Chapter 68: Easy To Love You

July 12

Alley

Sometimes, it feels like life is just one long wait after another: ‘I can’t wait until _____.’ That blank could be filled in with innumerable options. ‘…I can drive,’ or ‘…Christmas’ or ‘…I turn 21’ or even ‘…I finally grow some breasts’ (although I am still waiting in vain on that one). As for myself, I’ve usually filled it with, ‘…I’m done with school.’ I’d always figured that once that task was complete, life would be smooth sailing. I’d be prepared and ready to set out into the world.

Ah, the naïveté of youth, as Ryan would say. Life didn’t seem like an adventure anymore, it felt like a huge, looming assignment. An assignment for which I was given absolutely no direction. Although graduation was a month away, I’d finished up my final summer class last Friday, and over the weekend, it had finally hit me that I was done. Done. What now? When I’d been a chem. major, the assumption had always been that a job would be waiting for me when I got out. Art majors, however… well, let’s just say it looked like I would be eating a lot of Ramen noodles in my future.

I sat on the couch, brooding. Taylor was off doing whatever it is guys do in their alone time, and Louise was stretched out on her side next to me. We’d been watching The Three Amigos, which usually had me rolling in fits of laughter, but so far I hadn’t cracked a smile. Louise, ever-observant as she was, finally poked me when I even failed to react to the normally side-splitting ‘plethora’ speech.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “You’ve been quiet all weekend.”

I nibbled on one fingernail, staring at the ‘literature’ on the coffee table. Louise had discovered Taylor’s picture inside a recent issue of Tiger Beat. Finding that hilarious, she had bought the magazine and planted it on the table, just to annoy him. “Just thinking,” I said softly. Yeah. Too much thinking…

“About?”

“Stuff,” I said vaguely.

She gave an exasperated sigh. “Would you like to be more specific?” She sat up and grabbed the remote, turning off the television. I protested, but she waved me off. “You weren’t watching it anyway. Something’s on your mind. So let’s talk.”

“You should have gone into psychology, not education,” I muttered. “Seeing how you have a knack for weaseling information out of people.”

She smiled sweetly. “It’s a natural talent of mine.” She rested her elbow on the side of the couch, studying me. “Seriously, though. What’s wrong?”

I knew what she was thinking: You’re young, you’re done with school, you’re doing what you’ve always wanted, and there’s a gorgeous man upstairs who would lay down his life for you. What was there to complain about?

“I’m scared,” I said finally.

“Of?”

I shrugged. “Of the unknown. I don’t know what to do with myself now. I don’t know what to do about a job. I don’t know how I’m going to pay the bills after I graduate. I don’t know what’s gonna happen when Taylor goes back to ‘work’… among other things.”

She gave me a sympathetic, but knowing smile. “Ah, sweetie… don’t worry about it. Things have a way of working out.” She winked at me.

“Your confidence is annoying,” I said. “I don’t think you quite understand what I’m getting at.”

“To the contrary, I completely understand, and I also know that you’re making a big deal out of nothing, although that shouldn’t come as a surprise.” She leaned back, smiling. “Just enjoy it, for now! You have a month until graduation. A month until any of those worries even matter. Just go out and have fun! You deserve it.”

Jeez, she sounded like Aunt Joanna. It wasn’t hard to figure out which side of her family Louise took after. “I guess,” I finally said, to appease her. Arguing otherwise would be like continuing to prod an already-annoyed wild animal. Eventually, they just snapped.

We heard the stairs creaking – Taylor. I peeked my head over the couch and watched him stroll into the room. I couldn’t help the smile that automatically formed on my lips. He matched it, walking over and sliding in next to me.

“Hey,” he said warmly, his arm curving around my back and pulling me close. I turned and immediately pressed my lips against his – I’m an addict, I’ll admit it. Whenever he entered the room, I wanted to be beside him, wrapped up with him, or underneath him, whatever the case may be… He smiled at my enthusiastic show of affection.

“Hey,” I said softly as we pulled away. Louise coughed loudly behind me, and when we both looked over at her, she was rolling her eyes.

“Sickening,” she said, but her expression was amused.

“So, what are you girls chatting about?” he asked. “Talking about me?”

“Of course,” I said. “That’s all we do, you know. Discuss your devastating handsomeness and your sparkling personality.” He grinned lazily, and Louise snorted.

“Actually,” she said slowly and purposefully. “Alley and I were just talking about what she’s going to do after graduation.”

“Oh?” Taylor said. His hand crept around my waist, coming to rest comfortably on my hip.

“Yep.”

“And what are you wanting to do?” he asked casually. I sighed. What was I supposed to say? I didn’t want anything, except for him.

“Well,” I hedged. “I dunno…”

“You don’t know?” He laughed softly. “No idea?”

I shrugged. “No.”

“I keep telling her that things will probably work out just fine,” Louise said. I turned to look at her, as her voice had taken on a strange, lilting tone. She was staring at the two of us, her dark eyes practically glittering. “She has no reason to worry. Don’t you think so, Taylor?”

“Yeah,” he said, his voice suddenly growing soft. I looked at him, alarmed at the abrupt change. He was gazing down at the floor, as if he’d barely heard the question. I squeezed his knee, and he finally looked up and smiled. “But that’s a whole month away,” he said, returning to normal. “In the meantime…”

“You sound like Louise,” I said, annoyed. They were both so casual about it, as if my upcoming entry into the real, bill-paying world was no big deal. Why couldn’t these two see my predicament? Well, on second thought, I was pretty sure I knew the answer to that. Louise still had another semester of student teaching to do before she was forced to face the real world, and Taylor lived in an entirely different universe.

“Great minds think alike,” Louise remarked, breaking my thoughts. I scowled at her, but Taylor interrupted me before I could say something sarcastic.

“Anyway… I, um, have something for you,” he said. I spun to face him, surprised. “Think of it as an celebration for your classes being over.”

“Something for me? What?” I asked, intrigued.

“Well… it’s not an object.” He smiled, standing up and grabbing my hand. “Come here.”

I followed him into the kitchen. He walked over to the secretary in the far corner, opening up one of the old wooden drawers, and pulled out an envelope. I sat down at the table, watching all this with interest. He brought the envelope to me and I snatched it out of his hands, pulling out the contents. It was a printout of something… I began reading. Enjoy "This Side of Paradise" in our newly renovated Fitzgerald Suite -- F. Scott Fitzgerald's namesake accommodation at The Seelbach Hilton, Louisville. The Fitzgerald Suite is ideal for discerning guests who desire extra room and a grand atmosphere… I stopped reading and looked up.

“The Seelbach? Louisville?” Jeez… the Seelbach was nice. Ritzy. It was the type of place presidents and celebrities stayed…. Oh, wait a minute. What was I thinking?

He sat next to me, toying with the empty envelope. “Well… I thought you deserved a short vacation. And I know you can’t take off work for a whole week, but I figured you could get away for the weekend… Louise suggested Louisville, since it’s close. I know it’s not, like, Arruba, or something… but it’ll be nice, just to get away for a few days…” He trailed off, his gaze finally coming up to meet mine. It still amazed me how I could be completely reduced to inarticulate mush by those blue eyes. “…and spend some time alone…”

I blushed at the sweet intensity of his expression. Yes, that would be nice… hmmm… I grinned, refolding the paper and tucking it back into the envelope. “I love that idea,” I murmured. “Thank you.” His face lit up, and I bent forward to brush my lips against his. “When are we leaving?”

“Thursday night… come back Sunday. That sound okay?”

“Yes… sounds perfect.”

*****

Four days later, I was standing in the lobby, feeling very out of place, waiting for Taylor to check us into the Seelbach. I clutched the huge, dark green suitcase we’d packed together, staring up at the high ceilings and elegant architecture.

“Okay,” a voice said behind me. I snapped back to attention. Taylor grabbed the suitcase from me and began wheeling it towards the elevator. I scuttled up beside him, grabbing on to his free hand.

“This place is insane,” I whispered, glancing furtively at the paintings on the wall. Part of me wanted to stop and admire them, but another part wanted to get upstairs and into the suite as soon as possible. “Isn’t it incredible?”

“Yeah, it’s nice,” Taylor said. Just nice? I felt like rolling my eyes. But then, I suppose he had stayed at plenty of swanky places before. “Why are you whispering?”

“I don’t know… it’s just so quiet…”

He laughed as we trooped onto the elevator. We rode up to the top floor and got off, wandering down the hall until we came to our suite. My eyes widened as we entered the room – beautiful antique furniture, cream-colored sofas, a chandelier in the dining area, a gorgeous carved oak fireplace… holy shit. Was all this really necessary? It must have cost him a fortune…

“Taylor, this is too much,” I said in disbelief. “How much did this set you back?”

He shrugged. “It’s no big deal.” I watched as he heaved our suitcase up on the bed and unzipped it. He looked up and winked. “You’re worth it.”

“I’m not going to dispute that I’m worth it… I’m just saying… you didn’t have to go this far. I would have been perfectly happy at Jimbo’s Roadside Motel, as long as you were with me…”

He laughed uproariously, beckoning me close. “Yeah, but would Jimbo’s have room service and breakfast in the morning? Not to mention the complimentary hors d’oeuvres…”

Free food? Damn him for knowing my weakness. “It better be complimentary, as much as this cost,” I mumbled. I leaned on him, sliding my arms around his waist and resting my head on his shoulder.

“Honey, you’re making it too big of a deal. And it’s not like you didn’t pay for everything for me for an entire year… food, clothes, the trip to Tulsa, a keyboard… just don’t worry about it. I wanted this to be nice.” He kissed my temple, and I smiled.

“Okay.” I straightened back up, looking around. “When did you say these hors d’oeuvres were coming?”

He chuckled. “As soon as you order them.” I immediately ran to the phone while he unpacked.

Twenty minutes later, we were sitting cross-legged on the bed, a plate of petite crab cakes and Tandoori-style chicken sate between us. There was a carved cherry table over in the dining area, but that felt entirely too proper to me. It’s not like we were wearing formalwear – he was in his boxers and I was in my pajamas. Which was a little odd, I thought. It felt like we should be chowing down on pizza and beer, not dining on fine cuisine. But then again, food is food.

“So, what are we doing tomorrow?” I asked through a mouthful of chicken. So much for manners.

“What do you want to do? You know this place better than me… I was just interested in the hotel room.” He gave me a roguish smile, and I laughed.

“Of course you were,” I murmured. “Well, let me think…” Hmmm, what to do. Well, to be honest, I wouldn’t have minded spending three days inside, in bed, but that was sort of a waste of money. I pondered our options for a moment. There were museums, restaurants, cool funky shops…

“Six Flags,” I said suddenly, only half-joking. Well, maybe it wasn’t quite romantic… but hey, it could be fun. And I hadn’t been in years… His eyebrows shot up and he quickly swallowed his food.

“Seriously?” he asked.

I curled my knees up against my chest, resting my chin on them. “Just a suggestion,” I said, smiling.

He nodded thoughtfully. “Okay,” he said. “Yeah. I haven’t been to one of those in forever.”

I grinned. Somehow the combination of childishness and maturity – going to an amusement park and staying in a chic hotel with my boyfriend – was sort of intoxicating. It was all so spontaneous and free-spirited… like an adventure. Like I wanted life to be…

“Great,” I said, daintily licking peanut sauce from my fingers. I grabbed the tray and leaned over the bed, setting it in the floor and out of the way. When I sat back up, he was leaning back on one hand, smirking, his hair cascading over his features in a way that I found entirely too appealing. I crawled toward him, powerless to stay away.

“Long day tomorrow… shouldn’t we get some sleep?” he teased as I pushed him back on the bed. He looked up at me, eyes bright and bold.

I smiled, straddling his waist and leaning down to give him a smoldering kiss. “Sleep?” I murmured. “Who needs it?”

*****

Sunscreen is really an amazing thing. Just think about the chemicals that have to come together and mesh in order to form a substance that actually absorbs light before it gets to your skin. It’s brilliant.

So it’s really a shame that I managed to forget my bottle of Coppertone in the hotel room.

“Melanoma, here I come,” I muttered, pushing a sweaty strand of hair off my forehead. We had just gotten off Thunder Run, a loud, clacking wooden rollercoaster that had jarred my insides until they felt like jellied consomme. The day was humid and partly cloudy, but apparently that didn’t make a difference to my skin – one quick look at my pink arms indicated that there was plenty of sun to go around.

“What?” asked Taylor. He had chosen to wear a tank top and jeans, and since his skin doubled as a sweat factory, the shirt was nearly soaked. He’d pulled his hair back in a messy ponytail and yanked a ball cap low down over his eyes in an effort to not be recognized. Up to this point, it had worked fairly well – other than the occasional second glance or inquiry (“Hey, aren’t you Hanson? Will you sign this for me?”), people had, for the most part, left us alone. So far.

“Nothing.” I fanned myself with my hand. “Come on, let’s go to T².” I grabbed his arm and pointed to the tall, winding metal contraption. A car on it whooshed by, people screaming and kicking their legs as it looped around.

“What?” he said, sounding alarmed. “That thing?”

“Yes! It’s fun!” I said, laughing.

“My shoes will fall off!” He looked down at his loose-fitting brown leather sandals.

“Well, you should have worn sneakers, like me,” I said. I stopped to face him, grinning. “I tried to tell you…”

He ignored that statement, looking down at me with concern. “Alley, your face is red,” he said.

“Well… that’s what happens when the sun shines down and hits the skin… you see, the UV rays damage the DNA in a person’s skin, and then part of the genetic--”

“I thought you put on sunscreen,” he interrupted me.

I shrugged sheepishly. “I forgot it.”

He took off his hat, smoothing back his sweaty hair, and placed it on my head. The small shade the brim provided was a wonderful, welcome relief. “Wear this,” he said.

“Taylor!” I hissed. “I can’t wear this! You need it!”

“You need it more than I do.” He smiled, taking my arm. “Why don’t we sit down and rest for awhile? Before we tackle that thing.” He cocked his head to indicate the coaster.

“Okay…” I said. “…if we can get a funnel cake.”

He sighed dramatically. “Of course.”

Ten minutes later, we were standing in line at Aunt B’s, a food stand that sold the aforementioned funnel cakes. I ordered, and as we waited on it to fry, Taylor pulled out his wallet, fumbling around with it. I protested, but again, as he’d done all day, he insisted on paying. Jeez. I wasn’t sure what the overwhelming generosity was for, it’s not like he had to impress me or anything… and maybe it sounded ungrateful, but I really wished he would let me share the cost. I felt guilty for all the money he’d spent on me… especially since I insisted on eating something every two hours…

“Can you put this in your purse?” he asked, wrenching his cell phone from the front pocket of his jeans. “It’s just not working in my pocket.”

“Maybe if you hadn’t worn jeans that look like you were poured into them,” I murmured, though I regarded his ensemble with an appreciative eye. I’d never really liked snug, form-fitting clothes on men… until Taylor, of course. But then again, he could make a ratty burlap sack look good. A bun-hugging burlap sack…

“If I recall,” he replied in an equally sweet tone, “you helped pick these out.”

“Did I?” I said, feigning ignorance. “No, surely not… I’d have never approved of anything that tight. I mean, I’d like to have children one day…” The words slipped out before I could stop them. I abruptly shut up, realizing that I was getting way too ahead of myself. Children? Jeez, scare him off, Alley… I sounded like one of those freaky overenthusiastic girlfriends. I mean, he hadn’t so much as broached the subject of marriage yet, much less procreating. I mentally slapped myself.Taylor, meanwhile, had let the smile fade from his face, and he was staring at me thoughtfully. I couldn’t read his expression, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what he was thinking, anyway. Children? Jesus. Me and my big mouth.

“Oh, look, my cake’s done,” I said hurriedly, pushing on his shoulder until he turned to pay.

We walked over and sat down at one of the round metal tables, under a giant umbrella. I chattered about work, my last class, the weather, anything I could think of… anything to fill the silence, as Taylor had remained rather quiet after my ‘tight pants’ comment. I ripped off a piece of the sweetened confection and held it up.

“Try it,” I said. “Bread, soaked in grease and covered in sugar. It’s heaven.”

He smiled, opening his mouth, and I carefully fed it to him, despite my sudden childish desire to smear the powdered sugar on his nose. “Good, huh?” I asked as he chewed. He nodded, grabbing my hand and slowly rubbing his thumb lightly against the tops of my knuckles. It made it a little hard to eat, with him stroking my left hand and me trying to rip off pieces of cake with my right, but I made it work.

“So,” I said. His gaze was unnerving. And he was still rubbing lightly across the top of my bare fingers, which felt lovely, but I wondered why he was being so quiet. “Are you having fun?”

He laughed, finally, and I felt relieved. “Of course,” he said. “I always have fun with you.”

“Not always…”

“Of course I do. You’re funny, and cute, and smart--”

“You don’t have to butter me up with puffery, Taylor,” I said. “You’ve already won me over.”

He actually looked insulted at that. “What? I’m not exaggerating. I mean that…” He propped his elbow on the table, resting a ruddy cheek against his open palm. “Can’t you take a compliment?”

I smiled ruefully. He had a point – most girls would have swooned at those words. Years of perfected self-deprecation was a hard habit to break, however. “Yes. Thank you,” I said firmly. I leaned in to kiss him, forgetting that I was still wearing his hat, and I giggled when the brim rammed into his forehead. “Sorry,” I said sheepishly.

He laughed, lightly rubbing the spot I’d hit. “You’re one of a kind, Alley Kat.”

“Nah… not one of a kind… I know someone else just as bad as I am…” I winked at him, standing up. “I need to go wash my hands… they’re all sticky. I’ll be right back.”

He nodded, and I flitted off to find a bathroom. Inside, in front of the mirror, I scowled at my dorky appearance. Coltish legs sticking out of short jean shorts, sunburned shoulders, sweaty, wispy hair hidden under his ratty hat, and a bright red nose. Wonderful. Sighing, I quickly washed my hands and splashed cold water on my face. The air was hot and sticky inside, and women milled in and out all around me, laughing and talking. I was drying my soaked face with a paper towel when a certain conversation grabbed my attention.

“Did you see him? Oh, my God… he’s so fucking hot.” The first girl’s voice was high-pitched, squeaky, like the lab rats I used to feed in high school science. I froze, the towel still pressed against my face, obscuring my features. Despite not having heard anything else, I knew immediately who she was talking about. Who else could be described as ‘fucking hot’? Certainly no one else I’d seen today…

“We should go talk to him…” Thick southern accent, deep soft voice. Sounded like she was from Menifee County or somewhere deep in the hills… “I’ve got my ticket stub... Do you have a pen or something?”

“Guys, just leave him alone… he’s just trying to go out and have a little fun, without people like you following him around. Besides, his girlfriend’s with him…” The third girl, who immediately earned brownie points in my book for that reasonable statement, had a loud, matter-of-fact tone.

“So? We just want an autograph… no big deal,” Menifee said. “It’s not like we’re stalking him or anything. He should be used to it.”

“Well, I’m sure she doesn’t appreciate girls throwing themselves at her boyfriend,” the Voice of Reason said sarcastically. I slowly lowered the towel, throwing furtive glances around to see where the voices were coming from. There was a thick, white concrete wall that separated the sink area from the stalls, and it sounded like they were on the other side of that wall… Good. Maybe I could escape without being seen.

“Well, she can get over it,” Mouse-girl said. “She ought to be used to it, anyway. And she is not even that pretty. Did you see her legs? I mean, my God, going to a tanning bed isn’t  that expensive.”

Wretched bitch. I’m fully aware how much it costs to use a tanning bed… I thought, seething. You try living with untannable, alabaster skin…

“I think she’s kind of cute,” VoR shot back. Oh, God, a defendant? I wanted to kiss her.

“Yeah, but it’s Taylor Hanson,” Menifee said. “He could do so much better. Whatever happened to Jennifer Lewis? She was sooo pretty…”

“I think she’s going to school at Northern Oklahoma. Majoring in social work…”

Jeez, were they writing her biography? Even I hadn’t been able to figure all that out, in all the Taylor cyber-stalking I’d done in the year we were apart. I gave serious consideration to going around that wall and asking her, flat-out, how she’d managed to come by that information. And exactly how much she knew about me. But the small fraction of my brain that contained better judgment made a cameo appearance, holding me back. And then it reminded me that Taylor was outside waiting, and I shouldn’t be listening to this drivel in the first place.

I tossed the paper towel into the trash and quickly retreated back outside. The sun had reappeared from behind the clouds, and I tucked the hat down low over my eyes as I walked back to the funnel cake booth.

Only when I got back, Taylor was not at the table where I’d left him… in fact, he was nowhere to be seen.

I slowly wandered around, avoiding a little girl who was running wildly while carrying a towering bunch of balloons. There were swarms of people all around, but no one who matched the tall, shaggy blond description I was looking for…

“Dammit, Taylor,” I muttered. Had he just gone to the restroom? Gone to get a drink? Disappeared into thin air on me again? Found another, sexier woman and left me stranded?

A shrill ringing startled me. A cell phone… I began digging around in my purse. Unfortunately, it was Taylor’s phone. I picked it up, studying the Caller ID. ISAAC CELL. Well, shit. I stood there, with it ringing loudly in my hand, annoying pretty much everyone who was standing nearby. Should I answer it? Or just let it ring? I’d spoken to both Isaac and Zac on the phone before, as they called regularly to check on their brother, and Taylor somehow found it necessary for me to make idle chit-chat with them. The result had been a steadily warming, if still slightly uneasy relationship between us.

After a long, hard moment of thinking, I sighed, knowing that Taylor would have wanted me to answer it. To have another opportunity to show his brothers I wasn’t a total moron, if nothing else.

“Hello?” I said, attempting to sound sweet, intelligent, and non-moronic in those two syllables.

“Uh… Alley?” Isaac asked, his voice a little uncertain.

“Yeah.” I kept walking, my eyes frantically scanning the faceless throng of people around me. I lurched backwards as a tall, lanky guy with a snowcone tripped over his feet and came hurtling toward me. It took every bit of restraint I owned to keep from yelling out, “Fuck!” at the top of my lungs as I dodged the syrupy grape-flavored ice. God must have been on my side, because it narrowly missed me, landing in a heap on the sidewalk. I couldn’t help but laugh as the guy stopped, a horrified, mourning look on his face as the ice began melting into a watery mess.

“Uh… what’s so funny?” Oh, right. Isaac was still on the phone, and I was reasonably sure he’d just asked me a question I should have answered.

“Nothing,” I mumbled. “Sorry. What did you say?”

“Taylor. I need to talk to Taylor real quick.”

Well, I would gladly let you talk to Taylor, if his silly blond head hadn’t just run off on me… “Oh, okay.” I needed to stall for a moment… “Well, how are you, Isaac? How are things in Tulsa?”

“They’re fine…”

“Oh, good, good… um… how’s your family?”

“They, too, are fine… and listen, I don’t mean to sound rude, but my battery’s kinda low… Taylor?”

“Right, right… hang on just a second, please…” Actually, more like a couple of thousands of seconds… I clapped my hand over the phone and slowly retraced my steps back to the table. Frustrated, I sighed, holding the phone back up to my ear. “Can he call you back?”

“Uh… well, this’ll just take a minute,” he said, beginning to sound annoyed. “What’s he doing?”

Ah, hell. I was tired of covering up for my lack of boyfriend-babysitting abilities. “Well, you see… the problem is… I’ve sort of… lost him.”

Absolute silence. Then, “What?”

“I lost him.”

“You lost him?” Isaac sounded incredulous. I heard loud laughter in the background, then – Zac?

“We’re at Six Flags… I went to the bathroom and when I came out, he was gone,” I said. “Seriously, he was supposed to just sit and wait for me, that’s all he had to do…” I grimaced. “I’m hunting for him right now.”

Isaac sighed, but I caught the mirth in his words. “Right… Well, good luck with that. Yeah, I guess have him call me back whenever you find him…” He chuckled. “Later.”

“Bye,” I mumbled, quickly hanging up and tucking the phone back in my purse. Back to the matter at hand… I set off in the opposite direction from the way I’d first gone, determined to find him. And berate him for running off on me.

Where could he possibly be? If he’d gone to the restroom, he would have been back by now… ditto if he’d gone to get a drink. Had he misheard me? Was I supposed to meet back up him somewhere else? Nah…

Suddenly I heard loud, excited giggling. Uh-oh… I slowed my steps as I drew closer to a basketball game booth… one of those things where you make an impossible three-point shot and win a huge, hideous stuffed orangutan. There was a growing horde of girls clustered around the counter of that booth, and I was pretty sure I knew why. Shit. I cautiously stepped forward, but stopped when I was about twenty feet away.

My experience with Hanson fans thus far had been somewhat limited. He was occasionally stopped in Lexington, but being a small city, it was never a big deal. He’d gotten several stares and requests for autographs already today, but that was to be expected, I thought, seeing how we were in an amusement park full of young people. However, a full-on crowd of girls, all squealing at dog-whistle pitch, was something I had yet to face. Until now.

He was taller than the rest of the group, so once I figured out what was going on he was easy to spot. He had that stationary, reserved smile on his lips – the same smile I’d first seen at the Meet & Greet. Their arms were all in the air, thrusting scraps of paper and sharpie pens in his face. As he patiently signed for them, I fidgeted in place, continuing to observe from my vantage point. I didn’t know what to do. Interrupt? Wait? Start doing some sort of crazy sign language and hope he eventually noticed?

I inched closer, but once I’d cut the distance down to about ten feet, I settled for waiting. Despite the rush of people walking all around me, I felt incredibly exposed, as if I was standing all alone in the middle of an empty parking lot. Especially when one of the girls in the group turned and noticed me… and whispered to another, who turned around… and another… I swallowed, forcing a smile onto my face. Taylor looked up then, too, and met my eyes. They immediately lit up, and one side of his mouth curved into an apologetic smile. I shrugged, almost imperceptibly.

“Hi.” I was startled by a soft, shy voice. Turning my head, I saw a petite, pretty brunette, looking at me curiously. She looked close to my age.

“Hi,” I replied warily.

“You must be Alley,” she said. “I’m Nicole.”

Um, okay. It was weird, having people you’d never met know your name… I could never quite understand why some fans wanted to talk to me instead of him. Curiosity, I guess, because it wasn’t like I was that exciting… I simply nodded, not sure exactly where this conversation was going. “I don’t mean to bother you,” she said, “but I just wanted to say thank you.”

What? ‘Thank you’? That was a new one… I couldn’t hide my bewilderment. “For what?”

“For making him happy.” She looked a little uncomfortable, then, as if that was awkward to say. “I mean… for awhile there, he just seemed so… lost. He looked awful. And now…” she paused. “He looks great. Happy. And you can tell it’s because he’s in love.”

The sudden tightness in my chest at her words surprised me. “Oh,” I managed to say.

She blushed. “So, sorry about bugging you… but we worry, you know? He means so much to so many people…”

“I know,” I said quietly, glancing at the crowd from the corner of my eye. It was gradually dispersing, a fact I was grateful for. “And thank you.”

She smiled, relieved. “Can I ask you something else?”

“Um… okay…” I waited for the inevitable – Are you secretly married? Is it true that you’re pregnant? Did you really used to be a man?

“Well…” She paused, searching for words. “Does he kiss as good as he looks?”

The question surprised me at first, because I had been preparing for something outlandish. I couldn’t help the girlish giggle that escaped before I answered. “Yeah,” I murmured. “Ah, you could definitely say that.” I realized that my face was steadily getting redder, and she chuckled, too, when she noted my embarrassment. I looked down at the ground, biting my lip to keep from laughing. He does a lot of other stuff as good as he looks, too…

“I thought so,” she said.

“Hey, you ready?” I turned to see Taylor walking up to me, having left the last of the girls by the counter of the game booth. Either he’d signed for all of them or just given up and walked away. Probably the former. He was too courteous to do otherwise. He slid up next to me, comfortably placing a hand on my back. “Hello,” he said politely to Nicole.

She became twitchy, nervous, as she offered a bashful ‘Hello’ to Taylor. It was bizarre, like a complete personality makeover… I looked at him. This was the effect he had on people… reducing normally intelligent, coherent young women into squirmy, jumpy fangirls. She managed to ask for an autograph; he obliged, and she quickly left, shyly waving at me as she walked off. As Taylor steered me away, I pondered the transformation.

“Sorry about that,” he murmured, his arm creeping around my waist to pull me close. “I saw those stuffed monkeys and thought of you…” I pinched him for that statement. He laughed and continued. “So I was going to try and win you one while you were in the bathroom, but they sort of interrupted that…”

“That’s probably a good thing,” I said dryly. “I’ve seen you play basketball, Taylor.” He glowered at me, and I grinned. “It’s okay. It wasn’t that bad… besides, she was nice.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Some of them are. Some of them aren’t.”

I recalled Mouse-girl and Menifee in the bathroom, and scowled. Yeah, I was figuring that out, too. “Well,” I said. “I guess I should start getting used to it, regardless.”

He turned and gave me a stunning, mysterious smile. “Yeah,” he murmured. He looked like he was about to say something else, but stopped. I gave him a questioning look, but he didn’t elaborate. Instead, he declared that he was ready to tackle T², and pulled me towards the long waiting line. As we stood and waited, he leaned back against the wall, arms crossed, staring off into the horizon.

“So, what are we doing after we leave here?” I asked.

“You mean, ‘Where are we eating?’” he teased. I poked him in the ribs. “Well, I figured we’d just order room service tonight… and get some more… rest…” He wiggled his eyebrows at me before continuing. “…for tomorrow.”

“Why? What are we doing tomorrow?”

He grinned lazily. “I thought maybe we could go shopping.”

“Shopping? With you? God give me strength…”

*****

Shopping, for Taylor, is kind of like heroin for a junkie, I have decided.

We were on Bardstown Road, a short drive from where we were staying. I’d parked on the street and we had spent most of the day wandering up and down the streets, going in and out of the small, funky shops and buying things we had no need for. Thus far, Taylor had purchased several ancient pairs of jeans and t-shirts from the secondhand stores, a new, braided leather necklace from Edenside Gallery, and three new CDs from Ear-X-tacy. He’d also convinced me to buy a dress at General Eccentric – I’d protested, as I hated dresses, especially ones that showed my knobby knees, but he’d been insistent, and had threatened to buy it when I wasn’t looking. I’d finally caved, reluctantly admitting that I needed one for graduation, but only on the condition that he let me pay for it myself.

We strolled down the sidewalk, hand in hand. I felt like we’d walked for miles – he was wearing me out. He stopped without warning, causing me to pitch forward from uncontrolled momentum. He looked up at the sign above the storefront we were standing by. Grateful Threads. Oh, Lord…

“Let’s go in here,” he said, tugging on my hand. I complied, though not without hesitation. We entered the store, a cluttered mass of hippie-chick and stoner paraphernalia. Slightly scratchy, loud music blared over the speakers. I stopped, listening carefully to decipher the artist. The Dead, of course, covering Easy to Love You. I smiled. Taylor wandered to the back, and I opted to stay closer to the front, eyeing a table full of intricately quilted messenger bags.

“Alley, come here,” he piped up. I walked back, side-stepping around the racks and tables of junk.

“Taylor, if you’re wanting a poncho, I think I may have to disown you,” I said. He rolled his eyes.

“No. Check this out,” he said, holding up a Santa figurine and grinning. As I stepped closer, I could see that Santa was wearing blue jeans with a pink flower on the knee, and was flashing the peace sign. He also looked a little stoned, which I found rather disturbing, considering Santa was supposed to be about being good, and all.

“That’s hideous,” I said. “Who would buy that?”

The insulted look on his face answered that question for me. “Oh, no. You’re not getting that, are you?” I asked in disbelief. “Taylor…”

“What? Mom would love this! It’s so quirky…”

“Your mom would love a stoned Santa? No wonder you turned out the way you did…”

He swatted me, laughing, and walked off to peruse the rest of the store. I hung around the register, waiting, admiring the various pins and buttons scattered all over the display. They were all brightly colored, with cute little sayings on each one. BONGS, NOT BOMBS. I AM LOVED. FUCK THE WAR. GROOVY. PEACE NOW. HAVE A NICE DAY. The ‘groovy’ one was rather cute, and I picked it up, flipping it over to examine the back.

“Alright, I guess I’m ready,” Taylor said, coming to stand beside me. To my chagrin, he still had that silly Santa figurine. “What are you looking at?”

“These pins,” I said. “They’re kinda cute.”

He took the ‘groovy’ pin from my hand and inspected it, nodding his approval. He handed it back and began to look through the rest of them. “I’m gonna go ahead and get this,” I said, stepping over to the cash register before he could protest. Luckily, he seemed to be somewhat distracted by the buttons. When I had paid for my purchase, I wandered to the front of the store to look around some more while I waited on him. Minutes later, we were back on the sidewalk outside, continuing our trek. Taylor smirked at me.

“Here,” he said. “I want you to wear this.” He suddenly pulled something out of his bag and leaned over, his hands fumbling with the soft material of my shirt. I looked down at them, curious, and realized that he’d made a button purchase of his own. I AM LOVED. He pinned it to the fabric and grinned maniacally.

“Is this your way of branding me?” I asked. “To let everyone know I’m taken?” I laughed uproariously at that. As if there would be anyone else wanting to ‘take’ me. Taylor pretty much had that market all bought up.

“Something like that, yes… I think you should wear it all the time…”

“Sort of like The Scarlett Letter… only I’m wearing a button,” I murmured. Taylor looked confused.

“What?”

“Nevermind. That was a nerd reference.” I smiled to myself.

“Right,” he said, rolling his eyes. “So, are we ready to head back to the hotel?”

“Almost,” I said. “There’s one more place we have to go… we’ll have to drive there, though, it’s a few streets over.” He nodded, and we headed back to the car.

A few minutes later, I pulled into a parking space at Lynn’s Paradise Café. Taylor got out, eyeing the brightly colored scheme of the building, and warily followed me towards the door.

“What is this place?” he asked suspiciously.

“It’s a restaurant… and a store. They have the weirdest shit here,” I said.

“And what makes you think I want to look at weird shit?”

“You just bought a hippie Santa figurine!”

He laughed at my exasperation as I dragged him inside. The décor of the Lynn’s could be summed up in two words – primary colors. Everything was done in bright, cheery reds, yellows and blues. I immediately wandered over to the clothes section. They had some of the strangest-looking shit… I picked up a pair of obnoxious pink-plaid pants, and grimaced. Jeez, they could have given Taylor’s ugly pants from the Fillmore video a run for their money… I quickly hung it back on the rack and kept searching. I looked through all the pants and shirts, but nothing caught my eye.

However, when I came to the hat rack, that changed – amid the standard stuff you see at most crazy stores – fedoras, Jamiroquai-style hats, sombreros – was single-handedly the ugliest piece of headwear I’d ever seen. Honestly, who is going to wear a silver-sequined cowboy hat? I snickered, picking it up and looking around for Taylor.

He was in the back, next to the door that led into the restaurant, staring at action figures of some sort. I snuck behind him and quickly jammed the hat down on his fluffy blond hair. “You have to buy this,” I declared.

He turned. “What the hell did you just put on my head?”

“There’s a mirror over there… go look.” I grinned.

He eyed me suspiciously, slowing walking over to see. I watched, eager to see his horrified reaction. I wasn’t disappointed. The mirror was on a display of sunglasses, and he glanced in it, eyes widening in horror.

“What the…” he quickly snatched it off, scowling at me as I sauntered over.

“What? You don’t like it?”

“This looks like something Elton John would wear…”

“And what’s wrong with that? Elton John is very talented…”

“Uh, and he’s also very gay… and flamboyant.”

“Nothing wrong with that, either,” I said. I really wanted to add And who are you to talk about being flamboyant? but decided against it. “Fine… I’ll put it back.”

“Please do.” While I replaced the hat, he wandered back to the table he’d been standing at before I interrupted him.

I walked up to the counter, studying the jewelry on display. There was a box of mood rings next to the register, and I picked one up, curious. The large stone in the middle of it was red, and as I slipped it on, I watched it morph first into purple, then a bright, royal blue. I held out my hand, inspecting it. Hmmm. There was a chart on the display, and I quickly skimmed through it, looking for the ‘meaning’ of blue. There were four phrases under my color – Relaxed, At ease, Calm, Lovable. I grinned. Wow, for once I actually agreed.

“Ready to go?” Taylor asked, coming up to join me. I turned around, shoving my hand in his face.

“Look! According to this ring, I’m relaxed, at ease, calm, and lovable,” I said. “What do you think?”

The expression on his face then was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was indescribable, a combination of emotions I couldn’t possibly begin to name. I watched, puzzled, as he slowly took my hand, holding it in his, palm down, and studied the bright blue stone. He didn’t say anything for a long while, until finally, I nudged him. “Taylor?” I asked hesitantly.

He snapped back to attention. “Oh. Sorry, I was thinking. Yeah. Relaxed? Good.” He smiled. “That’s what this whole trip was for.”

I shrugged, slowly removing the ring and dropping it back in the box. “Well,” I said. “I’m ready to head back.”

*****

Later, we found ourselves at Joe’s Crab Shack, down by the river. We’d chosen patio seating, since the night was appropriately cool and clear. Taylor had worn a light suede blazer with his jeans, something which I had teased him about before we left the hotel, but now I wished I’d brought some sort of jacket. Or at least worn long sleeves.

I leaned back in my chair, having just stuffed down a large plate of Alaskan King crab legs. “Mmmm,” I sighed. “That was good.”

“Yeah…” he murmured, staring somewhere behind my head, chin resting on his hands. His eyes had a sort of faraway, dreamy look to them, and his lips were curved in just the barest hint of a smile. I resisted the urge to turn around and find what he was looking at. The river was behind me, and I was sure he was staring at the bridge, all lit up and sparkling in the night sky. I leaned my head back, letting it rest on the chair, and stared up at the stars. Neither one of us spoke for a long while, just enjoying the comfortable sounds of chatter from the people around us.

When he spoke again, his voice was soft, contemplative. “Alley,” he said. “Do you think we’re the only ones?”

I slowly lowered my head down, meeting his gaze. “Only ones?” I repeated.

He fiddled with his fork, tapping it lightly against his glass of Coke. “You know… that this has happened to. You know.”

I did know, but I liked to annoy him. “Happened to?”

He pursed his lips and gave me a look. “I’m being serious.” Realizing that he wasn’t in his usual joking mood, I straightened up.

“Why?” I asked. “Why do you ask?”

 “I just wonder sometimes. I mean…” he paused, thinking. “It’s just so… strange. Uncanny. Unreal.”

This is normally where I would have said something along the lines of ‘Strange? Yeah, I know you are’ but the sincerity of his face stopped me. “Yeah,” I agreed. “It is. Beyond strange. But I don’t know if there are others.”

“I mean, the way it worked out…” He looked at me, and I felt a shiver as his eyes locked with mine. “Why me? Why you?”

“Why not?” Actually, I had thought about this before. I still hadn’t come up with a reasonable explanation, but to be honest, I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care how or why it happened, I was just glad that it did. For both of us.

“Well… what do you think? Don’t you ever wonder why?”

“Yeah.” I took a long drink of my Coke, thinking. “Well… I thought about this, after you first woke up… when I read about how well you were doing. I mean, you said when you woke the doctors told you that you were a miracle. You could walk, and talk, and you recovered so quickly… regained your voice… you’re still, well, sane… I think that you were given a chance, by some higher power, to keep your body and mind going…” I wasn’t sure if I was making any sense, but I plowed on. “I mean, think about it. While you were with me, you were walking and talking and thinking and everything. So when you ‘woke up’, though to everyone else, you’d been unresponsive for two years, but in reality, you were exercising those abilities the whole time...” I stopped again, gathering my scattered thoughts.

He frowned slightly, as if he didn’t really like my answer. “So… what you’re saying is… this whole situation was just a method to ensure that I would return to normal when I woke up? A way to keep me going until my body caught up with my soul? And you were just there for the ride?”

“…I’m not done yet, Taylor,” I scolded him, smiling. “I think that was only part of it. A bonus. But really… I mean, on the day you, um, arrived, we both sort of needed someone… I remember, after the incident with Jay…” I grimaced, still not understanding how I’d ever had a thing for that loser. “And before going to bed that night, thinking that my life was such a joke and that I’d never be happy. And then there was you…” I tipped my glass towards him, and he raised one perfectly arched eyebrow. “Who was completely lost, and alone, and desperately needed a friend…” I took another drink. “So… we were brought together, by whoever is up there running the show…”

He stared at me. “So you think it was a coincidence? That if, say, Louise had been the one who’d had her heart broken, or even your neighbor Jessica, or some random girl from, like, Maine, that I would have come to them, and not you?”

I was surprised at the way those words sent my blood running cold. I’d never even thought of it that way, of who he could have gone to instead… oh, God… what if he had gone to someone else? Would he have fallen in love with her? I stared down at my empty plate. “I… I don’t know,” I finally answered. “I don’t really want to think about that.”

When I looked up, he was smiling. He reached over, picking up my hand, which had been nervously tapping the side of the glass as I spoke, and kissed it. “Me, either,” he said.

The waitress came to the table, picking up our check. When she left, Taylor stood up, apparently ready for a new setting and a new discussion. “Let’s walk down by the river,” he said suddenly. I immediately looked down at my cute, but uncomfortable sandals.

“Walk? These shoes weren’t made for walking, Taylor…”

“Come on,” he insisted. “It’s cool outside and the view is gorgeous. I want to see the river.”

I gave in. “Alright,” I said. “But if my feet start hurting, you’re carrying me.”

He smiled. “Deal.”

We left the restaurant and made our way down to the sidewalk – it was sort of the equivalent to a boardwalk at the beach. He took my hand, lacing his long, warm fingers through mine, squeezing lightly. He had his other hand stuffed inside his coat pocket, I noticed. Odd.

“Are you cold?” I asked.

“Not really…” I shrugged and let it go. We kept walking, eventually coming upon a small park, empty at this time of night. There was a line of fountains shooting streams of water in small arcs across the pavement, and I restrained myself from wanting to pull him into the middle of them. We wandered past, studying the jungle gyms and slides that shone in the faint light. He led me over to the one closest to the river, and we sat on a ledge, legs dangling over, side by side. On the other side of the water, the lights from houses and tall buildings dotted the sky. It reminded me of the Lite-Brite I’d gotten from my father when I was seven… just tiny pinpoints of light, against an inky black backdrop.

I leaned against him running my free hand up and down his arm. “Thank you for this trip. I’ve had fun.” I looked up at him and smiled. “Got my mind off graduation, at the very least…”

“You’re welcome.” I sighed softly as his lips, warm and moist, met mine. He shifted, turning to face me, resting his forehead against the crowd of my head. His arms reached out and snaked around my waist. “I think you’re wrong,” he said suddenly.

I was a little startled at that uncharacteristic declaration. “Wrong? About what?”

“Your theory… about us. I don’t agree.”

“Okay…” I relaxed my arms as he moved back so he could look me in the eye. “Well then, Mr. Hanson, do tell your thoughts…”

He stuffed both hands in his coat pockets and sort of tucked his knees under his body as he spoke. “Don’t you believe in fate, Alley? I know you do, you’ve asked me about it before.”

“Yeah…” A memory of a conversation, long ago, popped into my head. Asking Alex if he believed in it and getting a negative answer… asking Taylor the same… and getting a ‘Yes’… “Well, I guess I kinda do now, anyway.”

“So why would you think this is a coincidence?” he asked. “It can’t be. I don’t believe that. You want to know what I think?”

“Yes.”

He cocked his head to the side, smiling softly at me. “We were supposed to be together. You were made for me, and vice versa… and this is just how He chose to put us together, so we could learn to love each other. It’s too perfect to be a coincidence. It’s too right. I have never felt this way about anyone before, not even close. And I can’t even imagine feeling this way about anyone else, ever.”

Did he have any idea what those words did to me? How they made me want to burst into huge, ridiculous tears of happiness and throw myself at his feet? I pursed my lips together, trying to keep that from happening. How was I supposed to match something like that? There just wasn’t a sufficient reply. Instead, I scooted over and planted myself on his lap, burying my face in his neck. He laughed softly, withdrawing his hands from his pockets and hugging me, softly running his palms up and down my back.

He was sort of rocking back and forth, the way people do when they’re really anxious or really sick, which actually made me feel a little dizzy. I looked up, concerned at his fidgeting, and noticed his face was glowing in the soft moonlight – glowing with sweat.

“Taylor!” I exclaimed. “Oh my God, are you okay?”

He smiled tentatively, reaching out and tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “Yeah… I’m okay.” I didn’t believe that for a second. He looked like he was getting ready to throw up, or pass out, or – oh, God. What if he passed out? Had another blackout? He’d claimed he didn’t have to worry about that anymore, but really, you never knew about that sort of thing… what would I do?

“Was it something you ate? You look really sick…” I said nervously. I suddenly wanted to get back to civilization, back to some place where there were lots of people around. The thought of him losing consciousness out here, in the dark, with no one around, terrified me. I didn’t even have my phone with me, as I hadn’t brought my purse. “Come on. Let’s go back. You need to lie down.”

“What?” he seemed completely surprised at that, and a little appalled. “Alley… I’m fine…”

“Taylor, you’re sweating,” I said. “That’s not normal, even for you. It’s scaring me.” I stood up, grabbing his hands and pulling him off the jungle gym.

“But--”

“But what? It’s getting late, anyhow…”

He didn’t answer, just wrapped his arms behind my back and leaned on me, resting his head on mine. The side of my face was pressed up against his chest, and even through his shirt and coat, I could feel his heart thumping rapidly, as if he’d just run the hundred-meter dash. I squeezed him. “Let’s go,” I whispered. “Please?”

He finally nodded, sighing, tipping my face up and giving me a long, leisurely kiss. “Okay,” he whispered, sounding, for some reason, saddened; defeated. I kept my arm firmly around his waist as we walked back, supporting him, and wondering why he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong.

*****

I stepped out of the bathroom, freshly showered and blown dry. I was wearing one of the white plush robes the hotel provided, which sort of felt like being wrapped in a soft, fluffy blanket. I walked into the bedroom, where Taylor was relaxing on the bed, leaning back against the headboard, watching TV. He looked much better now, inside the safety of the hotel room. The color had returned to his face, his skin was dry, and he finally looked relaxed. I drew closer, and he looked up, giving me one of those million-watt smiles.

We were meant to be together… of course. He was right, he had to be. I hopped on the bed and crawled towards him. He opened his arms and drew me closer until I was right next to him, resting my head on his shoulder.

“What are you watching?” I asked.

“Saturday Night Live. It’s a rerun, though…” He yawned. I snuggled even closer, drawing my legs up close to my chest, and finally just throwing them across his lap. His hand automatically reached for them, softly running up and down my shin. “Wow. You actually shaved!” he teased me.

“I did. And I don’t shave for all my boyfriends, so you should feel particularly special…” He laughed at that, and I felt relieved that he seemed to be normal again. God, he had scared me there for a minute, back at the park…

“Taylor?” I said as SNL cut to a commercial.

“Yeah?”

“I like your theory better,” I said. “And I think I agree. Because I feel the same way…”

His arms tightened around me, and I closed my eyes, feeling drowsy. “Good,” he whispered softly. “That’s good to know.”