Chapter 72: Wait Until Tomorrow

Taylor
The following week


When I’d left 825 Reynolds Road, I thought I’d finally left the Louise Sorrell no-nonsense lectures behind.

Wishful thinking? Yeah, you could say that. I should have known better.

“So, Taylor.” The sharp, clipped way in which Louise said my name made me groan aloud. Why the hell did Alexander Graham Bell have to invent the telephone, anyway? The damn machine had never given me anything but headaches. I made a mental note to invest in Caller ID so that in the future, I would know better than to answer when certain people called. I slouched down in the cushions of our sofa, cupping the phone against my cheek and preparing for the inevitable. I was alone in the apartment, and therefore had no excuse to escape. Might as well make myself comfortable, because this was no doubt going to take awhile. “When are you planning to tell your family?”

I stared gloomily at the clock on the wall, wishing that Alley would hurry up and get home. She’d gone to the store to pick up a few things, but had insisted I stay behind, because as she’d put it, she didn’t feel like dispersing a small riot today. I had reluctantly agreed with her – sometimes even something as simple as going to the grocery could be a full-scale event, in my case – but now I was beginning to think I’d rather be dealing with a gaggle of teeny girls than one soon-to-be-pissed-off mother hen.

“Soon,” I said, though I knew my vagueness wouldn’t fly with her. Louise liked plans. Details. Hell, carefully drawn maps and flowcharts, if necessary. Like a fucking drill sergeant. I knew what was coming – a full-on sermon about precisely when, where, and how this announcement would go down. And then probably a back-up plan in case the first one failed. Though truthfully, I would have thought by now that Louise would have realized that nothing I ever attempted to plan went the way it was supposed to, so why bother?

“Soon? Let’s make that a little more specific, Taylor,” Louise said, her voice deep and drawling. And just a little bit condescending, I might add.

“I told her we’d tell Mom and Dad the next time we went over there,” I said.

“And what about your brothers? And when is the next time you’re going over there?”

“Jesus!” I said. “What’s with the third degree? Who are you, Barbara Walters?”

“Answer the questions.”

“I don’t know… when they invite us again? And I’d really rather talk to Mom and Dad first before anyone else…”

Louise’s irritated sigh was loud and clear, even over the sporadic static of the line. “Taylor, I swear…”

“What?!” The sound of a car rumbling closer caught my attention, and I eagerly sat up. Alley? Isaac? Zac? Anyone? Fuck, I would have been glad to see Charles Manson at the door, if it meant I could get off the hook, both figuratively and literally… I leapt off the couch and peeked out the window – no such luck, it was only our next-door neighbor. Shit.

“Have you learned nothing from me?” Louise demanded, her voice startling me back into the conversation. I slowly retreated back to the couch, chagrined at the missed opportunity. “This is not a passive issue. You can’t just wait around until you feel like doing this. Because honestly, you could wait a year from now before telling and it would be just as hard. I mean, I have friends who dated for years and were still terrified to tell their parents when they decided to get married…”

Ugh. Why did she always have to make so much damn sense? “I know,” I said, realizing that I was beginning to sound like a whiny little kid. “And I’m not just putting it off. I’ll have you know that I was the one who wanted to tell them the next time, and I convinced her.” I felt like adding an immature ‘So there’ but managed to restrain myself. “So I can promise you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it will be soon.”

“Right,” Louise replied smoothly. “But let me just remind you that the last time you said you would do a certain something ‘soon’, it ended up being two months before you did it. And that was with me poking you in the back with a cattle prod the entire time.”

I scowled at her completely unnecessary reference to my proposal fears. “That was different.”

“Different how? I know how you are, Taylor.” Louise was getting fired up, her voice rising a half-octave above its normal range. Lord, here we go. “You’re the king of procrastination. How long did it take for you to even admit to yourself that you liked her? Months. How long before you finally told her how you felt? Months. And then, how long between dragging me to Tiffany’s that June morning and actually asking her?” She paused; I assumed for some sort of dramatic effect. “Do I detect a pattern here?”

I was really, really beginning to wish that I’d never bothered to answer the damn phone in the first place. An hour of shrill, non-stop ringing would be heaven compared to listening to a long list of my deficiencies when it came to Alley and love. “Actually, it was your idea to go to Tiffany’s, not mine,” I said, deciding to correct the small error in her little speech. “So technically, you dragged me there…”

Utter silence for about ten seconds. “You’re the most infuriating man I’ve ever met,” she finally barked at me. “How the hell does she put up with your shit?”

Actually, I wondered that myself on occasion. “Louise, chill,” I said in a more soothing tone. “The end result is going to be the same regardless of when we tell them. Telling them tonight versus telling them tomorrow versus telling them next week is not going to affect anything. It’s just whenever we happen to go over there next…”

“And what does Alley say about all this?” Louise asked abruptly, veering off into another subject entirely. “What does she think you should do?”

I was startled by the sudden tangent, and it took me a moment to answer. “She’s scared to death,” I admitted, imagining the adorably panicked expression Alley’s face took on whenever I broached the subject. “She’s imagining the worst, naturally.”

“I know,” she said casually.

I blinked at her flippant tone. “You know?”

“Of course, Taylor! I lived with the girl for five years, I can tell when she’s stressed. Not to mention she told me…”

“What? What did she say?” I asked softly. I curled up, tucking the phone under my chin. I’d known Alley was nervous, but to be upset enough to cause Louise to chew me out? Maybe it was more serious than I thought…

“Let me put it to you this way. ‘Imagining the worst’, as you put it, sort of stresses her out. And since she doesn’t have a job or any other distractions now, having all this extra time waiting around allows her to spend more of that time ‘imagining the worst’…”

I finally comprehended where this line of reasoning was heading. “Oh…” I sighed.

Louise kept going. “…which you know, means that she stays stressed out even more. Which really can’t be good for her overall mental health, and--”

“Is she okay?” I interrupted. I suddenly felt like the world’s worst boyfriend – well, make that fiancé… my other half was truly suffering from the pressure and I’d just chalked it up to typical nerves. She’d been so antsy, I’d just assumed that she wouldn’t mind waiting around until the right opportunity presented itself. “I feel like an ass…” Funny, I always felt that way after talking to Louise…

“I won’t say what I really want to say to that,” she said. “But my point is, it’s best for both of your sakes to do it as soon as possible. I know it’s got to be eating you up inside, too, Taylor… you need to start planning what you’re going to say… get ready for the shocked reaction…”

I rolled over a little on the cushions, resting my head on one of the loose pillows strewn across the couch. Louise’s point was an accurate one – truth be told, I was nervous about the whole ordeal, as well, though I felt I was doing a pretty good job of hiding that. Both my parents had wholeheartedly approved of her – especially Mom, who found Alley’s awkwardness and sly humor to be incredibly endearing, though that was no surprise to me. After all, hadn’t I been the one telling Alley all year that my mother would simply love her, even before we were dating? That had been the one thing I’d been sure of during this entire situation…

Regardless, I understood that ‘girlfriend approval’ didn’t necessarily warrant ‘fiancée approval’. Particularly when said fiancée had only been in the picture (to them, anyway) for, oh… two months.

Maybe Louise was right. Maybe I should start planning this all out, and go into it prepared… set a time to do it, come up with some good arguments and reasons why Alley and I were ready. Try and make our impending nuptials sound rational and necessary, which in my opinion they were, and not totally out of the blue or foolish…

But really, what could I tell them that would swing their opinions our way? That could get them 100% behind us on this? At the moment, I really couldn’t conjure up any plausible parent-friendly rationales why they should approve, other than, of course, the obvious way we were so perfect for each other.

Fuck, all this thinking was giving me a headache.

“Oooh,” I groaned. “God, this is stressing me out…”

“And that’s what I’m here for,” Louise said breezily. “So listen, I’ve got a few suggestions…”

I snorted. Of course. The girl was just looking for an excuse to boss me around. Jesus, how did Steve handle her? He had to have been the world’s most patient man…

“Fine,” I sighed. “I’m listening.” Settling back into the cushions, I listened quietly as Louise enlightened me with her wisdom.

*****

“Taylor? Where are you?”

I groggily raised my head from the pillow at Alley’s uncertain tone, licking my lips. How long have I been asleep? I struggled to focus my eyes, trying to read the clock on the far wall. After Louise had finally relinquished me from her clutches – rather amazing that she had that sort of power over me, really, considering she was more than 700 miles away – I’d been so exhausted I’d just closed my eyes and fallen asleep. Rest well deserved, in my opinion.

“In here,” I called out. I blinked a few times, rolling over to watch Alley stroll into the room. “Hey,” I said softly. She lit up when she saw me, chuckling softly as I grunted and tried to shift onto my side, so I could fully see her. I propped my head up on one hand, smiling languidly at her.

“Napping?” she said, crossing her arms with mock sternness. “And you say I’m the lazy one…”

“You are,” I replied, though the yawn that escaped directly after I said that wasn’t helping my cause any. “I was just… resting my eyes…”

She laughed. “Of course.” I beckoned her closer with a crook of my finger, and she immediately walked over to me, planting herself down on the edge of the cushions. “Resting your eyes, while I’m out doing your errands…” She reached up, running her fingers through my tangled hair; the affectionate gesture a direct juxtaposition to her snarky, amused words. I closed my eyes, melting under her ministrations.

“Somehow, I don’t think grocery shopping falls under my errands, honey,” I murmured. “You were more than happy to go alone…” I slowly lifted my lids, offering her a raised eyebrow.

“True.” She smiled broadly, and I knew, instantly, that there were probably five boxes of Twinkies getting ready to make their way into our cabinet. There was no telling what she’d bought… no wonder she wanted to go by herself. Who was there to stop her from a rampant junk food binge?

I smiled back at her, resting one hand possessively on her back. “So?” I asked after a moment. “Did anyone bother you?”

The smile faded for just an instant – but enough to let me know the answer to that question. “What happened?” I asked immediately before she could answer.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Alley…” I sat up a little, forcing her to meet my eyes.

“A couple of girls followed me around the store, but they didn’t say anything. I think they took some pictures, though…” she trailed off. “But really, nothing happened. It just weirded me out a little…”

I don’t get it; I just don’t get it. The lengths some people will go to out of curiosity… they could follow me around all they wanted… whatever, I was used to it. But when it came to Alley, the thought of overzealous fans hounding her on the most mundane of errands was enough to make me want to throttle someone. It made me feel overprotective…

I sighed heavily. “Jesus. Alley, I’m sorry… Fuck, I don’t know why people have to--”

“Taylor--”

“—you know, you don’t have to put up with that shit. Next time, just--”

“—it’s okay, Taylor,” she cut in. “It wasn’t a big deal. I handled it fine.” She forced her lips into a smile, obviously struggling to look casual. It wasn’t fooling me for a minute…

“You don’t look fine,” I said quietly. “Listen, honey… those girls… they’re – they’re…” I grappled with the right phrasing – ‘jealous bitches’ was truthfully the most accurate term, but I felt a little guilty describing girls who had willingly given us their money that way. “They’re just jealous, or curious, and most of them don’t know their limits. If they start bothering you, just tell them to leave you alone, it’s okay…”

“Taylor, it’s okay,” she said. “I told you, I handled it.” She grinned again, this time much more genuine, and the mischief returned to her voice. “You would have been proud of me. I didn’t cuss at them or anything…”

“Your restraint is impressive…” I said dryly. I decided to let the topic die for now, as it was fairly obvious that Alley wasn’t going to budge on this one. I forced myself into a full sitting position, pulling her into a hug. “…considering you can’t keep from cussing at me on a regular basis…”

“And it’s all deserved.” She gave me a fierce, typical Alley-style hug, nearly crushing my neck in the process, and kissed the soft skin just in front of my ear. When she leaned back, she raked several long strands of hair away from my forehead and smiled. “So what are we doing tonight?”

“Hadn’t really thought about it. What do you want to do?” I paused. “Well, Ike said something earlier about grilling hamburgers… I guess we could hang around and eat with them… after that, it doesn’t matter. What do you think?”

“Hmmm…” she pursed her lips. “That sounds good…” She paused. “This sounds a little silly, but… could we go for a drive tonight?”

“A drive?” I repeated. “To where?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know… just around. You can show me the city…” She smiled. “I just don’t feel that acclimated yet, I guess. I don’t know where anything is. I can get to Kroger and back, but that’s about it…”

I laughed. “That’s all that matters, isn’t it?” I teased her. “But yeah, okay. We’ll go cruising tonight.”

She leaned forward, gently kissing my nose. It amazed me sometimes, the way this brash, sassy girl could be so affectionate and sweet when she wanted to. A lovely contradiction… “Thanks,” she murmured. Straightening up, she glanced over at the clock. “So what time are they getting home?”

“Beats me,” I said. “I’m not my brothers’ keeper, literally. You should have learned by now that we generally stay out of each other’s business.”

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. In that case, I’m gonna go take a nap. Wake me up when they get back and start fixing stuff.” With that demand in place, she stood up, preparing to leave the room.

“I told you you were lazy,” I called after her, grinning. She flipped me off as she disappeared into the hallway, and I laughed. Alternatively sweet and sour, what a combination. God, I loved her…

I rolled onto my back, staring at the ceiling. I probably should have gone ahead and told her about my conversation with Louise… though truthfully, I was still trying to get all the details straight in my mind. Oh, well… we could talk later. Let her get a little rest… because she was surely going to need it once I told her about the infinite suggestions Louise had demanded I take... Hell, as far as that went, maybe I should take another nap, too…

“Jesus,” I sighed aloud, reaching for the remote. God give us strength.

*****

“Here, Taylor. Take this plate back inside,” Isaac said. He was hovering over the grill, watching the burgers like a hawk. That’s Ike for you, always worried over every little thing. Like he couldn’t have taken thirty seconds away from the grill to take the plate inside… Nevertheless, I grabbed the dirty dish and took it in, loading it into the dishwasher. It wouldn’t be long until dinner would be ready… I’d woken Alley up about thirty minutes ago, but she’d been so out of it (she was infamously difficult to wake from slumber) that I hadn’t gotten the chance to speak with her yet on coherent terms.

I strolled back outside onto the deck. “So,” I said casually. “What else is there?” I’d been helping Isaac out with dinner, since it became apparent that Zac wasn’t going to bother, but it seemed for now that things were pretty much ready. The fries were cooling on a plate, the table was all set, the drinks were filled… And damn, I was getting hungry.

Isaac swiveled his head to glance back at me. “Nothing, I guess,” he said. “Just waiting on these to finish up.” He beckoned towards the grill with the spatula.

“Alright. Well, I’m going upstairs,” I said. “Yell at us when it’s ready.” He agreed, and I went back in, searching for my other brother, just to do a double-check of his whereabouts. Zac was sitting on the couch, staring blandly at the TV. He was no doubt watching some ridiculous countdown on VH1, like 40 Most Awesomely Bad Love Songs or Metal’s Biggest Hair Moments or some other brain-rotting bullshit. God, television nowadays was such a complete wasteland. I thought about stopping to remind him of that, but then thought better of it. Isaac always said I antagonized Zac too much as it was, anyway…

He didn’t give me a second glance as I walked past the living room, and so I quickly went for the stairs, hopping up them two at a time. The light was on in my room, and I could hear the faint sounds of Stevie Ray Vaughn floating from within. I crept closer, peering in the doorway. Alley was sitting on my bed, lounging with a sketchpad and box of colored pencils, her eyes intent and focused on her work. She’d taken to sketching lately, as it was an easy, mobile hobby and there wasn’t enough space yet for all her paint supplies. She claimed it wasn’t something she was particularly good at, though I'd seen some of her sketches and disagreed. She looked almost childlike, her hair knotted back with a pen sticking out of it, and coltish legs sprawled out across the mattress. I just watched her for a moment, fascinated. She’d spied on me plenty of times while I was practicing, claiming she wanted to see ‘the creative process’ (which, in my case, generally involved a lot of frustrated fist-banging on the keys and various inventive curses), and so now it was sort of like I was returning the favor.

I smiled, watching her brow furrow in frustration as she apparently made a mistake. Scowling, she ripped out the offending sheet from the sketch pad, wadded it up, and threw it ferociously against the wall. Creative process, indeed.

“Hey now,” I said gently, keeping my tone light and teasing. “There’s a $500 fine for littering...”

She glanced up, surprised to see me. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Watching you, what’s it look like?” I walked into the room and sat down on the bed beside her. The springs sank and creaked softly under my weight. “You’re cute when you’re angry…”

She rolled her eyes. “Taylor, sometimes the words that come out of your mouth amaze me.” She grinned, flipping to a fresh page in her pad. “And not always in a good way.”

A prime example of another thing my mother had commented on – I’d finally found a girl capable of keeping my ego in check. The various Taylor-centric cracks Alley had made during the family dinner, however unintentional they had been, had definitely won her points in Mom’s favor, as well as pretty much everyone in the Hanson clan. Apparently they all liked to see me taken down a peg or two.

“I can never win with you, can I?” I murmured, reaching over to tickle the bottom of her feet. She squealed, tucking her legs under and curling up into a little ball, sort of like a frightened spider. I laughed at her overreaction, hopping up on my knees and preparing a full-fledge assault, before I remembered that we had some important business to attend to. Right. If we got started wrestling around, there was no telling when we would stop, or how we would end up… and since both my brothers were downstairs, that could make for something of an awkward situation…

I reluctantly back away. “Hey, listen,” I said, leaning back on my haunches. She stopped cowering and looked up at me expectantly, her body slowly relaxing once she realized I wasn’t going to tickle her. When I failed to finish that sentence, she raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah? I’m listening, Taylor,” she said, carefully laying her pad and box of pencils on the nightstand. She turned back to face me, her features somber – but only for a moment. She suddenly grinned, and I waited for the next obligatory acerbic remark at my expense. “A concept that you don’t know that much about, but I digress…” Bingo.

“Brat,” I murmured. I readjusted until I was sitting down normally beside her. “But I’m being serious. We need to talk about…” I trailed off for a moment. “…you know…”

Her grin instantly flattened. “Oh,” she said quietly, looking down and picking at an invisible piece of lint on her shorts. “Okay…”

I smiled ruefully. “Don’t look so excited, Alley…”

The corners of her lips arced up, just barely. “I am excited,” she said gently. “About everything that comes after we tell them.” She leaned over, wiping something off my upper cheek. “It’s just the flabbergasted freak-out that I’m not looking forward to…”

“Well, it’s better to get it over and done with,” I said with forced cheer, reciting all the crap Louise had spouted off at me earlier. “The sooner the better. No time like the present, right?”

“Right,” she said dryly. “So we should bite the bullet, grab the bull by the horns, seize the day, or any number of encouraging clichés you can come up with?” She shook her head. “That’s not helping me any, Taylor.”

I loved this girl more than anything in the world, but there were times when I seriously wanted to shake some sense into her. “Alley, I’m serious,” I said pointedly. “We’ve got to do it soon.”

She began to get squirmy and restless, finally just standing up and nervously pacing the room. “I know, Taylor, I know…” She glanced at the door, stopping for a minute. “Where’s Isaac and Zac?”

“I already checked on them. Isaac’s still outside cooking and Zac is in a zombie-like state in front of the TV. We’re fine, Alley, stop worrying, they can’t hear. And I told them to yell at us when it was ready…”

She took a few steps towards the door. “I’m gonna go check again anyway, just in case…”

“Oh, no you don’t.” In one swift move, I had risen from the bed and dashed over to her. Knowing Alley, if I let her out of my sight for whatever reason, she would probably just go and hide somewhere to avoid this conversation. I wrapped my arms around her, ignoring her squealing protests. I lifted up her skinny frame and hauled her back to the bed, setting her down. “You’re not escaping. I told you, everything’s under control. Now, we have some decisions to make…”

She licked her lips nervously. “Decisions?”

“Yes. Decisions that we are going to make together, without you hiding from me.” I stood directly in front of her, blocking any chance she might have to flee again, and gave her a stern look.

She sighed and groaned, rubbing her eyes. “What kind of ‘decisions’ are we talking about here?”

“Well… we agreed we’d tell them the next time we go over there. So… when is the next time?”

“How about…” she stopped to think, and for a moment, I actually thought she was going to give a serious answer. Well, shows how naïve I am. “January 11, 2005?”

I refrained from rolling my eyes. “I was thinking more along the lines of… tomorrow.”

“TOMORROW?!”

“Stop screaming,” I whispered, poking her ribs. “Yes, tomorrow.”

Her mouth dropped, forming a perfect ‘O’. “You’ve already made up your mind! What the hell was all that shit you just said about making these decisions together!?”

“What?” I asked defensively. “We can choose another day if you like…” I paused. “Preferably, one during this year, but I really think tomorrow would be best…”

“Ooooh!” She fell over on her side in a dramatic fashion, burying her face in the comforter. “Taylor, I’m not ready…”

“You’ll never be ready,” I said, essentially repeating Louise’s words to me. “It’s going to be nerve-wracking no matter when it happens, so like I said, best to go ahead and get the hard part over with… after that, it’ll be fine. After the initial shock, smooth sailing.”

“God, you sound like Louise. It’s irritating,” Alley grumbled, her voice muffled by the bedspread.

“There’s a good reason for that,” I sighed. “Seeing how I talked to her earlier today…”

She finally lifted her face out of the bed, peering at me over her shoulder. “You did? When?”

“When you were at the store. She called, and roped me into conversation…” I propped up on the bed beside her. “She said you all had talked about it,” I said quietly. “And that it would be best if we did it soon, because we’re both obviously cracking from the pressure… and that knowing was better than just waiting around…”

“Oh…” She closed her eyes momentarily. “Yeah, that sounds like her… making everything sound so simple…”

Too true. I nodded, chuckling a little. “So… I agree with her now. I was just going to wait until the right moment arrived – until the next time they invited us over – but I don’t know when that will be. So… I think we should take the initiative, invite ourselves over, and do it.” I reached out, tangling my hand in her hair, twirling a crazy curl around my finger. “I know it’s driving you crazy, and it is me, too. I’m at the point where I just want to be honest.”

“As honest as we can be,” she said dryly.

“Right.”

She sighed, taking a moment to collect her thoughts. Then she looked up at me, her eyes downcast. “But what if they hate me?”

I sighed. “I told you, they loved you. Mom thinks you’re fantastic…”

“Sure, maybe she does now,” Alley said. “But what about when she finds that I’m stealing her baby son away? What about when she finds out we’ve been lying to them? She’ll probably think I’m the spawn of Satan. A bad influence on your otherwise sparkling life…”

“For the record, my life has never exactly been sparkling,” I said dryly. “I’m better off with you around. You’ll keep me out of trouble.” I smiled, reaching over to squeeze her thigh reassuringly. “I think they know that.”

She actually smiled. “Keep you out of trouble? I don’t think anyone is capable of that…”

I raised an eyebrow. “Hey, it cuts both ways, you know. Do I need to remind you of your frequent brushes with disaster? We’d be here all night if you got me started…”

“Whatever.” She sat up, groaning, and fiercely rubbed her temple. “Fine, we’ll do it tomorrow.” She blinked, staring at a framed photo of us at Six Flags that I’d hung on the wall. “I can’t believe I just agreed to that…”

“Okay,” I said. “Next… we need to figure out how we’re going to break the news that we’re engaged. Well, how we’re going to say it, I mean…”

She didn’t reply to that, just kept staring at the wall. Finally, I prodded her. “Well?”

She shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine… I don’t really think there’s much we can do to soften the impact, as it were…”

“There’s got to be some way,” I said. “We can’t just go in and say ‘Hey Mom and Dad, meet your new future daughter-in-law!’ We need to build up to it…”

“‘Build up?’” she repeated. “Such as…?”

“That’s what I’m asking you for!”

You’re the one that’s good with words, Taylor, not me…”

When Alley and I argued, it generally tended to go like this – around and around in circles, never ending up at any certain point or solution. And, since we were both as stubborn as mules, neither of us was willing to concede. We could probably go on like this forever, until someone intervened. Damn, maybe I should have called Louise and put her on speakerphone, sort of as a moderator. She was good at cutting straight to the point…

I started to rebut her, but before I could form the appropriate words, I was cut off. By a deep, wry voice that was decidedly not Alley’s.

“So… when’s the date?”

Shit.

Alley and I froze, our eyes meeting in a simultaneous expression of horror. She blinked owlishly, her mouth parting ever-so-slightly. After a long moment, I managed to tear away from her gaze and focus on the source of that question. Zac, leaning against my doorway in his typical fashion; arms loosely folded, head cocked just to the side. What?! How in the hell had he snuck up on us? Usually that boy sounded like a thundering herd of elephants coming up the stairs… I licked my lips nervously. He’d heard us, that was blatantly obvious. Fuck! So much for planning… hadn’t I tried to tell Louise that something like this would happen?!

I stammered out a half-assed reply, watching with a sinking feeling as his smirk grew wider. “What? What date?” I asked with as much nonchalance as I could muster. I turned on the bed to completely face him, attempting to look innocent. Alley, meanwhile, remained frozen and immobile, as if she thought that maybe if she didn’t move, he wouldn’t actually notice her presence.

“Taylor, don’t play stupid. I heard the whole thing,” Zac said. “You’re engaged.”

At that, Alley finally reacted, groaning and covering her face in despair. I felt like doing the same, but I struggled to remain calm, ignoring the growing panic in my chest. Oh, God. What to do, what to say? There was no denying it or playing it off, not with Zac and his no-bullshit radar. I felt incredibly vulnerable – we were going to have to tell him the whole story, and I wasn’t looking forward to his reaction… not to mention he would have some prime blackmail material to use against me…

I opened my mouth to respond, but found that words refused to form. Zac, meanwhile, stayed silent, an expectant look on his face. Calmly waiting for me to explain whatever harebrained plan Alley and I had fallen into this time.

“Okay,” I said slowly, standing up. Alley followed, slowly dragging herself to her feet to join me. I opened my mouth again, but then realized I had no idea what else to say.

“Okay?” he repeated, incredulous. “Is that all you’re going to say?”

“Well, what did you expect?” I shot back in an accusatory tone, hoping to intimidate him. “What can I tell you that you haven’t already figured out by eavesdropping?”

Zac snorted. “Your door is open. You both sound like bellowing walruses. How the hell did you think I would not hear? It’s not like it took a great deal of effort,” he said, his voice far too dry for my liking. “Fuck, I’m surprised Ike isn’t up here giving you the third degree, too, because he probably heard it from outside.”

Alley scowled. “I do not sound like a walrus,” she said indignantly. I rolled my eyes – of all the things we’d just been told, that was her biggest issue? Before I could gently remind her that there were bigger priorities on our plate at that moment, she drew her tiny frame up and placed her hands on her hips. “How do you even know what a walrus sounds like, anyway?”

Zac raised an eyebrow. Yep, that was Zac, always willing to take on an argument, no matter how ridiculous. “For your information, I was watching the Discovery channel one day and they had a documentary on the walruses of the Pacific Ocean, and--”

“Forget the damn walrus,” I cut in, raising my hand sharply to end their discussion. “Okay, Zac. You caught us.” His eyes shot temporarily shot open in surprise, but I wasn’t sure if it was shock at the actual news or at my sudden bluntness. I reached over, gently pulling on Alley’s hand, drawing her forward with me as I took a few steps towards Zac. When we were close enough to be considered a huddle, I spoke again, still holding her hand. Well, time for Plan B. Whatever that was. Drawing up some courage, I forged ahead blindly. “I asked Alley to marry me two weeks ago.”

He uncrossed his arms, standing up a little straighter. “You’re serious,” he said. “Let me get this straight.  According to your story, you ‘forget’ her for a year, miraculously remember, date for two months, and now you want to get married?”

“Pretty much,” I said dryly, ignoring his reference to the unbelievability of our little tale. Hey, everyone else had swallowed it, so I didn’t know what the hell Zac’s problem with it was. Meanwhile, Alley fidgeted beside me, clearly wishing the floor would suddenly crack open and swallow her whole.

I expected another argument from him – the same sort of resistance I was fully expecting from my parents – but to my astonishment, it didn’t come. Instead, Zac just studied me thoughtfully, meeting my eyes for a long moment. He darted his gaze over to Alley, still silent, and then focused back on me. After what felt like an eon, he finally spoke.

“Mom and Dad are gonna freak,” he said casually. Alley looked horrified, throwing me an anxious look and crushing my hand in a death grip. I could practically hear what she was thinking: ‘Freak? FREAK?! You said it was going to be fine! You promised! Taylor!’ I attempted to give her a reassuring squeeze back, but it was sort of difficult when the bones of my hand felt like they were being ground up into ash.

“Isaac, too,” Zac continued. “He’ll think you’ve lost your fucking mind.”

“Who’s lost their fucking mind?”

The three of us turned slowly, in sync, to see the newest unwanted Hanson to enter the current discussion. Isaac was strolling up the stairs, looking as irritatingly cheerful as ever. “So what’re you guys doing? The burgers are ready,” he said, blissfully unaware of the bomb I was about to drop on him. When none of us answered, his smile faded. “What’s going on?”

“Taylor,” Zac said, “I believe you have something to tell the man.”

“What? Tell me what?” Isaac hopped up the last few steps, his face set and serious. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” I said. “Nothing’s wrong…” Well, not yet, unless you wanted to count the fact that I was about two seconds away from punching Zac in the face. “It’s, um… well… it can wait until later. It’s not a big deal.”

Zac guffawed. “Jesus Christ, Taylor! Pray tell, what do you define as a ‘big deal’ if that’s not it?”

“Could you stop being an asshole for two minutes?” I demanded. “It’s none of your fucking business! I’ll tell him when I’m ready!”

Zac did not react well to the ‘asshole’ comment, obviously. “None of my business? I beg to differ, brother. What you choose to do with your life affects the two of us too, you know,” Zac snapped.

“What the hell is going on?” Isaac’s voice was steadily rising an octave, matching mine and Zac’s heated words. He had that familiar, parental frenzy in his eyes. “One of you tell me, right now…”

“Taylor’s getting mar--”

“Zac, shut the fuck up!”

Fuck, Taylor, why don’t you grow some balls for once!”

WHAT?!”

“STOP YELLING, ALL OF YOU!”

The three of us froze instantly, startled at Alley’s powerful interruption. God, I’d nearly forgotten what a set of lungs she had, when she put her mind to it… She let go of my hand and stepped back, crossing her arms over her chest in a protective fashion. “And you say I sound like a walrus,” she said shakily to Zac, in a softer tone. “If that’s the case, then you all sound like… like shrieking owls, or something.”

To my surprise, Zac didn’t say a word. Didn’t argue, didn’t protest, didn’t even try to come back with a patented smart-ass remark. We all remained quiet, and after a moment, she met my eyes. “This is ridiculous,” she said softly. “Taylor, tell him.”

I remained silent, still looking into her eyes. Waiting for some sign, I suppose, that she didn’t really mean those words, considering the fight she’d put up earlier. Considering that we were both completely, totally unprepared for this latest turn of events…

But then… I realized, by the defeated look in her eye, that she did mean it – that she had finally decided, after witnessing our mini-tantrums here, that the truth needed to come out, for better or for worse. I sighed heavily, nodding, and reached out, beckoning for her to take my hand again. At first, she just stared at me, as if she couldn’t comprehend my need to hold on to her. But at my pleading look, she relaxed her arms and carefully folded her hand into mine. I immediately felt a little bolder, just from her touch… Just to have her connected to me…

“Isaac,” I said quietly, turning around to face him. Alley squeezed my hand, much more gently than she had before. “I asked Alley to marry me.”

The entire house was silent for a second, except for the faint sound of our dryer downstairs, tumbling our clothes. Isaac blinked. “What?”

Alley pressed up behind me, sort of the way a child might hide behind its mother. “We’re engaged,” I repeated. “I asked her to marry me… two weeks ago.”

“What?!” His eyes widened; his jaw dropped. “You—you what?!” He looked at me suspiciously, then to Zac. Then to Alley, who was still cowering behind me. He narrowed his eyes. “Is this a joke?”

“It’s not a joke,” I said evenly. “We’re serious.”

“You’re serious,” he repeated, obviously not believing me. “Alright. In that case, where’s the ring?”

I was startled at his insistence on evidence – what, was this a trial? Did he want a whole show-and-tell segment? I had a sudden comical vision of me presenting it to him: Isaac, I give you Exhibit A, a platinum two-and-a-half carat diamond ring from Tiffany’s in Cincinnati, Ohio… Couldn’t he just believe me? Wordlessly, I let go of Alley and strolled over to my armoire, tugging open the middle drawer. We’d hidden the ring beneath a giant pile of socks (not the most original of hiding places, I know), and so I pulled out the little box, shoved the drawer closed, and turned back to Isaac.

“Right here,” I said quietly. His eyes widened when he comprehended what I was holding in my hand. Yeah, that got his attention, alright. I walked back over, opening up the box to display my purchase. “We’ve been waiting to tell everyone before she starts wearing it. See for yourself.”

“Holy shit,” Zac said, leaning over to stare at the little platinum band. “Went all out, didn’t you? Tiffany’s? Who picked that out?”

Why did everyone keep saying that? Did the whole world really think I was that lacking in taste? “I picked it out myself,” I shot back.

“Taylor, you had a little help,” Alley gently reminded me, finally adding something to the conversation.

I looked down at her, smiling softly. “A little,” I conceded. “From Louise…” I looked back over at Isaac, who was turning a remarkable shade of red. Uh-oh… I realized that for the first real time, Alley was probably about to witness the other side of Isaac – the unsympathetic, militant big-brother type who didn’t appreciate surprises and never rolled with the punches. This could get interesting, to say the least. “Ike, man, please,” I said, carefully closing the box and gripping it tightly in my fist. I was beginning to feel a little nervous – it was like the proverbial calm before the storm… “…don’t freak out.”

His jaw dropped slightly. “Oh, that’s rich. You’re telling me not to freak out, while you’re the one running off into sudden engagements and blowing thousands of dollars,” he said sarcastically. “Taylor, what are you thinking? What are you both thinking?”

“It’s not like we’re eloping, or getting married tomorrow!” I exclaimed. “We’re going to wait awhile…”

“Then what’s the--” Isaac threw up his hands, then stopped mid-sentence. “Taylor, can Zac and I talk to you alone for a second?”

Here we go again… the last time I’d heard that, I’d gotten royally reamed out for escaping the hotel to see Alley. Apparently he didn’t want an audience this time around, either. “Whatever you have to say to me you can say in front of her,” I said coolly.

“Actually, I’d rather wait outside,” Alley said nervously. “I’ll keep the burgers from burning…”

“Alley,” I hissed, poking her as a warning. No way she was bailing on me now… “You’re part of this, and you’re staying.” Before she could reply, Isaac leaped back into the discussion.

“Fine,” he said shortly. “Zac was right. You guys have lost your minds.”

“Why?” I demanded. “Why does it matter if we get engaged now, or a year from now? It’s going to happen, regardless, so why wait?”

“You don’t know that,” Isaac said, giving a long-suffering sigh. “Taylor, listen. You’ve been through a lot these past few years. I don’t know if you feel like you have to make up for lost time or what, but this is--”

“No, you listen,” I interrupted hotly, and Isaac stopped speaking, his mouth still hanging open. Zac raised that eyebrow of his again, looking for a moment like he might laugh. Whose side was he on, mine or Isaac’s? Honestly, I couldn’t tell – I think he just enjoyed the fireworks. “I do know that. If there’s one single absolute in my life, it’s that I’m marrying this girl.” Isaac slowly closed his mouth, and I could see his jaw grinding – something he always did when he was frustrated.

“I don’t expect you to understand,” I continued in a much gentler tone. “But, guys… I’m ready. We’re ready.” Alley nodded in agreement, leaning up against me. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, squeezing her for reassurance.

Ready?! Taylor…” Isaac said, trailing off. The red was fading from his face, indicating that his original anger was dissipating, but his irritation and shock were still evident. He switched his attention to Alley, apparently deciding to try another tactic. “Alley, do you have any idea what you’re getting in to?”

She nodded slowly. “Yes…”

He shook his head, brushing off her response. “I don’t think you do,” he said.

“Ike,” I said sharply. “We’ve been through this. She knows.”

“What? So you’re telling me that in just two months, she’s gotten a feel for just how hellish her life is going to be?” Isaac asked brusquely. He looked back at Alley. “You’ll be followed around, do you know that? Doesn’t matter what time of day or night, someone will be there with a camera shoved in your face, or hiding in the bushes. You’ll have things screamed at you that’ll curl your toes. They’ll rip you to shreds with gossip. There are girls who will do anything they can to make your life miserable, just because of who you spend your time with. You know, it’s not ever easy for us, either, but we’re used to it.”

Thanks, Isaac, I thought grimly. It made me feel like shit, to imagine the way she’d be treated because of me. The fact that she couldn’t even go to the grocery store, as she’d done today, without being followed – and that was a relatively tame incident. Things had the potential to get much worse, which she was fully aware of…

“I know,” Alley said softly. “I’ve seen that. I know it’s not going to be easy. But…” she paused. “I can handle it.” She didn’t sound nearly as convincing as she had when we’d talked about the issue earlier in the day… I looked down at her worriedly.

“Can you?” Isaac asked flatly.

“I think she can,” Zac said, finally re-entering the conversation. “Give the girl a little credit, Ike.”

I closed my eyes momentarily. Thank you, Zac. Maybe I would refrain from punching him, after all…

“What?” Isaac asked in disbelief. “Zac, you of all people should know what I’m talking about.”

“And just what’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s – well, it’s…” Isaac was beginning to look uncomfortable. I had a feeling about what exactly he was getting at – Zac’s less-than-stellar attitude with our more zealous fans – and I also knew that by pointing it out, he was not gaining any ground in this argument. Which was good for me, really. Hell, Isaac, I thought. Keep talking and I won’t have to say another word... “Nevermind, it doesn’t matter anyway. My point is, I don’t think you all are ready.” He directed his last statement at Alley.

“No offense, Isaac,” Alley said hesitantly. “But you don’t understand where we’re coming from…”

“That’s putting it mildly,” I said darkly. “He doesn’t want to understand.”

“What is there to understand? You’ve dated for two months. Two months. Not even a full season,” he astutely pointed out. “And you know, I can’t speak for Alley, but judging by your past relationships, Taylor, I’m not so sure you’re ready for this kind of commitment this soon.”

“What the fuck?!” I shouted. I had remained somewhat calm through this conversation, in my opinion, but he was about to take it too far. Bringing up my pre-Alley idiocy as an excuse for condemning this was not going to go over well with me. Yeah, okay. I’d dated a few ditzes… but fuck, couldn’t he see that I’d finally seen the error of my ways? “I’ve dated a few girls who weren’t worth the trouble, but who hasn’t? I know you have, that’s for damn sure. And now that I’ve found one who is actually worth it, you’re pitching a shitfit because we want to be together. God, Ike, you just don’t get it!”

“Taylor,” Alley whispered. “Calm down… it’s not helping any…”

I knew she was right, but it took every ounce of my restraint not to keep going with my tantrum. I met Isaac’s dark brown eyes, evenly, refusing to back down from their hardened glare. God, what was his problem? He liked and approved of Alley, he’d told me so himself… so what the hell was the issue? For once I found myself wishing Ike would be a little more like Zac. Who would have thought our little brother would be the most calm about this whole thing? “Our minds are made up,” I said. “We’re going to tell Mom and Dad tomorrow when we go over there.”

Isaac started to respond, stuttering out a few aggravated protests, but then finally gave up. “Fine,” he said shortly. “Whatever. I’ll let them talk some sense into you all.” He turned and started stalking back down the stairs. “I’m going to Miranda’s,” he shouted when he’d reached the bottom step. Right. Lucky girl, to be on the listening end of the venting he was sure to do once he got over there.

I waited until I heard the front door slam before speaking again. “Well, that went well,” I said dryly. So much for all the work Isaac had put into the burgers. “Looks like it’s just us three for dinner, then…”

Alley looked frazzled; scrambled. “Wow,” she said faintly. “He was pissed…”

“I guess that’s the side of Isaac you hadn’t seen yet,” I said wryly. “He’s not always as polite as he seems.” Zac snorted in agreement.

Alley nodded mechanically, staring at the staircase with a blank expression. “I need an Ale8,” she said suddenly. She let go of me before I could reply and scuttled clumsily down the steps, racing into the kitchen for her form of therapy.

God, an Ale8 sounded good to me, too… mixed with about two ounces of vodka. And maybe a horse tranquilizer. I leaned against the doorframe, rubbing my face with my hands. “Jesus,” I muttered, tossing the ring box back and forth between my hands. “This was not how I intended this to go…”

“Yeah, you really outdid yourself this time, Taylor,” Zac remarked, still sounding amused. “I haven’t seen Isaac that pissed since…” He trailed off, eyes growing unfocused as he thought back.

“…since the last time he yelled at me, when I ran away from the hotel without telling him,” I finished in a dry tone.

Zac pursed his lips, nodding and fighting off a smirk. “Yeah,” he said. “That sounds about right.” We both laughed a little then – how strange. I’d figured, once the truth had come out, that Zac would be the one bitching me out, and Isaac would be the one laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

I managed a smile at him. “Thanks, man,” I murmured. “I know this is all sort of sudden…” I paused, thinking about what I’d just said. Understatement of the year…

“Sort of?” Zac snorted.

“Yeah… okay, a lot. But…” I flipped open the lid again, staring down at the little ring inside. “I don’t see what the big deal is. Yeah, it seems soon to you all, but--”

“Taylor,” Zac said. “If you can’t see what the ‘big deal’ is, then you need to get your head checked.”

“Well--” I hesitated. “I mean, I know what you’re talking about. But…” I let my gaze drift downstairs, where we could hear Alley rummaging through the refrigerator. I wasn’t sure why I suddenly felt the urge to pour out my heart to Zac, of all people, but I kept going. “…we’re doing the right thing, I know we are. I – I can’t really explain it,” I said, remembering the speech I’d given Alley in Louisville. We were supposed to be together… you were made for me...

 

Right. But how could you explain the concept of fate and divine intervention to someone so cynical? “But it’s like… like we were made for each other, like--”

“I know,” Zac said dryly, interrupting my rambling.

I blinked. “You know?” What? That wasn’t quite what I expected in response… “What do you mean?”

“What do you think I mean? I’m agreeing with you,” he said. I studied his face, noting the uncomfortable, embarrassed flush that stole across his cheeks. “God, it’s like you two were separated at birth, or something. It’s sickening.”

Who are you, and what have you done with the real Zac? “What?” I asked in disbelief. “Zac, is that you?”

“Don’t patronize me,” he said. “I’m not the heartless monster you try and make me out to be.”

“I never said you were,” I said, confused. “But let’s be honest… you’ve never exactly invited any of my girlfriends into our world with open arms…”

“You’ve never had one worth doing that,” Zac said. “Listen, I don’t have a problem with Alley. And Isaac doesn’t either. We just don’t like being in the dark about it. You weren’t going to tell us, were you? You were going to talk to Mom and Dad first… you always hide things, Taylor – you’ve done it all your life. For once, we’d appreciate it if you’d just let us know what’s going on in your head.”

Me, hide things? Hypocrite… “I don’t know how to answer that,” I said simply. “I just like my privacy, I guess…”

Zac snorted. “Obviously,” he muttered under his breath. I decided to let that one slide – I was not up for another long, fruitless argument this evening. “And you know, I’m sure Ike doesn’t like how this is going to change things.”

I paused, thinking. Change? There was truth to that – things certainly weren’t going to be the same anymore. Not that I’d ever really had any stability in my life, but I was starting to see what Zac was getting at. In addition to the craziness and stress that would come from telling the general Hanson-fan public that Taylor Hanson was going off the market, there were plenty of closer, personal adjustments that would have to happen. I wouldn’t be living with them anymore, I’d be with her. She’d come with us on tour; no more boys-only excursions. And, of course, somewhere down the road, there would be children... a family of our own… I smiled at a sudden thought – Alley, pregnant, waddling around with a swollen belly, glowing with motherhood, demanding odd foods every hour on the hour. Little blond children, fair and bright-eyed and always getting into trouble… That was my future. It was an exhilarating, unbelievable thought…

Zac cleared his throat, having noticed that I’d drifted into fantasyland. I quickly snapped out of my reverie, struggling to remember what he’d just said. Change… okay, yeah. But change was inevitable, wasn’t it? I never considered it something to run from… as I reminded Alley from time to time, being with her for a year had completely changed me, and I considered that a very positive thing. “Well, it was going to happen eventually,” I said quietly. “Just a little sooner than you, or Ike for that matter, expected, I guess.”

“Yeah.” Zac shrugged and started to walk towards the stairs, obviously done with conversation. It amazed me sometimes, the way Zac could go on or off about something, just like the flip of a switch. “He’ll calm down. He probably just needs to get laid.”

The thought of Isaac and his girlfriend engaging in any sort of sexual activity was mildly revolting, but I let the comment go. I slowly followed, tromping down the steps after Zac. “Well, regardless,” I said, “I’m going to forget about Ike for now and eat.” I forced a smile as we reached the first floor. “Before Alley gets it all…”

Zac snorted, understanding my point. He was a quick learner. “We may be too late.”

*****

“Why is everything about us so backwards?”

I leaned my elbow out the window, resting my head in my palm. After dinner, as promised, we’d headed out for a drive, though it was serving to be more of a stress reliever than a tour. We’d gotten in my Explorer without a word and just started driving. Aimlessly, without a care, just driving. I glanced over at Alley, who was staring at the darkened streets all around us. It was the first full sentence she’d said since dinner.

“Backwards?” I repeated. “What do you mean?”

She turned to meet my eyes, and I could see the exhaustion and worry etched there. So much for all my reassurances – they hadn’t done a bit of good, considering the spectacular way we’d fucked up earlier tonight.

“Everything,” she said. “You randomly show up in my life, that night you’re sleeping in my bed. Then, later, we became friends. Fall in love. Then we live apart for a year. No contact whatsoever. Now, after barely dating, we’re engaged, but haven’t told the most important people about it. It’s just, like… it’s just…” She was getting flustered, animated, her words spilling from her mouth, as if they couldn’t form fast enough to keep up with her thought process. “It’s not normal, Taylor. Usually there’s a general, reliable process that leads to marriage…”

“Normal?” I slowed down the Explorer as we approached a red light. “Alley, normal is boring. Why would you want to be like everyone else, when we have this incredible, fantastical history?”

“That no one knows about,” she pointed out. “That we can’t even tell people, lest they lock us up in a mental asylum…”

I shrugged. “So? We know, and that’s all that matters…” I reached over, tickling her neck lightly until she finally cracked a smile and began giggling uncontrollably. “And just so you know, I would not trade my year with you for all the normalcy or ‘reliable processes,’ as you put it, in the world.”

“Oh, Taylor,” she sighed. “I wouldn’t, either. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded… I actually sort of miss it, in a weird way…” She managed to pull my hand away from her neck and held it tightly in her lap. “I’m just stressed right now…”

“I know.” Stressed? I definitely knew that feeling. The light turned green, and I gently pressed on the gas. We were cruising down Memorial Avenue, bypassing the line of closed stores and restaurants on both sides of the road. The streets were fairly empty this time of night, though that was no surprise, due to the curfew. We continued going south, with no set destination… until a street name caught my eye – 71st. Smiling, I squeezed her hand, getting her to look over at me. She gave me a questioning look.

“Hey,” I murmured. “Want to see where I grew up?” Well, we certainly needed a good distraction…

She was slightly taken aback, and snorted a little. “What?”

“Where we grew up. Before, you know, things got crazy…” I braked as the intersection for 71st drew nearer. “Make up your mind quick, Alley, or we’re about to pass it by…”

She finally laughed. “Sure, why not?” she asked dryly. “Might take my mind off certain things for awhile.”

“Exactly.” Grinning, I turned onto 71st, revving the engine. It was much less crowded out this way, more open, and I rolled down our windows as we drove away from the city. This whole area was new to Alley – she hadn’t yet been given an official tour of the whole city from me, and during our brief visit to Tulsa the time before, we hadn’t even bothered to come out to my old house. I’d figured it was pretty pointless, anyway – no one actually lived there, for one, and I’d felt that our limited time would be better spent elsewhere.

We reached the bridge, and as we cruised over the Arkansas River, Alley rolled down her window, staring out at the darkened water. “It’s so quiet,” she murmured.

I chuckled. “What do you expect? There’s not much out here.”

“Not just here. Like, everywhere… it’s been practically silent everywhere we’ve been tonight.”

“Well, there’s an 11 o’clock curfew,” I said. “That’s probably why. You’re used to hoodlums gunning up and down the streets of Lexington at two in the morning and drunks shouting things at you from the side of the street as you drive past…”

“Exactly. At least it’s entertaining…” She settled back in her seat, momentarily closing her eyes. “It’s too quiet here. Kind of creepy…”

I shook my head, smiling. “Tulsa really hasn’t made a good impression on you, has it? You hated it the first time we were here, and so far it’s not done much to change your mind…”

She opened her eyes just barely, a gentle smile on her lips. “I’m hard to please.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said dryly. “But I’ll take that as a personal compliment, since you did choose me…” I began slowing down again as we neared an intersection.

Alley ignored my good-natured arrogance, leaning forward, peering around at the trees as I made another turn. “Where are you taking me again?” she asked suspiciously, studying the darkness around us.

I grinned. “I told you, my happy childhood home…”

“You never told me your ‘happy childhood home’ was out in the middle of a forest…”

Laughing, I slowed again to turn onto 78th Street. “I told you it was in the middle of nowhere!”

“Yeah, but I didn’t really believe you…” She craned her neck, intently studying the sparse line of houses as we drove past. “Taylor, I never want to hear you make fun of Kentucky again…”

“What?!” I laughed. “It’s not that bad, is it?”

“No… I think it’s worse…”

“That’s a low blow, honey, but I’ll let it slide.” Finally, I caught sight something glinting in the moonlight – one of the skylights on the roof of our old house, reflecting it towards us. A wistful smile crossed my face as I began to make out the shape of the building through the trees in our yard. I always got this strange feeling whenever we came back to it, almost like a sense of déjà vu. Or like visiting a ghost town – empty, darkened, filled with a whole host of memories and past experiences. In a lot of ways, I missed this house, despite its lack of luxury or privacy…

I slowed to a stop in the road directly in front, killing the engine and the lights. Though it was dark, the moon was full and strong overhead, providing enough light to see. “Here we are…”

Alley stared at the tiny house, taking in the details – the rock and cement construction, the basketball goal on the side, the modest front steps. “That’s where you grew up?”

“Yep. That’s where I grew up…”

That house?”

“No, the house behind it,” I said. “Yes, in that house!”

She turned back to face me, her eyes lit up in an expression of amazement. “My God, where did you all fit? I think your current bedroom alone is bigger than that!”

I shrugged. “We made it work. It wasn’t that bad, really.”

“Where did you all sleep?” Alley was still gaping at our former home, apparently unable to fathom a group of nine cohabitating in that small of a space. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – Alley herself had never had to live in confined quarters with anyone. You could say she’d been a little spoiled in her lifetime. I snorted.

“In beds, where else? What, did you think we all just hung upside down from the ceiling or something, like bats?”

Alley turned to look at me, rolling her eyes. “I know that, Taylor, what I’m asking is where did all those beds fit?”

I grinned. “Well, we made Zac sleep outside in the yard, because he snored really loudly, so that freed up a little room…”

She sighed, exasperated. “You’re impossible,” she said. “You’ll just have to take me inside sometime and let me see for myself, I guess…”

“I guess…” I murmured. I glanced in the rearview mirror, double-checking to make sure there were no cars coming up behind us. There were none, naturally, though that was no surprise, considering how far out from the city we were. “But you know,” I added slyly. “You realize that this officially makes you a teeny now, don’t you?”

“What?!” Alley was appalled at that statement, making me laugh out loud. “What are you talking about?”

“Stalking the Hansons’ old house in the middle of the night? God, it doesn’t get any more teeny than that, Alley… next thing I know, you’ll be wanting to go look in the windows…” I guffawed at the flat, unamused expression she offered me in return.

“This was your idea, I might remind you…”

“Which you wholeheartedly agreed with,” I replied sweetly. “Face it, Alley. You’re slowly but surely becoming a Hanson groupie…” I raised an eyebrow, smirking at her.

“Well, you’re sleeping with that groupie, Taylor, so what does that say for you?”

I laughed uproariously. She was so fun to tease, because she was rarely at a loss for a comeback. “It says that I have pretty damn good taste.” I leaned over and pulled her face to mine, intending to give her a slow, sensual kiss; the kind that usually left her short of breath and imploring for more. “Don’t you think so, Alley Kat?”

She pouted, making an effort to pull away – her way of punishing me for teasing her. I protested, tugging her closer, laughing as she turned her face away and tried to brush me off. “Take it back,” she demanded as I attempted to nibble on her ear. “I am not a teeny…”

“You so are…”

“TAYLOR!” She shrieked my name, giggling hysterically as I dug my fingers into her ribcage. This was getting way too fun… “You freak! Stop it, you’re bruising my spleen…”

“Kiss me,” I laughed, “and I’ll quit.”

“You don’t want to kiss me. I’m a groupie, remember? I’ve probably got all sorts of sexually transmitted diseases...”

I unbuckled my seat belt, giving me a little more room to move around. For the moment, anyway, all of our recent difficulties were the furthest thing from my mind… and, it seemed, from hers as well. Smirking, I leaned over, sneaking my arm around her back and pulling her closer. This time, she didn’t pull away.

“I’ll take my chances,” I murmured, burying my face in her neck. I started a trail of kisses along her jawline in the soft, gentle way she loved. “You seem pretty clean to me…”

“Wow, thanks,” she said dryly, though I felt one of her arms slip around my shoulder, holding me close. “You sure know how to lay on the charm, you know that, Taylor?”

“So I’ve been told…” I tilted her chin, forcing her mouth to meet mine, and I sighed contentedly as we gently nudged each other’s lips. It’s sort of odd, I think – kissing is such a common, everyday show of affection… nearly everyone does it, so how could it possibly be fresh and exciting? At least that’s what I’d thought whenever Jennifer used to kiss me…. With her, it always physically felt good enough, I supposed, but in every other way felt like nothing: bland, and often like a chore. Something I had to do in order to get a little in return. With Alley, somehow, every time we touched felt like a brand new experience. Like I’d never tasted her before… and each time, it got harder and harder to stop before things escalated…

Well, as hot as I might think it sounded, going at it in my Explorer at midnight and in the middle of the road was neither the most romantic nor the smartest thing to do. Sighing, I gave her one final firm kiss and leaned back, pushing a strand of mussed hair away from her temple. She grinned back at me, and despite the near-darkness, I could tell her cheeks were flushed in an adorable, enticing way. I was sure that my face was probably red, too – it felt hot, a little tingly… more than likely from the strain of holding back, which was a skill I had not entirely mastered with her yet…

I looked her squarely in the eyes, noting the way she held my gaze, unflinching. Alley had one of the most honest, open faces of anyone I’d ever known – there was just something about the structure of her features that never let her hide her emotions. I’d always been able to tell when she was upset, when she was euphoric, or even when she was lying to me for whatever reason… it was a characteristic that I could definitely appreciate, having grown up surrounded by people with artificial attitudes and fake sentiment.

“What are you thinking?” I murmured, noticing her growing grin.

“I’m thinking you laid the onions on a little too thick tonight,” she replied in a sweet tone, and I had to shake my head at her typical, gentle mockery. This was what love and life were all about – the comfort and easy banter of friendship, the passion behind every gesture. Handpicked by the divine, as it were – it didn’t get any more absolute, more certain, than that. I wished my brothers, my parents, everyone could see this fact and understand. How could anyone argue that we weren’t ready, if they saw how perfectly we fit together?

I chuckled, grabbing her knee and squeezing. “Well, just for you, Alley, I’ll rinse with mouthwash when we get home… but until then, you’ll have to deal with it, I guess.” She laughed, and I settled back in my seat, preparing to restart the engine. I beckoned to the house.  “This is it, really,” I said. “We can come back tomorrow and I can show you the inside, if you want… but I don’t have the key on me right now.”

She smiled and nodded, though I could tell that the word tomorrow had started up her anxieties again. “Okay.” She scooted around to look at the house again before we left. “Taylor?” she asked after a moment of staring out into the darkness.

“Yeah?”

“What did you say this house is now?”

“Office, storage, you know. A little of everything…”

“So no one lives here?”

“Nope.”

“So… those two girls lurking over there on the side aren’t actually supposed to be there?”

I snapped back to full attention. “What the hell?” I leaned over Alley, squinting to see through the opened window. Sure enough, I caught a flash of white shirts as two crouched figures dashed behind the rock fountain in an attempt to hide. I swore under my breath, closing my eyes to cool my growing temper. We didn’t even live here anymore, for Christ’s sake…

“No,” I finally said. “They’re not actually supposed to be there… God, it’s after fucking midnight. Can’t people just leave it alone?”

She turned to me, silently appraising my irritation. “Does this happen a lot?” Her voice had grown serious, flat; all trace of playfulness gone.

“It depends… not nearly as much as it used to. It’s usually the people who come from out of town who do this sort of shit…” Great, just when I thought the trip had lifted our moods, something like this had to happen – a very real reminder of all the issues we still had to deal with. Isaac’s words to Alley earlier about not being able to handle the scrutiny cut through me. As much as I jumped to her defense, I had to concede to him a little – this was a lot to handle. Fuck, I’d been dealing with this for nearly eight years and there were still days that I wondered if it had all been worth it…

So… what if Isaac was right? What if she couldn’t handle it? Her expression at this latest turn of events certainly wasn’t doing anything to ease my fears. What if she decided I wasn’t worth the trouble? Truthfully, I couldn’t blame her if she did. Who in their right mind would want to be treated like a commodity by the public? Like an animal at the zoo to be paraded around and photographed at will?

She gave me a rueful smile, oblivious to my mental torment. “Still, I can see why you all had to move.”

“Yeah…”

Alley continued to stare out towards the house, searching for the girls we’d seen, who’d managed to momentarily disappear from sight. I turned the key, the engine roaring to life, and stared moodily at the red-lit dashboard controls. We were getting low on gas… I would need to fill up in the morning before we went to Mom and Dad’s…

I shifted the Explorer back into drive, running my hands raggedly through my hair as we began to drive away. Alley glanced over, surprised. “Are you gonna call the police?”

I sighed heavily. “It’s pointless, really. They haven’t done anything, they probably just wanted pictures or something…” Though if that was the case, it really would have made more sense, in my opinion, to come out during the daytime… but then again, I’d been around overzealous fans for most of my life and had yet to figure out any rational explanations for their behavior. “So, no…”

“But you do have a ‘No Trespassing’ sign out front…”

“It’s too much trouble,” I said quietly. “You learn to pick your battles, I guess.”

She just shook her head, remaining quiet, and I felt my stomach sink a little. Again, maybe Isaac was right… it wouldn’t be the first time, as he was right up there with Louise when it came to that sort of thing. Alley had fallen in love with a Taylor who hadn’t had all this extra baggage and shit to deal with… To her, I’d just been the boy who lived in her room, who loved her and would have done anything for her. Not a musician who dealt with stalkers and the like on a regular basis, and who had to be extra-careful about everything he did or said in public. She’d only been in Tulsa for less than a week, and was just now getting a taste of what her life would really be like with me. Granted, while we’d been in Kentucky, the fan issue had come up several times but it had never truly been a big deal… so she really hadn’t yet experienced how crazy things could get…

And there was a dark, brooding part of me that wondered if maybe Alley would be better off without me – or at least, without all the hassle and stress that automatically came with being with me… As I’d told her many times, it was a lot to ask of a person…

“Taylor,” Alley said gently as I turned us back onto 71st Street. “Are you okay?”

“Hmmm?” I feigned nonchalance, trying to pretend that I wasn’t over here hating my life circumstances. I loved my job, but fuck… not at the expense of everything else in my life that was important to me…

“Don’t ‘hmmm’ me… sweetheart, your knuckles are white…”

I glanced down, noticing that she was right – I hadn’t even realized how tense my hands were, gripping the steering wheel. “Oh,” I said, unsure of how else to reply.

“I guess it’s my turn to ask what you’re thinking this time,” she said. When I didn’t immediately respond, she reached over and touched my arm. “Taylor?”

“Isaac has a point, Alley,” I found myself blurting out. “It’s not easy a lot of the time, living like this. Dealing with shit like that – I mean, who else do you know has to worry about people sneaking onto their property and stalking around in the middle of the night? And today, in the grocery – being followed and having your picture taken for no fucking reason. It’s… it’s…” I struggled with the appropriate words before finally giving up and getting straight to the central issue. “If you don’t want that… if you don’t think you can handle it, or you don’t want to have to deal with it, I… I understand…”

“WHAT?!” She let go of my arm, sitting up straight and turning halfway in the seat until she was looking directly at me. “What are you saying, Taylor?”

I kept my eyes on the road ahead, because I knew if I looked at her, I would probably crumble. “I’m saying that I want you to be happy… no matter where that is or what it entails. I want you here with me, but I know that’s a little selfish… it’s not fair, really…”

“Taylor,” she said sharply, cutting my speech short. “Pull over.”

“What?” I risked a glance over at her, confused. Uh-oh… she was starting to look a little pissed…

“Pull over, now,” she demanded. I immediately obeyed, slowing and pulling into the nearest parking lot, right in front of an empty, closed Schlotsky’s Deli. As I came to a stop, she practically ripped off her seatbelt and leaped from the Explorer. “Get out.”

Her voice had taken on such authority that I complied without question, unbuckling and slowly stepping outside. By the time I’d gotten out, she’d already hoofed it around the Explorer and was stalking towards me like a rabid tiger. I actually stepped back several feet, feeling a little uneasy at the intensity in her eyes. She slammed my door closed as she walked past it.

“What are you doing?” I asked, bewildered. “Alley, are you--”

Before I could finished my question, she grabbed my shirt and yanked me to her, roughly pulling my head down for a kiss… and not just any kiss, but a hot, fervent, colliding mash of lips and lust that put our earlier kisses to shame and nearly caused me to stagger to the ground.

However, I quickly recovered and regained my balance, responding eagerly to her sudden, unexpected demonstration of passion. I slid my arms tightly around her back as she tangled her hands in my hair, matching her fervor, blood heating up in my veins. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, couldn’t even think, but I found that none of that mattered at that moment. It didn’t even matter to me that we were right next to the road, in prime viewing of anyone who happened to drive by, or that we were both moaning loud enough to alert anyone within a two-mile radius… I didn’t care. Only one thing was on my mind at that moment, and it was the frenzied, breathless young woman who was rapidly elevating my blood pressure a few notches with her touch…

I wasn’t sure how long we stayed locked in our embrace, but when we finally pulled apart, Alley was gasping for air and I was nearly weak in the knees. She let go and pushed me away in one smooth motion, much in the same manner she’d pulled me in. She stumbled back a few steps, pushing her windblown hair behind her ears, her eyes never leaving mine. Holy shit, that was hot… I swallowed, leaning back against the Explorer for support. I wasn’t sure I could stand on my own just yet…

“Don’t you ever say that again,” she said, her voice quavering. “Okay?”

I straightened up, feeling that my eyes were growing wide. I suddenly understood what she was upset about – did she think I was telling her to go home, to leave? God, no. No, no, no… I took a few halting steps towards her, stray bits of gravel crunching under my shoes. “Alley, no, that’s not what I meant. I don’t want you to leave, not in the least. I’m just saying--”

“I know what you’re saying,” she interrupted me. “But just don’t say it. Don’t do that, Taylor. Don’t second-guess us… and don’t underestimate me…”

“I’m not,” I said quietly as I stood directly in front of her. A car whooshed past, rustling our hair and clothes in its wake. “I just… I saw how you reacted to those girls at the house. To Isaac. And when you came back from the store, talking about being followed…” I stared down at her, trying to concentrate and stay serious, but all I could think about was that unbelievable kiss… “I hate to say it, but that sort of shit is unavoidable in my life… and I told you, I just want you to be happy.”

“And I keep telling you, Taylor Hanson, that you make me happy. And if I wasn’t here with you, regardless of how stressful the circumstances, I would be miserable. And you know, I was miserable all last year, do I need to remind you of that? You have no idea the things I will put up with for you… I love you, you idiot, will you get that through your thick head?” She crossed her arms, giving me a challenging look, and I had to smile. Hadn’t I heard those words before, in some other context?

“Alley, I love you, too… more than anything,” I murmured. “I’m sorry…” I reached out and grabbed her shoulders, pulling her into a hug. She relaxed into me, wrapping her arms tightly around my back, nuzzling her face against my chest. As my heartbeat slowly settled back down, I kissed the top of her head. “I guess those girls were just like the straw that broke the camel’s back… it’s just been one thing after another today…”

“Oh, Taylor...” She sighed, shivering a little in the cool night air, and I ran my hands up and down her back to warm her. “I guess I haven’t been helping you out much today, either, with the whining and freaking out and all…”

A car honked loudly as it passed by, startling us, but I ignored it. I untangled from our embrace, gently holding her by the shoulders directly in front of me. I laughed, but answered her honestly. “Not really.” 

She gave me a crooked, apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, too. I think you’re right, you know… we’re gonna be fine, in the end. I mean, we’re supposed to be together, right? And as you once told me, God doesn’t make mistakes…” A breeze swept in, fluttering her curls around, and she raked them out of her eyes with a smile as I nodded vigorously. “So… I’ll do better tomorrow… I promise.”

“You have to help me out when we go talk to Mom and Dad,” I said. She nodded somberly. “You have to say something. I know this is scary… I know you’re nervous... but like you said, it’s going to be okay. And I need to know that you’re going to be right there beside me tomorrow…” I smiled. “Not behind me, hiding...” 

She gave me a shamefaced grin. “Sorry. I haven’t had much time to adjust to all these changes… I was just… just overwhelmed.”

“I think we both were.” I glanced up at the sky, noticing the stars dotted across the sky. “But if you look at it from an optimistic point of view… half of the hard part is over now. Ike and Zac know, so they’re out of the way…”

“Ever the optimist, Taylor,” she said dryly. “But I guess you have a point.”

“Of course I do,” I said firmly. “So are we okay now? Back to normal?”

“As normal as we’re ever going to be, sure…” I laughed with her, watching as an impish grin lit up her face. She started tugging me back towards the Explorer. “Now, to celebrate this truce, I suggest we stop at Steak N’ Shake on the way back for milkshakes…”

“You just ate two cheeseburgers! How can you possibly be hungry?”

“That was hours ago!”

I laughed, reaching to open the driver’s side as Alley walked around to get in. “Alright, alright… milkshakes sound good to me.” I pulled on the door handle.

Uh-oh… I pulled again. Nothing. My hands automatically reached to my pockets, where I usually kept my keys, but they were smooth and flat. And empty. Well, shit…

“Alley?” I asked tentatively. “Is your door locked?”

She glanced back at me with alarm. “What?” She dashed the rest of the way to check.

I peered in the window – sure enough, the keys were still dangling from the ignition, where I’d left them when she’d demanded that I get out of the car. Damn, when had I locked the door? Everything had happened so fast that I couldn’t remember flipping the button… And of course, when Alley had come rampaging over to my side when I’d pulled over, she’d closed the door before it had even registered.

I silently assessed our situation – locked out of my car at one in the morning in the middle of a Schlotsky’s parking lot on the outskirts of Tulsa, with no discernible signs of life in our immediate vicinity. I couldn’t help but laugh – as Louise was fond of saying, our penchant for attracting trouble was pretty staggering…

“Mine’s locked,” Alley said, confirming my suspicions.

“Yeah… so’s mine…”

“Where are the keys?”

“They’re, ah… in the ignition.”

“WHAT?” Alley ran back over, looking in the window where I was pointing. “Oh, shit! Shit, shit, shit!”

“Well,” I said, mentally going through our options. Thank God for cell phones. “We’ll just call Zac and have him bring the extra key. It’s not that far. Shouldn’t take too long.”

“Call him with what? My cell is in my purse… which is currently sitting in the floorboard…”

Shit. “And mine is in the console,” I sighed, leaning against the door. We both stared at each other for a long minute. Despite our current predicament, I felt another sly smile coming on. “Oh, Alley,” I said. “The messes you get us in…”

“ME?” She tried to look offended, but couldn’t stop the giggles from escaping. “Taylor, I swear…”

“What? Of course it’s your fault! If you hadn’t made us pull off to the side just to get a little hot Taylor action, we wouldn’t be here like this…”

“If you hadn’t locked the doors--”

“If you hadn’t shut the doors--”

She was still giggling. “Shut up and start walking, blondie.” She glanced around, appraising our dark, deserted surroundings. “‘Cause it looks like you’ve got a ways to go…”

“And you’re coming with me.” I grabbed her hand and laced our fingers together, pulling her towards the road. She didn’t protest, and we set off to find the nearest place of business that would still be open after midnight, laughing and teasing each other the whole way.

*****

Suffice to say, Zac was less than thrilled about driving out to a Chevron gas station to pick up his brother and future sister-in-law in the middle of the night, but to his credit, he kept the bitching to a minimum. After I’d explained the situation, he had just sighed heavily, made me promise to buy him yet another case of Rolling Rock for his efforts, and hung up. Twenty minutes later, he’d rumbled up to the Chevron in his Wrangler, taken us back to my Explorer with key in hand, and rolled his eyes at mine and Alley’s sheepish thanks. After he’d driven off to go back home, Alley and I had gotten our Steak N’ Shake milkshakes and headed back as well.

We sat across from each other at the kitchen table, enjoying our sugary desserts. “Oooh,” Alley groaned after slurping down the last of her chocolate-banana shake. “I’m exhausted. I need to go to bed…”

“Yeah, same here.” It was a much better type of exhaustion, though, than what I’d felt earlier. Our semi-fight earlier had cleared the air between us, and I didn’t feel nearly as tense or stressed anymore. I smiled, thinking yet again about the way she’d kissed me… God, it was probably a stroke of luck that we hadn’t been able to get immediately back into the car after that, because there was a fairly good chance we would have ended up in the backseat with steamed-up windows, the way the blood had been raging through my body…

“Go on upstairs,” I said, taking her cup. “I’m just gonna clean up our mess here.”

“Okay.” She smiled at me gratefully and leaned across the table for a kiss. I obliged, murmuring a soft goodnight in the shell of her ear before drawing back. I watched her drag herself into the hallway and up the stairs before starting to clear off the table.

The clock in the living room chimed twice, startling me. Two in the morning? Christ, no wonder we were so tired. I tossed the empty Steak N’ Shake cups into the trash can and grabbed a wet rag from the sink. Alley’s cup had unfortunately sprouted a leak at some point, and so there was half-dried milky chocolate-banana stickiness smeared all over the countertop from the dripping. I scrubbed at it absentmindedly, yawning. Thank God we weren’t going to Mom and Dad’s until tomorrow evening… we could both sleep in, get some rest before tackling the day…

I apparently zoned out during my methodical counter-scrubbing, because the next thing I knew, fifteen minutes had passed and the front door was rattling. I blinked, dropping the rag. Zac was already in bed, Alley was probably already passed out as well, so that only left one other option…

“Ike?” I asked tentatively. A moment later, he appeared in the kitchen, looking disheveled and weary. Zac’s earlier comment about Ike needing to get laid suddenly popped in my head and I resisted the urge to laugh. Or gag. He looked up, meeting my eyes, and paused. To my relief, despite his slightly ragged appearance, he did look much calmer than he had earlier in the evening.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “I, uh, thought you went to Miranda’s for the night…”

“I was going to stay over,” he said. “But… decided to come back.” At two in the morning? I wondered. Odd… But he didn’t elaborate further.

“Oh. Okay.” I picked up the rag and wiped at the table again. Neither of us spoke for a few minutes, but he didn’t leave the room, like I’d thought he would. Finally, I looked up, and noticed that he was quietly studying me.

“So,” he said.

“So,” I replied.

“You’re serious. You really want to go through with this.” His voice was strange, a combination of statement and question, and his expression didn’t change as he spoke. I nodded.

“Yeah. We do.” I did one last swipe of the counter before inspecting it, satisfied. “We are. But don’t start, okay? Not tonight.”

Isaac shook his head slowly, looking strangely lost. “I’m not mad,” he said. “Not now. Just confused.”

Not mad? Could’ve fooled me… but as Zac had said, he’d probably just needed the time to cool down. Though his newfound calmness was much weirder than the anger. “I know,” I replied, walking over to the sink and rinsing the stickiness from my hands. “And really, I can’t blame you.”

“Why?” he asked. “Why so soon, Taylor?”

Hadn’t we been through this? And really, it was too fucking early in the morning to get into arguments again… I sighed. “Listen,” I said wearily. “There will be plenty of time to discuss this later, but I’m completely exhausted. Can we just call it a night?”

Either his ears were stuffed full of cotton, or he voluntarily chose to ignore me. “I mean, I thought about it tonight. I’ve been with Miranda for three years, Taylor. Three years… and I can’t even imagine getting married yet. We’re not ready and we’ve been together practically twenty times as long as you and Alley have. Think about that. Three years is a long time…”

I dried my hands and turned to face him. “Well, Isaac,” I said finally. “All I can tell you is that when you know, you know. And if you’re still not sure after three years of being together, then maybe she’s not the right one for you.” The look on his face at that statement was nearly comical – it was as if the thought had never, ever occurred to him.

“You just know?” he repeated. “Who are you? Where is this coming from? What happened to the cynical kid who used to scoff at me for ‘getting too serious too quickly’? Taylor, your dating experience has consisted of a short list of silly, pretty girls. You’re just not used to a real relationship. I think you’ve found a good one this time, sure, but now everything seems great to you because you’ve never experienced it before.” I resisted the urge to reach out and slap him. Who died and made him the Dating God? Ike was the notorious commitment-phobe here, so who was he to dispense advice to me? “Look, I like Alley, I do. But I can’t help but wonder if you’re just clinging on to the first good one you’ve found, without thinking it through.”

I glared at him, balling my fist up on the cool, wet countertop. “You’re starting to piss me off, you know that?”

He threw his hands up in defense. “I’m not attacking you! I’m just saying… what happens if you wake up one day and realize you didn’t take enough time to think this through? That you’re not really ready to settle down like you thought you were? And where will that leave her? Would it be fair to leave her hanging?”

“I am not going to do that. Ike, you have no idea…” I scowled at him. “And for the record, I have had a ‘real’, extended relationship. I was with Jennifer for a year and a half before the accident, remember? And then for almost six months after I woke up.” I grimaced. “And believe me, the thought of marriage, with her, repulsed me. Did I ever tell you she brought it up?”

His eyes widened and I nearly laughed. He looked horrified at the thought of Jennifer being bonded into our family, which was a well-merited fear... “She did?”

“Yep.” I crossed my arms, staring at the floor. “Said we should start talking about our ‘future’ together.” I snorted. “I broke up with her right then and there. So you see, Ike…” I lifted my head, meeting his eyes once again. “It’s not about ‘making up for lost time’ or how many relationships we’ve had or even about how long we’ve ‘officially’ been together. It’s about meeting the right person and realizing that this is who you’re supposed to spend the rest of your life with.”

He shook his head, flabbergasted. “I just can’t believe that you would figure that out after only two months…”

“It’s been more than two months!” My voice rose to an uncontrollable half-shout as I blurted out more defensive tactics. I inwardly cringed, realizing I would need to explain that. I rushed on, the words spilling out of my mouth recklessly. “Ike, she’s been a good friend of mine for… for ages. I wish now I hadn’t hidden her from everyone, but I thought I was doing her a favor…” I was gesturing wildly, my hands fluttering out of control as I tried to drive my point home. “But now she’s my best friend, Isaac. I’ve always been able to tell her anything. We know each other inside out. And I’ve liked her – fuck, been in love with her – for such a long time, but I was just too stupid to do anything about it… I didn’t realize what I was missing…” I paused for a second, reflecting on that. Well, it was all true, actually, no real lying required. “And I don’t know why I didn’t remember her, but when I saw her that day… when it came back to me…” I shook my head, feeling a horrible pang of guilt for the long, lonely year Alley had spent waiting for me. “It was like then I’d finally, truly woken up. This whole ordeal has taught me that life is too fucking short not to be with the people you love. And I love her. I don’t care if you don’t believe me, if you don’t take me seriously, if you think it’s just a phase, because you’re wrong. I love her. And I know this is right.”

Isaac’s mouth fell open a little at my impassioned speech, but he thankfully didn’t argue. I rubbed the back of my neck, feeling the tense, taut muscles knotted there. I took a deep breath, trying to calm down. So much for postponing this discussion and going to bed… but when Isaac prodded me, I had to retaliate…

“Isaac, I’m exhausted,” I said in a much gentler tone, when he still hadn’t said anything. “I’m going to bed.” He stared at me, finally acknowledging my declaration with a nod. I trudged out of the kitchen, my shoes squeaking and sticking with each step. I looked down at the floor, frowning when I realized that Alley’s milkshake had also leaked all over the linoleum. Good grief, that girl was messy… I’ll clean it up tomorrow, I thought with a sigh, and kept walking. I had just reached the staircase when Isaac decided to speak again.

“You mean that,” he said in a wondrous tone, his voice echoing through the hallway.

I inwardly groaned and kept myself from thumping my head against the wall. Why couldn’t he ever learn when to concede? Couldn’t he just shut the hell up for tonight and at least wait until tomorrow to continue his pointless debate?

“What?” I asked, sighing, flopping down on the stairs. I waited for him to come into the hall – I didn’t even feel like walking back into the kitchen. A moment later, his curiosity gave in and he ambled into my line of view, raking his hands through his short, spiky hair.

“You actually mean that,” he repeated. “You really think, you really know, that she’s the right one.”

I nodded silently, wondering where this random thought was leading. He looked down at me thoughtfully, studying my sprawled-out form.

“You know,” he said quietly. “The first thing I thought, when you told me… my first reaction was, what’s this going to do to us?”

I furrowed my brow. “You mean…”

“I thought, how is this going to look, to the world, to the fans? What you’re doing seems crazy by any standards, Taylor, you have to know that. Getting married this young to a girl you haven’t dated long… people are going to talk. And I thought – this sounds terrible, but I thought, will people still care about us as a whole if you get married?”

“So we lose a few fans because some girls have jealousy issues,” I finished for him. “Thanks, Isaac. You know, who the fuck cares about those girls, anyway? I’m not going to let my life be dictated by something as stupid as some obsessed girl’s unrequited feelings for a guy she’s never met… I’m tired of hiding things. Of being so careful about our ‘image’. Fuck that – everyone has to grow up sometime. ” The words sounded harsher coming out than I had intended, but I meant them. I expected Isaac to get defensive, but to my surprise, he just nodded.

“I know,” he said. “And that’s when I started thinking – you already know that. You know what this will do, what this will change, and yet you’re fully willing to take that on. And it made me think about how you said you knew she was the right one. I didn’t believe you, not at first… but… Taylor, you’re so sure. I’ve never seen anyone so convinced…”

“Is there a point to this that can’t wait until tomorrow?” I interrupted. “Yes, I’m sure! We’re sure! We’ve established that!”

“I just want to know, then, how do you know that she’s the right one? How can you tell? How does that feel?” He seemed completely flabbergasted at the concept.

I slowly lifted my head off the step, staring at him in disbelief. “How does it feel?” I repeated. What a completely corny Isaac thing to say. “Ike, I swear…”

“Well, according to you, after three years I haven’t been feeling it yet, so I’m just curious, Taylor.” He crossed his arms, his face flat and doubtful. “I just find it hard to believe…”

Still? He still found it hard to believe, after all my great effort in explaining my current state of mind? I rubbed my face with my hands, grumbling. “Ike… tomorrow.”

“I’m not asking for a long, drawn-out explanation,” he said. “Just a simple answer.”

Right, but there was no ‘simple answer’ to his question. There was an enormous, complicated, divine answer to it… I bit my lip, thinking. Wondering what I could possibly say to both satisfactorily answer him and be completely honest at the same time…

“It feels like God put that person on earth just for you,” I finally said, realizing that I wasn’t even embellishing the truth. “Like there’s no one else she could possibly be made for… and vice versa. And yes, you just know.” I gave him a pointed look. “Can I please go to bed now?”

“Huh,” he grunted. “Just when I think I know what to expect from you… just when I think I have you figured out, Taylor…” he trailed off. “Alright. Go to bed.”

“I’m already there.” I dragged myself to my feet, slowly thumping up the steps. “Goodnight, Isaac.”