Chapter 65: Some Things Never Change

Taylor

It took a little longer to get to my destination than it normally would, as the cabbie informed me that downtown traffic had been rerouted due to what he called, “a terroristic incident.” So he took a longer way that avoided downtown altogether. By the time we finally pulled up to 825 Reynolds, I was about to die from anticipation.

Their house looked just like I remembered it. Brick, with dark blue shutters, and a narrow front porch. Overgrown shrubs lining the front. The garage door was closed, but the outside lights were on, illuminating the darkening sky. After flinging some money at the cabbie, I leaped out of the car and ran to the front door. I didn’t even bother knocking – I threw the door open and barged through.

“Allison!” I shouted, my voice echoing through the hallway. “Alley!” There were lights on down the hall, in the den – I sprinted towards it, my heart thumping in my chest. I dashed down the hall and whipped around the corner to the den. Louise was standing up in front of the couch, wide-eyed and looking slightly frightened. We stared at each other for a moment, before I felt a huge grin spread across my face.

“Louise!” I screeched. “Oh my God!” I ran forward and grabbed her, giving her a ferocious bear hug. I was laughing hysterically, squeezing her ribcage. She gasped for breath.

“Taylor!” she mimicked my tone, laughing. “God, you nearly gave me a heart attack. I knew you’d remember! Barging in here like you own the place, of course. So what finally--”

I didn’t let her finish, as I had a very important matter to attend to. “No time to talk,” I said and let go, frantically looking around. Alley was nowhere to be seen… without another word, I raced out of the room and into the kitchen. Not in there, either. I took off back down the hall, towards the set of stairs that let to her room, filled with a sort of manic desperation. Where was she? Surely she would have heard me by now…

“ALLISON!” I shouted as I climbed the steps two at a time. I checked every room – she was nowhere to be found. Confused, I returned to her room, looking for some clue to where she might have gone.

I felt a lump form in my throat as I stood in the middle of her room. It was a wreck – clothes everywhere, notebooks and pens littered across the floor, CD cases strewn across every flat surface, the same posters covering her wall from baseboard to ceiling… I let my eyes roam around it, remembering what it was like to live in this room… what it was like to live with her…

My eyes caught something taped up in the corner of her mirror. I walked toward it, stepping over the wreckage around my feet, and gazed at it. So she had a copy of it, too. I stared up at the picture of us together, a wistful smile playing on my lips. “Where are you?” I whispered.

“She’s not here, Taylor.” I turned to see Louise standing in the doorway. I slowly walked towards her.

“Where is she?”

Louise shrugged. “I don’t know. Her keys and car are gone. She didn’t leave a note. And she didn’t take her purse or her cell phone.” She gave me a rueful smile. “I’ve called everyone I can think of, and no one’s seen her. I sent Steve out looking for her, but I thought I’d wait here just in case you came back to your senses.”

“You don’t know where she is? What if she’s hurt? What if some crazy guy kidnapped her? What if she’s lost somewhere?” I demanded.

“It’s not something I can help, Taylor! I don’t know what else to do!”

“Call the police!”

“You can’t call in a missing person report until they’ve been gone for 48 hours,” she said, “and besides, she’ll come back here.”

“We have to find her! I have to find her!” I brushed past Louise and ran back down the stairs. Where would she have gone? Out driving, maybe… she liked to drive sometimes, to clear her head... Louise had followed me down the stairs and was shadowing my every move.

“And what do you suggest?” she asked. “That we jump in my Batmobile and use the radar to track her down? She could be anywhere.”

I turned and glared at her. “Don’t be a bitch, Louise. You have no idea how important this is to me. You have no idea what I’ve been through this past year, what I’ve been through this day alone.”

“Oh, but I think I do.” We walked out of the kitchen and into the foyer – where there was junk strewn all over the floor. “I’ve been living with your other half for the past year, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“I haven’t forgotten. Not anymore,” I murmured. I stared at the mess on the floor. A compact, a checkbook, a couple of tampons, loose change, wrinkled receipts, a tube of lip gloss, a cell phone, all sorts of other strange miscellaneous junk… her purse lay on the floor, too, empty. “What happened?”

“Well, it looks like she dumped it all out in the floor, though I don’t really know why.”

I bent down, picking up her cell phone. “Why wouldn’t she at least have taken this with her?” I murmured. “She always has it with her…”

“My guess would be so that I wouldn’t be able to call her,” Louise said dryly. “Seeing how she wasn’t in the best of moods after today’s little incident.”

I looked up guiltily. “Oh, God… she’s not mad at me, is she? Does she hate me?”

“No, I’m sure she doesn’t hate you, Taylor. But seeing how we were both convinced you’d recognize her, she’s a little bit upset, as you saw today.” Louise leaned against the wall. “I should have known that it would take a lot to get that stubborn brain of yours thinking again.”

I stood up, still holding the phone. I carefully rubbed my forehead. “I’d had these dreams, for months, but I just thought I was going crazy,” I whispered. “Dreams about her. And I kept having these… episodes… like blackouts… I would remember stuff. Stuff we’d done, I could hear her voice…” I trailed off. “But I didn’t know they were memories. I thought I was just losing my mind.” I sighed heavily. “How could I have forgotten her? After all we’d been through together… especially after that last night, when we--” I stopped, blushing.

Louise grinned at me, and it dawned on me that she probably knew, or had at least heard about that night. About how I had attacked Allison like a lion going after a raw steak… I grinned at her sheepishly. She squeezed my arm. “Well, you’re here now, and that’s all that matters. All we can do is wait. She’ll come back eventually. Just give her time to calm down.”

“Wait?” I repeated. No. That sounded like a terrible idea. I was a man of action. “I can’t do that. I can’t just sit here and wait until she comes back. I’ll go crazy.”

“Well, she managed it for a year, Taylor, I think you can manage it for a few hours.”

That immediately shut me up, at least temporarily. Chagrined, I followed her back through the kitchen and into the living room, still clutching the cell phone in my hand. Louise sat down, clearly intending to make herself comfortable, but I remained standing. I didn’t think I could keep still. Where are you, Alley? I thought desperately.

“There’s some drinks in the refrigerator, if you want something,” Louise said. “And for God’s sake, sit down. You’re making me nervous.”

Grumbling, I threw myself on the couch, lying on my side, and immediately started biting my nails. I felt like a live wire, tense and ready to blow up… I wanted, no, needed, to see her now.  To feel that skin again, kiss those lips… and apologize for my idiocy. I couldn’t sit still. I rolled over on my back, staring at the ceiling.

“I can’t take this.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re like a child. Worse than a child.”

I idly flipped open Alley’s phone, studying the tiny, colorful screen. She’d taken a photo of Chester with it and put it as her background picture… how cute. “Yeah, well, if you’d been separated from the love of your life for a year, you’d be a little antsy, too,” I mumbled.

She gave me a sympathetic smile. “True. What are you doing? Going through her personal information?”

“I’m just looking at it…” I pressed one of the buttons. DIALED CALLS. There was a list with several names, most of which I recognized. HEATHER CELL. LOUISE CELL. PIZZA HUT. I had to smile at that – she had Pizza Hut listed in her address book? HOME. RYAN CELL. Ryan? Who was Ryan? WORK-FYE. “What’s WORK-FYE?” I asked aloud.

“FYE is this media place in the mall. They sell movies and CDs and computer stuff. She works there.”

“She has a job? In the mall? Since when?”

“Since I made her get one, because she needed to get out of the house. I got tired of seeing her moon over you all day, Taylor.”

“So,” I said slowly, “let me get this straight. To get her mind off of me, you sent her to work at a music store.”

She looked exasperated. I got the feeling she’d heard it before. “It was the only place that would work around her schedule!”

I snorted, pushing another button. RECEIVED CALLS. Mostly the same names there. ELLEN HOME. LOUISE CELL. RYAN CELL. “Who is Ryan?” I demanded, feeling an uncontrollable pang of jealousy.

“This guy she works with. He’s a friend of Steve’s. They used to work together.” She yawned, rubbing her eyes.

“Why is he calling her? Why is she calling him?”

Louise rolled her eyes. “Jesus, Taylor, they’re friends. Friends talk to each other. Don’t go getting all tore up over it.” She bit her lip, thinking. “Ryan…hmmm. You know, I haven’t called him yet. Hang on.” She jumped up out of the chair and ran from the room. I watched her retreating back, trying desperately to calm myself down. It wasn’t working.

Louise came back in a moment later, looking triumphant. “Bingo. I just talked to Ryan. They’re both at work. He said she got called in to cover for someone tonight. Although I can’t believe she would have the energy to go to work, after today…”

“Well, what are we waiting on?” I demanded, feeling a rush of excitement. “Let’s go! Take me there!”

“What? No. I’m going. I’ll go get her and bring her back. You wait right here.”

“That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve heard all day! I am not waiting here!”

“Watch your mouth, young man, or I won’t bring her back at all.” She raised a coal-black eyebrow at me.

“Take me,” I demanded, ignoring her threat. “Right now.”

“You want me to take you to the mall? That’s insanity. We’ll get mobbed, Taylor. That place is a breeding ground for hungry hormonal girls… I will go, get her out of there, bring her back here to you! It will take maybe 30 minutes, tops!”

Dammit, I was not going to sit there and wait a minute longer. “Fine. If you won’t take me, I’ll just take myself.” I ran over to the phone. “Where’s the phone book? I need another cab.”

“Taylor, don’t be ridiculous.”

“Louise,” I said softly. “I can’t wait one minute more. I need to see her, now.” I looked her straight in the eye, pleading for the umpteenth time that day. “I’m dying here.”

She studied my face for a second before giving in. “Alright,” she grumbled. “Come on. I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this.”

“YES!” I whooped, running past her and out to her car. Score two for Taylor – first I’d won over Zac, and now Louise. Just one more to go… They say things come in threes, don’t they? I immediately dashed out the door, heading for Louise’s car. She followed with considerably less enthusiasm. “Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you--” I practically shouted as I jerked open the door handle and threw myself inside.

She grimaced as she got in. “I can already tell this is going to be a long night.”

*****

We arrived at the mall shortly thereafter, thanks in part to my harping at Louise to drive faster. “If I get a speeding ticket, you’re paying for it,” she had barked at me after the fifth time I’d pleaded for her to speed up.

“Gladly,” I’d said, and mentally tallied up how much this escapade was costing me – new pants, beer, and a video game for Zac… speeding tickets for Louise… the future hospital bill I would have after Isaac ripped me apart for running away without telling him… Ah, she was worth it. At that point I would have given up every cent in my checking account to have her in my arms again.

“Here we are,” Louise murmured, pulling into the parking lot. The huge gray structure loomed beside us, lit up along the outside with streetlights. As she maneuvered into a space, I grabbed the door handle and flung it open, ready to jump out.

“Shit, Taylor! Wait ‘til I’m completely stopped, at least!” She glared at me, throwing the gearshift into park.

“Sorry.” I stopped, giving her a grin. “What happened to you, Louise? I remember when you never used to curse.”

You happened, Taylor. You’ve driven me to it.” She grinned back. “Okay, now we have to stick together, alright? Pull that hat down a little further. Okay. Tuck your hair up in it.” I obeyed without a word, ready to do anything to get in that door a little faster.. She sighed. “Well, I doubt it will fool your hardcore fans, but at least it helps, a little.” She pulled on her door handle to get out. “Come on, let’s go.”

I hopped out of the car, nervously smoothing down my shirt. We had parked in the back side of the mall, by a little-used entrance. She took off towards the door and I followed, trotting until I was right beside her. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and tried to act calm and normal. It wasn’t working. My heart was fluttering in my chest, blood rushing through my veins. We entered the mall through a set of heavy glass doors. I kept my head down, avoiding eye contact with all the people we passed.

“Where is it?” I murmured, glancing up at all the store fronts we were passing. GAP. VICTORIA’S SECRET. GYMBOREE. I had been to the mall before, several times, with Allison, but I couldn’t remember seeing FYE on any of our trips. All around us, people milled about, but overall it wasn’t too crowded – that was a stroke of luck. And so far, no one had noticed I was there. So far, so good…

“It’s on down here, around the corner.” I nodded and we continued on in silence. We reached the center part, where the mall branched out in several different directions. The sheer volume of stores in this place was mind-boggling.

Then I saw it – far down in a line of stores. FYE, in bright yellow letters, right between Lerner and Radio Shack. I felt another sudden adrenaline rush.

I did it without thinking – obviously, I do that a lot, the ‘not thinking before I act’. Sorry, Louise, I thought. Before she could stop me, I took off at a dead sprint towards the store. I heard her give a muffled cry behind me, but I didn’t slow down. So much for being inconspicuous. I drew closer to the store, feeling my lungs burning, my heart racing. I didn’t even slow down when I noticed the gate was pulled shut. Closed? Impossible! It was only just after 8:30…

I stopped in my tracks as soon as I saw her. It was like the whole world had suddenly slowed down. Maybe time even stopped, I don’t know; stranger things have happened, I know that firsthand... I was barely conscious of my heavy breathing, of the other mall patrons staring at me. She was at the register, in the middle of the store, her back to me, shoulders slumped. She was straightening up the counter, picking up pens and placing them in a cup next to the machine. I found I couldn’t speak; I didn’t know what to say. I simply walked up to the gate, carefully wrapping my fingers around the metal slats. I leaned up against it, observing her as if she were some exotic animal in a cage, still fighting to catch my breath.

Her hair was a mess; it had been pulled back into a loose ponytail, and several strands had escaped. She was wearing the same outfit as earlier in the day – a fact I was grateful for, as her shirt was a pretty, dark red halter top that left her perfect shoulders bare. I was sure she’d worn that shirt on purpose, just for my benefit, and I hated that I had been too stupid to enjoy it earlier. I felt a slow smile curve on my lips, and a slight burning sensation behind my eyes. Remembering that when I’d first met her, I’d thought her a little on the plain side… how could I have ever considered that? Looking at her now, all I could think of was how beautiful she was and how much I missed her sassy humor and loud, unruly laughter…

I tightened my hold on the gate, squinting my eyes closed to keep from shedding those tears. I watched as she picked up a set of keys off the counter; she hadn’t turned around and seen me. It was now or never. I still wasn’t sure I could speak, my lungs felt like they were on fire… Taking a deep, ragged breath, I rattled the metal door.

“We’re closed,” I heard her say loudly, though she still didn’t turn around. Her voice sounded thick and stopped-up, like she had a cold. Probably from crying, I realized, hating myself even more. “Sorry.” She pocketed the keys and started to walk toward the back of the store. She wasn’t going to look.

No…ALLISON!” I cried out, unable to keep the desperate emotion out of my voice. It rang throughout the store and mall, echoing off of the high ceilings. I hadn’t meant for it to be that loud… I watched, frozen, as her head slowly swiveled around. Her eyes were dull, the skin around them tinged red. Our gazes met for the second time that day. I felt my mouth drop slightly, the blood rush to my head. For a moment, it was simply heaven just to look at her. The slightly swollen eyes and messy hair made no difference to me – I still thought she was gorgeous, in every way.

As I soaked in the sight of her, my mind reeled with the memory of everything we’d been through together. Everything she’d done for me, all the insane situations she had managed to land us in. How I used to wake up in the mornings early, before Louise and I would go for our walk, and simply watch her sleep. The way I could never seem to keep myself from touching her; hugs, kisses on the cheek, an affectionate squeeze here and there… it was never enough. I wanted to feel her lips against mine, now. Open the gate, Alley… open the gate and let me show you how sorry I am... let me make it up to you…

To anyone observing this moment, I was sure we must have looked ridiculous, both of us staring at the other silently, completely immobile. She managed to turn completely around so that she was facing me and took a tentative, halting step in my direction. “Yes,” I whispered encouragingly. “Yes… Come here…”

“Oh, my God,” she said faintly, her voice uncharacteristically weak and soft. I watched in horror as the color drained from her face, as the keys slid out of her hand… her eyes fluttered skyward, and in the next second, her legs gave out and she collapsed in the floor, passed out.

“NO!” I screamed aloud. “ALLISON!” I heard gasps behind me. All the people who had watched me run like a madman to this store had apparently stuck around to see the consequences. I started rattling the door again, yelling for her to wake up. “ALLISON!” I turned around, looking wildly for someone who could help. A middle-aged man was standing closest behind me, a horrified look on his face. “Go get security!” I yelled at him. “We need to get this door open!” He nodded silently, eyes wide, and took off at a jog. As I watched him leave my sight, I saw Louise coming towards me, looking irritated.

“Taylor, what are you doing?” she hissed when she was about ten yards away. “We’re supposed to keep a low profile – what the hell? Why is it closed?”

“We have a problem on our hands,” I said frantically. She came to stand beside me and finally saw Allison, lying in the floor. She gasped.

“What did you do to her, Taylor?”

“I didn’t do anything! She saw me and passed out!” I grabbed the door and started rattling it again. “Shit! What do we do?!”

“Stop making so much noise, for one… we’re attracting undue attention,” she whispered, grabbing my arm. “God, I should have known this would happen. I thought she was going to pass out earlier today…”

I leaned my head against the gate, staring at Alley’s still form – she looked so fragile. In the movies, when people faint, they always fall on their backs, lying face up… she had simply crumpled, her knees had buckled, and she had fallen forward and sideways, so that she landed partially curled up on her side. Her arms were splayed out in front of her on the tile… What if she was hurt? Had she hit her head? What were we going to do? I heard more gasps behind me; voices and hushed whispers.

“Oh my God, what happened?!”

“That poor girl, someone call for help!”

“Mommy, what’s wrong with her? Is she sick?”

“Shit,” Louise whispered. “Don’t turn around, but there’s a small group of sightseers gathering behind us…”

*****

I thought it was all over after that – as Louise and I had stood outside of the store, cringing as the crowd grew larger, I kept waiting for the shit to hit the fan. I’d envisioned it something like this: Someone would recognize me. That would start a slippery slope, and soon I would be surrounded by fans. Mall security would get there and call for medical help. An ambulance would come screaming into the mall parking lot; EMTs would get out, rush inside, grab her, and take her away before I could see her. The local news stations would get wind of the craziness at the mall, and send some reporter out to cover the story, and I would end up on the 11 o’clock news for causing someone to be sent to the hospital. Isaac and Ashley would watch the news, be absolute infuriated that I’d run away, and I would be forcibly taken back to the hotel and chained in my room for the night. Then, tomorrow, I would be dragged back to Tulsa, brokenhearted.

Luckily, it didn’t turn out that way.

I was still holding on to the gate, as if I could tear it down if I pulled hard enough, when a guy wearing a Ramones T-shirt came out from the back. He was tall, with a dark complexion and shaggy black hair. Ryan, as I would find out later. “Hey, Allison, what’s taking so—ALLISON!” My heart had leaped as I watched him run out and immediately squat down next to her, a panicked look on his face. Dammit, that should be me, I thought. I should be there stroking her face and taking care of her…

 

Apparently Louise agreed. “RYAN!” she shouted. He looked up, startled. “Let us in!”

“Louise?” He looked around her, noticing the growing crowd. “What happened? Did you see it? Has someone called for help?”

“Just let us in, Ryan, and we’ll explain everything…” It took a little more cajoling to convince him that medical help really wasn’t needed, that she would be fine with just us to take care of her, but he finally consented, coming to the front and unlocking the gate. He had barely pulled it up from the ground before I dove under it, rolling, to get inside. I scrambled to my feet and started to run to her but he grabbed my arm.

“Hey, what are you doing?” he asked suspiciously. What? Did he not just hear Louise say “us”? He must have thought I was just some freak trying to get a better look at the unconscious girl… “Who are you?”

“Let go,” I scowled, trying to jerk my arm out of his. “I’m her boyfriend,” I added for emphasis, relishing the way the word rolled off my tongue. He held onto my arm, studying my face with a long, searching look. I stared back, meeting his gaze straight on. From the corner of my eye, I saw Louise tug on his sleeve and whisper something, and he let go. Without giving him a second thought, I turned back around.

I raced to her side, collapsing on the floor beside her. Oh, God… I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt tears welling up in my eyes again at the sight of her lying helpless on the ground. She’d been through so much today… too much. I gently placed my hand on her shoulder blade, carefully rolling her onto her back. Her head followed, rolling until she was completely face-up. Her eyes were closed, her mouth slightly parted. Her hair in front had come out of the elastic band, and I carefully brushed the soft curls away from her face. There didn’t appear to be any bruises or red marks from the impact with the floor, at least that I could see. “Alley,” I whispered, leaning down so that our faces were mere inches apart. “I’m so sorry. Please… can you hear me?” Nothing. “I love you,” I said softly.

A moment later, Louise knelt down beside me. “Oh, Allison,” she murmured. “You poor, poor thing.” Ryan stood above us, still looking confused, but saying nothing. “We should move her to the back,” Louise said. “I don’t appreciate all the gawkers who’ve come to see the freak show.”

“Yes,” I said absentmindedly, still running my fingers over her face. Smooth, soft skin, just as I remembered… just as I’d dreamed about for months now. I slid my arms under her – one under her back, one under her knees, and carefully lifted her from the ground. She hung limply, her head falling back, exposing her pale throat. Her arms dangled down, swinging as I adjusted to her weight. She felt lighter than I’d remembered, or maybe I was simply stronger. I cradled her in my arms, following Ryan into the back, away from all the prying eyes.

“Here. Lay her out on here,” he said, cleaning off a long brown table in the breakroom. I obeyed, though I was reluctant for her to leave my arms. I set her on the table, stretching her out on her back. I removed my hat then, folding it up and placed it under her head, so it wouldn’t be resting against the hard surface of the table. After making sure she would be at least semi-comfortable once she woke up, I sat on the table beside her, taking her right hand in mine. My hair was a wreck from being smashed under the hat, and I raked it out of my face with the other hand, trying to straighten it out. I sighed heavily, watching her chest rise and fall slightly with each breath.

“So…” Ryan said slowly. “What’s going on here? What happened?”

I looked up, noticing for the first time that he and Louise had pulled up chairs next to me, and both were watching me attend to her. I decided I’d let Louise field that question. I ignored him, turning back to Allison and squeezing her hand. “Come on,” I whispered. How long did people usually stay unconscious? According to my brothers, I’d been out of it for over an hour, but then, I figured I was a special case. I bent down to whisper in her ear. “Please… wake up. I’m here now. I love you…” My hair fell forward and brushed against her face. “I love you so much…” I gently kissed her forehead before sitting back up.

I turned to look at Louise and Ryan. They were both silent; I’d missed Louise’s explanation. She was smiling at me softly, and winked when I looked her in the eye. Ryan was studying me, his head cocked to the side.

“I’m still confused,” he said slowly, his expression matching his statement. “Confused as to why Allison has never bothered to mention that she was dating the lead singer of Hanson. Taylor, right?” Shit… he recognizes me. Remembering his searing look when I’d first entered the store, I realized he must have recognized me then. He leaned forward, looking at me intently, obviously not believing my earlier claim. I didn’t flinch from his gaze. “I thought her boyfriend, if you could still call him that, was named Jordan. That’s what she said, anyway.”

I felt my face heat up – so she had talked about me… I wondered what she had said. His wording was interesting: ‘if you could still call him that’.  “My first name is Jordan,” I said quietly. “Jordan Taylor Hanson. And I guess I’m not… officially her boyfriend. I had this accident…” I trailed off. “I had what you might call partial amnesia.” I held her hand a little more tightly, gently running my thumb over her skin. “I didn’t remember her, and today was the first day we’ve talked for almost a year.”

“He didn’t remember me, either, at first,” Louise added for emphasis when Ryan didn’t say anything. I gave her a grateful smile.

“I didn’t recognize Alley earlier today when she came to see me.” I looked down at the floor, ashamed. “Louise talked to me, and eventually jogged my memory, but Alley ran off before they could stop her. We didn’t know she had been called in to work. I was going crazy, trying to find her.”

Ryan’s brow was furrowed, still deep in thought. Or confusion, I wasn’t sure. “You knew about all this?” he finally said to Louise. “Did you ever tell Steve?”

Louise smiled mischievously. “Yes, I knew, and no, I didn’t tell. I can keep a secret.” She winked at me again.

He shook his head. “Unbelievable,” was all he said. “Fucking unbelievable.”

I cleared my throat. “How upset was she?” I asked tentatively, though I was pretty sure I knew the answer to that.

He raised an eyebrow. “You don’t want to know.”

“That bad, huh?” I turned back to her, studying her face.  She looked peaceful now, at least. Other than the faint redness around her eyes, she looked absolutely angelic. “I promised you I wouldn’t forget,” I murmured, running my finger along her hairline. “And I let you down. I’m so sorry…”

“It wasn’t your fault, Taylor,” Louise said gently, scooting closer. She reached out and squeezed my knee reassuringly. I gave her a wan smile. “I know I teased you about being slow, but it was inevitable. You wouldn’t have remembered without our help.”

“I should have,” I mumbled. “How could I have forgotten someone so important, Louise? And it’s been a year. I’ve had an entire year to remember.”

“Considering the circumstances… it’s understandable,” she said. “And like I said… you needed us, and we couldn’t get close to you before now to help you remember.”

Ryan had been watching this exchange silently. “Wait. So, why couldn’t you all go see him sooner?” he asked Louise. “If they were dating, then wouldn’t his family or friends or someone, like, at least mention her?”

“No one knew about us,” I cut in quickly before Louise could answer. “It’s been a very private thing. We weren’t really even dating… just, uh, talking, sort of wanting to date, but…” I realized that I was probably making no sense.  “So, what has she said about me?” I asked anxiously, veering the subject in another direction.

“Not much. Just that there was this guy named Jordan, who was a writer, that she had a relationship with, and that he didn’t remember her… I don’t think she liked to talk about it. That’s all she ever said.”

“Writer?” I said, confused. I shrugged it off, figuring she’d just made it up to throw him off, or something. “Oh. Was she… mad, or anything? When she talked about me?”

“No,” he said. “Not mad. But very… melancholy. Like I said, she didn’t want to talk about it… at least, not to me.” He chewed on his lower lip, thinking. “So, tell me… how did you meet, if you don’t mind me asking?”

I turned to completely face him, still sitting on the table next to her with my feet propped up in a chair. I gave him the same story I had given my brothers – the fight, the boys being scared off, the drive home, keeping in touch. Louise kept silent the whole time, letting me spin my yarn, a barely controlled smile dancing across her lips. I had lifted Alley’s hand into my lap, lacing my fingers with hers, when I’d begun talking. While I spoke, I gently ran my fingertips across the skin on the back of her hand, almost like a nervous habit.  After I finished, Ryan merely nodded, obviously trying to soak it all in, and we all sat without speaking for a moment.

 “This is a dream.”

I jumped at the sound of her sad, helpless voice, nearly crushing her hand by accident. I slowly scooted around until I was facing her. She was still lying on her back, still completely motionless, except now her eyes were open, and she was staring at the ceiling. I realized that she had been listening to my story – she hadn’t moved, so none of us had noticed she’d awakened. “This is a dream,” she repeated, even softer this time, as if she was trying to convince even herself.  “I don’t want to wake up…”

“No,” I whispered. I leaned down, letting my hair fall on either side of my face. Slowly her eyes moved until they met with mine. She blinked silently, just staring at me. “You’re awake. It’s real. I’m really here.” I gave her a tremulous smile, realizing I was coming dangerously close to crying.

“You’re not real,” she murmured. Her eyes were still locked with mine, and she slowly untangled her hand from my grip and lifted it up to my face, brushing the back of her fingers across my cheek. I had a flashback then, of a similar situation, a year ago… hovering above her while she touched my cheek, a look of wonder on her face… wanting to kiss her so badly, and finally just going for it… “You can’t be… the concert…”

“I am. The concert was cancelled…” I decided not to bombard her with details just yet. I turned my head, kissing the palm of her hand. Her fingertips fluttered over my face, feeling of my skin, as if she was still trying to prove I wasn’t just a hallucination. I closed my eyes, savoring her touch. When I opened them again, she was still watching me, her lips trembling. She shook her head slowly.

“I’ll wake up, and you won’t be here,” she whispered. “I can’t get my hopes up again.”

“You’re awake, I’m awake… you’re here, and I’m here. This is real, Alley Kat… believe me.” I captured her roaming hand with mine, kissing the back of each of her knuckles. Her expression changed then, to one of surprise and sheer exaltation. I watched her eyes become clearer, more aware, and I grinned.

“You remembered.” She hiccupped loudly, but smiled. Her shoulders began to shake, and she clapped both hands over her mouth, trying to keep from crying.

Behind me, I heard chairs scooting back. “We’ll be back in a few minutes,” I heard Louise say, though I didn’t acknowledge her. We were still gazing at each other, unable to look away. Once they’d gone, I took both of her hands and pulled her up to a sitting position. Tears escaped, rolling down her cheeks, and I used my thumb to carefully wipe them away.

“Come here,” I said, snaking one hand behind her back and pulling her closer to me. I was dying to kiss her, but was afraid of overwhelming her, of bombarding her with too many sights and sounds and realizations in too short of a time. She gave me a tight-lipped smile, still trying to hold in her emotions, before suddenly flinging her arms around my neck with a soft cry. I laughed, wrapping my arms tightly around her back, burying my face in the soft juncture where her shoulder met her neck. “Are you okay?” I whispered. “I was so worried…” She merely nodded, her forehead rubbing against my shoulder as she did so. Relief washed through me, and I hugged her tighter, feeling the muscles of her back tense up.

“Oh my God,” she said, her voice cracking. “You remembered.”

I pulled back slightly so that we could see each other and nodded softly, pressing my forehead against hers. “Yeah,” I murmured. “I remember everything. Everything I’ve been missing for the past year…” I raised my head and kissed the tip of her nose. Her hands slid back, pushing my hair away from my face, back behind my ear. “…like that. I love it when you do that,” I said softly, smiling.

She sniffed loudly, smiling back. “I know,” she said, still running her hands through my hair. I tightened my grip on her waist.

“Alley…” I whispered. “I’m so sorry. I let you down. I’m so sorry for everything. Forgive me.”

She placed her palms flat against the side of my face, her eyes soft and longing. “You’re not going to leave me again, are you?” she asked quietly. I shook my head silently; stoutly. She smiled again. “Then you’re forgiven. Just don’t ever, ever do that again…”

“No,” I whispered, nuzzling against her. “Never. I’m here for good.”

She traced my lower lip with her thumb. “I’ve been waiting so long to say this again… I want to say it first. I love you, Taylor.”

“You do? You still do? After everything I’ve put you through?” I asked, laughing softly. She nodded, and I pulled her back into my arms, and she rested her head on my shoulder. “That’s good to hear,” I said, grinning, though I knew she couldn’t see it. “That’s very good to hear. Because I love you, too. More than anything…” I felt giddy, lightheaded. I understood her hesitance to believe reality when she’d woken up; to me, it felt like a dream, too. A wonderful, surreal, too-good-to-be-true dream… except it wasn’t. It was real, she was real, and my life had just irrevocably changed for the better. I felt complete again, after a year of being lost without her. I leaned in, intending to give her that kiss I’d been planning since the moment I remembered. Her eyes fluttered closed, she was waiting…

I heard footsteps coming, and I sighed – of course, we’d always managed to be interrupted at the most inopportune times before, why would that change now? I didn’t kiss her, but I didn’t pull away; I’d just gotten her back and I wasn’t about to let her go. A moment later, Louise and Ryan returned with a tall, broad man in a security uniform. I turned to look at them but kept my arms firmly around her waist. She kept her head on my shoulder, watching our new guests. I wondered if the crowd was still outside the gate, waiting to see what had happened.

“See? She’s fine. Just a little shaken. She hadn’t eaten anything all day,” Louise said to the guard, pointing. “We’ll be fine. We’re going to take her home and let her rest.”

The guard eyed us suspiciously, not looking convinced. I rubbed Allison’s back soothingly. “What’s going on?” she whispered to me.

“When you passed out, I yelled for some guy to get help, to open the gate,” I whispered back. “But Ryan came out before anyone got there.” She nodded in understanding.

She raised her head up, looking at the guard. “I’m fine,” she said. “I feel much better. Really.”

“See?” Louise said. “If she gets ill again, we’ll take her to the hospital. But we don’t need an ambulance. She just needs to rest.”

I felt my eyes widen. Agreed, no ambulance… we don’t need any more attention than what we’ve already drawn tonight. “We should get out of here,” I whispered as the guard grudgingly retreated from the room, still talking to Ryan. “We need to talk, but we can do it elsewhere… somewhere more private.”

Alley looked at me questioningly. “Okay,” she said shyly. “Where are we going?”

I realized the thought of where we were going to go hadn’t occurred to me… I had been so hell-bent on finding her I hadn’t even considered what I would do with her once we were together. We could go back to the hotel… no. Isaac and Zac were too nosy, and besides, there would be tons of girls waiting around, and I didn’t want to expose her to that just yet. “To your house, of course,” I said, smiling slyly. I scooted off the table and stood up, offering her my hand, which she quickly accepted. I turned to our audience, grinning. I looked down at the crazy, blond-haired angel holding my hand, and noticed an alluring pink blush spreading across her face. She looked up and met my eyes, her smile growing wider. She shook her head softly, as if in disbelief at the entire situation. “You’re so adorable,” I said, laughing she blushed harder. “I just can’t stand it.”

The non-blonde people in the room groaned. “You two are quite a pair,” Louise said dryly. “And there will be plenty of time for you to declare your undying love to one another, but for now, we need to get you out of here, before someone recognizes Taylor and starts stalking you. Where are you parked? You’re gonna have to go out this door back here.” She pointed to an exit in the back of the stockroom. “You can’t go out the front.”

“Why?” Alley asked.

“Because, despite that nice security guard’s best efforts, there’s still a group of people standing around out there, waiting to hear what happened to the unconscious girl.”

“What?” she squeaked. “How many people saw that?”

“More than you want to know.”

Alley groaned loudly, hiding her face in my shoulder. “This is so embarrassing…”

“Don’t feel bad,” I said to her gently, bending my head down and kissing her cheek. “I passed out, too, in front of everyone, when I remembered. That’s why the show was cancelled.” She looked up at me, concerned. “I’m fine,” I reassured her. “I’m fine now.”

Louise made a strange noise. “You passed out?” she asked.

“Yes… you were there, remember?”

“I didn’t see you pass out…”

“It must have been after they dragged you out, then… I’m a little fuzzy on the details. When I woke up, Isaac told me they’d gone ahead and cancelled the show.” Louise was starting to look a little nervous. I gave her a critical eye. “I thought you knew that. You didn’t even question when I showed up at your house.”

“Oh, well… all’s well that ends well. Let’s get out of here,” she said quickly.

“Why weren’t you surprised when I showed up, Louise?” I asked, a suspicious feeling rising in my gut. “If you didn’t know the show had been cancelled, how did you know I would show up?”

“I don’t know, lucky guess,” she shot back, echoing my words to her earlier that day.  She gave me a knowing look, which I ignored.

“Wait a minute,” I said slowly. “That was you, wasn’t it? The…the call.” I glanced at Ryan, who had apparently given up any hope whatsoever of understanding what was going on. 

“I’m just going to turn off the lights, then I’m heading out of here. I’ll talk with you later, alright, kiddo? You’ve got a lot of catching up to do…” he said, smiling softly at Alley, and disappeared into the front part of the store. She gave him a shy wave as he left. I turned my attention back to Louise, who was squirming under my gaze.

“Uh…what call?”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“What’s going on?” Alley asked, confused.

“Nothing,” Louise said.

“Your roommate is a terrorist, that’s what’s going on,” I said, laughing.

What?”

“Well, I had to do something!” Louise said defensively. “I figured it would get you out of the concert so you could come find her! It was in your best interest! I didn’t know you’d managed to get it cancelled yourself!”

“If you get caught, and put in jail…”

“If I get put in jail, your ass better be down there posting my bail,” she snapped back. “After everything I’ve done for you today! Jesus, Taylor, you ungrateful little--”

I held up my hands in protest. “Hey, hey, I’m not complaining.” I gave her a Cheshire grin. “Thank you, Louise. I owe you bigtime.”

“You’re damn right you do,” she huffed.

“Would someone please explain to me what’s going on?” Alley demanded. She had pulled her keys from her pocket, nervously juggling them in her hand.

“I’ll tell you later,” I said with a laugh. “You’ll get a kick out of it.” I tugged on her hand, eager to leave. I wanted to be with her, alone, so we could… talk. “Let’s go.”

“You all go ahead,” Louise said. “Alley, I think you should let Taylor drive. Just in case you feel dizzy again.”

“He passed out, too!” she protested. I snatched the keys from her hand, delighted when she scrambled for them. I wrapped one arm around her waist, holding the keys above her, just out of reach. She glared at me, but there was still mirth in her eyes.

“You heard the woman,” I said. “It’s my turn to drive. You drove me all over the place before… now I can return the favor.”

She pursed her lips, thinking. “True,” she conceded. “Alright. Let’s go.”

“Excellent,” I murmured. She reached for my hand again, gripping it with an intensity that was almost frightening. “See you later, Louise,” I called over my shoulder as we walked to the door.

She smirked. “Not tonight, you won’t.”

*****

I’ve always been a rambler. I don’t know why; it’s like there are times when I just physically cannot shut up. It’s something that’s always irritated Isaac and Zac, who try to wait patiently for me to finish my point in interviews… although a lot of the times I don’t even have a point, in which case I end up babbling on about something that’s completely on a tangent to the original topic. Kind of like I was doing to Allison, right now.

On the drive back to her house, I’d started out by trying to tell her how hellish my year had been. How I’d been totally lost without her, but just hadn’t known it until now. I told her everything: about waking up, about Jennifer and the breakup, about finding the painting, about my dreams and blackouts. It just spilled out of me uncontrollably – it felt so good to have an answer for everything that had happened, and to have someone listen to me and actually understand what I’d been through. She hadn’t said a word the entire time – not that she could, I didn’t really leave any room for breathing – but I knew she was listening, really listening. She simply sat in the passenger seat, angled sideways so she could look at me, and held my right hand as I spoke, caressing my skin with her thumbs.

I drove slowly and carefully, since it wasn’t my car, after all, and so it took us considerably longer to get back than it had taken for Louise and I to get there.  It was nearly ten o’clock by the time I pulled into her garage, still talking a mile a minute. We got out of the car, and she immediately grabbed my hand again, pulling me inside. We entered into the foyer, where the contents of her purse were still lying all over the floor.

“What was this all about?” I asked, sweeping my arm to indicate the mess.

She smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know. Releasing frustration, I guess.”

I gripped her hand tightly as we sidestepped over the mess. “Alley, I am so sorry for today… for everything…”

“Taylor--”

I’d said it all before, at least three times on the way home, but I just couldn’t quit harping on it. “I feel like shit. I promised you. I promised I wouldn’t forget. You mean more to me than anything in this world, and I--”

She forcefully interrupted my apology, turning around to face me and grabbing both of my hands. “Taylor. Please, please, shut up…” I started to give an indignant reply, but then I noticed the mischievous look in her eye… “Just shut up and kiss me already, please….”

I gladly obliged – now that we were in her house, alone, away from Louise and Ryan, from gawking onlookers, from teeny fans, I had no qualms about showing her exactly how I felt about her. Without another word I stepped forward, grabbed her hips and pulled her to me, crushing my lips against hers. Her hands fluttered up and gently pushed my hair back as we kissed. Slowly, gently. I slid my arms around her back, keeping her trapped against my body. For several minutes, we just stood there in her kitchen, locked together, breathless and unsated. When she finally, reluctantly broke away, she looked up at me, directly meeting my flustered gaze. A quirky smile formed on those kissable lips, but she didn’t say anything. I suspected she didn’t quite have the words for it, either.

“Was it worth it?” I asked suddenly, my voice hoarse. “Am I worth all this trouble?”

That smile again… did she have any idea how sexy it was? She nodded slowly, leaning forward and kissing my chin. I closed my eyes, delighted when she began kissing a path along my jawline, towards my ear. “You’re worth it,” she breathed into the shell of my ear. “Even after all the trouble you’ve caused me…”

“Really?” I murmured, sliding my hands across her back and grazing my lips across her uncovered shoulder. She sucked in her breath slightly at my touch.

“Yes… I missed all that trouble…everything, every quirk and every fault…” She tangled one hand in my hair and pulled my face to hers.

“Such as?” I murmured against her lips.

“Your snoring…”

“I don’t snore!”

“Yes, you do,” she giggled, tracing the outline of my ear. “And you talk in your sleep.”

“So do you… I’ve missed hearing you sleeptalk about fried chicken and cake, by the way…”

She laughed loudly, throwing her head back, and continued her list. “Your finicky shopping tendencies.”

I smirked at her. “Just because I have a little taste in clothes… I’m surprised you didn’t wear your El Zoso shirt today… you should have, that would have jogged my memory, seeing how you wore it like every day…”

She smacked me softly. “You’re just jealous of that shirt.”

“Mmm-hmmm. What else?”

She bit her lip to fight back a grin. “Your sore-loser attitude when you’d lose at Monopoly…”

“What?! You always cheated!”

“I did not cheat! You’re just terrible at it!” We were both laughing; she leaned against my chest, looking up at me, adoration in her eyes. “Oh, Taylor… I’ve missed you so much. I love you. I love everything about you.”

“I love you,” I replied, leaning down to kiss her again. She responded eagerly, lifting her head to meet me halfway. “I adore you.”

She sighed happily, throwing her arms around my waist. “I just can’t believe you’re here…” she murmured. “After all this time, after everything that happened… I thought I would never see you again… Never hear you tell another terrible joke, never watch you primp in the mirror…” I gave her a mock scowl, and she laughed. “Never be carried around so that you could prove your strength again…” She stopped, straightening up and giving me an earnest look. “Carry me upstairs,” she said. It was a request I’d heard often in the time that I’d lived here.

I grinned at her. “Carry you? Still lazy, I see. Some things never change…” I bent and hefted her over my shoulder. She shrieked loudly, laughing as I began walking down the hall, my arms firmly holding her in place. She kicked her legs out, struggling to get down.

“Not like this, Taylor!”

“You should have been more specific,” I said sweetly. “I’m just doing what I was told.” I managed to make it up the stairs, despite her fighting against me, and I went in her room, bending forward and gently setting her down. “There,” I declared. “The perfect gentleman.”

She laughed, grabbing my face and giving me a hard kiss. “You’re such a moron.”

“Takes one to know one.” That remark got me a swift pillow to the face.

Like I said, some things never change.

*****

I was lying on her bed a little later, watching television as she showered. I felt like I’d been thrown back in time – how many nights had I done this exact same thing before? How many times had I stretched out on her bed in my boxer shorts, watching Comedy Central and waiting for her to come join me? Too many to count… although now, it was different. The same, but different. Now, when she emerged from the bathroom, clad in her pajamas, hair freshly blown dry, I would actually tell her I loved her, instead of wishfully thinking it. I would wrap my arms around her and kiss those lips, instead of just wanting to.

I heard the bathroom door open and a moment later, she stepped back into the room, quietly shutting the door behind her. She leaned against it, wearing a pair of short, purple cotton polka-dot shorts and matching camisole, looking just too damn cute to be true. She was right… this can’t be real… She gave me that wonderfully quirky grin again, staring unabashedly at my bare chest. I followed her gaze and looked down.

“My physical therapist, Michelle…” I said. “She encouraged me to keep working out, even after we were done. So I’ve been, ah, going to the gym a lot.”

“Really?” she said. “I hadn’t noticed.” She pressed her lips together tightly to keep from laughing.

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Your expression says otherwise,” I said loftily, and smiled. “Come here.”

She acquiesced to this request, walking slowly towards me, carefully stepping over her junk-strewn floor. “You’re awfully demanding tonight,” she said, “as if that’s anything new.”

“Your room is an absolute pigsty, as if that’s anything new.” I sat up, grabbing her hands when she reached the side of the bed, and pulling her down on top of me. She shrieked with laughter, giving me another hard kiss as she landed, before pulling back and settling in comfortably on my stomach, lying flat with her legs straddling mine. She propped her elbows up on my chest, resting her face in her hands.

“Well, I didn’t have you here to clean it for me. What was I supposed to do?”

“Oh, right, I forgot,” I murmured. “You know… I knew you were different today. As soon as I saw you there in line… I knew, I could feel that there was something special about you.”

“Ah, that word again. ‘Special’. I’ve heard that many times, but I don’t think it’s ever been intended as a compliment.”

I snickered. “Well, I’ll use a different word then. Extraordinary, exceptional, different, distinctive… take your pick.”

“Hmmm, I like them all. But let’s go with ‘extraordinary’. So, you were saying, you saw this extraordinary girl standing in front of you…”

“…and I felt something, like déjà vu… I couldn’t stop looking at you. I didn’t want you to leave. If Ashley hadn’t interrupted us, I probably would have sat there and talked to you all day…” I tangled one hand in her hair, sweeping it away from her face. “I can’t believe you both got tickets to that. What luck…”

“Well, it wasn’t quite luck. Steve knows a guy at the station and conned them for us. We had a little help.”

“Steve, eh? I’m adding him to my ‘thank-you’ list…”

She rested her head in one hand, gently tracing soft patterns on my chest with her fingertips. God, she was driving me crazy. “Yeah… I had a lot of help. I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t been for Louise…”

“Me, either.” We both laughed. I gently traced the bridge of her nose with my finger. She batted my hand away.

“Don’t do that,” she said, clapping her hands over her face.

“Why?”

“Because my nose is huge.”

“What? Are you joking?”

“No! Don’t look at it!” She pressed her face against my chest, and I laughed.

“I’ve seen it before, Alley… many times. And I’d like to see it again.” I lifted her face with my hand. “Your nose is cute.”

“‘Cute’ is for puppies and small children, Taylor. I think the word you’re looking for is ‘grotesque’.”

“You’re impossible,” I said. “You have no idea how attractive you are...”

“Taylor,” she said, turning red again. “Stop.”

“…especially when you blush like that…”

Taylor.”

I laughed, grasping her hips and sliding her up, so our faces were close together, hers right above mine. She smelled like the strawberry shower gel she’d used. Light blond curls spilled across either side of her face, hanging down and tickling my skin. She smiled gently, resting her arms on either side of my head, stroking my hair. “Mmmm,” I sighed, closing my eyes under her ministrations.

“Your hair is still long,” she remarked, punctuating her speech with soft kisses. “I thought you might cut it.”

The memory of Jennifer commenting on my ‘shitty’ hair flashed then, brief and intense. “Do you not like it long? Do you like it shorter?”

She gave me a knowing smile, pressing her lips against mine again. “I like it however you like it, Taylor. Long, short, spiked, bald, I don’t care… as long as it’s you…”

“A diplomatic answer,” I murmured. “I like it.”

She laughed, resting her forehead against mine. I slid my hands across her back, under her shirt, slowly rubbing her soft skin. She let out a shuddery sigh and closed her eyes. A moment later, she relaxed her arms, letting her blonde head rest on my shoulder. “You must be exhausted,” I said softly. “You’ve had a long day, to say the least…”

“Yeah… but a good one, in the end. What about you? Yours wasn’t any easier, from what I gather.”

I chuckled. “No… enjoy me while you can, Alley, because Isaac is probably going to kill me. He doesn’t know where I am. Actually, as far as I know, he thinks I’m in my hotel room.”

“What? Taylor! That’s terrible!”

“What was I supposed to do? He would have chained me in my room and kept me from seeing you. Besides, Zac knows where I am. Well, not technically where I am, but he knows I’m with you.” I turned my head and kissed her temple. “So it’s okay. I’ve got my cell up here, so they’ll call. Though I’m not sure I’ll want to answer it…” I laughed.

“Chained in your room, eh? That sounds interesting…” She smiled mischievously. “Did you just say Zac? You told him?”

“He caught me leaving and figured it out. He may be surly, but he’s not dumb.”

She groaned. “He hates me, doesn’t he?”

“He doesn’t hate you. He’s just… well, I don’t know what his problem is, but it’s nothing to do with you. You’ll win him over eventually. I know you will.”

“I can’t wait,” she mumbled.

I laughed. “Enough about Zac.” I suddenly rolled over, laying her flat on her back. Her top was scrunched up and a little twisted, exposing the light skin of her stomach. Her hair fanned out over the pillows, the curls sticking out in all directions. I draped my body over hers, throwing my leg over her thighs, resting my head in the crook of her shoulder. One small hand snaked behind my head and began scratching my scalp. It felt heavenly. I laced the fingers of my free hand with hers and nibbled on her neck, smiling. “I could get used to this,” I murmured. I could get very used to this…

“Mmmm,” she sighed, relaxing against me, her eyes closed. “Me, too.” She was silent for a moment, letting me continue my work on her neck, before speaking again. “Taylor… when I wake up tomorrow… you better be here.”

“Oh, I’ll be here,” I said, breathing heavily into her ear. “Believe me... I’m gonna be the last thing you hear before you fall asleep, and the first thing you see when you wake up…”

She laughed quietly. “Is that a promise?”

“That’s a promise.”

She brought my hand up to her lips and gently kissed it. “Good,” she said softly. Then her voice changed, taking on that impish tone again. “Taylor, honey, your feet are freezing.”

"Ungrateful!" I growled, and we laughed again. I fell back against her, tickling her neck with my lips, delighting in her squealing laughter, helplessly and hopelessly in love. Some things never change… indeed.