same in that picture as she does now.”

“I don’t know, Zac,” I grumbled. “I’m just stupid, I guess.” Well, at least that much was true.

“Then why didn’t she tell us you were friends? She came all the way to Tulsa and gave us that painting of you, but never even mentioned that you’d met. What’s that all about?”

Damn Zac and his astute observations. “Well, would you have believed her?” I shot back. “Didn’t you say people did all sorts of crazy shit to try to get in and see me in the hospital? You all would have thought she was just a crazy fan, making up an excuse to talk to you all or something.”

He was about to reply to that when we heard a shrill, sharp ringing… an alarm? Our bus was parked outside the theater, in a little nook behind the building, and all three of us got up and looked out the window, amazed when we saw people pouring out of the doors. Ashley came out, which I nearly cheered at, because maybe we could finally get out of here and get to the hotel. He looked totally confused, and ran over and started talking to a tall, wiry middle-aged man who had just walked out of the back door.

“What’s going on?” I asked, baffled. “Someone pull the fire alarm or something?”

“Beats me,” Isaac said, craning his neck to get a better look.

We had our answer a few minutes later, when Ashley reappeared, boarding the bus. He spoke to the driver briefly, and I felt the engine start up and the bus took off.

“What’s going on? Are we still going to the hotel?” I demanded.

Ashley looked at me, surprised. “Hey, you’re awake, Taylor. How do you feel?”

“I feel fine,” I answered shortly.  “Are we going to the hotel now?” Isaac and Zac made some strange noises, but I ignored them. 

“Yes, thank God. It’s time we got the hell out of here.”

“So, what’s going on?” Isaac asked. We both pressed our faces against the glass, looking at the mess. On the sidewalk, there was a group of men, all dressed in black vests and pants… with lettering on the back. S.W.A.T. What the hell!?

.

“They’re evacuating the building. Apparently someone called in a bomb threat – it’s total chaos out there. As you can see--” he indicated the team milling around on the sidewalk, “—they’ve got people in there checking it out.”

“Bomb threat?” Isaac repeated, looking horrified. “We could have been killed!”

Zac snorted. “I doubt it. It’s probably a fake. Some asshole who hates us, just fucking up things for fun.”

“I think Zac’s probably right. The manager told me this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Apparently there’s someone out there who does this on a regular basis; I guess he thinks it’s funny. Some nut, probably. But they always have to check it out, just in case…” Ashley sighed. “It’s a good thing we’d already cancelled the show – I’d hate to have had a theater full of girls evacuated out onto the street. Talk about chaos.”

We all nodded somberly, imagining hundreds of teeny girls milling around on the street with nowhere to go. “Jesus,” Zac said. “I’m never coming here again. This place is fucked up.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” I said absentmindedly, watching the cityscape fly by us – all places I had seen before… the courthouse, the public library, the art supply store, DeSha’s… I had memories of all of those places – walking past the courthouse with Allison to see the new fountain, going with her to the library one day while she did research… going in the art store while she shopped… eating at DeSha’s with her and Louise…

Zac looked at me suspiciously. “What? I thought you said earlier today, when we were trying to find a coffeeshop, that you hated this hicktown!”

 

“Did I say that? Hmmm. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

*****

It was close to eight o’clock by the time we got ourselves checked in and settled down. We had discovered a small caravan of fans following us to the hotel, and after reluctantly signing for them, we’d managed to get upstairs and into our rooms. Isaac had gone straight to his room, claiming he needed a nap, Zac had waltzed into his and slammed the door without a word, and I had run into mine and immediately began tearing the place apart, looking for a phone book.

I found one in the nightstand drawer next to my bed, beside a black leatherbound King James bible and a blank Marriot notepad and pen. I hefted it into my lap, frantically flipping through the pages, to the K’s… shit, I wasn’t even sure if I could spell her last name – I’d had enough difficulty with it even when I lived with her, and after a year of not knowing it, it was pretty much hopeless… ah, well, I would recognize it when I saw it. I flipped through nearly twenty pages of tiny print, scouring the list of numbers and names. Nothing. I tried Louise’s name – hers was Sorrell, I remembered, and I flipped back to the S’s. Shit! It wasn’t under her name, either. Was it unlisted? Surely not, there would be no reason for it to be.

“What would it be under?” I muttered, raking my hair out of my eyes. Then it hit me – hadn’t she mentioned once that her uncle was paying most of the bills for them until they graduated? It had to be under his name, then… and I didn’t know it, at least, not his last name. Dammit. I was beginning to feel desperate – I didn’t know their home number, I couldn’t remember Louise’s cell number, and I had never really known Alley’s cell number, since I was with her basically every minute of the day… I had no car, no way to get out to their house… 825 Reynolds. I could walk, maybe, as I was fairly sure I remembered how to get there, but that was a bad idea. It would take hours, and I would get attacked by either criminals or crazy fangirls… I could hitchhike, which was an even worse idea. Shit!

I stood up and strode over to the window, staring out. My window faced the road, I could see the cars driving past, people pulling up and hauling luggage out of their car. Across the road, there was another huge hotel, the Embassy Suites. A few restaurants littered the landscape, but for the most part, the area was uncrowded. Miles of rolling, grassy hills stretched far into the horizon. I sighed, resting my forehead against the glass.

A bright red and black car below caught my eye. JERRY’S TAXI SERVICE. An older couple walked out of the front doors and beckoned to the cab driver before getting in. I watched eagerly, feeling my adrenaline rush again and a crazy idea forming in my head. I ran back to the phone book and flipped to the Yellow Pages. I grabbed the phone and dialed the first company listed on the page.

“Yeah, I need a cab,” I said. “For one. Like, as soon as possible. I’m at the Marriott Griffin Gate.” The operator told me one was on the way, and I threw the phone down, leaping off the bed. Oh, God… I was on my way.

Five minutes later, I had my keys, plenty of cash, and my cell phone in my pocket. I’d pulled a beanie over my long blond hair, hoping that it might disguise me a little bit. I opened my door, peeking out, making sure there were no teeny fangirls, or worse, one of my brothers, out roaming the hall. When I was sure the coast was clear, I dashed out, practically running to the floor lobby. I decided not to take the elevator – too much risk of being trapped in there with someone I didn’t want to see me.

Sorry, Ike, I thought, a little guiltily. He was gonna be pissed, but I was willing to risk his wrath for this. For her. I was heading for the stairwell when a voice stopped me.

“Where are you going, Taylor?” Shit, it was Zac, coming back from the soda machine. I turned and tried to look nonchalant.

“Uh…. Ice machine?”

He rolled his eyes. “I know you can come up with a better lie than that.” He walked forward until he was standing directly in front of me. Between me and the door to the stairwell. He smelled faintly of smoke.

I looked around nervously. I kept expecting Isaac to suddenly appear from around the corner – and if he saw me, it would be all over. There would be no getting out of his sight. “Zac,” I said in a low voice. “I have to go do something. Something very important. Don’t worry, okay? And for God’s sake, please don’t tell Ike.”

“Where are you going?” he studied me for a moment and then nodded. “Wait a minute – you’re going to see that girl, aren’t you? That clumsy chick. The one in the picture.”

I scowled at him. “She has a name, Zac, and if you’d waited to go to the bathroom when it was over, like you were supposed to, then your precious pants would be fine.”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “Excuse me, Oh Holy One.”

This was getting us nowhere. I sighed, rubbing my temple. “Listen,” I said in a pleading tone. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight. But this is really, really important.”

“So important that you were planning on making a mad getaway without telling anyone? That’s just stupid, Taylor! What if something happened and we didn’t know where you were?”

“I don’t care if you think it’s stupid, Zac. I have to go find her. And to be honest, if you don’t get out of my way in three seconds, I will have to use brute force.”

He gave me a hilariously surprised look and laughed. “Are you serious?” We both knew that was a joke. I may have bulked up a little, thank to the overzealousness of Michelle, but I was still no match for Zac. He had a good twenty or thirty pounds on me, easy.

“I’m serious.” I clicked my tongue against my teeth. “I will explain this all in detail later, but right now, I just don’t have time. There is a cab waiting on me downstairs and I need to get in it, pronto.”

His expression changed to one of bemusement. “You’re telling me you’re going to walk down into that lobby and get into a cab without being seen? You are naïve, Taylor. You’ll be mobbed as soon as you open the door. Not to mention that you’re wearing a scarf and a beanie. Real inconspicuous, especially in June.”

“Are they still down there?” I asked, distressed. I slowly removed the scarf – I’d forgotten I had it on. God, those girls really were crazy. Didn’t they have anything better to do than sit around and wait to stalk our every move?

“Yep.”

I closed my eyes, thinking. “Zac… you gotta do me a favor.”

“I don’t like the sound of this.”

“You have to go down there with me,” I whispered. “Please. If you go first, and get their attention, I’ll run out while they’re distracted.”

“Are you fucking crazy?”

I gave him another look of desperation. “Please, Zac… Listen, I am begging you here. Begging. I will do anything you ask if you just do this one thing for me. Anything.” I stopped for breath. “Please.”

“No.”

I closed my eyes. “Zac… this is me groveling. Please. Please….” I repeated it over and over, like a chant. When I opened my eyes, he was staring at me as if I’d suddenly sprouted an extra set of arms, or something. “I’m begging you, Zacky,” I whispered.

“I’m not going to be an accomplice in your little escapade. Just because you want to go sleep with some girl…”

“That is not why I’m going to see her,” I said through gritted teeth. “It’s not about that.” Well, not really. Damn him, now I was imagining her in bed beside me…

“Well, with your taste in women, one never knows,” Zac said dryly.

I felt like screaming at him. “Get the fuck out of my way,” I said coldly. “I’ll just run the gauntlet by myself.” I pushed past him and started stalking down the stairs. A moment later, I heard the clattering of footsteps behind me, following down the stairs. “You’re an idiot, Taylor,” he said, grabbing me by the shoulder.

I shrugged him off. “I never said I wasn’t.”

He actually chuckled at that, studying me silently for a moment. “You owe me,” he finally said, stomping down the steps. I wasn’t sure what convinced him to do it, but I wasn’t questioning anything. I followed, thanking him profusely. “You seriously owe me. I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

We made it to the first floor and I peeked out of a window in the stairwell door. Sure enough, there were several girls sitting around in the lobby’s smooth leather couches, waiting as if they had all the time in the world. Zac sighed heavily, running his fingers through his short hair. I slapped him on the back.

“Thanks, Zacky,” I said softly.

“This chick better be worth it,” he grumbled. “And you’re gonna buy me a new pair of pants, by the way, for my troubles. And a case of Rolling Rock. And that new Playstation II game I didn’t get last Christmas.”

“No problem,” I said. At this point, I would have agreed to buy him a Porsche. “And for the record, she’s definitely worth it.”

He took a deep breath and opened the door. I hid carefully off to the side, just to make sure no one saw me. I heard squealing, and I peeked out the window, watching the gaggle of girls swarm around Zac. He walked over to the side, away from the front entrance, giving me enough room to make my escape. When I was sure their attentions were completely diverted, I opened the door and dashed across the lobby and out the door.

The cab was waiting in the circular drive in front of the hotel. I ran up to it and threw myself in, surprising the cabbie. “825 Reynolds,” I said, slinking down in the seat.

He looked at me and chuckled. “Seems to be a popular address tonight.”